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When a book cover misrepresents the setting

11th August 2023

When a book cover misrepresents setting.

If you are a reader who likes a good sense of place in a book, you may well be drawn to books where the setting is strongly hinted at on the book cover. There is a given, visual shorthand for novels – dark, clear light, often black and white with a touch of red for Icelandic settings; brooding rolling waves and peaks for the Scottish Highlands; a swimming pool to denote holidays, relaxation and invariably murder and dark doings – all set somewhere gloriously warm (see our thoughts onWhat’s in a book cover when it features a swimming pool?”)

When a book cover misrepresents the setting

Then there is rocky, orange and barren to denote #outbacknoir, and orange and yellow is used so often to flag certain countries in Africa, often with a  dominant acacia tree. You get the gist.

Recently, I knew I had been sent a novel that was set on Paxos, in Greece, but it didn’t seem to be nestled somewhere in our TBR pile.  I was keen to read it because we had had several family holidays there and I fancied revisiting the island. I had forgotten the title but was confident that I could root it out simply by the image on the cover. There is invariably an image type that denotes Greece (often depicting bougainvillea and white houses😉) and so I was slightly perplexed when, on the first sort through, it didn’t jump out. I looked again. Still nothing. So I then researched the title and as happens very often with an early ‘proof’ copy, there is no title on the actual cover. You need to look at the spine (which, as an aside, can be quite an unhelpful practice if you are trying to promote the book on Social Media – how often has my eye been caught by a cover featuring an enticing strapline but no “title”  with which to identify it; it  is discombobulating).

When a book cover misrepresents the settingOnce I had ascertained the title, I began my search afresh, looking at the spines, and was quite astounded to pick up a book that did not – to my eye – in any way reflect Greece. A stock image had been chosen, I would imagine, that said ‘Cornwall’ or the ‘Scottish Highlands’ – well, anywhere but Greece, to be honest. The one concession was a tiny pair of superimposed flip flops in the bottom left hand corner, which I only spotted part way through reading the book. The title on this proof copy, as per above, is on the spine.

That experience got me thinking. I popped an image of the proof on our Social Media Channels without naming the setting, curious to see the response of other readers. It turned into a fun guessing game with some astute and some fanciful thoughts on where the book was set. Fun for us, but a tad deplorable for the author, I would have thought.

Guesses ranged from Scotland to Cornwall, with Cornwall being the most popular by far (only 3,400+ km away from the actual setting), with its rugged cliffs and brooding skies. Other suggestions were Northern California, Northumberland, Malta, Wales, Iceland, Norway and one Cyprus (if you are on Twitter you can follow the dialogue here).

Thus, we have pretty much established a disconnect between the book cover image, created to lure people in to read the book, and the actual setting of the novel. Yes, there is a short, stormy time at one point in the book, when dreadful things happen, but much of the book is set in the sunny and lush environs of Paxos (and also in London).

I feel this has been a rushed design, a poor choice of image (and just look at the poor quality and positioning of the flip flops) and this really will not serve the author at all well.  The publisher has let this author down. I could imagine that I might pick up the book in a bookshop, anticipating probably Cornwall as the setting, turn it over and discover that it is actually set in Greece. At some level I would feel I had been duped, I would feel a sense of irritation and probably sadly replace it on the shelf and move on to something else. That is the power of the book cover!

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: Yvonne@FictionBooks

    Posted on: 11/08/2023 at 8:00 am

    I must admit that I do try not to judge a book by its cover, as I have been caught out so many times by the completely opposite scenario from the one you describe, where a cover is totally uninspiring, yet the story is a 5 star read!

    However, I would like to caveat that last statement, by adding the thought that there are far too many “meh!” covers and indeed titles out there these days.

    I know that a book title needs to lead you into the story and be punchy enough to attract good SEO ratings. However, some of the titles are so, I hesitate to use the word but can’t think of another right now ‘simplistic’, maybe ‘literal’ would be better? as to be annoying and very off-putting.

    Likewise, the use of stock images, perhaps with a couple of unique and often very minor ‘adjustments’, means that many covers end up by looking so similar, as to be confusing. The house with a strategically place light in a window. The view of a character wandering off into the distance, with the only flash of colour being a vivid item of clothing. And of course, where you came in, the coastal or scenery shot which in no way reflects a specific location. Etc, etc

    I think this non attention to detail and customer engagement is prevalent in everything we purchase or participate in today though. No one seems to care enough anymore?