Tor art director Irene Gallo, prompted by a blog post by Pyr publisher Lou Anders, talks a bit about cover art and what “works” and why when it comes to sf/f fantasy books, and notes a point that many people who gripe about covers miss:
… as much as I’d like it to be otherwise, I am not really hired for my personal preferences on cover art, but rather to get books past book buyers. If the books don’t make it into the stores in the first place, readers can’t buy them in the second place.
Which is to say that cover art is explicitly commercial art; it’s designed first to convince shopkeepers that this book will move, and second to convince readers in a glance what the book is about and that it’s worth their time. In a book series there’s a third dimension as well, which is maintaining a consistency in feel across a series. There’s a reason that the cover to Zoe’s Tale is by John Harris and features spaceships: Because every other cover in the OMW series is by John Harris and features spaceships. If there’s a fifth book in the OMW universe, it very likely to have a John Harris cover, and feature, yes, spaceships. The cover to Jay Lake’s Escapement is by Stephan Martiniere and features an airship because the cover to the first book in the series… well, you get the idea.
Would people buy Zoe’s Tale or Escapement without a cover consistent to their series? I like to think they would, but you might lose that sort of single-reflex, automatically-familiar snatch-and-grab motion that this pattern of familiarity (hopefully) engenders. Tor (and the booksellers) want you to be able to recognize on OMW-series book across a crowded bookstore and home in on it like a heat-seeking missile. And for matter, you know, so do I. So I’m glad I like my OMW series covers, and hope nothing bad ever happens to John Harris, as long as I’m writing in that universe.
What’s interesting to me is how the cover dynamic changes, depending on the audience. For example, here are two covers for two different editions of Old Man’s War:
The first is the Tor trade paperback edition. It’s designed to speak to booksellers, as in “Look! John Harris spaceships! John Harris covers are on lots of successful science fiction books! Like Ender’s Game! You sell a lot of Ender’s Game! You’ll sell a lot of this, too! And look! Sci Fi says it’s essential! Essential books must sell! And look! Here’s a quote comparing the author to Heinlein, who, while dead, still sells! Lots! Sell! Sell! Sell!”
Note that I am not mocking Tor for doing this. We did, in fact, sell tons of the trade paperback of OMW, and the cover went a long way in selling to book to the booksellers. This cover did its job, and is a pretty cool cover at that. I’m deeply appreciative to Tor (and to John Harris, and Irene Gallo) for the work.
The second cover is the Subterranean Press limited hardcover edition of OMW. It’s not aimed at booksellers, because most of Subterranean’s business is direct to readers — and not just readers, but collectors, many if not most of whom have read the books they will now buy in this limited edition. This is what this cover says to them: “Hey, remember that time in Old Man’s War where the human soldiers totally squished those inch high aliens with their boots? Yeah, that was cool.” It’s still commercial art; it’s just commercial in another direction, and to another audience. This cover did its job, too, and is also a cool cover. So thanks here to Bill Schafer and artist Vincent Chong.
One of the interesting questions that writers and publishers will face in the presumed ascendency of electronic books, whenever it will happen, is whether “cover art” will survive the translation into an electronic medium. My suspicion is that it will because of its function — it’s advertising for the book. Whether it’s packaged with the text, or part of a Web page promoting the work or whatever, it’ll still be around, as long as it does the job of getting people to take a look at the text inside.