Fractional people

Have you noticed how many book covers have partial people on them? I thought about that recently when Stephen Romei said this in the Australian: ‘The Miles Franklin winner will not be judged by its cover, which is good news I reckon for McDonald as When Colts Ran has an odd jacket, with its photograph of two bisected bushies’.

Cover design bisects and decapitates people all the time. Why is that? It can’t be clumsy cropping, followed by a complete lack of quality control.

It’s not. It turns out there’s a whole lot of thought behind it. At least that’s what I’ve been told, and I’ve been told it as an author maybe ten edited cover people so far. To name three: a woman biting a tie and seen from nose tip to waist on Bachelor Kisses, part of a comedian on the paperback of The Thompson Gunner and a headless girl in a bikini on Monica Bloom (really not a headless-girl kind of book).

So, what’s wrong with whole people then? Plenty, apparently.

First, I’m told that if you put a whole person on there, it puts one clear image of a character – often the central character – into the reader’s head from the start, and one of the great distinguishing features of the text-based story experience is that readers get to make their own pictures. A whole person gives the game away. A partial person is intriguing (really?). Better still, lop the head off, since it’s the crucial identifying bit. But a bisected person? Aren’t humans close enough to symmetrical? Anyway, that’s only one reason.

Here’s another. The eye is drawn to discontinuity. Take only a tiny piece out of the right side of an O and we start seeing C. Take a head off a girl, and suddenly we look at her more than if she still had her head on. Go on, try this at home. (No, don’t, please.)

And here’s the other sneaky reason: publishers often use staff as (free) cover models. Not only are staff often at best semi-willing participants in this, and coerced by the promise of cropping but, if you only use bits of them, you get to re-use them multiple times and spread them across the covers of many books. So, here’s a note to all authors: don’t go complaining to your publisher/editor/publicist about the anatomy of your cover model unless you’re completely sure you’re not talking to your cover model.

Yes, I’ve put my own foot in that big ugly bear trap. ‘The cover’s great, but have you noticed the woman’s upper lip has an asymmetrical philtrum?’ I said to my editor – AND SECRET COVER MODEL – who, at that time, I hadn’t met. It turned out it was the make-up. And I’ve promised never to say which cover it was. And told myself never to show off again by throwing anatomical words into conversation.

So, what about those two bisected bushies on the cover of When Colts Ran? Could it simply be a candid shot taken at a Random House regional staff meeting, and cropped for anonymity? Is it just how the photographer framed it? I’m not sure why those bushies were bisected, but I don’t think it’s either of those possible reasons. I do know that Random House puts a great deal of thought into covers – we talked about the cover for my next novel several times over a couple of months.

For Stephen Romei and anyone else interested, here’s the original, in which it turns out the bushies are whole:

So, what do you think? Do whole people give the game away? Do partial people draw your eye? Or is this is a big fat overthink, and an entire person or two would do the job at least as well?

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7 Responses to Fractional people

  1. ans says:

    Whole people defnitely pollute the idea of the character for me. I avoid film tie-ins for the same reason. And I dislike illustrations of the character – Harry Potter is a notable example – at some point in the novel I end up flicking between the cover and the description of the character in the text and snorting. Pretty much leaves me with orange penguin covers.

  2. macdibble says:

    I like entire people. As long as they’re not gorgeous. They’re always showing off those gorgeous people. Give me someone a bit more interesting with a bit of attitude, a couple of faults, even an asymmetrical philtrum!

  3. Pingback: Parking Cars, Headless Wonders and Book Covers | Lynley Stace

  4. I never would have thought that was the reason – but I suppose they know what they are talking about – so partials it is! Good to leave most things to the imagination.

  5. Quokka says:

    Given the title of your latest book I’m trying to imagine the wording of the mass email that went into seeking out the perfect low budget staff model.
    ‘Wanted: cubital crease and nose models, bruising and perforated septums preferred.’

    Or maybe not…

    • nickearls says:

      Still, if it had been that kind of fix, that email would have made great strapline text for the cover …

  6. I’m just grateful they didn’t muck around with Black Beauty. Any cover imagery can suggest and implant itself in my reading psyche but the alternative of a title on a blank cover is just too biblical for me.

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