Saturday, July 29, 2006

Judging Books by their Covers, Part II

In a recent blog post entitled “Judging Books by their Covers,” I expressed the need for a regular column that would discuss the individual merits of contemporary SF&F cover illustrations, talking candidly about what works and what doesn’t, new trends and directions in illustration and design, etc… After all, cover art is the front line of bookselling —you never get a second chance to make a first impression and all that —and as much concern as there is these days for growing the genre, combating the graying of the field, yada yada yada, more discussion of what works and what doesn’t in promoting the books themselves right off the shelves would be of benefit to readers, publishers, art directors, artists, and wanna be artists everywhere. Finally, more acknowledgment for the wonderful illustrators in our field, the genre where illustrated art plays a larger role than any other, seems long overdue.

Now, as the editorial director of a book line, and one who takes a very heavy hand in the selection of cover illustrators and the overall art direction (Prometheus’ art department is wonderful to put up with me), I am limited in my ability to be critical. I can’t come forward and say “this cover put out this month by this rival house didn’t work” lest it look as though I am trying to unfairly disparage a competitor. It would be impossible for me to talk about the difficiencies of the cover without it being conflated with the book itself. I do think some independent party should be doing this however, for the benefit of all. If not damning, at least discussing whether an individual cover achieves its aims, why, how or how not.

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam said some years back that Hollywood was responsible for training audiences in how to watch films and that their pursuit of LCD filmmaking and the broadest possible appeal had effectively killed the smart, literate filmmaking era of the 70s. Now, I have opinioned elsewhere that I think this tide is turning, but the point that the producers and aggregators of content have a responsibility to their audience in terms of raising or lowering the bar of what they offer is well-made. In the same way, I think that some education on the principals and importance of cover illustration is called for and thus, am thrilled with Irene Gallo’s new blog. But Irene, as art director at Tor, is also limited in what she can say as well. (Though perhaps less so, by having such experience as well as having overseen so many talented artists).

Now and so, while I won’t use this forum to be critical of poor work, I have no problems praising the good stuff produced at competing houses. In part, because I don’t believe that we are competing houses. I may be naïve, but I maintain that our competition is not with each other, but with other media, with DVDs, TV, cinema, videogames, and a general apathy to books, and that – just as a rising tide lifts all boats – every single book of quality published contains the potential to grow and expand the readership, just as it contains the potential to (a la Gilliam’s statement above) educated the existing readership in a further appreciation and understanding of quality. The more good books that are published, the more good books are read, the greater the audience for good books, natch.

All of which is a long way of saying that, in the spirit of the sentiments above, I was mightily impressed with the covers of Jonathan Strahan’s two upcoming Best of volumes. These are both reuses of images originally commishioned for other works, but glacing at them on Jonathan's blog yesterday, I was struck instantly at how well both art and design came together to effectively communicate what I think should be the goal of good SF&F illustration and design - that of managing to intrigue a wider audience without sacrificing the genre-elements of the piece. (No surprise that both images are from the uber-talented John Picacio either.) Both of these books look like they promise mature, intelligent, sophisticated reading material, while at the same time being boldly unashamed of their science fiction and fantasy content. Bravo!


Irene Gallo said...

Lou, you’re killin' me. ;-) There is so much I’d like to say, but I’m afraid that it would be impossible to fully separate my personal opinions from those of Tor’s. Also, the reality of any art director’s job is that they occasionally have to hire artists whose work they do not fully admire. Yes, we try to make as much overlap between esthetic and commercial decisions as possible, but it doesn’t always work out that way. At conventions, I am occasionally taken to task (or praised) for decisions that I may not have wanted to make in the first place...But then, narrowing that gap is what keeps the job challenging and exciting. I’ll do my best at keeping the conversation going (while I stumble along, trying to find my blogger’s voice) but, like you, I’ll need to be candid in the positive.

I tell you one thing that may help, though, is if the community as a whole would take greater responsibility in voting on the artists’ Hugo. That so many of the genre’s great artists have gone unrecognized by the field at large has the made the art Hugo practically meaningless. I wrote a bit about it here:

Thanks for keeping the conversation alive, Lou.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Irene,
That's a great post. John Picacio and I have talked about the statistic you mention - that only 4 artists have won a Hugo in 25 years. And it's embarrasing to see people nominated when haven't produced new work in that given year either. I take heart that some new names made the shortlist - including Stephan Martiniere this year - so somebody must be paying attention, but more awareness about cover art and artists in general is what I'm on about.

I'm deeply gratified by what Mark Kelly is doing at Locus Online in aggregating cover artwork by year. Everyone should take a look at his 2006 list before casting their vote. With Mark's list, there is no excuse for being apathetic - he's made it too easy to see what came out when:

Jonathan said...

Hi Lou, hi Irene: I've been obsessed with covers, cover images, and our reaction to them for a long time. Many years ago, when I was a student, I used to spend days in bookstores, browsing shelves, and discussing if/why a cover worked.

One thing that I think is worth mentioning in any discussion of covers and cover artists is the quality of design. A good designer can help present...modest...piece of art in a good light. A bad designer can kill a good piece of art stone dead. Any successful cover is, at least, a collaboration between the designer and the artist.

I'd add that design is often what sets small press covers apart from the majors. The small presses can often get good art but can't afford a designer to lay it out, design the type properly etc.

Interesting discussion, btw.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jonathan,
Yes, you are spot on with your comments about design. Absolutely in agreement. And let me take this opportunity to praise Claudia Noble, who has done so much excellent work on recent Night Shade books.

Meanwhile... Days you say? Obsessing over what worked or didn't? And you're not associated with any one line. And don't you work at Locus. Hmmm, maybe I've found my columnist....

Jonathan said...

Heh heh heh. I did spend days. Many of them. About every thing from font selection, balance of light and shade, through to mood of the piece, what it communicated etc.

I've always felt that the best analogy for a book cover isn't a piece of art or anything non-commercial. It's actually a movie poster. You should be able to stand six to eight feet away from a book and tell what it is and what it's about. If the cover doesn't do that, it fails, no matter how pretty it is. I think it's also useful to take a cover, put it on a table in front of you or lean it against a wall. Then close your eyes for a moment, and then open them. What do you first register when you see the cover? Where is your eye drawn to. The answer to those two questions tell you if the cover is a success or failure.

It's interesting. I was just looking at the US and UK covers for an Elizabeth Moon novel, Engaging the Enemy. If you look on amazon you'll see that the Brits want you to think it's a generic spaceship story and don't much care who wrote it, while the Americans want you to think it's an Honor Harrington novel.

Derryl Murphy said...

I work hard to find excellent cover art for ON SPEC, but we're not hampered by the need to have the cover match anything on the inside; I made that decision immediately after taking charge. What I am hampered by is the need to have a certain percentage of Canadian artists, due to Canada Council grants giving us a hand. Which I guess equates with Irene's statement that sometimes she has to deal with artists she doesn't fully admire.

Incidentally, I don't think anything about the fantasy cover necessarily creams "fantasy," except for the title. But I do think it's eye-catching enough to draw in readers anyhow.


Jonathan said...

I think the On Spec covers are interesting. The function of magazine covers is slightly different from book covers, I think. Because of the serial nature, you really just need something that looks good, repeats the logo/brand clearly and has the right feel.

On the Locus Press fantasy cover: I tend to agree. I like it. I like John's art. I don't think it's very "fantasy", but I actually think that might be ok in this case.

Lou Anders said...

Very good thoughts, and I'd add that it begins even earlier with the spine and whether or not that pops. Of our own spines, I think we've hit it best with Star of Gypsies, Silver Screen, and the collective Nulapeiron Sequence. I often walk through bookstores seeing what leaps out at me and why.

Meanwhile, interesting analysis of Moon's novel. I know the US is a use of an unclaimed Dave Seeley piece (personal work?). I looked at it myself on his website a few times, seeing if I could fit it to a project, before it showed up on the Moon cover.

Hi Derryl - you are right, as I realized in retrospect. I saw both covers together, and together, the design, not the illustration, said SF & F. When I look at the Fantasy cover alone, I see it doesn't say "fantasy" to the same degree that the other says "science fiction." Do think the two books would make a nice gift-set for the uninitated though.

Jonathan said...

Spines are a whole other thing. You get into where does the publisher logo go, does the reader care/need to know about who the publisher is, how much information can you communicate? I think the best thing spine design can achieve is to stamp series design on things. You can really make things look uniform, and that will attract the eye. Look at the Gollancz Masterworks as a good example of this.

It's interesting, btw, to also compare/contract the Brit covers for Weber's The Short Victorious War. He's never done as well in the UK as in the US and I think the covers give you some idea. The Brit cover is kind of muddy, the branding is imprecise, and the Harrington figure could be anyone. Also the colors are very flat, tonally. In the US cover, the bright red "WAR" tells you everything you need to know. It grabs the eye and holds it. When you tear away from that, you get the whole women in uniform thing happening, as well as the tech toy angle with the screens, and Weber's name is nice and clear. Good, if ugly, cover.

On PYR: I like some of the covers a lot, especially River of Gods. Some of them are bit...fussy though. Lots going on.

Lou Anders said...

We debated about going with a uniform look for all Pyr books, a la Baen and Gollancz. I couldn't bring myself to do it, and maybe that was a mistake, since we do seem to be seeing the makings of a core following. I totally take your point re: the Webber book. And there is another point you mention - which is that "good art" and "effective at selling" are not always coupled together.

RIVER is one of my favorites too, though I'm not sure it passes your six to eight foot test.

Jonathan said...

I don't think a publishing line needs a uniform look or approach. In fact, depending on the variety of work you publish, it could be a negative. It works for Baen, for example, because there is a fundamental similarity to everything they do. The Masterworks design works well, but Gollancz don't have a whole of imprint look. You can also see why, for example, Tor don't use something like an imprint look.

RIVER doesn't pass the test. I struggle with it a bit, actually. I love the art. I think it's a very attractive cover. I'm not entirely 100% sure how good a cover it is, though. It doesn't pass the six to eight foot test, it's perhaps more 'static' than is ideal for the book, but there is a certain grandeur to the image.

One thing I'd add here: I'm often tempted to over interpret covers. I know designers work hard on them, but do they analyse what they're doing as closely as I somethings think they do.

Lou Anders said...

RIVER works for me because of the way it unpacks, as I noted earlier, though it printed darker that I'd have liked. I'm curious which other ones you've liked.

Meanwhile, I think the state of all publishing is that we all - writers, editors, artists, art directors, etc.. - wish we always had more time!

The most liberating book I never had time to read was Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which, I gather from interviews and the flap, justifies a lot of the spur-of-the-moment snap decision making I have to do.

Jonathan said...

I think the cover for CROSSOVER is very strong. Clean, clear, simple. It says this is science fiction, it's a series, it's maybe a bit cyberpunk. It's very 21st century, not very *street*.

The problem I have with book covers is that there are ones that I've liked that are poor *covers*, and ones that I've disliked that are great covers.

I'm also always fascinated when a "brand" breaks, when something that was a branded look which was great, suddenly doesn't work. I think you can see this happening in the Kinuko Craft covers for Patricia McKillip's books with Ace. Ignoring whether the individual pieces of art are better or worse, some of those covers are really strong, and some are a cluttered mess. You could also compare and contrast the British and US covers for Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith to see the same thing.

And, the Gladwell book sounds interesting. I've not actually seen a printed copy of the Pyr RoG. Just the online images.

Lou Anders said...

There is a phenomenon in branding when a brand achieves indentification with the product in the mind of the consumer such that it supplants the name of the thing itself - ie, "kleenex" for tissue, and "coke" for "soda" to a degree. At this point, advertising begins to be of diminishing returns, as any advertising you do reinforces all products in the category, not just your own. There are a few artists I haven't worked with - I have two in mind but won't name them - because they are so associated with particular series books.

What you take from CROSSOVER is accurate to the contents. Good.

Jonathan said...

Let me put it to you this way: anyone who is attracted to the cover of CROSSOVER will most likely enjoy the book and get what they expect. That's a book cover as a good piece of advertising. It's also attractive and looks good.

I understand your comments about branding. I'm actually interested when I see sucessful branding re-used. Take for example, Tor's cover for THE SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE. It's a good cover because it's simple, bold, authoritative (as the book is supposed to be) and definitely science fictional (as the book is). It's also a pretty straight re-use of the branding from Al Reynolds Gollancz space opera's. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's interesting.

I was also interested to look at the Del Rey covers for Peter Hamilton's PANDORA'S STAR AND JUDAS UNCHAINED. I think STAR is a much better cover, and has better art, but I wondered if the sales for the first book disappointed the publisher. They've increased the size of his name, bolded it more, and gone for more violent/action type colors. I actually thought STAR looked pretty classy. Not so sure about UNCHAINED.

Actually, I'd be fascinated to know if these are the considerations that designers at the major houses use. I've never asked.

Lou Anders said...

I think you can get away with the cover on SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE because it is Tor, David Hartwell, an a really big book. Otherwise, a simple graphic image like that would look small press. I tell independant anthologists all the time - spring for the art. A few stock photos doesn't fool anybody.

Derryl Murphy said...

Peter Watts has been doing some blogging about the cover for his upcoming book, Blindsight. Now, understanding that Peter's opinions might be expressed a little differently than another person's (and I say this having been a writing partner), it's been interesting to follow his thoughts on this.

Sadly, no permalinks that I can see. Just search for Blindsight and start at the bottom. Suffice it to say, he's not happy with Tor, although he's shown signs of backing off for the short term.


Irene Gallo said...

Jonathan -- Sales of one book can certainly inform how you handle another -- although in the case of PANDORA and UNCHAINED it looks more like a tweak than a decision to re-package an author...Maybe the first book sold well and therefore the publisher’s wanted to be sure the author’s name was all the more visible the second book. (I don't know about Del Rey but, unfortunately, it’s been impossible for me to convince certain types that bigger does not always equal more readable)

Pandora was painted by John Harris -- one of my all time favorites. I can’t tell from the Amazon scan, if Unchained was as well. I agree the Pandora is better, but Unchained looks within the realm of something Harris might do. Anyway, the tricky thing with a series is keeping the individual volumes looking similar enough to remind the reader to pick up this new one while keeping them different enough to be sure that the reader doesn’t think he already has.

Derryl - Yeah...I had read some of that a while ago, although I hadn't checked in in a while. I am truly saddened when an author is so unhappy with their jacket but, while publishing over 400 books a year, it’s bound to happen from time to time. In Watts’ case it seemed that he had issues with Tor before Blindsight came along. Not, of course, a reason to disregard his feelings on the matter...but it does remind me not to take things too personally.

Jonathan said...

Lou: I'd never say Tor got away with it. I think it's a nice looking jacket and they did very well buy the book. And I don't really see a simple graphic image as being small press. The key, always, is how well you do it. This was a good example, as are the original Gollancz designs.

Jonathan said...

Derryl: Interesting. It's a pity when that kind of thing happens. That said, if Peter were a friend of mine, I might suggest he adopt a different strategy.

Jonathan said...

Irene: I know what you mean about bigger not always being better. I've noticed that where I work (in web design) that management can be allergic to white space. Both of the Hamilton jackets are by Harris. I think he's a wonderful artist, though, like everyone, better at some times than others. I actually wonder if that JUDAS cover is an early or bad scan. It looks a bit rough.

Another interesting one is the cover for McCaffrey's Skies of Pern. It's a Les Edwards painting you can see here ( The original painting is quite dynamic, especially when you see the entire wraparound. Interestingly, the US design crps almost all of the art, leaving only the main figure. Even more interesting is the art for McCaffrey's Dragon's Fire. Both the US and UK designs (see Amazon) pretty much ignore the book's title and have only a perfunctory dragon image. The US edition, instead, focusses on Anne McCaffrey's name, while the UK edition focusses on the series title 'Pern'.

Irene Gallo said...

Hey Lou,

I understand what you are saying...But I, personally, feel that way more often about second-rights usage. If I see an image that I’ve known for years being used on a new book, I feel slightly cheated...But then I have to remember that there is a relatively minuscule amount of people that will have as deep a knowledge of these artists’ portfolios as an art director, or possibly a fellow artist, might have. To the audience, it’s as fresh and vibrant as the design allows.

You know I’m a HUGE proponent commissioned illustration, but there are certainly cases where time constraints, budgets, or an artists dropping-the-ball/just-not-getting-it that make us turn to secondary usage or stock images....And then sometimes, stock art just fits the bill. As Jonathan says - it’s all in how you use it.

I hired an artist to work on F. Paul Wilson’s MIDNIGHT MASS. No matter how much we struggled with it, the painting looked cheesey. At the last minute I got a designer to do a cover using some stock images and it’s one of my favorites that we’ve done. (I prefer the smaller type Hardcover version.)

There are other genres were it’s practically insisted on that we use stock imagery. Thrillers, to name one. All the bookstores seem to want are fuzzy, montaged photos of people running through alleyways.


Jonathan said...

I've had a number of discussions with publishers about second-rights usage. Because I do anthologies, it's often the case that there's only a modest budget available, and so there's a need to be inventive and find something that will do the best job for the book, irrespective of how widely it's known. I know that for one book I'm involved with, we're re-using a Stephan Martiniere piece that's only been used in Europe. It can work.

The one thing I have noticed is a major problem is the possibility of an artist producing something that doesn't quite fit. The *impression* I have is that you have a very experienced production designer involved you can minimise this happening, but it does tend to happen. That's when you do need someone who can design and design well.

It's interesting, too, what differences small changes make. The hardcover edition of MIDNIGHT MASS that you mention looks clever and classy. It looks like an urban vampire tale that's intelligent, a bit restrained. The paperback looks a lot cheesier.

One reason that I'm happy not to be involved with covers professionally - and to leave it to the people who do do it professionally when I am involved - is that it strikes me as an area where everyone thinks they know what they're doing, but possibly only know what they like (which is not the same thing).

I don't know if you can talk about it here, Irene, but I'm curious about one of Tor's covers: John Scalzi's Android's Dream. I like the cover, and understand why you'd move away from the space illustration John Harris had done on his earlier books, but was there something specific that led to his approach?

Tracy Flynn Art said...

Hey Ev'rybody,

Great discussion and a lot of insight for someone on the outside looking in.

I had personally stopped looking at books and covers in general for a few years just because, to me at least, they were all the same. All slick over produced and the only thing really distinguishable from one to the other was the signature.The picture on the front didn't make me want to read it becasue it looked like the one next to it. I didn't stop reading, but went to the classics.....Dumas, Melville, Homer, and the likes. I know I probably missed out on a lot of good reading, but as one who would buy a book by the cover.........we all lost out. Sometimes the book didn't live up to the cover image, but sometimes the cover doesen't live up to the book either.

I remember loving being able to walk down the rows of books as a kid and say ..thats a Frazetta, thats a Whelan, thats an Adams, that is whomever. It is now in my opinion, getting back to that with the likes of Manchess, Giancalo, DeVito, Lockwood, Zug, the list is ever increasing again and it is a wonderful time.



Lou Anders said...

Wow, I go to sleep and this thing starts hopping.

Jonathan - didn't mean to imply Tor "got away with" anything - I think it's a good looking book. I bought it last week. But I agree with Irene that - while understanding all the reasons of budgets, time constraints, etc... - I often feel cheated at second usage. So far, we've only had one reuse at Pyr, though we are sure to have more as time goes on.

Derryl, I am always sorry when an author doesn't like his cover, and I try to accomodate my own authors as much as possible, but ultimately the cover isn't for them. It isn't even for the readers who have already bought the book. It's for those readers who might buy the book, to get the book noticed. Better someone reads a book and then gets annoyed that the cover isn't a 100% representation of the contents than that they never pick the book up to begin with.

Hi Irene - I've noticed in very recent days more illustration on mysteries and thrillers than I've seen in a while. This seems to be a recent phenomena. Am I off or have you noticed it to?

Hi Tracy - glad you are enjoying the discussion. I wonder what you think about the Pyr covers. I think that we have some pretty distinctive artwork - certainly there is a great deal of range between Caniglia, Picacio, Burns, Dow, Martiniere, Seely...

Tracy Flynn Art said...


I do think your line had good distinctive covers. I think the Dow illustrationsa are wonderful and make me want to read the books.

I would read the book Silverheart jsut because of it being Michael Moorcock, but do find the text over the image and the names so large that it detracts from the whole book itself. Almost as if the authors are overshadowing the me beacuase so and so wrote it. I do know names tend to sell books, but I find it distracting in this case.

I think that my favourite of your catalog that I have seen is the Crooked Letter, extremely well done with text and image merging to form an interesting cover...the boarder works well, and makes me want to by it, and I will as soon as I get to a town with a bookstore.


Lou Anders said...

Hi Tracy,
Thanks for the quick feedback. Brian Dow, in particular, will be gratified when he reads this. Of his three, my favorite - and his - is Keith Brooke's GENETOPIA. I think he really nailed that one. Brian's doing another for us - his first wrap-around, for Alexis Glynn Latner's HURRICANE MOON. Once we debut the cover (next month?), Brian's going to put up a step-by-step of how he did it. He built a space ship's shuttle and a base out of objects from a Dollar General store, and the result looks like something out of a professional Hollywood prop shop. It's really something to see.

Re: Crooked Letter - that's Greg Bridges, who is amazing. In this case, we can't take too much credit, since we reused art and design from the Australian cover. But I do have to praise our designer Jackie Cooke, because she had a time adjusting their mass-market design to hardcover dimensions. And that's our most expensive jacket to date too, because it uses matt finish, spot gloss finish, bronze foil, and day glow white.

Tracy Flynn Art said...

Brian's going to put up a step-by-step of how he did it. He built a space ship's shuttle and a base out of objects from a Dollar General store, and the result looks like something out of a professional Hollywood prop shop. It's really something to see.
.............that is cool, I will definitely check that out!!!!!

But I do have to praise our designer Jackie Cooke, because she had a time adjusting their mass-market design to hardcover dimensions.......lot of respect here for giving propers where they are do.

Thanks for taking the time to have just garnered yourself a fan.


Lou Anders said...

Thank you very much, Tracy. Much appreciated. While we are giving props where they are due, you might visit Brain's website at
I love the 2nd piece on the second page of the SF&F gallery (the flying saddle piece).

Bob Lock said...

Hi all,

I've arrived here following a thread from a Neal Asher and Gary Gibson discussion on bookcovers where I remarked that I find it weird that so many people put so much faith in a book cover to portray faithfully the contents of the book they are thinking of purchasing.

I can't help but pay credence to the old adage that 'you can't judge a book by its cover' for I've fallen foul to it a few times myself.

It's all well and good being seduced by an incredible graphic of strange worlds with exotic creatures and outlandish space-craft in orbit, but surely the yardstick to go by is not the pretty picture on the cover but perhaps the reviews or back-of-book blurb from other authors or readers of some authority?

How many times have you picked up a book, tempted by its cover, given it the benefit of the doubt and bought it, only to find that perhaps its most redeeming factor is just that... the cover?

Don't get me wrong. I can see the obvious benefit of having an outstanding graphic adorning your cover. It's bait to draw in a potential reader, then hopefully if your opening paragraph has a well laden hook then you have landed another reader, another sale. If ever I'm in the happy position to get one of my stories sold I'd more than likely want the best book cover possible too. It's just such a weird way of looking at the art which you are trying to promote, which fundamentally is... story-telling.

It's like going to a top-of-the-range Hi Fi shop and buying the system that has the most flashing lights and coolest looking fascia. Then you get it home, switch it on and hope it sounds better than your old mono radiogram.

Jonathan said...

Hi Bob - The thing is, we do judge a book by the cover. We all do, all the time. It would be nice to say that we all make considered judgements about what we buy and read, but often it's an impulse purchase, and often it's the cover that provides the impulse. Yes, there might be blurbs and descriptions and such, but often it's the design and the art and the feel of the whole thing. I can think of books that I've not bought (but won't mention here) because I really didn't want to be seen reading something with that cover on it. I can also think of books (like say the gorgeous Ace edition of Pat McKillip's Winter Rose which had a stunningly beautiful Kinuko Craft cover) that I've bought because of the cover, and ended up loving the book.

And it's more than just the graphic. It's the size of the book, the weight, the feel, the smell. It's the coloration, the mood it seems to create. These are all things we take in incredibly quickly, and are mostly not consciously aware of, but do factor in our decision to buy the book. The number of times I've watched people pick up books in a bookstore and respond to these kind of sensory details while obviously being unaware that they are. It's fascinating stuff.

And yes, it is a little like going into a hi-fi shop and buying it because it comes in black and has the coolest lights. Thing is: people do that all the time too.

What interests me, btw, about this discussion is where it moves from this or that is a nice piece of art to what are people responding to and why, what is the publisher trying to say with their package, how carefully considered is it all. It's really fascinating.

Jonathan said...

To keep things on a positive note, props to designer Claudia Noble, who has been doing some great work for Night Shade in the past year or two. I think she's done some great work for them, and the two covers for Liz Williams novels (art by Jon Foster) are just gorgeous.

Derryl Murphy said...

The best I can do as a friend of Peter's is be there to listen if he wants to vent, and offer advice if he asks. The fact is he posts these opinions and gripes without involving me, partly (but not completely) because we live thousands of kilometres apart. Irene, I hope you don't take it personally.

Apropos of awards, my own brief rant: Elaine Chen missed out on the Aurora (Canada's SF award. Ray Feist has compared the Nebula to a glorified bowling trophy, and my comparison is the Aurora is a glorified minigolf trophy), losing to this guy:

Elaine did the brilliant cover to my book, Wasps at the Speed of Sound, and the cover to Small Beer's reprint of Sean Stewart's Mockingbird. But to be honest, nothing about that award surprises me any more.


Lou Anders said...

Hi Bob,
Absolutely the point of reading is reading, but in a competitive marketplace, questions of how best to draw readers to your book (vs all the others on the shelf) are certainly relevant. I, for one, enjoy listening to anything Irene says on the subject.

Also, as I said and will keep saying, our field has an ilustrious (pun intended) history of great work from great artists, who DO NOT GET THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT THEY DESERVE. What I really want to do, in my small way, is generate more discussion of the art and bring more attention to the wonderful artists in our field because they deseve it.

Re: Claudia Noble and Jon Foster - yes! Yes! Yes. Jeremy and Jason were cool enough to send me the first book, but I'll be buying the subsequent books in this series because, even though as an editor with a ginormous slush pile I have NO free reading time, I want these on my shelf precisely for how they look. Liz is a great writer and I'm sure they are wonderful (and I will read them one day, Liz, I promise - I do really want to.) But I have to have these books regardless of content because I am a sucker for the book as object.

Also, I know we've gotten some readers for John Meaney's wonderful space operas pricesly because of the Jim Burns cover. I have insisted on top artists at Pyr because with top talent (and high production quality) comes the impression of quality. That the content matches the cover, I hope you will find, but the way to the brain is thru the eye!

John Picacio said...

Hi, Bob –

Interesting comment…I can see some of what you’re saying…

Maybe this might help….

As an illustrator for book covers (and occasionally as a designer of them), I’ve found a reasonable way to drastically reduce the disconnect between a book’s contents and the cover that I illustrate for it.

I read the book.

When I get an assignment, the first thing I do after I’m hired is read the manuscript, and digest it, and understand the book on its own terms. However, sometimes I’ll be given an assignment and the book hasn’t even been written yet! It happens, thanks to the vagaries of solicitation deadlines. It’s not an impossible situation, but it is more of a challenge to produce a meaningful, effective cover in this situation. It certainly CAN be done though, and it often means thinking in a more associative or evocative way, rather than purely linear, which is a lot of fun.

Call me a crazy dreamer, but my main objective when I’m given a cover illustration assigment is to find the best intentions of a given story or novel and illuminate those strengths on the cover. I think if I do that, I give the book the best chance possible to connect with its audience in a sincere and lasting way, and provide the best chance for success for my client, and the book. It’s a balancing act to be sure, but it’s a lot of the fun of my job.

On a related, but tangential shift…here’s a sub-question to “judging books by their covers”… does a publisher judge the success (or failure) of a book by its cover? More specifically, to what extent do the variables of a marketing campaign factor in (how much money was spent to advertise, what advertising venues/vehicles were chosen, what reviewers were chosen, how aggressive was the author in promoting his/her own work), or is it much easier to just blame the cover and say “it didn’t work….let’s try something else.”So for instance, when I hear that Artist X’s cover didn’t sell a book, but there was an increase when Artist Y did the cover, my first thought is “are we comparing apples to apples though?” Was there a change in marketing strategy when Artist Y did the cover vs. when Artist X did? Was there a more aggressive attack via the blogosphere the second time around? Was there a more concerted effort to reach reviewers the second time around? Was there even a marketing budget in the first place? Like I said, it’s just a sub-question that crosses my mind from time to time… I’m still learning about this….

Irene Gallo said...

You have to through into the conversation how much the publisher needs to “sell” the book to the bookstore buyers. (Buyers, meaning the people who decide which books a store will will stock rather than readers coming to buy a book.) It seemed crazy to me when I started at Tor, but my number one concern is how the buyers react to the cover. If it doesn't catch their eye, than it will never even be seen by the readership. It’s easy for someone to say, “Well, I never pay attention to the cover art anyway” but in the end, their decisions _are_ shaped by the covers.

John - I once heard one of our Marketing managers say, “Ninety percent of advertising is useless....we just don’t know which ninety percent.” It really is hard to quantify exactly what the difference a cover can make faced with all the other issues you mention. But, they say that the cover is the third most influential aspect of getting someone to buy a book - the first two being the reputation of the author and word of mouth. It is also _the_ easiest thing to change if all else fails. Somtimes “book twos” are changed for good reasons...other times it’s just a stab in the dark.

When I first started at Tor there was an artist that everyone said was perfect for small literary books. Brilliant drawer. Everyone loved his stuff for books that were dear to them but not expected to be big sellers. Then, someone did a sales check on that artists and, lo and behold! it was declared that that artists “doesn't sell.” Soooo unfair. The books we put him on never had advertising budgets, were never pushed to our sales force, etc. Yes, there _are_ artists that have more, or less, commercial appeal, no doubt, but since then I try to be very careful about branding an artist in that way.

As for covers matching the books, someone on my blog asked me to address this. I hope to get to that in the next week or so. When I do, I’ll link to here.

Jonathan - You mentioned THE ANDRIODS DREAM. Funny, I was thinking of posting that on my blog last week but never got to it. I’ll get it up there this week and post the info here as well.....But right now, it’s way past me bedtime!

Bob Lock said...

Hi again everyone,

Wow! a lively and interesting debate :)

Firstly, let me assure you all (especially all the graphic artists and cover designers)I have no beef or animosity with a well designed and beautiful book cover.

All I mean to say is that, for a reader, it's a sad reflection of our priorities on choosing which book to pick up and buy when the stimulus to do so is what a 5x8 picture shows us.


I can think of books that I've not bought (but won't mention here) because I really didn't want to be seen reading something with that cover on it.

That's even a worse reason! Now you are moving into the realms of 'street cred' over quality of contents!
I am beginning to feel like the only reader on the planet who doesn't get influenced by the size of the book, the weight, the feel, the smell. It's the coloration, the mood it seems to create because I buy books which I hope I am going to enjoy reading, if they have an incredibly beautiful cover, then yes, that's a bonus.


I am envious of your obvious talent and your illustrations are superb. I also think that your comment When I get an assignment, the first thing I do after I’m hired is read the manuscript, and digest it, and understand the book on its own terms is laudable but (there always has to be a ' but' doesn't there?) I wonder how many illustrators bother to do this?

Another thing springs to mind too, when I read a novel and drink in the author's desciption, of say perhaps the main protagonist of the story, I have in my mind's eye an idea of what that person looks like, it is my own personal interpretation of that character.

However, on times you find a rendering of said character on the cover and it's nothing like the one you had envisaged, that then leads to the question what did the author hope to portray, the character on the cover or the one you had in your own mind?

For example, there is a long series of fantasy books which I have read (I won't mention them) that have cover illustrations that make me cringe when I look at them. The characters are nowhere near the author's decriptions and if I was one to choose a book on the merit of its graphics then a certain American author would have sold 10 less books in the UK.

So, in winding up, yes the eye-catching art is certainly a plus to add because it does just that, catches the eye, however, (don't read this bit John!) if you ripped the cover off and then read the book would it be diminished in anyway?

(Well, that blows any chance of getting a Picacio cover for any novel that I manage to get published)

Best wishes,


John Picacio said...

Hi, Irene --

Thanks for the late-night feedback. All great stuff. Yeah, the more conversations I have with Lou, the more I've realized how important it is to have a cover interact with the store buyers, as well as the audience. This really hit home when I did my own art book recently. Like I told Lou, it then seemed very much like a three-stage war. The first stage: make the very best art book I could do....the second stage: win the trust of the book store buyers, and get the books into the stores...the third stage: let the audience know the book is out there and connect them with the book.

I’ve been fortunate with the first two stages, thus far. So now I'm in the midst of the third stage and it's going well, but it's a whole lot of guerrilla warfare on my part, pimping and pushing to get the word out. It's been an ongoing education.

Loved what you said about the "ninety percent of advertising" claim. I can believe it. I didn't know whether to laugh or moan when I read that...:)

Hi, Bob --

None of your words offended, and in fact, I think you and I may be more on the same frequency than you might have anticipated. In the aforementioned art book (COVER STORY: THE ART OF JOHN PICACIO.....bear with me, this isn't another shameless plug :)), I talk a lot about how often I appreciate an evocative cover approach over a more literal cover approach, and how I think this often makes for a more meaningful and lasting cover experience, because it respects the reader's imagination when they connect with the book in their own unique way. I don't think that evocative approaches are the ONLY way to do covers, but I think they're often very effective because they let the author's words fully interact with the reader's imagination, without distracting or limiting the full potential of that imagination. It's something I really strive for, in my own work. The cover illustration needs to be a compelling, provocative gateway into the book, but it doesn't have to be the KEY to the book, if you see what I'm saying.

I didn't mean to sound overly sarcastic when I said that I read the books that I'm assigned, but it's one of the most frequent questions I'm asked. I don't know why, but it is. From what I understand though, not every cover illustrator reads the books first. Some of them may have so many jobs that it's physically impossible to do so, amongst other reasons. I'm not sure. I can't speak for them. The thing is that I really love the work and I love being a part of these books, so I can't imagine not wanting to understand them on their own terms. I think it makes for more provocative illustration in the end, anyway, and it’s just the way my process works. But like I said, sometimes the illustrator is asked to do a cover for a book that doesn’t even exist yet, and that presents its own unique challenges, and that can be very fun as well. You just have to ask different questions…

Hope this helps to shed a bit more light....

Lou Anders said...

I have to say now that I really respect and love that John reads the text so carefully - he rolls up his sleeve and gets in to the elbows as deep as anyone I know and I think it shows in the work he produces. But yes, there isn't always time, and, equally, not everyone works like this nor should.

For instance, on Martin Sketchley's Structure trilogy, there simply wasn't time for Dave Seeley to read more than a few chapters from the second book in the series, DESTINY MASK. However, we had plenty of time on LIBERTY GUN and Dave read it while I was still working with Martin on the rewrites. Dave did such a close reading, and had so many good opinions, that he, Martin and I got into a long, three-way discussion that ended up positively impacting the crafting of the final text. I don't know if this is why his cover for that book is my favorite of the three or not, but it is.

Stephan Martinieire, by contrast, doesn't always read the full manuscripts, but we have indepth talks about the book, and we send him select passages, and often the writer will prepare a set of character and scene descriptions. All of this goes in the hopper, mixes around, and comes out genius. His cover for Brasyl was completed before Ian McDonald finished the manuscript, and I think it's fair to say that it's helped Ian to have the image there while he is in the final stages of writing (maybe, I don't know).

But all three artists are brilliant and I enjoy working with all three of them immenseley.

Lou Anders said...

And speaking of, I've just uploaded the full cover spread to Justina Robson's upcoming MAPPA MUNDI over on the Pyr blog. Cover by Stephan Martiniere, design by Jackie Cooke.

Check it out at:

Anonymous said...

re, the Brasyl cover --I'm actually working the edit of it toward the cover. (with the exceptionof the 1732 section)

Irene Gallo said...

Hi Bob,

It'd funny...I almost wrote that people should feel free to rip off the covers, if that is what is stopping them from buying a book. I'm all for a beautiful made book, believe me, but I'm also for understanding when books are simply supposed to be useful. Artists sometime cringe when they see my set of Spectrum annuals. They are on the floor within arms reach of my chair -- they are dinged, dog eared, scratched, and stepped on. (Remarkably the bindings remain intact.) But these books are USEFULL to me. I need to be aware of the contents. They would do me no good sitting carefully on a shelves and handled with kid gloves. So, go ahead, rip the cover off. It's strangely liberating...But then I am someone that feels things look more loved when they looked used rather than untouched.

As far why people see a discrepancy between what they read and what they see...

I think, to some extent, we currently get blamed for sins of the past. I know it was fairly standard practice to place any painting on any book in the old days, but that really doesn't happen at this point.

What we do have is lack of information at the time that you need it. As the big bookstore chains asked for sales material earlier and earlier, we started to be required to create the jackets at least a year in advance. We don't always have a manuscript to work from.

But then again, often we do. Most artists _do_ read the books, when one is available. But you'd be amazed how different people perceive the same words. On a number of occasions I've had the author, editor, and artist all have three very different ideas on what something looks like. You'd think the author is the authority, except, if the other two readers both have completely different ideas, than clearly there is a discrepancy between what the author has written and what others are perceiving.

Since I can't possibly read all the books we publish in time to commission them, I rely heavily on outlines and synopsis. I have a form where ask for a short synopsis, setting, and main character descriptions. Just so that everyone involved has a quick cheat-sheet. It's amazing how difficult this can be to get out of the editors at times. If I were an author, I'd include that information very early in the process. Listing all the stats in their simplest form (not in wonderful prose) makes it less likely to misconstrue what the author means. As John says, sometime you want to go more evocative and sometimes you want to go more literal, but having that info, in all cases, is helpful.

Lou - Can it be said often enough, how brilliant Martineire is? I don't think so. :-)

Lou Anders said...

Irene, I am horrified even as I understand completely. Every so often I'll read a massmarket paperback I have no intention of keeping, and it's amazingly relaxing to be able to bend it, fold it, drop it on a wet counter, etc... I know I have gone too far when I put a jacket protector on FREAKONOMICS.

As to Stephan, absolutely. I'm working on him to get him to come to the Hugos, as I'm sure you are. "This Hugo ceremony - it is big?"

"Well, yes."

"But, not big like Comic Con?"

"Well, no, not big in that way."

Irene Gallo said...

Hey, Stephan said he WAS going. He'd better!

Lou Anders said...

You saw him last so my info is probably dated. VERY GLAD he'll be there. Also need to buy you several drinks.

Irene Gallo said...

(I should never re-read my own posts once they are up...I swear I look them over before posting...and yet, only afterwards do all zillion typos jump out at me. Sheesh.)

Lou Anders said...

And now the full cover spread is up for Alan Dean Foster's upcoming Indian techno-thriller, Sagramanda. Art by John Picacio, design by Jackie Cooke. Right click as always to get the bigger image:

Bob Lock said...

Back again,


I am terrible with books, they get dog-eared, coffee and tea-stained (sometimes Guiness-stained) and then either handed on to friends who have the same taste (in literature, not beverages) I very rarely hang onto books that I've read, unless they have some special reason for staying on my book-shelf, i.e. a gift or a signed copy etc.

Hmm... perhaps because I don't venerate the book as a complete 'work-of-art' but am more interested in it for its ability to take me out of myself for the few hours that I read it that I feel the way I do, who knows?


Your evocative approach versus a literal one certainly is the way I prefer, then as a reader you have no preconceptions etc.

I wonder, do you ever get approached by authors who have done a mock-up of what they'd like to see on their cover?


Followed your link, that Mappa Mundi cover is pretty damn good, self-explanitory and not overdone, nice.


Lou Anders said...

Well, Bob, while I admire you for your taste in alcohol, we have to instill some book veneration in ya! Glad you like MAPPA MUNDI. Did you see the just-uploaded SAGRAMANDA cover?

Lou Anders said...

John Picacio has posted his cover for Chris Roberson's upcoming X-MEN book, X-MEN: THE RETURN. Nothing to do with me, but totally sweet. I think that, were he to turn his talents to comic books, Picacio would blow Alex Ross out of the water, and here's the proof:

Tracy Flynn Art said...

WOW !!

Y leave town and cyber world for a day or 2 and you can't keep up with the converstation!!!!

All great and wonderful points, the comment on advertising is 90% just which...I think it is true, especially with the changing pace of the public. Which band wagon are we on today, and once it is found everyone is rushing to get something similar of there own out there, in books its different abit I think, some scenarios you have the hyper slick realistic cover where even in the BG (background) of the image you can see the pimples on a face a mile away (not really realistic mind you) in others it is the great sort of impressionistic loose renderings or Manchess.

I think Irene had sad she has to rely on synopsis of books and out lines at times because of volume of production and not being able to read all of the stuff.

I right now do mostly magazine interiors so I get to read the stories and pull out the image from the whole thing. READING the story as mentioned above is the key to me, knowing the stroy around what scene you are going to do. Even if it is to take a composit of some of the story and make a picture from that. With the outline or synopsis of the story you can get the feel for what you are doing as well. Even if you are sent a sample chapter, you can pull what is needed.

I think I am lost again, my 12 hour drive has taken its toll on me now, and I'll try to catch up again later.

Lou, I am on my way to a bookstore later today to find the Keith Brooke's GENETOPIA book as well as the crooked letter.

Tracy - the tired

Lou Anders said...

Tracy - get some sleep. Then let me know what you think about Genetopia.

The rest of you (and Tracy when you return to the land of the living), we've just posted Stephan's latest, the cover to Ian McDonald's next nove, Brasyl over on the Pyr blog:
What do you think?

Bob Lock said...

Hi Lou,

Bob, while I admire you for your taste in alcohol, we have to instill some book veneration in ya!

I think this old reprobate is past salvation, Lou. However, I do admit to liking the covers you've linked.

Lou Anders said...

Well, I shall have to make do.
Glad that you like them. I'm pretty happy.

Brian W. Dow said...

Hi Lou - I've been trying to find something witty and intelligent to write for your blog, but I think I just sound like one of those,'My brain hurts!' guys on Monty Python. I completely agree with John in his view that it very much helps to read the manuscript and just internalize the scope of the book. The characters and setting need, at least for me, to have some time to stew in my brain for a bit and take shape. I also think that an evocative approach or literal approach seem to be dictated by what my perceptual take is on the story. Sometimes a scene just screams to be painted. And then sometimes a book like Hurricane Moon comes along and really calls for an evocative direction. Genetopia was the same type of case. There were so many great scenic possibilities but in the end the evocative one won out.

Hi Bob - Regarding your comment about the characters on the cover not resembling the descriptions in the book, yeah, that drives me a bit nuts too. Luckily, I've usually found in my cover projects that the character is described enough to get a handle on at least a rudimentary description of what they look like. I've had cover projects, as Irene mentioned, where the text wasn't even written yet and all I was given was a paragraph. In some ways this is very liberating because it's totally up to me. In some cases the final text was actually rewritten to coincide with my illustration. As illustrators, we have to make a judgment call about the look of someone or in some cases, someTHING, but that's the nature of the beast. (sorry for the unintentional pun). I once did some illustrations for my portfolio with the Harry Potter books as my source. Mostly the reviews were very positive but there was one person who vehemently, and I do mean she was really peeved, disagreed with some choices I made. Again, nature of the beast. You aren't going to please everyone.

Hi Tracy - Thanks, I'm glad you liked my work. I hope you enjoy the step-by-step article I'm working on about the creation of the shuttle and the dome base for Hurricane Moon. They were a lot of fun to build. Sometimes for me, reference just needs to be a tactile source. There is a part of my brain that actually seems to find the energy of that element when it is something real that I can hold in my hands. New-Age'y yeah, but it works for me.

Lastly, thanks Lou. Your input has really made the covers that I contributed to Pyr that much more effective. They are stronger pieces for having had your involvement.


Lou Anders said...

Thanks Brian. That means a lot. Good insights all too.

Lou Anders said...

ooooo. John Picacio has posted the full, revised wrap-around cover for FAST FORWARD over on his blog:

Irene Gallo said...

I have a recent theory that says awareness of artists is on the rise and that is due, in part, to people being able to look up these artists on websites and get a better sense of who they are, and also in part to the new, smaller publishers. I think people like you, Roberson, and others talking about the artists has made a huge difference. The big ole publishers like..well, like Tor, haven't really been able to talk directly to the readership they way you guys do.

I'm just spouting out here -- truth is, I'm VERY behind the web and blog times -- I'd love to hear your thoughts.

To answer your ANDROIDS DREAM question. It seemed that this new book required a more irreverent cover than Scalzi's military SF books....I mean, really, it begins with a fart joke! Also the title was just too good an opportunity to miss. I posted a bit more about it, including a statement from the artist, here:

Lou Anders said...

I would like to think you are correct. I think Mark Kelly's listing of cover arts over on Locus may have had a direct result on this year's Hugo nominees. And I'd like to think that Stephan's recent Pyr work was just that one little last straw tipping over the camel's back of all the amazing illustrations he's been doing for you these past few years to get him to the next plateau of long-overdue recognition. (What I'm trying to say here is my contribution was small and at the end, but I hope it helped.) And looking through Picacio's new artbook, Chris and I were both struck by how much work we've been priviledged to have commissioned from him - we are both honored to work with John a LOT but when you see it aggregated it makes an impression. But as to small press, blogging, etc... open communications are the crux of the internet age in 2006, so we'll see where it's all going. I'm still enthralled with the posts at the Art Department, (including the one you just referenced).

Lou Anders said...

Just uploaded the full jacket to Sean Williams's The Blood Debt, cover art by Greg Bridges: