Thursday, April 09, 2009

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

I never intended to make a career of bashing publishers for their blithe willingness to feature duplicate artwork on their book jackets. But ever since The Rap Sheet began to expose the phenomenon of copycat covers, readers appear to have become more alert to these examples of overexposure, and willing to send us their discoveries. Authors, too, have begun to point out--and often lament--instances of their own work carrying photographs or illustrations that they’ve seen previously on other books. All of the covers featured in this post were brought to my attention by Rap Sheet readers.

Bless their sharp little eyes.

Some images are used more commonly than others. A few of the most egregious repeat offenders have been highlighted on this page in the past (see here, here, and here), while others have been cited elsewhere on the Web (here and here). Also deserving to be included on the list of photographs that have seen way too much use on book fronts is one that you may have spotted recently decorating the jacket of the U.S. edition of Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame (Putnam), an exceptional story that finds former Berlin cop and private eye Bernie Gunther posing as a Nazi war criminal in order to flee Europe for Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950. Shot in 1997 by Barnaby Hall, but since sold to the Getty Images stock agency, the photo on the cover of Kerr’s book shows a rather determined-looking woman in a strapless dress, accessorized with what appears to be an automatic pistol in one hand. You can see that identical image on the 1988 Vintage Crime edition of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. And there it is again on the 2009 Pegasus reprint edition of Cornell Woolrich’s 1943 novel, The Black Angel. (Click on any of the images shown here to blow them up.) A couple of designers have sought to draw freshness from this overworked shot by flipping it (see the front of Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City, published in 2006 by Counterpoint) or--in the case of E. Duke Vincent’s Black Widow (Bloomsbury USA, 2007)--reducing it in size, cuddling it in smoke, and eliminating the woman’s gun. (There’s probably some idiotic right-winger out there convinced that this, too, is part of President Barack Obama’s secret plan to outlaw guns in the United States). However, there’s no mistaking the provenance of all of those covers.

None of the other images mentioned in this post has received nearly so much exposure as Hall’s photo. Thank goodness.

Rap Sheet reader Patrick Lee, who has brought a few of these copycat covers to my attention in the past, also points out the astonishing similarity between Drood (Little, Brown), the weighty new historical thriller from Dan Simmons, and The Cosgrove Report (Grove Press), by G.J.A. O’Toole. Long before Simmons’ suspenseful yarn about Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins ever reached bookstores, I was very much looking forward to reading it, based in part on its wonderfully spooky jacket. Evidently, though, I wasn’t the only one attracted by that foggy silhouette of a man in a top hat, credited to Ken Rosenthal, some of whose work has been bought up by the Corbis stock agency. Designer Tal Goretsky liked Rosenthal’s work as well--so much so that he decided to feature it on the cover of The Cosgrove Report, a novel (originally published in 1979) about a shocking Pinkerton inquiry into the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Only Goretsky changed the background of that shadowy image. Instead of what looks on Drood like Big Ben at London’s Palace of Westminster, he’s substituted the U.S. Capitol dome (which was not completed until after Lincoln’s death). I think both uses of that photo work well; it’s only unfortunate that these books appeared on shelves simultaneously in February. (Oddly, Amazon displays an earlier version of this jacket on its Web page for The Cosgrove Report; however, if you “Click to Look Inside,” as instructed, you’ll see the finished front.)

British author Steve Mosby sent word of these next duplicates. The first cover comes from his 2003 debut thriller, The Third Person (Orion). Its companion here is the jacket off veteran novelist Robert Goddard’s 2008 suspenser, Found Wanting (Bantam Press). Mosby’s cover, I think, is the more dramatic, and its intense whiteness must have shimmered from bookshelves back in 2003. However, a lot more of the original photo is seen on Found Wanting--not just two raincoat-encased gentlemen strolling and talking in a square, with the third man and his briefcase off in the distance, but also some surrounding buildings, a crowd in the distance, and an oppressive climatic gloom that undoubtedly contributes to the tone of Goddard’s story within.

At least Mosby has a patient attitude about this instance of duplication. As he wrote in his blog, being a writer is “not just about getting published anymore. I think we all know--if we’ve been following the crime fiction news--the actual criteria is ... drum roll ... having a copycat cover.”

He’s not the only one willing to rat out his own repeated book jacket. I pointed out last summer that the Michael Joseph hardback jacket of Andrew Taylor’s 2008 historical mystery, Bleeding Heart Square, bore a remarkable resemblance to the 2006 McClelland & Stewart edition of Maureen JenningsVices of My Blood. But now Taylor alerts me to the fact that the new U.S. edition of Bleeding Heart Square (Hyperion) carries the same cover image--though differently colored--as Deborah Crombie’s 2002 Inspector Gemma James novel, And Justice There Is None. “As far as I know, this hasn’t happened to me before,” Taylor remarks in an e-mail note he sent my way. “But this book of mine seems particularly cursed.”

I don’t know whether Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura realizes that the photograph of a seemingly sultry, black female singer adoring the 2009 Bitter Lemon Press edition of his book Havana Fever--the latest entry in his police detective Mario Conde series--can also be seen fronting the hardcover edition of David Fulmer’s 2008 novel, The Blue Door (Harcourt). But if he does, he may think that the two books look different enough that most people won’t notice. Indeed, while Bitter Lemon chose a more straightforward use of the shot, Harcourt fuzzed it significantly and framed it on the right side with what looks like a male audience member. Still, the source material for both covers is obviously the same. And it didn’t have to be.

Less effort was made to distinguish our next two book jackets from one another. First up, we have the 2005 Harper Perennial paperback edition of Thomas Mann’s famous novella, Death in Venice (published in German in 1912, and first translated into English 13 years later). It features yet another raincoat-wearing man, this time standing in what looks like a historic square (in Venice? Maybe not, but probably somewhere in Europe), with chairs and tables bleeding out of the frame on the right. Now, compare that with the 2006 Little, Brown hardcover edition of Cross, James Patterson’s 12th outing for his African-American detective and psychologist, Alex Cross. While I haven’t read Patterson’s bestselling book, I don’t see any mention in reviews that its story contains scenes outside of the United States. So where, exactly, the plaza portrayed on the cover is supposed to exist, I couldn’t tell you. In any event, the higher contrast and brighter colors used on the front of Cross strip away the moodiness found on the Mann front. A regrettable adaptation.

Finally, we have a duplication of intent, if not actual illustration.

Most Rap Sheet readers are undoubtedly familiar with Fantômas, the Parisian thief, murderer, and crime boss who was introduced in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre and was later the star of films, a 1980 TV mini-series, and even comic books. The most familiar representation of this fictional protagonist shows him as a giant masked man in a dinner jacket, bestriding Belle Époque Paris with a bloody dagger clutched in his right hand. That image appeared on the original cover of Fantômas and has since been employed on subsequent editions. (There’s a variation of the illustration -- sans knife -- that was used on early Fantômas film posters and can be seen here.)

The artist responsible for creating the cover of a 2005 version of John Devil (Hollywood Comics), a book originally penned in 1861 by French novelist-dramatist Paul Féval, must have decided that Féval’s story about a Scotland Yard superintendent chasing a “faceless crime leader” through England in 1817 bore similarities to the often complex Fantômas tales. That seems the likely explanation for why the cover of the most recent edition of John Devil looks so much like the 1911 jacket of Fantômas. Only this time, the dagger-wielding giant bestriding what I assume is early 19th-century London wears a buckle-bearing Pilgrim hat and breeches.

Frankly, I don’t think that’s an improvement on the original.

If you spot further examples of copycat covers, especially on crime novels, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me. I’ll post more of these fronts as they become available.

READ MORE:Is Copycat Book Cover Art Becoming an Unwanted Trend?” by Bloodymandy (Alternative Teen Services); “So Good a Cover They Used it Thrice,” by Karen Meek (Euro Crime); and Caustic Cover Critic has its own copycat covers series worth checking out.


JRSM said...

Thanks for the mention! That 'Fantômas' image, which reasonably enough is on the cover of the Penguin Classics 'Fantômas' (with Eiffel Tower added) was also used on Penguin Classics' version of Jack London's 'The Assassination Bureau' (ISBN: 0140186778).

Anonymous said...

re Padura.

The same picture was used for the cover of the German translation, which was already published in 2008. In my opinion the picture of that edition is the best of all three. The female is mirrored, in the foreground there are the hands of an piano player accompanying the singer and in the background there are two hands playing a bass visible.

(As far as I can see the some woman is not present on the Spanish edition of the book)

Anonymous said...

Are publishers just lazy or is there a derth of good cover art? Geez, it's a bit disheartening. Kudos to Mark Coggins who often shoots his own covers!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I don't think there's a dearth of quality cover art available, if all the publisher wants to do is buy material that already exists. The bigger problem is that publishers don't want to pay for original artwork, and there's no efficient way (as far as I know) to track how stock photography has been used already.

If more publishers at least took seriously the problem of copycat covers, they might make a competent effort to avoid these instances of duplication. However, they seem not to believe that readers notice or care when book jackets look the same. On that last point, I, for one, would like them to know they're wrong.


Michael Carlson said...

There is a way for agencies like Getty to keep track of how stock images are used, but that too would require extra time and expense...but when you think of artists who could sometimes sell a book merely by doing its cover--the Dillons and Frank Frazetta, in different fields, spring to mind...

What is interesting is the assumption no one will notice...or care. In point of sale terms, it's funny: the buyers of Thomas Mann and James Patterson are unlikely to collide reaching for the book they confuse with their choice, but Mosby and Goddard, Chandler and Woolrich are pretty close (except alphabetically). The Cosgrove Report's new cover rings untrue with that Ripperesque figure (as well as the dome which you point out).

In some countries, of course, books dont have cover art at all...and many of them sell higher, on a per capita rate, than the US or UK!

This is one that will and should run and run...

Eugenia Kim said...

Publishers, art directors and graphic designers can buy exclusive rights to any stock photo or art image, but it costs lots more. Most stock houses can say how often the image was purchased, and that should give a clue to the buyer. What surprises me is how astutely readers find these images to the extent exhibited in this article. Amazing! Steven Heller, writer on graphic design issues, used to do a column in PRINT magazine similar to "separated at birth" where designs were so close in concept and execution as to be suspect of plaigerism. Kudos to your readers for finding these. What a great story. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think calling it 'copycat' is a bit much. There a people out there who purchase stock photos. 'Copycat' implies someone deliberately copying another persons work. For indies on a budget, starting out, they may use stock photos who have been used before or used after but that does not mean they've copied anything or anybody and implying is a little unfair.