Friday, October 19, 2007

The Big Book Cover Post: Wizards & Spaceships

My good buddy George Mann, consultant editor of newish imprint Solaris Books, recently wrote an article for UK book trade magazine Publishing News on the packaging and branding of SF&F novels. Now, George has put the entire article, "Marrying Authors to their Market: A Genre Perspective," up on the Solaris website. The article is well-worth reading.

Therein, George makes the distinction between two schools of thought in cover design, namely "to package your SF/F novel to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, in the hope of enticing readers from other areas of the bookstore to pick it up on a whim; or to package your SF/F novel to appeal to the perceived core readership of the genre, or indeed, fans of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, people who want a book with a spaceship or a wizard on the front of it."

George goes on to discuss the risks associated with both camps. In trying for the broader market, one risks missing the mark, ending up with a book still shelved in the SF&F section, failing to hit the elusive "mainstream" reader AND failing to appeal to the core as well. In marketing for the core, the novel "is appealing to a much more limited readership and has little or no chance of transcending the genre and breaking out into the bestseller lists."

He states that from its inception Solaris decided "for better or for worse – to place ourselves directly in that second camp." This was done both because their parent company - Games Workshop - had eight years experience marketing directly to a niche audience with their Black Library imprint of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 titles. But also because of a perceived market niche not being serviced: "Essentially, at the heart of the genre, the midlist was disappearing. The result of this was that the core SF/F readership was not being as well served as it had been in the past; people who went into a high street bookshop to browse the SF/F section were not necessarily seeing those aforementioned books with wizards and spaceships on the front."

George's sentiments are very close to my own thoughts and ongoing decisions for the Pyr imprint. In setting up the imprint to begin with, we made the decision to go for books which Norman Spinrad, writing in the pages of Asimov's, once described as "science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in." Although there are exceptions to the rule, we have largely forgone literary experimentation or watered-down "mainstreamed" SF&F for (to quote Norman again) "actual science fiction...and fantasy...of an overall higher literary quality."

And this is reflected in how we've chosen to package it.

Personally, I do not not not like the move away from illustration to design that I see coming out from a lot of houses (though it has its place for individual books - I'm talking about a general trend). I think to forgo illustration is to sacrifice one of the core strengths of SF&F and one of its unique selling points. I do, however, think you can have cake and eat too. There is a world of difference between what Tor art director Irene Gallo has done with John Scalzi's Old Man's Warcovers - which do indeed feature spaceships and planets, albeit beautifully rendered in John Harris' very "painterly" style - and the sort of archetypal cheesy metal bikini and Bug Eyed Monster cover that is sometimes associated with the worst of genre illustration. Both styles of cover prominently feature the central SF&F imagery, but one does so with taste and the other, not so much. What's more - I'm not married to the core imagery so much as I am to the idea of provocative illustration. I also really like the way Bantam here has packaged Lightand Nova Swing- cats and dice, cats and cards - doesn't necessarily say SF to me at, but they do say cool. I'm intrigued by the image. Those are nice looking books and I enjoy looking at them. And, hey, if I'm going to shell out $25 for a hardcover, I want more than the author's name in enormous type with a stylized sword or an embossed fleur-de-lis or some other squiggle of design.

I am not talking about creating a book that appeals to both genre and mainstream people in the crossover way George suggest. I am talking about creating a book cover that appeals to genre fans, fully celebrates genre elements, but does so with some artistic merit to it. I think both John Picacio and Stephan Martiniere (to name two of my favorite artists) fully embrace those aspects of genre fiction that embody sense of wonder, yet present them in a way that also qualified as art. (As does the latest illustrator to work with Pyr, Sparth, pictured right.) Which is how I think you reach, not the never-read it, never-will uninitiated, but what Gollancz editor Simon Spanton once defined as the "lapsed catholics" of science fiction - those who read more as children and now read maybe one book a year, generally by an author they know. These readers have grown up - show them their fiction has grown up with them. I think what makes a success like John Scalzi or Richard Morgan is not going after mainstream readers, but going after the whole field, from the core to the fringes, and that you do so, neither by hiding/omitting your genre elements nor presenting them in an off-putting, garish manor, but by presenting them in a mature, intriguing, attractive, inclusive, compelling 21st century light.

George and I were talking all this over with the aforementioned John Picacio, and this is what he had to say (and kindly consented to allow me to republish here): "The field must visually celebrate itself, rather than run away from itself. Couldn’t agree with you [George] more. And I realize the context in which you’re saying this, regarding the midlist specifically. When sf/fantasy publishing shows an insecurity about its visual strengths, that insecurity rubs off negatively not only on our audiences, but in the broader media, and we push ourselves backwards every time we do that. How often do we hear sf/fantasy film actors make apologies for the 'sf-ness' of a film or TV show, or say that 'if it didn’t label itself as sf, more people would check it out'? Complete bullshit. But when I hear comments like that, I think that attitude reflects two important things. It’s bad because those comments get doled out via the larger media and that attitude gets disseminated to the larger populace as a popular opinion, which is damaging, but more importantly I think it reflects how poorly the field sees itself at times, and by 'the field' I mean us over here in publishing as the root of that problem. My point is, the field can’t expect larger audiences and bigger sales numbers, unless it stops being insecure about itself and stops projecting visual insecurity via cliched design decisions that hide the gusto, spirit, invention and provocativeness of a book. I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s real simple — the book is God. It’ll tell you what it wants to be every single time."

Well said. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to see that over at The Genre Files, "Ariel" has managed to tie George's philosophy in with Wired-magazine main man Chris Anderson's brilliant The Long Tail, when he writes (emphasis mine): "In this Internet-enabled information age, data on the variety and wide availability of a range of products in a given product area is - for practical purposes - both limitless and free. From the point of view of the Long Tail audience for a particular product, the most pressing task is therefore to filter that vast flood of data in order to select the products that offer the best fit for the customer's needs. In short: they need to boost the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where they can reach an informed purchasing decision. Similarly, from the point of view of the producer, the trick is to somehow rise above the vast sea of info-noise; to make their product stand out and be noticed, yet to do so in a manner that emphasises its authentic appeal to the potential customer."

To make your product stand out and be noticed. Get above the signal-to-noise ration. That means let your SF&F light shine - not hide it under a bushel! Hey, what's a bushel anyway?

17 comments:

Praetorian1001 said...

Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit down at the kitchen table with a newspaper in your hands, and say, "Well, another day of making SF history. I wonder what's in the sports section."?

I just got a chill down my spine looking at those beautiful books.

Damn fine job.

Sincerely,
John-Mark

Lou Anders said...

Ha. Thank you.
I should point out books 1 -3 are Solaris books. They become Pyr books with Fast Forward 1, when I shift from talking about George's sentiments to explaining my own. The Pyr covers are by John Picacio, Stephan Martiniere, Sparth, Picacio, and Martiniere respectively.

Christian Berntsen said...

I wasn't sure it was possible, but I think the cover for A World Too Near is even more beautiful than the one for Brightness of the Sky (which I was reading, but then got seduced by The Blade Itself in the form of the sample chapters you handed to me back at BookExpo... and curse you for importing such an awesome fantasy, which I will now have to pick up. My only consolation was that the second and third books will be coming within the next year and there would be no King Dark Tower style waiting on them. And now the cover for the Kenyon's second part of The Entire and the Rose, I will have to get back to the first book soon). While I don't fall for every cover that comes from Pyr, you certainly raise the bar all around.

Aaron Hughes said...

Great post, Lou. You picked up on just the concept I thought George Mann's article left out, that for SF covers to appeal to core SF readers they shouldn't be the same old rockets and dragons, but need a look that is a bit different and intriguing.

Case in point: I had no desire to read Theodore Judson's first novel when it came out, but your cover for his new one instantly caught my interest. That's what eye-popping cover art (and a better title) can do for you.

Paul Cornell said...

This is probably the most interesting subject of SF conversation for me: how and where it appeals to what audiences. By the way, the Ariel you quote is male.

Joe Abercrombie said...

I fully concur with your sentiments. I think in the rush to discuss the dimension of unapologetically genre vs. trying to appeal to a wider audience, the dimension of simply good vs. rubbish is often forgotten. I don't know that the wider audience (and particularly Simon's lapsed catholics) are necessarily put off by genre covers, but they certainly are put off by REALLY BAD covers. Martiniere's covers, for Multireal, and for, say, Abraham's Long Price Quartet, demonstrate that something certainly can be unapologetically sf/fantasy and still look bloody good by any definition. I can't see anyone anywhere being ashamed of whacking one of those out in public...

Interesting that the covers for my own books seem to take the opposite approach, though, being very far from classic fantasy covers, really. I like them a lot, and I've never heard anything but a good response to them from readers (the only aspect that ALWAYS gets praise), but I'd be interested to hear what your thinking was in going with the original covers, more or less, when the approach is very different to the one you guys usually take, and the one you seem to be espousing here...

Lou Anders said...

Christian, Aaron: Thanks for the comments. Christian - I hope you will believe me when I say A World Too Near lives up to its packaging. Aaron - you might be missing out skipping Fitzpatrick's War. I can't say for sure - it is very hard for me to read beyond my own submissions, but when it came out, I read the first chapter, LOVED what I saw, and gave the book to my brother to read it in my stead. My good impression there probably favorably disposed me towards Judson's submission when it came in. As for The Martian General's Daughter - well, wow.

Paul - next you'll be telling me Ariel doesn't have a tail and live under da sea. Ok, I'll amend.

Joe - this was actually a very tough call. I think the covers are beautiful, but that they play better in person than they do as thumbnails online - a lot of their appeal relying on the (expensively) textured paper stock that mimics the feel of old parchment. Also, I think that there is a (large) segment of the American fantasy readership that really likes illustrated covers (as Andrew Wheeler has said on many occasions) who are not served by this cover. In fact, I have had several readers - not friends - tell me they wouldn't have bought the book based on the cover (over here) had it not been for the good things they'd already heard about it. However, "the good things they've already heard about it" is a pretty strong factor in this case - as the internet buzz on The Blade Itself is just colossal. Hence, when we took the book on, I didn't want to lose that nanosecond of instant recognition that someone walking rapidly down the aisle at the bookstore would get when they saw the cover flash in front of their eyes and associated it (consciously or unconsciously) with the scores of websites where they'd seen the thumbnail. Had the same incredible story somehow failed to garner the attention on our side of the pond that it got, such that I didn't have this good buzz to build on and had to establish you over here from scratch, I would have recovered with a more traditional fantasy cover. And that would probably be my approach in importing other UK or Australian fantasy series that didn't have prior buzz in the US.

That being said - your comments about "really bad covers" are spot on, and hopefully we'd do so in a mature, inclusive manner. Case in point - has everyone seen Stephan Martiniere's cover for Michael Swanwick's forthcoming The Dragons of Babel? Now there's a fantasy cover!

Joe Abercrombie said...

Good answer. And it's an interesting point you make about word of mouth and recognisable branding. Perhaps sometimes it's better to stand out from the shelf with something very different, even if slightly alien? Ah - that weird looking book is that one I read about...

Lou Anders said...

Picacio and I have dialogued a few times about Chuck Palahniuk's Rant, which catches my eye every time I'm in a bookstore. That being said, we could apply your own recent words about stylistic innovation in narrative here and say what works is something that takes the recognizable tropes and represents them in an intriguing, subversive, or reinterpretive light, not something that strays off the map altogether into completely alien territory and is thus unrecognizable as part of the category it ostensibly belongs too.

Joe Abercrombie said...

I would never presume to disagree with myself. Though for some reason it sounds a lot more authoritative coming from you...

Lou Anders said...

As well it should.

Meanwhile, I should mention Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek: An Afterword as another book whose cover is compelling in the way I mean without actually containing any genre icons. A typewriter sprouting mushrooms - it's fantastical and compelling and has all the right William Burroughs connotations, but isn't overly genre.

Blue Tyson said...

I have the Blade book sitting next to the couch at the moment.

Things it suggests to me, off the top of my head:

1) If this is a fantasy, it might just appeal to someone not female.

2) Hints of old fashioned adventure a la Sabatini or Stephenson or Dumas (when coupled with the title).


No idea if that is what you were trying to do, but anyway.

Articulating what you are trying to publish like that works for me. Think I worked out I have read around 50% of what you have published, some of which was before you ever got to it, so maybe cheating. :) Some sort of taste overlap there though.

The cover for Bright Of the Sky for example says 'Hyperion' to me, which is a classy association.

Interesting you mention Gollancz, here at least, used to be recognized by having the same cover on all their hardbacks. They were all yellow, with print and publisher log info. Whether they had them in the USA, dunno and this was some years ago though.

Whereas the Nova Swing cover you metnion to me, if I had no idea who the author was would mean 'girly mystery book, very light.'

Paul Di Filippo said...

I think there are a lot of underutilized "lowbrow" artists who could deliver some great and striking covers for genre books, and bring a different sensibility to the table. The JUXTAPOZ crowd. That's why I was proud to have a Todd Schorr cover on my FUZZY DICE.

Lou Anders said...

Now that they are not doing them anymore, I feel safe saying that I really disliked those Yellow covers and actually didn't buy one book I really wanted cause I couldn't bear the site of it. I have great regard for Gollancz though, and near-identical tastes to Simon Spanton in particular, from what I can tell.

Paul - that Todd Schorr is very nice!

Tomas L. Martin said...

I love both companies artworks, to be honest but I've been impressed with a lot of recent Pyr covers. they contains loads of interesting objects to draw the eye without committing the cardinal sin of artwork - being gaudy/cheesy. I love the way a lot of Pyr titles look more like cyberpunk films like Minority report and Blade Runner than the standard 'hero/heroine with a gun poses or flashes of action interposed with headshots from actor's portfolios' that a lot of titles resort too. Pyr's artwork is so much more dynamic than the typical static covers that look like poorly designed portraits. The key is showing action. It reminds me a lot of the game and book covers that the art department at tabletop wargame company Games Workshop uses - lots of little set pieces going on behind the main action that hint at a bigger, more exciting world, not just the main character. I think some of the mid-nineties White Dwarfs and game covers were a fantastic example of how to do covers well. John Blanche's massive backdrop for Warhammer 40k's third edition box really showed what you could do with SF art. It's not surprising that Solaris are continuing the trend set by their owners but it's nice to see other imprints like Pyr think wisely about their covers.

Blue Tyson said...

Basically I don't buy books if they are hardbacks, so that didn't worry me. Especially when you were a kid, too. I did have one that my grandparents gave me, though.

However, it made it very easy to find good books in the library, as far as that goes.

Be interesting if anyone saw them say why they went for the banana book look?

marco said...

It's not surprising that Solaris are continuing the trend set by their owners...

Well you say that, Tom, but that's taken us a tad by surprise. We hadn't noticed that influence working unduly strongly. You've genuinely given us something to think about there. -- Marco @ Solaris