Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Tale of Two Books and Four Covers, Part II

Today I'm comparing the US and UK covers for Sharpe's Fury, the most recent entry in Bernard Cornwell's long-running series about the adventures of a British army officer promoted from the ranks in the opening decades of the 19th century. As with the Novik series, these are books that I adore and highly recommend, though Fury wouldn't make a good entry point, IMO--better would be Sharpe's Tiger, the first book chronologically (though not the first published), or Sharpe's Rifles, the first of the Peninsular War stories.


US cover

UK cover

Both of these are, IMO, decent-to-good covers. Not the best I've ever seen, not even my favorites from the series, but they match the contents of the story (mostly--see my comments on the UK version below), and I certainly wouldn't feel any embarrassment at reading them in public.

In this case, the biggest US-UK difference is obvious: redcoats. They're a prominent element of the UK cover, while they're almost entirely absent from the US version. Which makes sense, because even though our countries are pretty much Best Friends Forever now, it's hard to get completely past the associations American children pick up in our elementary school history classes that redcoats are Other, even if you're happy to be reading novels all about the British army of the Napoleonic era! (I think I'm about 99% past those associations, but I'm a military history buff who's studied the era as inspiration and setting for my own writing. In other words, I'm not at all typical.)

Another somewhat more subtle difference is that there are more people on the UK cover, and none of them really stand out, while the US cover focuses on the hero. Since I've noticed this group vs. individual distinction on multiple US vs. UK covers across several genres, I think it's reasonable to deduce that this reflects the hyper-individualism of American culture.

(In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, all my thoughts on cultural differences on both this and the Novik covers arose out of a conversation with my husband, and the ideas are as much his as mine, if not more so.)

As for my own opinion, again, I like the American cover better, for reasons that I'm sure reflect just how American I am. When I see the British cover, my first thought is, "Where's Sharpe?" Well, on the American cover, he's right there, front and center, the focal point that my eyes are drawn to. It just makes sense to me that the cover of a book should focus on its central character, and all the more so when that character is a sexy man. (OK, so my preference for the American cover also reflects the fact that I'm a heterosexual woman. So sue me.) I don't claim 100% consistency in this area, by the way--some of my favorite covers, including my favorites from the Sharpe series, don't feature people at all. But when it's a crowd vs. an individual, the individual is almost always more intriguing to my eyes.

Also, I like how the American cover has the darker illustration on top and the lighter panel with the author's name below. I don't know if it's a typical American taste or just a personal quirk, but I like strong contrasts like that--they just catch my attention.

Last but not least, the British cover pings my "nonfiction" sensors. (This is what I meant above in saying the cover doesn't quite match the contents of the book for me.) I have a shelf full of books with similar covers at my house--namely, the military history collection I'm building. To me, that kind of illustration belongs on a history of a battle or a regiment, not a novel about a character's experience set within that history. I'm not saying the cover actually confuses me--being a fan of the series, I instantly recognize the author and character's names, after all. But there's just an eensy bit of gut-level dissonance.


AgTigress said...

I hope you will forgive me, Susan, for repeating here the comments I made on this cover comparison elsewhere.

The UK cover, is, to my perceptions, quite clear, unified and appropriate.

(1) Image: a single background painting of a battle scene that instantly gives the viewer the early 19th-century date. I see images like this as an entity - a collective picture, if you like. I see, not 'many men, fighting', but 'armies, battle' - concepts that are singular, not plural.
(2) Words: the title and the author’s name, both bold, in a good, clear font.

And that’s it – four words, easily legible, and a scene that indicates that there will be war and violence, and that the setting is somewhere between 1790 and 1820, judging by the uniforms. That seems to me to be an effective cover.

Now the US one:

(1) Cover is horizontally divided at about 3:2, part visual image, part typographic.
(2) Words: title and author in large font (different colours, though mercifully the same font!), a review quote on the picture, nestling in the midst of the title, with source quoted (small font, different colours, regular and italic); information that the author is the NYT best-selling author of another title, in smaller font, all caps (requiring both regular and italic) between his forename and surname; a coloured label inadequately linking the two sections of the cover, giving a place-name and date. That is *five* areas of text in all, and *23 words*, in a mix of colours, sizes and fonts.
(3) The picture shows a burning landscape; could be war or natural disaster, and it is intrinsically undateable until one peers very closely (hence the helpful ‘1811’ on the label, of course). The armed figure also requires a very close look to establish that he is not in contemporary dress – my first glance at a small image interpreted him as wearing a James Bond-style dinner-jacket!

In terms of pure graphic design, I perceive that cover as messy and overdone.

I am immensely pleased to hear you say what you do about the British soldiers on the UK cover: leaving aside the fact that I hate all military themes, I have often met with blank stares from American friends when I mention that contemporary American novels that feature military heroes or heroines have an extra turn-off feature for me, because the military forces are those of a foreign nation - the USA. But it is true that, regardless of past or present relations, the armed forces of a country other than one's own produce at least a brief frisson of discomfort. So I think you are *right* to feel at least briefly uncomfortable about the redcoats.

Final point: you say that the UK cover reminds you of non-fiction covers. I think you are right, and that is probably another reason why I prefer it, because of a subconscious expectation that, even though it is fiction, it will be historically accurate.

Susan Wilbanks said...

I see images like this as an entity - a collective picture, if you like. I see, not 'many men, fighting', but 'armies, battle' - concepts that are singular, not plural.

Just to clarify, I see the armies as collective entities, too. It's just that the image of an army doesn't say "story" to me in the same way as the image of an individual soldier.

AgTigress said...

Yes, I understand the distinction you are making, Susan. My seeing a cover as a single picture rather than a collection of elements is also germane, of course.


AgTigress said...

Susan, here is an interesting little article with US/UK cover-art comparisons, based on the fantasy and science fiction genres.

(Sorry, I don't know how to make that into a clickable link).

Susan Wilbanks said...

That is an interesting article, though I couldn't help thinking they could've found more attractive examples of US fantasy covers! Then again, when I looked up some of the fantasy novels I've read lately and thought had attractive, appropriate covers, in every case the US and UK covers were either identical or very similar. For example,

Kushiel's Scion

has an identical cover in the UK.

(I have a feeling, though, that a woman's bare or partially bare back is going to scream first decade of 21st century in a few years, because I see it everywhere from fantasy to mystery--e.g. the US cover for the new Lindsey Davis--to romance, lots of romance. But I like it when I feel it's appropriate, which in this case I do. It mainly bothers me in historical romance because there are almost inevitably glaring historical costume inaccuracies. The woman's dress will be gaping open in back, but she'll have no underwear on, and the dress looks like it zips, with not a button or lace or hook and eye in sight.)

AgTigress said...

Purely visually, that cover is just 'ho-hum' for me - somewhat odd, but not enticing in the least. Rather the reverse (which, from what I have heard of the series, is probably accurate for my reception of the author's work, were I to read it). Laced corsetry, tattoos - implications of sado-masochism - cut with the billowing white net (innocence?) and a sinister silhouette. And really horrid typography. What is it with graphic designers these days - do they have NO sense of style when it comes to typefaces?


Your point about costume accuracy is, sadly, all too true. There is often no attempt whatever to get it right. Regency romances set in London society, with cover images of lush, dishevelled tarts falling out of 1860s gowns, set against distant views of American Gothic mansions...


Susan Wilbanks said...

I think part of the appeal of the Kushiel's Scion cover is that IME fantasy covers as a genre tend to be dark and busy. So the white background and relative simplicity of the design stands out on the genre shelf.

I haven't seen a Regency cover with a character in an 1860's gown in a long time--they usually get the high waist right, even if every detail of trim, cut, material, underwear, etc. is wrong. Sometimes I think the cover designers have a stock of Empire-waisted bridesmaids' dresses from the past decade or so and don't bother trying to alter the images.