Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Big Book Cover Post: Part II

I love talking about book covers, and I particularly like it when the blogosphere takes up the discussion in force, since more discussion of the wonderful art and artists who are such an integral part of our field is always a good thing. Since George Mann kicked it off with Marrying Authors to their Market and my response, The Big Book Cover Post: Wizards & Spaceships, there's been a flurry of book design-related activity online.

First, our mutual author David Louis Edelman displays the matching covers for the forthcoming Solaris Books mass market edition of Infoquake and the forthcoming Pyr trade paperback edition of the 2nd book in the series, MultiReal. (Follow the links to David's blog, both to see larger versions of both covers, and to join in the wealth of comments the covers are engendering.)

Then Torque Control chimed in with Cover Art. The post is mostly a pointer to other discussions, but with some very interesting comments in the thread. Most interesting to me is this comment from Gollancz editor Simon Spanton: "Are our SF covers going more abstract? Quite possibly. Are they doing this in order to reach the ‘wider readership’? Well if they are it isn’t going to work as, 99 times out of 100, the books, whatever their cover, are still going to be stocked in the SF section. Are they, instead, merely reflecting a wider trend away from strictly illustrative covers that the rest of the industry has been following of late? Much more likely. I have no illusions about our ability to transform the way that SF books are seen. What I am hoping is that we can alert one-time readers, and occasional readers and regular readers to the fact that SF is not stuck in some sort of time warp. I’m coming to think that the only jobs a genre cover has to (and can) do are to alert the reader to whether it is SF/fantasy/other (that other still retaining elements of the fantastic because, remember, it’s in a genre section) and try and convey some sense of the books quality by, itself, being a high quality design (not necessarily incorporating a high quality traditional illustration)... I think to assume that the traditional fantasy and SF readership are in some way not being catered for within the current movement towards some covers being more ‘designed’ or more ‘abstract’ is danger of assuming that said readers aren’t aware of and comfortable with how design moves on. SF and fantasy fans don’t dress like they did in 1985, the music they listen to isn’t packaged as it was in 1985, the cars they drive don’t look like they did in 1985 (I could go on), so why should their books? And I’m also suspicious that this move towards design and abstraction is something new, something that is leaving the more traditional fans, floundering in its sleek wake. Take a look at SF and Fantasy covers from the late 60s and early 70s and there is plenty of abstraction, modish design and garish colour. Just like there was in every other area of design of the period."

Meanwhile, author Mark Chadbourn has some very long, very interesting responses to George and my posts. In Selling Fantasy by the Pound he draws comparisons to other industries, cautioning that "In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern). The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan - and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry."

I think Mark is confusing my use of the term "core science fiction and fantasy" with the core of the readership when he talks about catering to jaded palates (though, admittedly, he's also drawing from George's essay and George and I, though we share certain views in common, are not saying exactly the same thing.) I would cite something like John Scalzi's trilogy, Old Man's War,The Ghost Brigades,and (my personal favorite) The Last Colony,works which deal brilliantly with all the "core" iconography of science fiction - planetary colonization, galactic federations, cloning, aliens, mind transference, supersoldiers, FTL - and yet are utterly, totally accessible to brand new SF readers. Scalzi's trilogy is absolutely quintessential SF&F, but it by no means is catering to a small, jaded elite. The books are HUGELY successful, with readers young and old (and from what I understand from Adventures in SciFi Publishing, they are even being passed around the Stargate cast and crew.) What's more, their covers, by John Harris, are a perfect example of presenting SF iconography in a mature light. As is, by the way, the cover for Scalzi's novel The Android's Dream,a beautiful cover (and title) which is hardly hiding its genre affiliations.

Mark's post sparked Darren of the Genre Files to return to the topic with with Genre fiction marketing follow-up - Lou Anders and Mark Chadbourn, where he asks, "Can you achieve all those aims at once? Can you write high-quality, literary genre fiction that's successfully marketed to a core audience of fans, yet still has enough break-out potential to escape the genre-ghetto and achieve mass-market sales?" Darren then makes an impassioned plea for "helping the readership to raise its standards; to expect, to want, to demand much more from their genre fiction, and thereby move the mainstream audience closer to the credible, literary end of the spectrum. In other words, expanding the middle ground between 'long tail' and 'short head' (it would help if I had time to draw the graph, I'll try to add one at a later date) and creating greater potential for higher quality fiction to thrive. If the readership demands richer, better quality genre fiction, and the readership then votes with its credit cards and buys more of it, then the publishers of the world will respond by publishing more of it. And I know for a fact that this would make a lot of genre fiction publishers immensely happy. "

In the comments section, the always interesting Andrew Wheeler pops up with this bit of wisdom: "It's a beautiful vision, but...the world of 'literary' fiction is not the mainstream at all. It's a small backwater, which moves fewer units annually in aggregate than the SFF genre (though the big hits are much bigger -- which of course means that the average sales are notably smaller). Trying to 'break out' into literary fiction is an attempt to jump into a smaller pond, merely because they have better press. (Which is reasonable, if what you really want is good press.) The real mainstream in fiction consists of two genres that are so large and important that they're not consistently called genres: romance/women's fiction and the thriller. If writers primarily want to reach very large audiences, they need to find ways to write in those genres. (Which doesn't necessarily mean abandoning SFF: the former has been combined with Fantasy very successfully over the past decade, and technothrillers are the merger of the latter with elements of SF.)"

Blogger S. M. Duke joins in with Cover Designs: Yet Another Take, and this valid reminder: "The sad thing is, I don't generally buy books by the title or the author. In fact, unless a book comes off to me as genre, I probably won't even look at it. That's just the way it is and the way it is for a lot of people. For me, the trend of making books look more mainstream isn't working. I've never read a Neil Gaimen book because of the way they are packaged, and as I'm learning, that is a very horrible thing. I saw the Stardust movie and it was one of the best films of the year--yes, it was that good despite what the stupid box office reported for sales. I should have read the book, and his other novels too, but I never have because the covers never strike me as fantasy. If Ender's Gameby Orson Scott Card had not had this cover, I would have ignored it entirely."

Which is a perfectly accurate representation of a portion of the SF&F readership, as well as being reflective of a lot of comments I frequently hear from fans around these parts.

Elsewhere, Design Unit 38 doesn't like three of our titles' illustrations, (including one that has been a major success with the all important chain buyers) as pointed out in "Cover design and science fiction." At least they offer the concession that "Lou Anders at Pyr has shepherded many good novels onto the racks at Barnes and Noble." I take that and move on.

To where Calico Reaction admits that Michael Moorcock's The Metatemporal Detectiveisn't targeted at her, and adds that "that damn cover kept glaring at me, and I must say, kudos to the artist: he captured Elric (aka Zenith) so perfectly that I could not HELP but visualize that illustration every time I saw the character described in the book."

In the comments thread, Dawtheminstreal adds: "I recently heard TNH and PNH of Tor talking about what leads people to buy books and they both thought the cover art had a big influence. They said the cover sent out mating signals, and the reader responded or not."

Finally, SFFWorld has a very interesting discussion thread going titled "Embarrasssing/Awful cover art." Well worth reading, if for nothing else, the range of opinions expressed. You see some readers coming down in favor of the purely designed covers as typified by something like George R R Martin's fantasies and you see other readers proudly embracing the covers on R A Salvatore's Forgotten Realms novels - which always catch my eye, personally - but which must represent the other end of the spectrum from GRRM.

Which has to be the final word - that, as illustrator John Picacio recently reminded me, no book can be all things to all people. Responding to the "mating signals" comment, John says, "I see that analogy, but that metaphor triggers a deeper thought to me. I see this tendency from book publishers to more and more want covers that send disingenuous mating signals, or more specifically, mating signals that say
'hey, I want everyone to like me' and so you fall in love with the cover, but then you buy the book and read it, and you hate it and you tell your friends because you feel deceived. Haven’t we both bought CDs (pre-Itunes) because we heard a single that was kick-ass and then the rest of the album wasn’t anything like it and sucked? ...Point being, I tend to think that it’s the same with books, and I wonder if the notion that 'as long as the cover sells the book, it’s done it’s job' isn’t a flawed statement. Seems like a very short-view approach, if the mating signal of a cover is viewed as being JUST about selling the book, as opposed to connecting it with its rightful readership. Bottom line: I think the 'mating signal' thing doesn’t replace selling with integrity, and in the end, if you can create a cover with integrity (true to the spirit of the book, etc.) and that can connect it with its rightful audience, then that two-pronged goal is the one to shoot for, in equal harmony, rather than one without the other. Seems to me the publisher builds a better relationship with their audience over the long haul that way. ...Sometimes the real truth is that a book is only going to sell to 'x' number of people, and I think the troubles arise when the sales department says, ‘yeah, but if we put a non-illustrative/more generic cover on this, maybe we can FOOL other readers into buying it.’ I think the audience remembers when it’s deceived and I think the industry serves itself poorly when we do that."


pnh said...

Picacio is quite right: the job of the cover, ideally, is to send "mating signals" to the right readers.

Of course, if there were some systematizable way of doing this, we'd all be rich. In fact everyone in the system has an agenda--authors, publishers, artists, bookstores, readers--and not only can the agendas never be fully reconciled, "what works" is a moving target, changing constantly in response to what worked before. That's culture for you. You can't ever figure it out, and yet you're not exempted from trying.

Anonymous said...

I think John is on the money here. I was a reader long before I was doing covers, and I very clearly remember what I hated - some slick cover taken off a slush pile and applied willy-nilly.

To me INTEGRITY is the key.
And as an illustrator I admit that nothing makes me happier than "having" to read a long Iain Banks novel or Kim Newman collection "as work".

And if I can please the author AND the publisher, I feel that I've done my job.

-lee moyer

Blue Tyson said...

One thing 'design' covers says to some of us is:

'hey, publishers are getting cheap, they've whacked a blurry photo with a font on it, and that is it'. As in, a work experience student with photoshop could do it on their lunch hour.

Even talking about thrillers etc., here, not necessarily SF.

I think the exact opposite when I see Picacio awesomeness, or something like that.

Shara Saunsaucie said...

Whoot! I got a shout-out! :)

I personally prefer the more simple covers of the Martin series to the stereotypical fantasy drawings of the Jordan. I actually refused to buy the Martin books until the new covers were released, but that's just because I'm not a big fan of the art that paints the world and the characters, because in my eye, it all looks the same.

Plus, the more simple covers (Martin and another similar example, Diana Gabaldon, whose OUTLANDER series is historical romance with a little SF splashed in) are less likely to draw unwanted questions when I'm trying to read during my breaks at work. Granted, I don't mind talking about what I'm reading, but not while I'm in the middle of reading it. ;)

RobB said...

thanks for the SFFWorld link, Lou! Is that Resnick cover a forthcoming title for Pyr?

Lou Anders said...

Yup, indeed it is. It's a ways off, but the upcoming season is going to start showing up on Amazon, etc... soon anyway, so I figured there was no harm in a taste of it now. The illustration is by Dan Dos Santos and we're very happy with it.

Shaun Farrell said...

Lou, what are the pros and cons of changing the artwork of a book for different editions, whether Trade Cloth to Trade Paper, or Trade Paper to Mass Market? Maybe I should save this question for season 2 of AISFP. . .

Lou Anders said...

Well, the con is that it costs more obviously, since you have to come up with (and pay for) a new design. While you might make the change to design/layout for the purposes of legibility on the smaller mass-market size (I recall Irene Gallo had a good post on the difference in type on Crystal Rain for the trade cloth and the mass market, didn't she?), generally when a publisher shifts for the second edition its either because they are trying to adjust to the demographic they think the book should be aimed for (as was, I believe the case with Old Man's War, though I liked both covers), or because a chain buyer has requested the switch. What is dangerous, however, is changing the look of a series in progress, unless you plan to reissue the backlist titles with the new look.

Dawid Michalczyk said...

This is a very interesting question: "Are our SF covers going more abstract?".

I have noticed this trend myself. Being an avid SF art fan, and a digital artist, I find this a bit disturbing.

My belief is that the abstraction is a combination of a trend, and a necessity - mainly caused by the increasingly tighter deadlines and ever growing competition.

The use of photographs ran through photoshop filters with added a little bit of painting here and there has become a popular substitute for doing things the traditional way (which requires more creativity, skill, and time).

It is relatively easy to add somewhat cool looking (or at least interesting) abstract elements to a half decent illustration. But most importantly it cuts the development time considerably.

Personally I rarely find the abstract looking covers interesting and much prefer the more traditional SF art look and feel.

karey said...

You mentioned Orson Scott Card's, Ender's Game. I'm a huge fan of his. I can see your point about wanting to pick up the book just because of the cover. Forget the author, forget the content. It's the cover that works initially.

I just read on Rotten Tomatoes that he and Wolfgang Petersen met recently about the screenplay.

I took a workshop from OSC this summer and wrote down a few of the things he said. If you're interested, they're here: