Some Booksluttery, and Cover Art

A good review of Old Man’s War at Bookslut:

The first half of the book could almost be read like a post-Vietnam Starship Troopers, complete with basic training, exotic enemies and first battle fears. But the tone shifts as the plot progresses. As Perry becomes less green (and there’s a pun here that only those who have read the book will get), the story shifts into a spectrum that feels like that of Heinlein’s later years, when he was pondering the meanings of love and family. But Scalzi succeeds where Heinlein failed. Instead of simply becoming one long, lusty fantasy, Scalzi digs to find how our connections influence who we are as well as who we become without them. It’s good, thought-provoking stuff. While not really “stunning,” as the cover tease proclaims, it is a delightful read that kicks the pants off of most of what’s out there.


The reviewer has two quibbles: first with the “Ghost Brigades,” and second with the cover art, which she feels is not entirely representational of the book. I understand the quibble with the Ghost Brigades, because their existence on the surface seems to be in opposition to the rationale for recruiting 75-year-olds back on Earth. However, I do expect to resolve the apparent contradiction (or at least explain it) in The Ghost Brigades, which is the upcoming novel in the OMW universe. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

The cover art is more complicated, and since it had almost nothing to do with me in its concept and execution (just because it’s the cover of my book doesn’t mean I was involved — welcome to being a writer!), I’m happy to talk about it. It’s an interesting topic.

I have to admit that when I first saw it I was not entirely sure about it myself; I liked it, quite a bit (as I’ve made no secret of), and I was glad it wasn’t the typical “military SF” sort of cover, with a stern-looking toughie in space armor shouldering a gun so large that the center of gravity between the two would be two feet in front of the soldier’s body. At the same time, I wasn’t entirely sure if it hit the right tone. But since I myself had no idea what I wanted for the cover, I decided to trust my art director and publisher, like a good newbie author should.

This was a good decision on my part. Cover art isn’t only a nice picture, it’s also explicitly commercial art, with the intent of differentiating one’s book from the thousands of other books in the store, while at the same time not alienating the intended audience for this book: In other words, you want to grab the eye, and then convince someone to pick up the book and read the jacket copy. In this regard, I think OMW’s cover does an excellent job. I’ve described why earlier — the cover retains certain “Space Opera” tropes (lead character, front and center, supporting characters in the back), with a couple of smart features: one, the color scheme of blues and greens, which stands out in a genre that uses a lot of “hot” colors; and two, an older man on the cover, which is also an unusual occurrence (at least, without a glowing staff).

I also think there’s an interesting bit of oppositional psychology going on with the cover: The book’s title and typeface promise WAR in big block letters, but our cover guy isn’t slinging a rifle; he’s standing there looking fairly thoughtful about something (possibly about war). I think this unobtrusively telegraphs to the potential reader that the book isn’t just about the shootin’ and killin’, but may have some other things going on as well (whether it does, of course, is my department. No pressure there). This is where Irene Gallo, as art director, really shines — she’s aimed for a balance between the promise of the title (war!) and what’s suggested by the artwork (thinking!) and I think she’s hit the balance.

So: I agree with the reviewer that the cover art’s not a direct analogue with the content of the book, and that’s an eminently fair criticism. But as a piece of art with an explicitly commercial intent — get people to look at this book — I think it’s doing a pretty good job. Now if we can just get bookstores to shelve it face out, we’d be set.

15 Comments on “Some Booksluttery, and Cover Art”

  1. Unfortunately I still have yet to see a live copy in any local retailers, and I darn near haunt the places.

    That being said, I did like the whole concept of the art, but the main character has a distrubing resemblance to Terrence Stamp.

    Now looking at it, all I can think about is “Priscilla, queen of space”

  2. Seriously…what the hell are you geeks doing up talking about this at 5:00ish in the morning? My excuse is that it’s only 2:30ish in L.A.

  3. If it had been written about something I wrote, “succeeds where Heinlein failed” is a phrase I would remember for a long, long time.


  4. Geez. I only just noticed that the review was live and I’m the one who wrote it. Do you people sleep? ;)

    Glad you found some value in the piece. It’s a great book, and I’m spreading the word as widely as I am able.

    On the cover art, I’m not sure I explained myself well. I can see your (and, by extension, Irene Gallo’s) argument, but I can also honestly admit that it wouldn’t grab my eye if it were sitting on a shelf, face out. Part of that is the color scheme, which seems a bit too subdued. Mostly, for me, it just doesn’t feel like it has a strong-enough center to grab the eye. YMMV.

    Of course, now that Chris Byrne pointed out the Terrence Stamp thing, I won’t be able to look at it without humming a few bars of “Fernando.”

  5. I myself like the subdued color scheme. When I was a kid I didn’t have a lot of options for buying new books, so I picked up a lot of 60s-vintage paperback editions at yard sales and such. My sense of illustration aesthetics was largely formed by staring at those old covers, on which blues and greens and softer colors were more common than in today’s covers. That means that I, personally, tend to be drawn to the more retro-looking art. For whatever that’s worth.

    Also, you could make a point that the retro look kind of suits the main character, since he’s older and would have a correspondingly different aesthetic than the young whippersnapper types. But maybe that’s stretching…

  6. “you could make a point that the retro look kind of suits the main character, since he’s older and would have a correspondingly different aesthetic than the young whippersnapper types. But maybe that’s stretching”

    Well, no, I think the cover esthetic was intentional, both for the age of the character and because the story itself is, as one reviewer put it “old-fashioned” in its presentation. The artwork here wouldn’t be appropriate for, say, Charlie Stross’ books or Cory Doctorow’s, because they are writing in a different style that evokes a different response from the reader than this one does.

  7. I like the blues/greens, but I come from a Fantasy background where those colors are more common. To see the colors with SF book (And a THIN one) was nice.
    I like the art, for art’s sake. I have issue with the trueness to the characters, but that is because I envision John differently because of the [spoilers].

  8. I think perhaps the cover art is more interesting/important to authors & reviewers than it is to consumers.

    Maybe you get the “drive by” purchase with a gripping cover, but given all the (positive) reviews and all the instalinks you’ve received, I’m guessing a large percentage of your consumers went into the store looking for the book, rather than happening on to it. No?

  9. Brian Greenburg asks:

    “I’m guessing a large percentage of your consumers went into the store looking for the book, rather than happening on to it. No?”

    You know, I really don’t know. I have no numbers to back this up, I suspect strongly that we’ve sold about 1,000 or so copies between the people who visit this site and the attention the book has gotten in the blogosphere. But that would still leave 3,000 copies that would have been picked up by others in order to sell out the first printing. So I do suspect the cover was doing its attention getting job with at least some of them.

    I think you’re right that critics pay attention to cover art in a critical fashion, but I don’t know that it’s any less important to people in the bookstore. I know for myself that I will pull a book off a shelf if the cover art looks interesting to me, and then read more about it. I don’t think cover art makes sales per se, but I do suspect that someone who was drawn to the book by the cover art might have then bought the book after reading the jacket copy, the blurbs, and perhaps the first few pages. So I do think it pulls its weight.

  10. I was wondering as I backed through the linked posts, what publishing house commits the atrocities re: covers that you were against them publishing your work? The closest I can think of is baen, but that’s more because I have a firm objection against reflective metallic colours on my books.

  11. It would be impolitic for me to say publicly, and also I don’t wish to imply that the publisher’s books are bad. Just the covers.