Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

I love judging books by their covers. I will look at a cover and just judge the shit out of it. “Boob armor,” I’ll scoff, and toss the book contemptuously away. “That dragon looks like a lobster.” Gone.

Is this an effective method? Not really, but I count on the internet to keep badgering me about the shittily-covered books that are really great. This is why we invented the internet, right?

When I first saw my own cover (check it out here), however, I started feeling a little less blasé. Fortunately, I love it, but it got me thinking about the role of covers and the messages they carry. Never one to pass up a little side-by-side comparison, I decided to take a look at the old cover (OC) and new cover (NC) of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.

The Original Cover

The Original Cover

First, the stats:

Weaponry

OC: Three swords, one axe, and a helmet. Don’t tell me that helmet’s not a weapon.

NC: A piercing blue stare.

Elements of Vague Menace:

OC: Night, dead trees, agitated horse.

NC: Weather, possibly inclement.

Possible Magical Shit:

The New Cover

The New Cover

OC: One staff, elegantly carved.

NC: Something gleaming yet indeterminate in the middle distance. (I know this is the tower of Genji, rabid Jordan fans, but I wouldn’t if I was looking at the book for the first time.)

Serious and Immediate Threats:

OC: An airborne, malevolent, human-stalking bat creature.

NC: Falling off the mast?

Coed Fellowship of Like-Minded Heroes:

OC: Eight strong.

NC: Conspicuously lacking.

Clothing:

OC: Armor, gown, jerkins, capes.

NC: Lush, billowy shirt. Immaculately laundered.

Phallic Imagery:

OC: Minimal.

NC: To the max.

Based on the new cover, someone unfamiliar with the novel might reasonably expect a coming-of-age tale about a young man with impeccable laundry service, who goes to sea, then secretly pines for the love he left behind, yearning for the day when they will be reunited. Not a lot, in other words, about trollocs slaughtering villagers, or the impending destruction of all creation.

And it doesn’t matter! The new cover doesn’t need to convey anything about the actual substance of the book because The Wheel of Time has been around for decades. The book has been vetted. The role of the cover art now is not to convince the hard-core fantasy fans to read it, because the book, even if you hate it, is already an inevitable part of the fantasy canon.

So what’s this new cover doing? Two things. First, trying to broaden the appeal of the book beyond fantasy’s traditional readership. I know heaps of people who look down on or sideways at fantasy, people who are always starting sentences, “The thing most readers don’t understand about Proust is…”, people who would hesitate to so much as glance at the old cover. Too many swords, too much horseflesh.

The new look, though – Oho! Who’s this strapping young man striking the type of implausible pose usually reserved for models from clothing catalogues? Who does his laundry? Is he pining for his lost love? And that sky! Evocative of someone famous… maybe Turner?

Which brings me to the second goal of the new cover: dressing up the book. This is related to point one, but transcends it. If the old cover says, “Hey, I’m sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time,” this new cover is all buttoned up. This is the kind of book you could read in front of your in-laws. Or in church. If you read in church. Which you probably shouldn’t.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. The folks at Tor have their own explanation, which, given that they’re the ones who commissioned the new look, might have a slight edge over mine. The thing I’m curious about, though, is this: If you knew nothing about the book, which cover would prove more enticing?

19 thoughts on “Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

  1. My first thought when I first saw the two covers was I’d go for the OC of course, but on closer look, the NC seems full of mystery (mostly the state of the weather and the look in his eyes). I ‘d be curious to know why- is he lost at sea? Is something going to fall out from the sky and cause him harm? So my second thought is leaning toward the NC.
    And your own cover looks great! I’m rather concerned about the man behind with a mask…

  2. I think the new cover looks like a romance and would pass it up without a second look. I want to read the book with the old cover. I am not familiar with this book but I am biased against romance novels…

  3. For years I have hated the original cover (that artist was never my favorite; he had weird proportion issues all over the place that just drove me BATTY) so the new one is an improvement. With the new one, I also get the feeling of an old-style adventure novel, like Treasure Island or Captains Courageous. I’d pick up the new one before I chose the original, if I was presented with the two at once.

    • And another problem with the OC (which I actually like) is that Lan looks nothing like the way he’s described in the book. The samurai helmet is cool, but he’s not wearing a helmet. No shifting warder cloak. Two swords, not one. Etc. That said, I think he looks cool, just wrong. On the NC, on the other hand, Rand looks pretty plausibly like Rand…

  4. I’ve talked about Jordan’s covers pretty extensively on my own blog. I really dislike the old covers, for the most part, but I have to admit that they have their appeal. They are colorful, and they definitely proclaim what they are about—that “sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time” message that you mentioned. A few of them are pretty good (Path of Daggers, maybe The Dragon Reborn and The Eye of the World), at least on par with most fantasy novel covers, but most of them are awful in many ways. I could go off on that, but I’ll forbear.

    On the other hand, I really like the new ebook covers—for the most part. I’m not fond of the covers for Eye of the World or The Dragon Reborn. They’re blandly colored and make me feel like they’re going to be full of much angst and people thinking about boring things. But the covers for Knife of Dreams, Towers of Midnight, and Fires of Heaven are, in a word, awesome.

    So to answer your question, for The Eye of the World, I would choose the original cover. Same with Dragon Reborn and Path of Daggers. For the rest, I would probably choose the new covers.

    • I do think it’s pretty cool that Tor got a different artist for each new cover; I appreciate the variety of approaches. I’m headed over to your blog now to check out what you’ve got to say on the covers…

  5. Speaking of images affecting potential readers, is that a pic of the Patagonian Andes on your blog masthead? As a climber who enjoys drooling over pics of gorgeous mountain scenery, I am now 1000x more likely to a) revisit your blog, and b) buy your book.

    On the WoT covers…it would depend on what mood I was in. If I were hankering for old-school epic fantasy, cover #1 would win hands down. (Even though I am not at all a fan of Darrell K. Sweet’s art.) If I were in the mood for some kind of Patrick O’Brian-style sea epic, I might pick up #2 (warily, as the cover definitely has a romance vibe and I’m not much of a romance reader)…and then be quite startled by the mismatch of expectations.

    • That is, indeed, a photo from Patagonia — taken by a good friend. I don’t do as much climbing these days (shifted over to adventure racing), but there was a time when I climbed quite a bit, and, like you, I still pore over the climbing mags and glossy photos. Just ordered a fingerboard the other day, actually, on the off chance that I’m able to get to the southwest this fall or spring. Thanks for the comment — I’ll let my buddy know you liked his photo!

      • Adventure racing, eh? I’ve had several friends get sucked into that. (I haven’t because I don’t run. My joints get pounded enough in mogul skiing and figure skating that I don’t want any more wear and tear. I know adventure racing is an endurance sport, but usually there seems to be trail running involved.) Anyway, always cool to see another climbing SFF author! Hope that fingerboard comes in handy. And definitely give your buddy a high five for the photo. I haven’t been to Patagonia yet, but it’s top of the list for my husband and I the moment our son grows old enough for serious climbing & trekking.

      • Those mountains look great. I like the way, too, that the lettering “On The Writing Of Epic Fantasy” is annoyingly illegible against the white background but then clears up when you start to scroll down.
        I vote for the old Robert Jordan cover. I remember staring at it when I read the book, I just like that style of artwork.

        • And then there was more art inside the flap of the original EotW — the party headed through some town. That book wasn’t originally released in hardcover, but they gave us the two-fer on the cover art…

    • There’s definitely something to be said for the cover you first encountered. The first EotW cover is almost synonymous with fantasy for me, just because of the time when I first encountered it…

  6. Oh dear. Not sure I would go after either book. The old cover is a touch too old for my liking. The new cover… almost feels like romance >__> With a gun to my head, I’d probably pick the old one.

    Your book cover looks GREAT, by the way!

  7. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

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