Sunday, May 20, 2007

Double Faults

We’ve taken it upon ourselves every now and then to point out remarkable similarities between the covers of crime novels. (See here, here, and here.) We do this in full awareness of the fact that art directors nowadays are frequently operating under restrictive budgets, and thus turn to stock photography as a cost-saving convenience. Still, it disturbs us that there is not more attention paid to originality in cover design, and more vigilance against duplication. This inattention demonstrates a corporate disrespect for both the intelligence of readers and the talents of designers. Copycat covers are the result of profit-taking trumping artistic expression, and should thus be discouraged on principle. Designers and book buyers deserve better.

We might not be so disturbed by all of this, if copycat covers weren’t becoming so obvious and frequently spotted. Take, for instance, the 2001 No Exit Press paperback edition of Christopher Cook’s Robbers and that same year’s softcover version of Rob Ryan’s Trans Am, from Canadian publisher McArthur & Company. Hmm. Do you think that just might be the same shot-up directional sign, emphasized differently on the two front jackets? (Click on the images here to increase their size.)

Or take this next pair--Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood and James Patrick Hunt’s Maitland--sent to us a few months back by Philadelphia novelist-editor Duane Swierczynski (The Blonde, Severance Package). “I bought two novels this week ...” Swierczynski explained in an accompanying note. “Both are set in Chicago. (Sometimes, I cheat on Philly.) But I literally did a double-take when I scooped both books up and held them side-by-side.” The photo introducing Chercover’s debut novel is clearly credited to Getty Images, a stock photo agency based in Seattle, while the Maitland jacket doesn’t carry a discernible photo credit, but these fronts bear an uncanny resemblance to one another. A glow has been added to the former, while the latter steps back a bit to show more of the original frame, and has been overlapped with a shot of a woman, who looms King Kong-like above the Chicago River and city skyline.

It isn’t only crime, mystery, and thriller novels that are susceptible to these replications. Our next comparison couple come from mainstream fiction works. Clearly, the photograph employed on the British hardcover edition of Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing (2007) has the very same source as that decorating the 2007 paperback edition of Cindy Dyson’s And She Was. The only real difference is that the legs on Shreve’s cover terminate in a pair of thongs, while those on Dyson’s front end in heavy leather shoes or boots. It’s impossible, without looking at the original shot, to know which sort of footwear actually belongs here, and which was photoshopped into the frame by an art director. (Hat tip to Marshal Zeringue from the Campaign for the American Reader.)

Modern technology allows designers to retouch images endlessly, adding people into scenes where they never were before, altering the tones and colors of shots, and attaching heads or limbs to bodies where they don’t belong. Magazines have become rather notorious for taking these liberties. (Remember the Time cover that darkened--to ominous effect--a mugshot of O.J. Simpson right after his arrest in 1994 on suspicion of murder?) But book designers, unfettered by fears of being attacked for violating journalistic standards, are even more flagrant about manipulating photographs every which way.

Look at this next trio of covers, for instance. The first comes from An Accidental American, a much-hyped new paperback thriller credited to “Alex Carr” (a pseudonym of Jenny Siler). It shows a shadowy woman, with purse or other bag in hand, proceeding down a narrow, lonely, curving street, probably somewhere in Europe. Next to it is the jacket from The Blackest Bird, Joel Rose’s recently issued novel imagined around the real-life case of Mary Rogers, a 20-year-old cigar salesgirl who went missing in New York City in 1841, only to turn up murdered soon after. (The case inspired “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” an 1842 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, who appears prominently in Rose’s novel.) Obviously, this is the same shot (credited to Kobi Israel and available through a UK agency called Millennium Images), only with altered lighting and a wholly different figure on which to focus our eyes. Otherwise, we find the same stone walls, same curved street, same antique lamps. I don’t know what the original photo looked like, but I suspect that the long-skirted woman from The Blackest Bird wasn’t in it, because she also appears in an entirely dissimilar setting on the front of John Crowley’s Little, Big.

If author Crowley is made at all uncomfortable by the fact that the 2002 paperback release of Little, Big wasn’t entirely unique in appearance, he might only squirm more after realizing that the hardcover edition of his book Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land (2005) is the near-twin of another volume that saw print just one year later: A Sense of the World, by Jason Roberts. In both instances, the artwork used is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted in 1818 (or 1817, according to some sources). On the Crowley front, however, the frame is shifted leftward and a blizzard of numerals has been superimposed over the painting, while Roberts’ cover is truer to the original work.

If you spot more examples of copycat covers, especially on crime novels, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me.


Lyn LeJeune said...

Lately, as I scan the bookstore shelves, I have to make many double-takes thinking . . .wait that book is in the wrong place, I saw it down there, only to discover it is a different book with nearly the same cover. And the ones that drive me crazy is the craze for the last few years of the partial woman pose - a head turned slightly, a leg, two legs, her back, her butt. Especially when the book has very little to do. Book designers, this is not intriguing in the least.

Lyn leJeune
The Beatitudes Network
Rebuilding the public libraries of New Orleans at

Anonymous said...

Have a look at the UK cover of Christopher Rush's memoir TO TRAVEL HOPEFULLY: JOURNAL OF A DEATH NOT FORETOLD - they've reversed the image, but it's clearly Friedrich!

Karen May.

Anonymous said...

I have seen that Friedrich painting on many covers. Here, on the cover of Greek writer Yiorgos Roussis' O Logos stin Outopia, first published in 1996 if I am not mistaken. (Sorry for the low quality image.)

Anonymous said...

I think the photo with the boots is photoshopped, while the one with the thongs seems to be the original. Notice how the thongs curve naturally over the rocks? They seem integrated with the terrain, while the boots, if you look carefully, appear to be sort of floating over it or something.

Also, the angle of the thonged feet seems more natural when you look at the calves (especially the left one), as well as being attached to where the legs actually are at the bottom of the pant legs (more obvious because the wind is blowing the pant legs against the legs).

With the boots one, they also didn't fix the transparent bit at the bottom of the pant legs (mainly the right one) where the leg shows through.