Sunday, August 26, 2007

Can We Retire These Photos Yet?

Ever since we started posting about copycat covers on crime novels, we’ve become extra sensitive to the appearance of such replications. We’ve also noticed that some photographs aren’t used just one or two times, but may illustrate the fronts of three or four novels, if not more. Even accepting that book designers on tight budgets can’t be expected to have seen how every stock photo on the market was employed previously, and thereby avoid repeating use of those images, shots that threaten to become ubiquitous should certainly also become familiar to folks whose careers depend on their paying more attention to these matters than the rest of us are obliged to do. And those overused photographs ought then to be dumped from the pool of acceptable artwork--if not retired by the stock agencies that own them, then at least given a wide berth by designers.

One of the most hackneyed images appears on the forthcoming Walker paperback edition of Reggie Nadelson’s Disturbed Earth, her 2004 novel starring Russian immigrant-turned-New York City private eye Artie Cohen. This photograph is credited to Richard Olenius and the National Geographic Image Collection (#394824). It’s not a bad nighttime shot of Chicago, Illinois, with the foreground and shadowy image of a man crossing what may be an open-air skyway or building balcony. Unfortunately, though, this is the very same likeness that decorated the hardback edition of British novelist H.R.F. Keating’s A Detective in Love (2002) as well as the 2002 front of Sam Reaves’ Dooley’s Back. Oh, and it was also employed on the 2006 mass-market paperback edition of George Pelecanos’ terrific Drama City. (Incidentally, of those books only Reaves’ is actually set in Chicago.)

That photo has now graced the jackets of four American crime novels, and nobody but those of us here at the Rap Sheet have so much as noticed? Gimme a break. Readers are more intelligent than that, and publishers and designers ought to be, too. Was there no other stock shot that could have substituted in at least one of these cases? And was there no money available for an original photograph, if only to avoid the embarrassment associated with duplications such as these?

Another instance of egregious overuse involves the image of a seemingly young brunette, dressed in a full-length skirt and holding a birdcage in her left hand. I first noticed this lass when she appeared on the 2006 U.S. paperback edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big. But she then proceeded to insert herself--with a little Photoshop help, no doubt--into the cover of Pearl Luke’s 2006 novel, Madame Zee, this time with what looks like a beach background, rather than a roadway and imposing residence behind her. More recently, she elbowed her way onto the cover of Joel Rose’s The Blackest Bird, a historical suspense novel (featuring author-cum-investigator Edgar Allan Poe) that was released earlier this year. Only on this occasion, she and her cage are found in what might be a European backstreet.

A little Web detective work reveals the genesis of that cover-hopping babe. The shot was taken by Lorraine Molina and is available from Seattle-based Getty Images (#6421-000003). The original photo shows Molina’s subject standing in what might be a country lane, and bears the closest resemblance to the Crowley cover.

After shaking our heads over those two repeat performances, it seems almost insignificant that--with the help of Tom Nolan, editor of The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator--we should have tumbled to yet another example of copycat covers, this time involving a photo that’s only been used twice (that we know of, anyway). It doesn’t take a frickin’ genius, glancing over the pair of covers on the right, to tip to the fact that the same fedora-wearing gent who fronts the 1996 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard paperback reprint of Ross Macdonald’s The Chill also appears (though in reverse) on the jacket of the U.S. hardcover debut edition of British novelist John Baker’s first P.I. Sam Turner novel, Poet in the Gutter. And both books were published in the same year. Talk about regrettable coincidences!

We won’t delude ourselves into thinking that, by pointing out these duplicate applications of stock art, publishers on either side of the Atlantic will suddenly cease relying on photo agencies and go back to their previous practice of paying for fresh artwork to use on book fronts. Very few publishers nowadays (with the notable exceptions of Hard Case Crime and a few other comparatively small houses) go to the trouble or expense of commissioning unique cover images. Nonetheless, it should give designers and their bosses pause to realize that by overexercising stock shots, they are making their products not more distinctive in the public marketplace, but instead less so. And that cannot be good for sales.

READ MORE:Are Publishers Cheap?” by Peter Rozovsky (Detectives Beyond Borders).


Anonymous said...

Wow, its almost funny how blatantly those four covers of a shadowy sillouhette looking at a city copy each other.

Peter Rozovsky said...

A comment on my post, addressed presumably to authors rather than crime-fiction fans who don't write, suggested seeking practical solutions rather than pointing fingers. Still, I wonder whether the budget pressures on art directors have increased since the dawn of the trade paperback ushered in a greater emphasis on cover design, at least in paperback books.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Barring all of us readers paying extra to book publishers to find better artwork, or convincing photographers/artists to take less in the way of recompense for their labors, I don't see any "practical solutions" to this problem other than to show the publishers that their cost-cutting measures aren't working. And in fact, that they're turning readers off. That's why I continue to harp on these duplicative dust jackets. If enough smart publishers and important designers can show that there's value in doing a better job with cover design, then there might be a rethinking of stock photography's usefulness on book covers. At the least, and in the meantime, I'm hoping that designers--knowing that some of us are paying attention--will make more of an effort to double-check whether the stock shots they're thinking to buy have already been overused.

Silence, in this case, is only likely to endorse laziness on the part of publishers.

Peter Rozovsky said...

To be fair to my commenter, I think she was addressing authors who might complain about their books' covers.

As for practical action readers can take, I'd say you're doing it.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hmmm... now that every moron with a PC thinks he's a writer, I guess every doofus with a Mac thinks he's an art director.

And every beancounter with a degree thinks he can be a publisher.

If you think much of the art work the big houses are churning out is redundant, check out the hordes of vanity press covers. At least the biggies are recycling quality clip art and high-def stock photos. The self-pubbie houses, for the most part, are recycling public domain clip art or "original" PhotoShop montages that look exactly like what they are: blurry, unimaginative regurgitated public domain clips randomly assembled with all the composition and design sense of a wino puking in the gutter after too much Thunderbird.

No, these oh-so-creative types say, nothing actually depicts anything in the narrative -- they were trying to capture "the feel" of it.


Their only saving grace is that very few people (mostly the authors themselves, and maybe the authors' mothers) ever see this crap.

Hey, I used to be a graphic designer and worked in magazine and book design, back before desktop publishing. I'm not a Luddite or anything (I love my Mac), but I learned all those old school things (basic design, typography, composition, colour, etc.) that are so sadly out of fashion now; that nobody seems to give a damn about anymore.

Most of the so-called designers out there pedalling their wares don't even know what "kerning" is. Or care, fer cryin' out loud!

Just as I think we lost something (appreciation of and respect for craft?) when we moved to word processing from typewriters (or even to typewriters from longhand), I think we lost something equally important when desk top publishing came along. In the hands of those who know what they're doing, technology can be a great tool. In the hands of the rest, it's asking for trouble, sorta like giving a power tool to a three-year old.

So now we have more push-button art for push-button books than ever....


Maybe the Rap Sheet should instigate an annual "Best Cover" poll among its readers.

Ach-scent-u-ate the positive, as it were.