A stellar actor can elevate the worst tripe, while special effects tend to plasticize story, yet the right art direction will add to not only the world but the characters as well. Purely Production is a bi-weekly post where I explore the different elements that affect a finished media, for good or ill. We’ll forget about writing for a moment and delve into all the bedazzling doodads that dress a story.
Purely Production #2: What dresses a book? Let’s answer that question by exploring titles, cover art and marketing blurbs
Read my introduction (italicized above) if you haven’t already done so.
I’ll wait… Notice anything?
You guessed it. I didn’t mention books. That’s because there aren’t a whole lot of production decisions to be made for books.
A writer sells a manuscript. Whether it’s their first or their fiftieth there is a yay! moment when they pass their baby into the publishing company’s hands. They have to trust the company to repackage it into the bound, double-sided, serif-fonted book that readers buy off the shelves (or download onto their readers.) The first step in the beautifying of your manuscript is the design of its cover. This resurfacing entails three production decisions: cover art, title and marketing blurb.
FOR THE EYE
Only one of these decisions is visual. One. With today’s technology we are barraged by visuals for everything, making it easy to lose a static book among it all. Cover art is the only chance a story has to compete on the eye level. Thus it must have impact.
The art editor (very similar to the art director for movies and television) is called in to reflect the story the publishing company feels they are selling. They do this in the form of a cover. For newbie writers, many times an adequate cover is slapped together. It’s only if the book sells enough copies that a new, better designed for the content cover is created to face the 2nd and 3rd runs of the book. For popular authors, the design and art is molded to appeal to their established audience.
Suzanne Collins was an established author branching into the young adult genre when she wrote The Hunger Games. As such she got a modest but well designed cover. It doesn’t say much about the story, but it’s clean and simple design is appealing to the target audience: lovers of young adult fiction. It’s flat black color with a bit of symbolic gold hints at the modern story. The target is so simple you might not think about its significance until after you read the marketing blurb. Once you do the aesthetic beauty of the cover art really hits you.
Cover art draws our eye. Period. It’s meant to appeal to a specific, but large as possible, audience. If we walk over to the table or click the link cover art has fulfilled it’s purpose. Contact has been made; we’ve been introduced to the story.
FOR THE HEART
Titles are the most important production detail for a book. Cover art can be hit or miss, just because you aren’t in the target audience doesn’t mean you won’t love the story. While a marketing blurb’s objective is to get across concrete details to close the sale. This means the title needs to have already hooked the inner reader. That leaves titles under a lot of pressure. They do all the heavy lifting – engaging the heart, before the mind can say no.
A smart publishing company wants a title that will reflect both the literal and figurative content of a story. That way possible readers can intuit right away the basic plot as well as the emotional journey contained in the book. If done right, by its very nature a title is the best reflection of a writer’s story. In this way the title starts the reader on the emotional journey contained in the story before they even open the book.
Sounds intriguing, right? I remember picking up the book in the store, all due to its title. It called to mind survival and the game we call life. One of my favorite genres is dystopian fiction and I knew right away this book fell into that category. Our lives are relatively easy today, especially in the good old USA. Few go hungry, even in poverty, and though life is hard for many, it isn’t really a life or death situation. ‘An imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be’ is exciting to many because we truly risk little in today’s world. So without even knowing about Katniss Everdeen I’m intrigued. I know what kind of story The Hunger Games will be and that it’ll test how I see my own world.
Titles inspire our hearts. Before we even read the marketing blurb expectations are built and we are primed for the story’s journey. Mothers everywhere warn their children of the importance of first impressions in the world; the same is true for stories through their titles.
FOR THE MIND
A good first impression isn’t enough. As people, and even as books, we have to follow it up with good content. Marketing blurbs use the details of a story to convince the reader the journey is worth their time. Our hearts have been hooked but now we must convince our minds of the purchase. Since we spend hard-earned cash or even just hard-earned hours reading a story our minds want reassurance their expectations have a good possibility of being met. The taste a marketing blurb provides contains just enough details for the reader to relate to the circumstances. Many times this closes the deal.
Twenty-four are forced to enter. Only the winner survives.
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by the Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death – televised for all of Panem to see.
Survival is second nature for sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
We learn from the marketing blurb there are literal hunger games, an annual competition held by the government to remind the districts of the horrors of rebellion. The competition is a sort of game played out on a giant chessboard where the contestants are moved around by the gamekeepers through very real dangers and horrible split second survival dilemmas. In a figurative sense, Katniss Everdeen has been playing this game since her dad died. Life in the districts is a competition of survival against poverty and starvation. She moves from one hunger game to another, but will… Fill in your racing questions here!
Marketing blurbs capture our minds. They build anticipation the way titles inspire expectations, and when the fit is right we succumb. It’s what every ounce of our body is telling us to do – read the book.
When All Three Come Together
If the expectations from the title are met readers are content. When the journey takes us to delightful yet unexpected locales our expectations are blown away. The Hunger Games wowed readers because we never expected two of the twenty-four to survive the games. We expected Katniss to make it and wouldn’t be content with the story if that expectation wasn’t met, but we never would have thought a way would be found for Petra as well.
How do we decide to read a book or not? Sure we have bloggers and the internet to tell us what they think and if popularity is all we care about then the book with the highest rating will suffice us. To judge for ourselves though we have the title, cover art and marketing blurb. When they come together just right we have the start of a journey that takes us beyond what we, as readers, can imagine.
The Hunger Games succeeds as a title, arousing expectations both literally and figuratively that were met and exceeded. The cover art drew readers’ eyes and the marketing blurb captured their minds. You really can’t ask much more from a book’s production decisions. In the end, whether a story succeeds or fails lies in the writing, but whether you read it is decided by the cover.
When the first book in a series is so satisfying we expect the books that follow to be equally so. As a series we expected Katniss to change the face of Panem. It’s even hinted at in the marketing blurb above. A title like The Hunger Games clearly dictates success, that there be a winner in the contest. Thus we expect Katniss to win time after time and succeed in her revolution…but didn’t we expect to go places that ended in more than a quasi better government and a quasi happy ending? It’s hard when the final book in a series only barely meets your expectations, but that’s another post.