MIND MELD: The ‘Responsibility’ of Cover Art
[Update - Included Glen Orbik's response.]
Some are flashy. Some are somber. Some knock your socks off and some make you wear argyles. But every book has cover. And every cover has to be created by someone. We contacted several artists this week and asked them the following question about book covers:
Primarily book cover art is designed to sell books. It’s a commercial venture no matter what anyone tells you. Whether it makes nice fine art on its own is beside the fact. That said, some nice fine art has made some terrific covers. For me, I work with the idea of K.I.S.S.-”Keep It Simple Stupid” as a note to self to come up with a bang-on idea by which to sell the book. Of course, in the last decade or more, such an emphasis is on the marketing of the book that, often the artist doesn’t even get to see a book! He or she gets a couple of lines of ideas or quotes from a specific scene. And also, people tell you what colors NOT to use on the cover-usually it’s greens or for some reason, purples-so I am told anyway, there may be other opinions.
I try to keep the work simple as possible so that it has a punch to it. I envision how and where type will be dropped into it and compensate for this. Lately this is essentially giving the “big book” look some people ask for. Alot of SF and Fantasy covers have gone the way of the John Grisham look wherein you’re not even sure what the genre is. It’s a question of what kind of art-it’s a question of whether any art will be at all used on the cover. On Independent publishers that’s less of a question because they cater to a core group of fans who will buy the books of a given writer-signed, good binding and so on. These are the books that will last and be loved and saved. Which is why I like being part of them.
My own work tends to be fairly narrative save for horror which has often a single image that grabs you. Working for the Indie presses, as I do, I am given a free hand with a great deal of what I do. At least two publishers will say happily “Oh, give us a ‘Bob’” meaning some landscape or something with a rocketship in it, which I am only too happy to do. I did a Robert Heinlein like that. It just summed up the title of the book perfectly. I have alot of luck with that and, like in the Subterranean Press Brian Lumley books…it’s some of my best work and when the designer has finished with the type I’m really thrilled with the entire look of it. I did a cover to Philip Jose Farmer’s Venus on the Half Shell. Not only did I like what I did, his fans all wrote me and liked it enough to buy prints, and, Farmer himself, at 90 or thereabouts, is the owner the painting, he liked it so much! That’s when it’s the best.
I respond usually to a mood, or a “feel” of the book in many cases. Something that just sums it up for me, that I, as a fan, would react to in a positive way. I’m all for doing covers that sell books. Publishers like that. I like the challenge to come up with art that will work well with the type and, I view it all as a singular package. That’s sounds terribly “commercial” but as I started…that’s what you get paid to do. And in all, I try and have fun with it and I try to make everyone happy.
The primary purpose is to ‘sell’ the book.
“Selling the book” is the function from a business stand-point. That’s what the publisher hopes for from the art. For the artist, “Selling the book” is a reason to make an intriguing image, something that can attract the potential reader. It’s an opportunity to strive for something fresh and unlike the book sitting next to it on the shelf. It always struck me as a reason to avoid formula in composing a cover. It should be an reason to invite creativity into the process. Balancing the two stated goals is only a matter of finding the common ground between them. The story is the resource the cover is drawn from. Its details and textures are what the artist has to work with in building an image. In each piece I hope the author can see some veracity in the art, that it reflects the mood or tone of the book. I also hope that the cover will be arresting enough to encourage a potential reader to pick the book up, purchase it, and after having read it not feel cheated, that the cover misrepresented the story.
I’m hired to create covers that will sell the book — something that will catch the eye of a casual browser and, with the addition of decent copy, respectable quotes, a page or six from the book, get them to buy the book. That said, no one is done any favors if we give readers a false impression of the story. We might be able to sell the first book, but we wont have much luck with others by the same author — and publisher’s really do invest in authors’ careers. All the resources spent on book one is build-up for book two, three, etc.
There are some books better served with “chapter and verse” scenes from the text and others that can afford more interpretation. The question is when do we use which approach. That all gets sorted out within a series of discussions between editors, marketing people, and myself. I’d like to think we mostly get it right…even if there are a few covers each year that I would love to get a “do over” on.
My basic rule of thumb is not to contradict the text (much). I think it’s fair game to read between the lines a bit. Even in covers that are highly literal, you’d be amazed how differently people perceive the same words. Given ten readers, you may well end up with ten different interpretations on what something or someone looks like. If those readers were intrigued enough to pick up and buy the book, then the first and most important part of my job is done.
I go into every cover assignment seeking both of these things — to create an illustration that reflects the story and to help sell the book. Truthfully, I have more control over the former, and less over the latter, since market forces and publisher budgets will often dictate which books are visible and which ones aren’t. However, as an illustrator, to not explore the territory where these two vectors intersect is short-changing the audience, the client, the author, the book, and myself. The interesting part of the question is the word “accurately.” An illustration can have a literal accuracy. It can have an emotional accuracy. It can have both. Cover art can be a foil for a story, in that it can set up reader expectations, which may be amplified, expounded upon, or subverted during the journey of the read. Accuracy is required there too; it’s a very relative thing, and I think there’s a lot of fun frontier to explore there.
The balance of the creative agendas vs. the business agendas of a cover have just as much to do with the client (publisher, art director, editorial and marketing departments) as they do with the illustrator. I once read that back in the 1950′s, when Ballantine Books was trying to compete with Ace, Ian and Betty Ballantine let their editorial and visual tastes dictate to their sales people how they would market a book. That’s why we have so many fabulous Richard Powers masterpieces on their book covers. The Ballantines felt like Powers’ illustrations — avant-garde, abstract, and decidedly different from their pulpy peers — weren’t just capable of speaking to the story, but were capable of speaking to their times. The sales forces were then given their marching orders and told to sell these books with these strange, wonderful covers, even if some of the sales people were reluctant to do so (because they weren’t used to covers that looked like that). Nowadays, I’m not sure that the equation hasn’t been reversed. Whereas back then the editorial department dictated to the sales department how a cover should look, I wonder if the cover art equation today might now be “sales dictates to editorial.” I wonder if art as revolutionary as Richard Powers’; would be given the same mainstream opportunity today, as it was back in the 1950&’s. Today, what publishing figure would have the vision and the balls to tell their reluctant sales department and beancounters, “I don’t care if you don’t like it….get out there and sell that book with that cover illustration and keep pushing it until it does sell!”? That said though, I think some of the best art is born from the greatest adversity. There’s some phenomenal cover art happening in science fiction right now. The most invigorating stuff rises to the challenge and still explores that fertile place where the signs of the times and the signals of the story converge.
Ideally both things should be equally as important in a book cover. Unfortunately things are not always ideal. Since our job as illustrators is to help the sales of a product with our art I think that under less than ideal circumstances we must take the side of effectiveness over exact accuracy, this, of course, within reason. In addition how we see a specific description in our minds is up to interpretation, so how accurate is accurate? At the end, facing a choice, I would rather sacrifice a certain degree of accuracy if it means doing a good, effective painting, than the other way around. I believe that most authors would prefer to sell more copies of their books than to have an exactly accurate cover.
The short answer from a pro illustrator is “to sell the book.” You’re certainly an integral part of the team that has that primary responsibility. If a multitude of people don’t pick the book up off the table, or the rack, or the web page, in order to be solicited further by the blurb…then ultimately, the image has failed the book…so selling the book is the “prime directive” if you will. The image has to be compelling in a way that the viewer invests herself in the story, and ultimately buys the book.
That’s not to say that the image can’t accurately reflect the story in addition to selling the book, and it most often does. Science fiction is one of the few genres that still relies heavily on cover art (THANKtheGODS!), and it is certainly a common fan complaint, when the story and cover art are contradictory. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there are some disparate culprits. A common one is that the story is often being written concurrently with the commissioning of the art, so the information invented by the illustrator wasn’t contradictory when it was done. Another culprit is that the image can be a literal reflection that depicts a part of a narrative story line, or a more iconic reflection, that gives an insight into the “feel” or character of a story. I think readers get aggravated when the second one is confused with the first; when an image that the publisher meant to be a more universal iconic image is interpreted literally, and the reader feels that there has been some kind of duplicitous bait-and-switch. This can happen more easily in science fiction because no matter what the approach, there must be enough information to tell the fan that its a sci fi book (at a glance), and that requirement is filled by a very limited pallet of alien worlds or planets, futuristic weapons, fashions, architecture, vehicles, and/or visual effects.
But enough excuses… Finally, there can be a conscious decision to diverge from the story in order to “sell the book.” (The prime directive). I think that publishers are aware of the readers’ disdain for contradictions, and no one wants to aggravate readers away from repeat business, so there needs to be a compelling reason to do it. We like great looking heroes and heroines, and we like them to align with our respective preferences… In sci fi, we like a sense of urgency…and in all things, we like romantic tension. As consumers, we’ve written the rules with our wallets, and publishers are very aware of the cost of breaking those rules. The cover image is blamed for poor sales as often as it is lauded for good sales, and we don’t really know how that weighed in with the writing, marketing efforts, word of mouth, web buzz, type solutions, demographics, and competition. Perceptions change very slowly because there is typically no after-market research into what actually caused strong sales, but that may be a good thing in that it allows more artistic latitude.
In the end, I want an image that hits all the bases (including reflecting the content) and is just damn “good”…and I believe that is what sells the book. Perhaps more importantly, it’s what keeps me stoked for the next image.
The best covers manage to do both. I certainly aim to have a cover painting that accurately reflects either a quintessential, defining scene from the story (preferably one that doesn’t give anything important away) or that captures the emotional and/or metaphorical essence of the book. It’s not always easy. Due to marketing logistics, there are times when I have to paint a cover for a book that hasn’t been written yet. Some authors are able, in those circumstances, to provide a synopsis and character descriptions, with some settings that might work. Other authors have only loose ideas and can’t be held to their own proposals once the writing begins. Other times something happens which necessitates an instant cover solution — either a last-minute painting or the purchase of some existing art to fill the need quickly. In those cases it’s impossible to read the manuscript and the artist is dependent on the editors or the author for a suggestion.
The ideal situation would allow me enough lead time to read the manuscript and work up several ideas. Failing that, input from the editor and perhaps a conversation with the author is nice. It’s not always useful for authors and artists to speak, though. Occasionally an author will try to dictate everything, which can lead to disaster if the artist doesn’t establish firm boundaries up front: the publisher, art director, and artist are the marketing pros and have to have the final say.
Generally speaking, if I don’t have either a clearly described scene in hand and if the editors don’t know what the book is about, I have to go with something more iconic. My covers for Elaine Cunningham’s Starlight and Shadow series (Daughter of the Drow, Tangled Webs and Windwalker) came directly from talking with Elaine. They’re still among my personal favorites, because our conversations led me to metaphors and symbols that hinted at the story without revealing surprises, while allowing me to focus on the characters. The three books in the Hunters’ Blades trilogy by R.A. Salvatore (The Thousand Orcs, The Lone Drow, and The Two Swords) were done before the books were completed, and Bob Salvatore didn’t have more than a brief outline written, so I chose scenes indicative of the title and full of the kind of action that Bob writes so well, but which may not have appeared in the book. His newest series will return to this less literal, more iconic approach, since they are being written some time after the art is due.
Having said all that, catching the eye of the buyer is job one. If a prospective reader doesn’t take the book down off the shelf to read the back, then I’ve failed. Accuracy is a bonus that I strive to build in, but selling the book is paramount.
To me, the purpose is undoubtedly to sell the book. The challenge, however, is to do so within the confines of the story’s restrictions.
Personally, I place great importance of accuracy, and think of it as a benefit rather than a hindrance.
When given too much creative freedom, I create less successful images. There are infinite options available to me and I have a hard time deciding on what is best. When given an assignment with a few restrictions, my work tends to flourish. It gives me a starting point from which to work. Sometimes those restrictions are the format of the image, other times it is about being faithful to the story. After all, you can’t think ‘outside of the box’ of there is no ‘box’ to begin with.
I think the 1st obligation of a cover image is to be as simple as possible to create, take as little time to execute and to pay the artist as much money as possible.
Seriously, I’ve never thought that reflecting the story or selling the book had to be opposites. The cover’s real job is to get a new reader’s attention so they’ll come over and pick it up.
If there isn’t a scene in the book which would make a great visual , one also has the option of trying for an image which faithfully captures the “feel” of the book .
As long as you , to paraphrase Norman Rockwell, “step into the picture” – or story – and look around a bit, you usually can see several directions to go. I think most cover artists – and readers – often prefer covers which add too or at least flesh out something in the story beyond strictly finding a scene in the book to simply faithfully render.
One other thought to keep in mind, the Art Director and/or Editor of the book really has the final say on what the cover will reflect.
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