WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Sideshow blob

What’s wrong with the publishing biz? Sameness.

I’ve been noticing the problem with book covers that the author of this piece observes: There’s a plethora of covers with bold shapes and colors—blobs—and the sameness of them screams category, genre, and formula. But one irony is that these books are often literary fiction. Most often by women and especially women of color, as pointed out in the article, but my question is, why are publishers trying to make litfic seem generic?

I’m sure what happened was, one of the early covers in this style did spectacularly better than expected, so editors and designers started piling on. Readers will think this new book is like that spectacularly successful one, and they’ll buy it even though they never heard of the author. It makes a weird but sad kind of sense.

There’ve been a lot of these trends in publishing over the years. We went through a long period of covers showing, usually, a woman with her back to us gazing out at some scenery, or a hazy void, or whatever (we still see a lot of those covers—heck, I copped it for Yesterday Road!). We’re welcome to use our imagination as to what she looks like. Probably we were meant to think of her as ourselves. We’ve also had the ubiquitous naked torso men, women with their bodices ripped from their shoulders, and inanimate objects like a worn pair of shoes or a vintage door. Yadda yadda yadda.

Style is one thing, but when there’s a marketing scheme behind the trend, you start to understand that the scheme isn’t limited to the cover images. It’s all about the content too, and that’s what really bugs me.

When the primary means of dissemination (the Big 5) converts a creative product into a mass-produced commodity, creativity is pushed into the backseat. Writers become masters of literary algorithms. They write toward that best-selling kind of cover. The character names change, but the scenarios and themes are always consistent and satisfy the appetite of some generic “reader” out there.

This new wave of colorful blob covers is just a message to that reader: This is what you want. It doesn’t even matter what the content is. The package is what’s being sold.

I don’t know when this trend will end and another one will swoop in to take its place. The next generation is probably out there already, but it’ll take some analysis of the sales reports for the publishers to start stamping them out en masse.

But maybe the blob covers still have legs enough to move a lot of books a while longer. They do seem like a kind of literary candy, don’t they? Everybody loves candy.

11 comments on “Sideshow blob

  1. loristory
    October 16, 2021

    I’ve also noticed that it’s advisable, when pitching a novel to an agent, to use a formula: what does your main character want, what is standing in their way, and what are the stakes? I guess every story needs a plot, but can’t it ever be different and still be a best-seller? I’m thinking Catcher in the Rye …

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 16, 2021

      That’s a problem I have when I query, because my novels don’t usually fit that paradigm. All the great books I loved through the years tended to fly in the face of convention …

  2. kingmidget
    October 16, 2021

    The interesting thing about those covers is that they say absolutely nothing about the story inside.

  3. Gary Trujillo
    October 16, 2021

    Contrary to popular belief, you CAN judge a book by its cover. And those covers obviously cater to the “live, laugh, love” housewife demographic.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 18, 2021

      I’m afraid you’re right. That demo must spend a ton of $$$ on books …

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    October 16, 2021

    I can think of a few reasons: 1. Those bright colours are eyecatching. 2. Publishers may be trying to create a genre out of this type of literary fiction. 3. With thumbnail images on small screens, you don’t need detail, and the title (and maybe the author) must be legible.
    The covers you’ve featured really do look similar! One good thing is this type of image can be easily produced using something like Canva.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 18, 2021

      Good points, Audrey. All of them add up to more money for the pubber. 😉

  5. Marie A Bailey
    October 18, 2021

    Whoa, as others have noted, these covers give no clue as to the content of the story. I don’t mind abstract designs, but these covers are just like so many tie-dyed t-shirts hung on a line. Now I love the cover for Yesterday Road because it hints at the story inside. I see this old man facing the road and I wonder where he’s going and why and then I realize if I just buy the book and read it, I’ll find out. I don’t get that feel at all with the covers at the top of your post. Sad, just sad.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 18, 2021

      I loved the Yesterday Road cover when the artist turned it in, and just for the reason you give. It promises a story. You’ll learn who that man is and where he’s headed. Enjoy the ride. The new covers seem designed to provoke a reflex impulse to buy the book. Ugh.

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2021 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , .
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