Read Between the Lines


There’s been a lot of discussion about Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. For those of you who don’t know, the cover of her book depicts a big-eyed white (some think Asian) girl with long hair, when the main character of her book is black with short hair. Naturally, she was upset. But I’ve seen several people say that if Larbalestier was so upset about the cover of Liar, she shouldn’t have said she liked it first.

I’m a teacher, so I’ve written letters of recommendation.  For some students, I have no difficulty writing good things.  But 66% of the people who have asked me for letters of recommendation have been in the bottom half of the class I’ve taught.  Some never came to office hours or asked a question in class.  “I’ll write you a letter,” I would say dubiously, “but is there anyone who could write you a more enthusiastic letter?” (sidenote: Every single one of those people said, “No, there isn’t. I need you to do it.” That sound you hear is my heart breaking.)

I have also read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of letters of recommendations. I have read only one letter that ever contained bad things about a student.  (“John,” this extremely famous person wrote, “is a whiny baby. He makes appointments and never shows up to them. I told him I wouldn’t recommend him, but he listed me on a form and now career services keeps badgering me. I wish him ill.”)

The rest of them, though, are not necessarily helpful to the student. I know this, because I have written those letters. I am entirely positive.  I am also entirely truthful. I tell people in advance that if they have other options, they should use them, and I will do my best… The letter may say good things, but when the good things it highlights are trivial (“I love Lisa’s hair ribbons! They brighten my class!”), it doesn’t do much to recommend the person’s intellectual capacity.

Authors, talking publicly about their covers, are the same way.  An author cannot honestly say, “I hate my cover” in part because she doesn’t want to hurt sales and marketing’s feelings, and also in part because even if she hates her cover, she doesn’t want to point out the flaws in it to anyone who might otherwise buy the book. Saying “hate my cover” is akin to saying “Don’t buy my book.”  So what an author does instead of voicing her discontent, if she is honest, is praise the hair ribbons. And that’s a significant tell.

Here is an enthusiastic recommendation of a cover: Justine Larbalestier talking about her Australian cover. Here is what Justine says about her Australian cover for Liar:

I love it more than I can say. It captures the book so perfectly. I asked for something spare, iconic, cool and dark. Possibly a typographical treatment. Bruno exceeded my expectations by miles. I keep staring at it cause it makes me so very happy.

Notice how three of those six sentences start with “I.”  “I love it more than I can say.”  “I keep staring at it cause it makes me so very happy.”  The rest all talk about her feelings about the cover as well: “It captures the book so perfectly.”  “Bruno exceeded my expectations.”  This is a real, positive recommendation from an author.  She loves it.  She keeps staring at it.

Now let’s take Justine’s post on the U.S. cover. It’s a little longer, and needs a little more decoding, but notice what Justine never mentions:

This cover was so well received by sales and marketing at Bloomsbury that for the first time in my career a cover for one of my books became the image used for the front of the catalogue. Front of the catalogue! One of my books! Pretty cool, huh?

Translation: Sales likes it.

Apparently all the big booksellers went crazy for it. My agent says it was a huge hit in Bologna. And at TLA many librarians and teenagers told me they adore this cover. In fact one girl said she thinks the US cover of Liar is the best cover she’s ever seen! Wasn’t that sweet of her?

Translation: Other people besides sales like it.

It was designed by Danielle Delaney the genius responsible for the paperback cover of How To Ditch Your Fairy. Have I mentioned that’s my fave cover I’ve ever had?

Translation: I’ve liked other covers that this artist has done.

Here’s hoping this cover helps Liar fly off the shelves in North America!

Translation: I at least hope we get hair ribbons, because if this cover doesn’t sell books, it’s doing nothing for me.

Nowhere in this post does Justine say she likes the cover.  What she says is very careful weasel-wording, disguised as an endorsement, when in fact she very carefully doesn’t say a word in support of the cover.  Not one sentence begins with “I.” Instead, she mentions a lot of other people who like it.  Next time an author talks about her cover, pay attention to what she doesn’t say.  If she doesn’t say “I love it!” she probably doesn’t love it.

For the record: I love the covers for both my novella and my debut novel. This is not intended as self-referential in the slightest. I love my covers. When my publisher sent my cover for Proof, I printed it off and wrapped it around another book just to see what it would look like (Elizabeth Hoyt’s To Beguile A Beast, by the way, for good luck.) And it looked fabulous. I wanted to buy it right then and there.

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6 Responses to “Read Between the Lines”

  1. katiebabs says:

    Even with out the whole issue with the girl’s face on the American cover, I prefer the Australian cover. The Aussie one is more spooky for me. I like spooky covers. You are so right about authors being careful with how they word things where another can read.

    Thank you for a very insightful post. :D

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  2. I prefer the Australian cover as well, especially since this is supposed to be a psychological thriller of a book. The Aussie cover really conveys that, almost perfectly.

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  3. Rob Charron says:

    Hi :)
    What an excellent blog post!
    The two pieces on the cover of Liar demonstrate the differences dramatically.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love from Northern Ontario
    twitter.com/RKCharron
    xoxo

    ReplyReply
  4. Tris says:

    Very interesting. I would’ve never noticed the way the comments were so carefully worded.

    I took a look at her covers and I think both are fine. However, since I haven’t read the actual book, maybe if I had read the book than I would think differently.

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  5. Justine’s my critique partner. I’ve read LIAR (a book with a pathologically lying, unreliable narrator is a real bear to crit, let me tell you) and it’s amazing! One of the best books I’ve read all year. What is most appalling about this cover, to me, is the way it calls into question the conclusions drawn by the text. Instead of focusing on what the words saying, it makes this whole other level of “lying” — which the author did NOT intend. I’ve been so disappointed to see, as a result of this cover, reviews of the book that focus not on the actual text, but on suppositions based ONLY on what they see on the cover. It’s just not what was intended with the story.

    I’ve also been amazed that anyone is calling her a hypocrite, merely because PW characterized her reaction as “excited.” As the text quoted in Courtney’s post shows, that’s far from the case. The Aussie cover she loves.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post. It’s driven me up the wall to see people saying Justine ‘loved’ the cover when it seems so clear to me that she was just being a *professional* and not bagging on her publisher in public while doing everything she could both to be honest with her audience and get things changed behind the scenes.

    ReplyReply

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Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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