Cover This

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.

41 Comments on “Cover This”

  1. To me a cover doesn’t mean much. I go on recommendations of other readers or writers, but that’s just me.

    Though I do like the Limited Edition version and may try to pick that up.

  2. Setting aside my general dislike for reading books on a computer screen, I think the way to go would be to include a large, wallpaper-size version of what would normally be the cover art with each e-copy of a book. That way you get to see the pretty picture on the book you bought, and get a practical decorative use out of it.

  3. It is true that the cover art gives an important first impression dispite the whole ‘book by its cover’ thing.
    The only reason I first picked up OMW at my public library, is because of the wonderful cover of old people in space.
    It intrigued me, and i picked it up, eventually.
    If it had had the ‘fleet of blurry ships near a planet’ cover that the paperback has, I never would have bothered.
    As is, that old man cover has lead me into a world of bizarre interesting characters and unique writing. And the books are pretty good too!

    I loke pretty much all teh international OMW covers youve posted better than what got slapped on teh paperback. But then, I’m only a consumer, I know nothing about what inspires people to buy stuff.

  4. “To me a cover doesn’t mean much. ”

    This probably marks me as terribly shallow, but there are times covers have turned me off books. There are a lot of genre books that are essentially nothing more than markers to the initiated. Too often those covers say “This is the same stuff you’ve read a hundred times.” When I am not in the mood for the same stuff, those covers turn me off.

    I don’t think the converse is true: when I am in the mood for the “same”, I tend to go to books I have already read or pieces from authors I am comfortable with or that have been recommended to me as “like this other stuff you like”.

    What really interests me is the comment that the covers are designed for the buyers. It would be interesting to know if the buyer’s sense of attractive covers maps to the general public’s and to what extent those buyers choices limit cross over appeal of any given genre.

  5. There is something to be said about establishing a brand.

    I personally wouldn’t have given OMW a second look in the bookstore, but that’s because the cover is not aimed at my interests—it is undoubtedly aimed at other interests. The world does not revolve around what I like.

    In the end, what got me (who is outside the intended audience of that cover) were the recommendations.

    To be sure, I often do pick up books whose covers are aimed at my general interests—which is more fantasy than science fiction, with a touch of cyberpunk (which always strikes me as more fantasy than not).

  6. I see parallels with the music industry. Anybody in the neighborhood of 40 years old probably remembers buying an album for no other reason than the album cover was really cool. That doesn’t really happen anymore. And I’ve certainly picked up books in a book store based purely on something about the cover art that grabbed my attention.

    What’s replaced bookstore browsing for me is recommendations from strangers. I see books talked about here, or Cory Doctorow mentions an author I’ve never heard of and I follow the links and either buy a book or at a minimum something I hadn’t heard of 10 minutes previously gets added to the reading list. The new way works better.

  7. How did whoever figure out what kinds of covers sell the most? Just sort of curious how this type of study was made. I’m wondering this mostly because out of the covers that you posted pictures of here, there’s one that instantly tells me “move along, you don’t want that book, no way”, so at least in my case it was a very bad choice for a cover. But I guess I’m just the exception.

  8. The idea that a cover in a series need to perpetuate the series design is certainly common, but not universal. Fine examples of commonality include McCaffery’s Pern, the US editions of Harry Potter, Cherryh’s Foreigner and Chanur series (but her Union/Alliance stuff less so)… but there are some notable exceptions in a place where you’d think it’s critical.

    A couple of relatively recent comic series have broken the mold of constant position of logos, titles, etc. Warren Ellis’ “Planetary” almost went out of its way to make every issue have a completely different cover, almost to the point of obscuring what book it is entirely. Bill Willingham’s “Fables” is more likely to keep its title logo, but it may be fragmented, hidden, repositioned, and changes on a regular basis. Both book are designed around a more mature reader than heroes-in-underpants stuff that most people see as typical comics, but I have to think the editorial staff had some words to say about branding.

  9. It would be interesting to know if the buyer’s sense of attractive covers maps to the general public’s and to what extent those buyers choices limit cross over appeal of any given genre.

    In the OMW case, the cover that’s meant to appeal to the buyers doesn’t appeal to me at all. Spaceships are nifty and all, but… meh. Planet, spaceships, whatever. The other, however, is dark and gritty and clearly painted with awesome. That book I would pick up in a heartbeat. It just looks so badass.

    I’m much the same as you when it comes to book covers, though. While some particularly good ones will inspire me to look at a book I might not have otherwise (I choose most of my reading via recommendations rather than cover browsing.), covers are more likely to make me dismiss a book than not. Y’know, “Oh, hey, people with capes and swords. I’ve read this book a hundred times.” I suspect that authors who are expected to have more crossover appeal get less genre-specific covers.

  10. hmmm…when I first glanced at the Subterranean cover for OMW I thought the boot was a spaceship. Good thing I don’t have a job that requires attention to detail. Wait…oops!

  11. I freely admit that I pay attention to book covers. I’ll flip through the first few pages of a book by an unfamiliar author if the cover’s pretty. And if I’m buying a book by an author I already know (or based on a recommendation I trust), I’m liable to buy a more expensive edition over a cheaper one if I like the cover better.

    I’m just really glad SFF publishers are mostly over the ‘scantily clad, buxom babe with big gun/dragon/horse/etc’ covers these days. I get that covers are a sales tool that aren’t necessarily indicative of the book, but if I feel like I need to cover a TPB before I’m ok being seen with it in public, I’m probably going to just pass on the title altogether.

    The trade-off with e-books is that you don’t get to do cool stuff with texture (matte vs gloss) or foil or any of that, but you get other cool tricks up your sleeve in exchange. I totally dig the desktop wallpaper idea (heck, if the cover of the 1997(?) Orb edition of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress were available as a wallpaper, I’d buy it even without the text attached). I wonder if the reduced printing costs for e-book art will lead to more internal illustrations in the future.

  12. 98% of the time, I base my purchase on past experience of the author, or a trusted recommendation. The remaining 2%, it does often come down to the cover. As with any art, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “bad” cover – just a cover that doesn’t speak to you personally.

    Last month I found myself standing at an airport bookstand, trying to choose between the only two books that remotely interested me. The cover of Stephen King’s “Lisey’s Story” said “Yet another Stephen King book, and you haven’t liked the last four you read.” The cover of Richard Matheson’s re-publication of “I Am Legend” said “OMG WILL SMITH IS TEH BEST!” (They also had three books with High Fantasy covers, which I dismissed immediately.)

    Anyone who pooh-poohs the Amazon Kindle has obviously never had to make that decision.

  13. To be honest, I liked the Donato cover better than either of those – to me, it communicated more of the sense of humor of the book, and Donato’s work is something ADs only invest in for books they think will sell, so it’s part of why I picked up the book in the first place. The John Harris one feels like it could be on any SF book and not be out of place, so I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it amongst the herd. The Chong cover is way too gritty, brown, and depressing for me.

    As an artist, I’d be pretty saddened (and out of a job) if the illustrated cover goes the way of the dodo. A lot of what I enjoy about the F/SF tradition is that there’s a long line of relatively consistent illustration throughout it; chucking that in favor of generic, inoffensively mainstream covers would be terrible. That means as a consumer, ADs ensure I don’t buy a book by putting one of those on it.

  14. Another direction in which artwork may evolve within the realm of e-books is interior illustrations. E-editions eliminate the barrier of the additional cost involved with printing full-color pages on the inside of a book. This opens up all sorts of possibilities in terms of pairing up an author with an artist. Imagine an edition of, say, OMW where there was a John Harris ‘cover’, possibly bundled in as a wallpaper as well (great idea, JH), depicting the classic Harris OMW cover: nicely expressive spaceship. Additionally there could also be full-color illustrated chapter breaks by Vincent Chong, depicting actual scenes in the novel.

    The possibilites are endless: Maybe you could have many detailed maps of different lands for a fantasy book, as opposed to the customary front-of-book, black and white spread. Or how about schematics for spaceships, if the author so desired. The degree to which an author could bring their worldbuilding into the book itself, as opposed to online addendums and such grows immensely as the methods to put more and varied information right in the book become available and accessible.

    Additionally, depending on the format that you use for the e-book, there are multimedia options to consider. For example, I’ve previously mentioned on here my preference for PDF as a format for e-books. Did you know that you can embed not only hyperlinks, but actual multimedia content into a PDF? Many authors write to music, or include lyrics to songs in their text, be it music by other people, or songs they’ve written that tie directly into their narrative. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could play the actual piece of music being referenced directly from within the book (licensing issues aside, of course)?

    Right now, the e-book is in diapers, so to speak, and what we see with the format is mostly either a re-purposing of the layout for the printed book, or simply straight text. It would be interesting to take an existing book, and lay it out from scratch, thinking exclusively of an e-book format. Hmmm, I may have just found myself a side-project. . . .

  15. For what it’s worth, one of my favourite examples of consistent cover art is the Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser. There were twelve Flashman books; they were published between 1969 and 2005. The artist Barbosa did the covers for eleven of these books, giving them a good sense of cover-continuity. The only reason he didn’t do the twelfth was that he died before it was written.

  16. Book covers are an area that fascinates me. Partially as a legacy of the time when I worked at a large charity shop with a high volume of donated books coming through the doors every *day*. Because we had room for it, (15+ metres of shelving), we shelved stuff by subject (for non-fiction) and genre (for fiction). Did I carefully study and evaluate where each book should go? Hell no, I judged it by its cover.

    It was, I must say, a very educational period of life. And among other things, I learnt that a book which has a misleading genre cover is far, far worse than a book which has a less than stellar but accurate genre cover.

    You make an interesting observation about continuity of trade dress throughout a series. I’ve also observed something of the opposite happening. Which is to say, a publisher will put out a new book in a series, with entirely new trade dress – and reissue the previous books in the series with new covers to fit in. At least, that happens a fair bit here in the UK, I don’t know if the same is true for the US market.

    The worst book covers I’ve ever seen were a series of Penguin releases, with blank covers so you could draw your own. A terrible idea if I ever heard one.

  17. John,

    What was behind the decision to base the series art off the paperback OMW cover instead of the original hardback cover art?

    I’ll admit that I loved the original art because it communicated this is new and original to me while the paperback cover art just said this is typical space opera.

    Hmmmm… given that, perhaps I’ve answered my own question if a book buyer assumes that more of the same sells better than new, original, and thus riskier. (Serial commas forever!)

  18. As everyone already stated here I also do not buy books based on covers. My purchases come from the recommendations of friends, authors that I follow, and the occasional random purchase.
    *BUT* I do enjoy cover artwork that portrays a scene from the story I am reading. I have often found the passage in the story I am reading and refer to the cover art.
    In a nutshell if Zoe’s Tale had the cover art of a Yak wearing a Hawaiian Mumu I would still read it. :)

  19. Okay, I’ve been dying for someone who actually chooses covers to ask me about covers, and while you’re not really doing this, someone who does choose covers might be reading this, so I’m going to post it anyway. Plus if you agree, you could blog about it! What I wonder is if the people who choose the covers EVER go into a library? Libraries put barcodes over the top right corner of books. Libraries put call # over the lower portion of the spine. If it’s YA or MG they often stick another sticker half way up the spine to identify it. If you put the name of the book or the name of the author in ANY of these places, it is almost impossible for the library browser to see who wrote the book and what it’s called. If you put the blurb by the famous author along the top of the book, we will see part of the blurb and NONE of who said it. Okay…that’s my rant. I just had to get it off my chest!

  20. There is something to be said about a well-crafted cover design moving through a series of books. My current favorite cover progression is the four books in the Scott Westerfield Uglies trilogy. (grin) After ConFusion in January, I bought the boxed trade paperback trilogy set, plus the hardcover of Extras and they work very well as an identifiable integrated set. Oh, and a great read, too. Second place is the, for some of us anyway, canonical Ballentine paperback art for The Lord of the Rings boxed set.

    It’s that vision-thing applied to commercial art.

    Dr. Phil

  21. Complaints about covers not being true to the book usually come from people who have never had to try and sell one to an uncaring audience.

    That said: that second cover for OMW sells it better to me than the first. I acknowledge, however, that I am not the target market. I don’t seek out science fiction novels, and images of space ships don’t grab me.

    But giant boot-squishing robots? Oh yeah. I would read that one.

  22. Personally I prefer the collectors edition covers for OMW and GB…however it wasn’t the cover that brought me to the series in the first place.

    Agent to the Stars which I read online after it was pointed out to be by Orson Scott Cards column made me pick up OMW in a “Crap that was good, whatelse has the guy written” moment…”oh that book I keep staring at, at the bookstore, but keep forgetting to buy”..I apologize for that now, I hope the constant collectors edition purchases since make up for that.

    On the subject of covers, I loved Rothfuss “Name of the Wind” but nearly didn’t pick it up because of the bodice ripper cover. However a great review changed that opinion, I ended up buying the book with both 1st edition covers, and how have the 5th edition (new cover that will better match the rest of series) on order. I’m an addict, I need help!

  23. “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.”

    Ya gotta click on something. Might as well be pretty.

  24. When the title is vague enough the cover art can make a difference in letting you know what this book is about.
    Were it not for the planet and space ships art you could mistake Old Man’s War for the retirement memoirs of a French Legion officer.
    The Android’s Dream is more obviously scifi on the title alone.

  25. The funny thing is, I’ve got a different cover for OMW. This cover

    I recognize the artist’s style. He’s done good work for Mike Resnick.

    Also, apropos the Stross book mentioned upthread, which you can’t see the cover on the ARC (Did I mention that MY ARCs frequently come with cover flats included? Actually yours probably do too, but if they don’t, neener neener)

    Rose Fox blogs about it here.

    Um, yeah. It’s… lurid.

  26. I agree with the poster who suggested ebooks releasing wallpapers as covers. Actually, I wish that was being done with my favourite print books now as some cover art is quite beautiful.

    And I will freely admit to judging a book by its cover. I’m a big science fiction and fantasy reader, but any sci-fi with the typical space ship cover instantly turns me off. As does any fantasy cover with dragons or the 80’s-90’s “mulleted and muscle-bound” Borris Vallejo type art.

    I picked up Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart because the cover caught my eye, and glad I did, because it became one of my favourite novels.

  27. Frankly, I liked the original (first edition) cover the best. It was striking enough to get me to pick up the book, read the blurb, and most importantly BUY the book in hardback. To buy a book by a writer whom one hadn’t previously read takes a fairly large cognitive shift (or a surfeit of money) and a striking cover really helps.

    Few hardback books have had that effect on me. Most recently it was Kay Kenyon’s Bright of the Sky and that too was graced by a striking cover.

  28. GJN:

    I like the original cover as well, evidenced by the fact I paid stupid amounts of money for the actual artwork. Worth it, though. You only have your first novel cover once.

  29. John:
    I think it was a terrific idea for you to buy it. Years from now, you’ll never regret that you paid a lot for it; you’ll just be delighted that you did. Have you considered getting the original art work for all your first editions?

  30. GJN:

    Well, in the case of several of them, no “original” exists — they were made on computer. And someone else already owns the cover to “The Ghost Brigades” at least. Also, well, it’s an expensive hobby. I don’t know how long I could keep up with it.

  31. For my nickel, the only one of those covers you posted above that looks at all interesting to me is the Harry Harrison one.

  32. “Would people buy Zoe’s Tale or Escapement without a cover consistent to their series? I like to think they would,”

    Yes, but I would bitch and moan the whole time. It was the John Harris cover, a favorite, that caused me to pick up a book by the then unknown-by-me author John Scalzi and fall in love with the series. When I saw the release for the cover image for Zoe’s Tale I got a HUGE smile on my face. More Harris!!!

    “As everyone already stated here I also do not buy books based on covers” Allow me to be one then who does exactly the opposite. Unless I know an author and am buying their book based on the fact that I liked their previous offering(s) I buy books all the time based solely on cover art. I have always been a fan of book cover illustration and I could type a looooong list of authors who I may not have discovered, or certainly wouldn’t have until much later, if the cover art of the book had not reeled me in and said “take me home”.

    I realize each person has their own tastes in cover art and that is good. For my money the Harris covers on your books are far and away the best and also some of Harris’ best work. Again, that is my opinion. I also think Martiniere is one of the premiere cover illustrators working today. I never see a Martiniere cover without wanting to take it home. And more often than not I do.

  33. Carl V @35: I also think Martiniere is one of the premiere cover illustrators working today. I never see a Martiniere cover without wanting to take it home. And more often than not I do.

    Ditto to that. Though I don’t usually buy books based solely on the cover (I usually feel the need to at least read the DJ flap copy to close the deal), it is often a strong selling point, particularly with authors I haven’t read.

    I bought Jay Lake’s Mainspring largely for the Martiniere cover — I hadn’t read anything by Jay Lake before, and probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. While I liked Jay’s writing style well enough, I really don’t think that the “Clockpunk” subgenre is my cup of tea. That said, I’ll likely buy Escapement (the sequel to Mainspring) when it comes out, because of the Martiniere cover.

  34. Unless it is an author who I’ve read before, and like, I always buy a book because of its cover. If the cover doesn’t call attention to the book, I don’t “see” the book and therefore don’t buy it. The only exception is when someone specifically recommends a book to me personally. And like Carl V. and hugh57, a Martiniere cover is instantly recognizable, and “I never see a Martiniere cover without wanting to take it home.” So I do take it home. Another artist I feel exactly like Martiniere about is John Picacio – in fact, I just received his newest released cover, “Critical Viewpoints,” on 2-day delivery from Amazon.

    Covers sell books!

  35. I liked the OMW cover from the hardcover release. Why did it change for the paperback? What drives these changes between editions from the marketing perspective?

  36. In a book series there’s a third dimension as well, which is maintaining a consistency in feel across a series.

    Thank you for this. I love having series of books on the shelf that all match, and it annoys me probably more than it should when this does not happen. The change in covers for A Song of Ice and Fire upon the release of the fourth book pissed me off, since nothing is going to match my copies of the first three now.

    I’m not sure the John Harris spaceships match the story especially well, but they look ok.

  37. As an artist myself, cover art has a huge influence on me. It may not make or keep me from purchasing a book, but it does affect my immediate reaction to the book. For instance, there is a Michael Stackpole book that has a cover that might best be described as “bad romance”— we read the book, but we use a portable cover to put over it.

    I will say, though, that certain artists will get the nod from me more often than not. I will buy just about anything with a Michael Whelan cover because, for some reason, the publishers who use him have taste that is similar to mine. But Darrell K. Sweet is a total toss-up, which is hardly surprising as the man churns out covers like mad.

    From a sheer artistic standpoint, I like Whelan, Yvonne Gilbert, John Jude Palencar, and Jody Lee. Artists such as Stephen Youll are technically good but I’m not too fond of the unrealistic, sometimes gravity-defying outfits that never show wear.* And any time I see cover art that I like I’ll pick up the book and check to see who the artist is… and sure, I’ll read the back.

    If the cover art is horrible, I’ll check the publisher. Baen gets a lot of leeway. :D

    *For the past three years I have been working with high school photography. It takes approximately twenty minutes in a car for a modern, high-quality outfit to show wrinkles and/or spots. Somehow, I’m skeptical that fighting, say, a dragon is going to be less hard on clothes.

  38. I believe the type of art is designed for the sellers…the stereo-typical types who probably wouldn’t read it themselves but are responsible for getting it to the shelves.

    I enjoy great cover art and there are some fantastic cover artists out there. Martiniere is great, so is Nicolas Bouvier (Sparth) and David Levy (Vyle) There are more…

    It would be nice to see an alternate version release with each; one that the sellers need to see and one that the fans would much more enjoy. (Not that the sellers version would be bad, just different I’m sure.)

    I am a fan of great stories…and great scifi/fantasy art. I believe you can tell an entire book’s worth of text with just one incredible cover art piece.

    I do like the idea of a poster-release with the book too.

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