Ron Hogan of Galleycat takes a look at the US and UK covers of Charles Stross's Halting Stateand Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel,in an article entitled "Leaving the Sci-Fi Covers Behind." Of Halting State's US vs UK packaging he says, speaking first of the US approach, that "...it's a fine enough sci-fi cover, but there's still a part of me that wonders if Orbit's approach might not more accurately reflect the novel's near-future setting and ironic humor."
He goes on to look at the very similar packaging of The Execution Channel, and opines that, "Neither Stross nor MacLeod is achieving the crossover appeal by diluting the science-fictional aspects of their work. These are both full-on SF novels... But they are also excellent technothrillers as well, which with the right momentum could easily appear on mainstream bestseller lists. Don't be surprised if subsequent novels by either author make that leap."
The post is picked up on blog Specifically Spec Fic, where Scott Edelman pops up in the comments section with this analysis: "If you can create a cover that tells a science fiction audience that the book is SF without alienating the non-SF audience who'd like the book if the symbols weren't made so explicit and if the packaging was more modern, the theory is that you'd get the best of both worlds."
I agree with that whole-heartedly, as well as Scott's further assertion that it's sometimes hard to do in practice, but I think that's what Stephan Martiniere achieves with his two covers for Ian McDonald's River of Godsand Brasyl. Or this never-before-seen cover illustration for the forthcoming McDonald collection, Cyberabad Days. I also like both covers for Halting State, and I'm not sure the US one reads as "fantasy" as much as Ron Hogan thinks. When I first saw it, it struck me as being a departure from genre covers in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on, even compared to Stross' own work at other houses. I like the UK cover as well, though at first glance I think it looks almost like a non-fiction book (not necessarily a bad thing given the content and unusual, 2nd person narrative voice). I agree it is an effective cover. (Though if I am going to pick up one of these, you know it's going to be the US edition - not because of the artwork, but because I'm very big on supporting your favorite authors in your appropriate territory. If I really had to have the UK cover, I would buy both editions, which is what I do with China Miéville's Bas Lag books.)
Meanwhile, Orbit themselves weigh in on Galleycat's debate - what they term the "Great SFF Cover Debate/War" on the Orbit blog. They say, "It’s nothing to do with where the book is being published in the world; it’s to do with the question that every genre publisher has to ask themselves: do we want our books to stand out or do we want them to fit in? Most genre publishers would say both: they want their books to stand out by looking exceptional, but they also want them to fit in by being immediately recognizable to readers of similar books within the genre. Depending on where you put the emphasis, though, the cover for a particular book can go in some very different directions."
Again, agree. I think the problem arises when you shoot so far afield for that cross-over audience that you go too far and lose the home team. Or produce something generic and bland that fails to represent the book at all. I'm not saying either of the books that Galleycat focuses on does that. Now, speaking not as an editor but as a fan and collector, I know that I am very big on "the book as artifact" and disappointed when I'm asked to shell out $25 for something that is packaged like the latest James Patterson or John Grisham. And I do believe that in a long tail economy, we need to be careful about sacrificing what makes SF&F unique (and a part of that is its century-old history of illustration). And I want to be clear that I'm not saying Orbit does that. At all.
For instance, I really like the Orbit cover of Iain M. Banks's Mattervery much, both as a readers and as an editor/art director. I find that it catches my eye every time I'm in a bookstore, which is what you want a cover to do, and the subliminal connections I get to Dune (robed figure, desert) are probably not going to hurt with US readers too. Nor does it hides its SF light under a bushel - that image reads pretty clearly as "alien world" to me. I am the kind of reader who won't buy a book if I really hate the cover; with so many books to chose from, if I'm plunking down $25 and my reading time is limited, why not get the story AND artwork I want vs the one that only offers one of the two. So on that level, this cover succeeds, as it's been tempting me to pick it up every time I'm in a store. My reading time is so precious, and I already have quite a few books on the shelf I've promised I'll read first, but I'll probably end up picking this up before the year is out, and - since I haven't read Banks since The Wasp Factory - the cover of Matter will have been a lot of the reason for that sale.
Finally, regarding the "Great SFF Cover Debate/War," guys come on! It is a debate - a fun one - and not a war. There are hundreds upon hundreds of science fiction and fantasy titles published every year, and you are spot on when you say that you begin by asking of each specific title "what it is that excites us about a particular book/series/author." With that approach, and the breadth of SF&F output, there is plenty of room for all and every approach. We need not tar every book with the same feather. The way we packaged Starship: Mercenarywasn't the same way we packaged The Blade Itself(in this case, a reuse of the UK illustration), but I'm damn proud of both final products, and both are appropriate to their individual book's contents.
And let me use that as an excuse to segue into another concern of mine. Which is if there is a "war," it's with an indifference to reading in the wider world, not between authors or publishers. With very few exceptions (Baen, DAW), SF&F readers tend to follow authors and subgenres rather than houses. So thank God you guys are publishing Matter and Ace is publishing Halting State, because I suspect there is a lot of crossover between the readers of Charles Stross and Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod and our own Ian McDonald (and Richard Morgan and Peter Watts and Walter Jon Williams and William Gibson and, and, and...). It may take Ian McDonald another year to finish The Dervish House - and as a smaller-but-diverse list who only publishes 20 or so novels a year, I really appreciate that you are publishing excellent works in the literate, hard, "Hugo-worthy" science fiction subgenre, because your Iain will keep the reader base engaged and prevent them wandering off into World of Warcraft while my Ian finishes his next masterpiece, and vice-versa. That core SF readership we talk about tend to read 1 - 3 books a month, and Lord Knows I'm not publishing 24 or 36 other books a year in the same subgenre as Brasyl, so I'm glad that others are. Just as people who read David Weber and David Drake are buying our Mike Resnick and people who read our Joe Abercrombie are also buying your Brian Ruckley. I've said this before but I'll say it till I am blue in the face. I am grateful for every quality SF&F work published, no matter who publishes it, and I will always publicly and loudly applaud it when I see it, because every quality work retains and supports the existing readership, while containing within it the potential to grow that readership by attracting new eyeballs.
It's the bad books - those that an uninitiated reader wandering into our section of the bookstore for the first time pick up, dislike, and use to dismiss the output of an entire genre - that doom us all. If I'm in a war with anything, it's a war with bad books, and there ain't nothin' we discussed here today that qualifies as that.