Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Keep on Judging Those Books

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 MiƩville'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.

Happy reading!


Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I think Scott summed it up well with his comment. We all want the best of both worlds, but the trick is the "without alienating " part. If you're trying to get everybody onto the bus, you need to be sure it looks like a bus.

Shara said...

I'll say this much: I'm not Stross's target audience, and while I've read his work, it doesn't engage me all that much though he has cool ideas. However, the US cover for HALTING STATE makes me want the book so bad I can taste it. Couple the cover with the cool narrative stuff going on in the book, and you've got yourself one curious and tempted customer who probably can't say no when the mmpb is released.

The UK cover, however, is completely forgettable to me. I wouldn't pick this book up all at with that cover, even if the narrative structure did interest me.

The MacLeod covers I'm ambivalent on, though if I'd have to pick one, it'd be the US cover.

Which is funny, because I tend to like UK covers over US covers, but the two examples you gave, it's the opposite. Funny.

LOVE the previously unreleased cover art fro McDonald's book. Very pretty. And I haven't read any Banks yet, but each time I see the latest, I'm reminded that there's no time like the present.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lou

Great stuff – I always like hearing your thoughts on covers, and I think you’ve got some great ones on your list.

“The Great Cover Debate/War”: I used this phrase deliberately. The fact is that while gentlefolk such as ourselves are able to conduct a civilized and well-reasoned debate on the subject of covers, others struggle to contain their hostility towards a particular approach to packaging or a specific example of it. Very happy to reassure you that Orbit isn’t at war - though sometimes we have to defend ourselves against the forces of oppression!

“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.”

I’m pretty sure that we’re in agreement on this, but I’m not sure that I agree with this statement. Yes, there are many, many titles being published, and there is great breadth to the SF&F genres. And if a publisher takes a book-/series-/author-led approach to packaging, it should indeed result in lots of different cover styles. The problem, in my opinion, is that we’re not seeing enough of these on the SFF shelves, because too often there seems to be little sign of the kind of individually tailored, visually exciting packaging we’re talking about. What we’re seeing on the shelves is rather too many dodgy paintings showing randomly chosen scenes from the book with little or no design to speak of. And I can’t agree that there is plenty of room for this particular approach.

You very rightly point out that “bad” books can discourage people from reading more widely in the genre (though defining what make a book “bad”, particularly in an area such as SF&F, with its breadth of output, isn’t always straightforward … but that’s a different topic.) More discouraging, though, it seems to me, is the impression many general readers have – and I’ve heard this many, many times - that SF&F is juvenile, or generic, or just plain silly (or all of the above). We know that’s not true, of course, but the impression has to come from somewhere – and impressions more often than not are determined by appearances.

I completely agree of course that the book world would be a better place with fewer “bad” books (defined, to avoid controversy, as books that nobody likes), but I honestly don’t think we have any more or any fewer of those than you’ll find in any other genre. With my publisher’s hat on, I think our favorite genres would benefit more if we could eradicate obviously bad covers. If we could eradicate both, of course, that would be even better!

“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.”

I completely agree. We need to attract new eyeballs. We’re not going to do that, though, unless the books look exciting as well.

Finally, before I outstay my welcome - and to prove that we’re quite definitely not at war – there’s a copy of MATTER for you in the mail today. Enjoy!


Lou Anders said...

We continue to be in agreement. And thank you for your considered response - you are always welcome here and couldn't possibly overstay in my book. I've been very excited to watch Orbit and also Solaris' entrance into the US market, encouraged by the strong support for SF in both lists - and have cited it many times as a sign of health for our field and a resurgence of science fiction in particular.

I think we're both in agreement that the general level of quality in SF&F cover art needs to be raised, and I think that I can say without being immodest that this discussion and our combined efforts in our respective day jobs may be helping to accomplish just that. I know that the wonderful attention to illustrators that Irene Gallo has engendered with her blog, the Art Department is certainly making a difference in the way (and amount) that readers think of illustration, and the more discussion of their hard work the better.

So, yes.

Finally, that's very kind of you re: Matter. I wasn't fishing. My brother game me a B&N gift card for my birthday, and I've been debating what to spend it on. Given what I do, I felt honor bound it must be spent on books and not music, DVDs, or, um, coffee. And I thought I had that problem solved. But since you are so generous to send me Matter, I'll build out my budding Banks collection and spend it on your new reissue of Consider Phlebas, or maybe Player of Games, depending on which you think would make a better introduction to the Culture for this M-Banks virgin.

Anonymous said...

I can heartily recommend both CONSIDER PHLEBAS and THE PLAYER OF GAMES as introductions to Iain M. ... Go for the one with the cover you prefer!

Bob Eggleton (Zillabob) said...

Good points Lou. I think the trend has, in some corners been toward, as you said, this James Patterson look. I recently had a debate with the Creative Director of a smaller packager we are working with making a not-really-genred kid's book. The whole book is essentially stock photos with my own dinosaur-re-workings into them, with traditional media and then inserted and painted digitally by Cortney Skinner. It's made for a unique collaboration, for sure and a whole new look. WHen we first engaged to do this, I stated that I could have painted the whole image, in a softer, watercolor style that(in my opinion) better suited my wife's prose(she wrote it after a series of happy accidents). The response from both packager and publisher (as an extension) was "Well, painted looking art is really 'out'..what's 'in' are photo manipulated illustrations" and the reason they ascertained, floored me-they said "Because the kids are all into video games these days and that's what it has to look like".

Yet somewhere else I was told that they couldn't do covers that "offended" Bible thumpers and their wacky "Creationist" beliefs because it "wouldn't sell in the midwest" if that was the case.

The mainstreaming of science fiction is good and bad. With The Sci Fi Channel-who once used to show some pretty amazingly cool old films, and TV shows-they somehow have "mainstreamed" wrestling into the mix. I never have liked the "new" Sci Fi Channel. There seems to be this idea that people freak out with anything strange and unusual.

I found girls backs seem to be very popular. Last year in Barnes and Noble, I spotted four covers-genre related-with girl's backs all staring out at me. What killed me was the placement of the books-you just saw this quartet of various women's heads,shoulders and backs-either naked,a blanket draped around the front, or a backless dress. It was actually really funny to see this "trend" in action!

ces said...

I love this debate! I've said it before and I'll say it again - it's the cover that attracts me to books - any book, no matter the genre. If I don't like a cover I just don't "see" the book on the shelf. There are exceptions though, if the author is one I'm familiar with. For instance, I hate the covers in McCaffery's dragon series, but I buy each book when it comes out. The same for Mercedes Lackey's books.

Regarding increasing science fiction readership - and by the way I am female - I had never read any science fiction (except Tolkien's The Hobbit) when I met my husband. He gave me a Heinlein book to read (I don't even remember which one now) - I read it - then I read every other Heinlein book I could find and every one as they were published. And I paid ZERO attention to the cover, except to notice that each time a Heinlein book was reprinted it had a new cover. I then tried a couple of other masters - Asimov and Gibson. Hated them. Then tried McCaffery, and off I was into the fantasy world for 20 years. It's only been in the past few years, and especially in the past couple of years, that I've drifted back into the science fiction. And why the past couple of years? Because of the COVERS! And I've found that the artists I have grown to love (and yes, Picacio & Martiniere are 2 of my favourite) seem to add their artistic gifts to science fiction books that I end up loving.

So editors, art directors, book publishers, etc - keep paying attention to those covers. They're visual. They attract the eye.

My only grief is - watch the placement of the typeface on the cover. I've seen one book in the past 2 months, a Martiniere cover, that was ruined by the typeface & other designer-added touches. And yes, I emailed the editor and let him/her know how I felt.

And one more comment before I go. Where does this disdain for science fiction start anyway? I don't know. But I do know one thing. School children are not exposed to science fiction. Maybe if we started teaching them in elementary school that science fiction was as worthy of their reading as, oh I don't know maybe Steinbeck, that we would have more science fiction readers today.

Lou Anders said...

Ces - I couldn't agree more. In my dreams, some Paul Allen-esque billionaire philanthropist funds an SF magazine that is distributed free to high schools nation-wide. I suspect that, in addition to altering the stigma attached to SF (which I argue elsewhere is dated and fading), it would also improve the poor numbers of Americans interested in engineering and technical degrees.

Anonymous said...

I learned a very useful cover lesson when I was a bookseller many moons ago (1987 to be precise). We had a dump bin (cardboard 48 copy display) of a new paperback novel come in and it had pride of place at the very front of the store. I watched customers checking the book out for a few days and wondered why we weren't selling any. So I picked it up and read it in order to hand-sell it and eventually I realised what the problem was.
The book was a medieval historical novel about the Wars of the Roses, by a new author, Sharon Penman. It was called HERE BE DRAGONS and the cover illustration was of medieval knights, but with a colour palette that suggested something other-worldly. It was a good book too, a very solid historical novel.
But the cover and the title combined didn't say "historical" novel to would-be readers. It said "fantasy novel".
So the fantasy readers would come and pick it up, flip it over to read the blurb, and put it back. The historical readers wouldn't even pick it up. Even when I tried to match the book to customers I knew would like it, they usually didn't want it, because the book's cover and title just communicated that it was not their sort of book.
All of which is a long-winded way to say that apart from the difficulties of cross-platform covers that appeal to different audiences, there is also the cardinal sin of book packaging: to have a cover (and perhaps a title or even format) that misrepresents the nature of the book.

(This is a huge problem with children's/YA too. Get the "age" look wrong and you can miss the whole potential audience for the book.)



Anonymous said...

Ihave to say that as a book buyer, while a cover will rarely tempt me into a book purchase I wasn't already thinking hard about, it can really turn me off. For instance, re: the "back" covers that Bob Eggleton mentioned; the Kim Harrison books have those, and I've been reliably informed that I would like the books (since I like Kim Armstrong and Patricia Briggs.) But I just can't get past the covers. (I'm not crazy about the Armstrong's covers, but at least they aren't quite as anonymous-body-objectifying-tastic as the butt covers.) I bet the main character isn't all about seduction, but the cover tells me she does. And I don't want to read about her. (Well, maybe if that cover was on a Circlet Press book. but not on my adventures, please.)

Lou Anders said...

Garth - great observation.
JE - agreed. There is a certain golden age author that I've never read, and who I am very curious about, but the only edition of his short fiction is so dreadfully garish I can't bring myself to pick it up. I should have grabbed a coffee and read it in store while it was still on shelves. Now I may never!

Lou Anders said...

So Player of Games won. It's a hundred pages shorter than Consider Phlebas (making it more likely I can fit it in between my own work-related reading), I loved the opening paragraph, and I thought it's single-planet focus would be a better introduction than the big billion-planet war of the other, even if I'm reading them opposite order of how they were written. Also picked up Jeff and Ann Vandermeer's Th New Weird anthology, because how could you not?

Anonymous said...

Oh, man. I can't believe I missed this great discussion while I was on vacation. A couple pints, albeit late ones:

1) I used to live in SE Asia, and one of my favorite things about book shopping was that all the sf books in the shops were the UK versions, and the covers were nearly always better than the US editions (in fact, I just got a paperback of The Jennifer Morgue in Bangkok whose cover totally outstrips the US edition).

This is changing, though, and Halting State is a great example of this, IMO. The garish legacy covers of classic SF books are slowly being classed up a bit in the US, and illustrators like Stephan Martiniere and the new breed of SF publishers are doing bookshelves a great service.

As a second point, don't the Discworld books have drastically different covers in the US versus the UK? That seems to be a pretty good example of the "alienation" debate.

Lou Anders said...

Hi RP:
Yes, the Discworld books are very different UK vs US. I like both, and understand the reasons behind the US look. Glad you think the US is improving!