Ever bought a romance solely because the cover art appealed to you? Kept it for the same reason, even after discovering that the novel itself was a dog? I have. These days I might just go on the net and capture the art from someone selling the book, and keep it in a file. In the pre-Internet days, I would make a “wall” of the books and take photos of all the great covers together, and then get rid of the books. The photos did not come out terribly well, but what else could I do? At the time, I lived in an apartment and could not just keep everything. I also thought it was a crime to strip a book of its cover. Today, I can feel far less guilty since I can recycle the body of the book with mixed paper, and keep the physical cover, which takes up almost no room.
But wait, there’s another option that does not involve violence to a book. Say you adore the painting Flaming June by Frederick, Lord Leighton, one of 19th century England’s celebrated pre-Raphaelites. You could buy an art print, a poster, or possibly some items at a museum gift shop, such as magnets, coasters, paper napkins, bookmarks, calendars, postcards, etc. Once you have, though, you’re usually at a loss as to how to display them, unless you have wall space for the poster. Refrigerators can get full of magnets very fast, and you might not like the art as your computer’s background. The easy answer is to buy a book that uses this art on its cover. We all have plenty of bookshelves, and on them it is easy to display favorite covers face out.
What if the book itself does not please you? No problem. If you go to this cool Web site, Reusable Cover Art, you’ll find not one or two but six books with Flaming June art as the cover or the cover inspiration. You can pick the cover version you like the best and basically ignore the contents, or you can pick the book whose story you like the most. Then all you have to do is find a copy of that book, which is dead easy these days because most bookstores are on the Internet, even bookstores that only sell used books.
Cover art is shared all over the world by large publishers and entities that own the publication rights to original covers. That’s why you’ll see familiar American art on different novels in the worldwide market. The publisher leases the right to that art. Although museums do charge publishers for the use of some high-quality prints, their fees are not as high as those involving hiring live models, arranging for costumes, a photographer, a shoot, and then a cover artist to turn the photo into a painting. Leasing can look pretty simple. Many publishers won’t even bother to do that, because their art directors want to fiddle with the art anyway. Darken it, or lighten it, or saturate a particular tone, crop it, whatever. The classic works by famous artists of many centuries are being used and reused on novel covers. Sometimes they look good. Sometimes, not so much. But you get a choice.
The growing world of ebooks has opened up another variety of cover options. You can buy books that basically don’t have a cover; you’re leasing just text via some electronic reader. Or you can page through an epublisher’s Web site and see covers that have been dummied up by nonprofessionals from commercially available art, or art that is free for use, or that originated somewhere on the spectrum of the more conventional cover sources described above. Despite the wealth of choices, it’s clear from Reusable Cover Art and other cover sites and blog discussions that the people who create book covers like certain pieces of classic art and enjoy reusing them. Truth is, so do we. I wouldn’t mind owning half a dozen romances with Flaming June as the cover, even though I already own a framed poster of this art. It’s just that good.