MIND MELD: Recent SF/F/H Book Covers That Blow Us Away
We turn our attention to book cover art this week. A good cover can mean more sales for a book…but what makes a good cover? We asked this week’s panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
OK… honestly, I don’t see that many book covers because I’m reading tons of sf and f book manuscripts to then DO their covers…. so when I take a break, I don’t typically head off to the bookstore…. BUT, by way of homework for Mind Meld, this morning I stopped into my local Borders, and spent some time taking a look. In the end, I learned that I should do this more often, just to stay in touch with my market. First off, clearly I need to be doing more hot-babe-w-weapon +/- tattoo images, because clearly that’s half the market nowadays. (pic one)… Now I like those jackets as much as the next id-controlled red-blooded male…but if that is the context, then things that are NOT-context tend to stand out in my quest for “blew you away.” Also, I’ve learned to be leery of my id’s attraction to cover art, in that sometimes there’s a “honeymoon period.” Anyway… I decided to go hunt in the wild for these, and not just open my latest Spectrum, because a) I didn’t want to be filtered through the Spectrum judge panel, and b) I think that book design and type solution are critical to what makes a successful book cover…. and Spectrum doesn’t show me that. I even diligently wrote down all the designers names so I could credit them, and then promptly left it on the last shelf for the Border’s custodial staff, while snapping iPhone pics. I think that type/cover design is like parenting, where it can nurture, showcase and enhance the art if attended to diligently with an insightful light touch, and so easily frak it up otherwise.
So anyway…Here’s what I came up with…
Two, right off the bat by Greg Manchess. He does exceptionally good figure work (full figured?) with a perfectly spartan but juicy brushwork and fairly unfettered backgrounds…everything I do NOT do…hmmm.. Next up came Scott Fischer’s Titans of Chaos, with a beautifully rendered heroine in a levitation trance…. really exploring the boundaries of her image crop in an unconventional way. I also love Scott’s whimsical ornamentation and color use…
I was very pleased to come across Adam Rex’s Hawkspar… ok, so she’s a sort of hot babe with a weapon…but unconventionally cropped in a beautifully painted abstract-ish shape that plays with positive / negative space and depth… Very sweet indeed. It’s great to see Adam doing pieces back in-genre between his amazing kids’ books. I’m a bit of a Stephan Martiniere groupie… and he was so omnipresent in the sf and f isle that he really is becoming his own context… My first pic from Stephan, River of Gods, is a solid member of that context, but my second pic, Brasyl, with its neon landscape and larger figures, is a bit of a departure, and one of my faves from him. And that type solution is the best I’ve seen in a LOOOOOOONG time, by Jackie Cooke of Prometheus/PYR books (I remembered her because she did some of mine for Pyr).
I was quite taken with the Orcs trilogy, which features a fantastically sculpted head by Tom Lauten, starkly photographed by Geoff Spear. That’s a great bang for the buck.
I loved John Picacio’s Gateway, with his hallmark -surprising and clever- montage of figure and stuff (space in this case). Chris McGrath is probably my favorite of the new-photographic-image-guys-on-the-block. He has a great stylistic treatment that gives a grainy atmosphere, and in Midwinter, his figures are not in a typical “pigeon roost” pose looking noble and concerned, but here, kind of caught unawares in a candid moment of uncertainty. KUDOS to his art director too. Jon Foster’s Boneshaker is a great example of using only a face to bring off great personality and tone in his heroine, while utilizing her goggles as a focus to tell us the story, and set us firmly in the Steampunk genre.
Lastly, John Jude Palencar is a huge favorite… His work is so mystical and serene, and exquisitely rendered between long drags of unfiltered cigarettes (buy his originals now!) This square format, lopping off the wing of an angel with an unconventional crop no less, is an unexpected joy…. is that…um….sick?
I worked in both general fiction/nonfiction bookcovers for St. Martins Press and Doubleday before being lucky enough to take the art helm, as it were, at Orbit Books soon after they launched in the US, and I think first you have to look at what makes a good bookcover in general, before you take on the genre nuances. A bookcover ultimately has only one job: Be eye-catching enough to stop someone in their tracks (whether it is in a store, or increasingly, online) and catch their interest just long enough for them to want to flip the book over and read the back (or scroll down and read the synopsis and reviews). Now everyone in the publishing process has a different idea of what that cover should be, but you’re asking a designer, and the designer will always say you catch the most fish with a really gorgeous, cool, well-balanced bookcover that catches your eye, then drags it in, and doesn’t let it go until you’ve really looked at it, instead of just glancing over it.
Now specifically for scifi/fantasy bookcovers, I think we as designers/illustrators also have another job: giving the reader’s imagination a really good starting point. I think it’s more important in our genre than pretty much any other that we be as true as possible to the descriptions and worldbuilding in the books as possible. Our readers love these books because they want to be swallowed up by the world our authors have toiled long and hard to create – your mind always has the picture of the cover in your mind when you start reading, and if you have to work against that as you read the book, it takes away from the experience, I think. So it’s a personal pet peeve of mine, as a fan first, when a cover is blatantly misrepresenting the details in the book. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s always room for simplification, and artistic license, but you have to be true to the essence of a book, and the tone of the book, the author’s voice. When you can do all that AND have a book with good type, legibility, and balance AND be a groundbreaking design idea you haven’t seen before is when you have a winner.
Also, in scifi/fantasy covers it’s really hard to divorce nostalgia from design when thinking of our favorite covers – some of these books, and covers, have such deep meaning to who we are as people, a lot of good designers have soft spots for laughably bad covers…so I’m really glad you’re asking for recent examples! To be fair, I’m going to leave Orbit books out of my picks – you can read my posts on the Orbit blog anytime and read my notes and feelings on the covers as we release them.
RECENT FAVES (in no order of import): This might be a radical admission to some of you, but I’m going to include a bunch of Young Adult books here. I think there’s so many adults reading YA scifi & fantasy right now that we can’t pretend it’s a separate section anymore. I’ve been really inspired by a lot of the designs coming out for the YA genre books lately, and god I so covet the budgets for effects!
Also, a pet peeve of mine – and I know a lot of you art fans out there – is the issue of crediting artists/designers online. Until the info is easy to find on Amazon/B&N, getting people to credit is impossible. I’m embarrassed to say I am missing credits below, and I looked online for them. Anyone have any good suggestions about how to solve this issue? Because googling for back covers is a pain. Maybe we should all get together and campaign for the big websellers to put art credits in the book info listings.
- The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer (design by Ervin Serrano, Jacket illustration from Isifa/Alamy/Getty) I love the type. That took some TIME, people. It’s totally over the top, but it tells you it’s awesome, gives you a time period, and a nice balance with the sliver of an image. Really great texture pumped into the image too. (As you can see from my first few picks, I’m a big a Steampunk fan, so that helps catch my eye)
- Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (design by Sammy Yuen Jr., illustrations by Keith Thompson & Sammy Yuen Jr.) Again, ridiculously mechanical and over-the-top. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many effects on a book, it almost jumped off the shelf and punched me in the face.
- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: (illustration by Jon Foster, Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill) I know, I know, another Steampunk book. But I love the in-you-face zoom right in the character’s face. I see that a lot in photo-based covers, but rarely in illustrations. Kind of made me wonder if that was originally the idea, or if the designer zoomed in from a larger illustration during the layout process. Nice type too. I’m a sucker for texture.
- Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter: (painting by Sam Weber, design by ??) Sam Weber is my favorite painter right now. If there were 5 of him around to paint books it wouldn’t be nearly enough for me. I literally drooled when I saw his illustrated Lord of the Flies for the Folio Society.
- Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow: (design by Suzanne Dean, illustration by Natasha Michaels) I’ll tell you a dirty little designer secret I have – I hate hardcover jackets. I think they’re annoying. If every hardcover I have could be printed paper-over-board or silkscreened right onto the book fabric, I would be a happy designer. I saw this cover and was pissed I didn’t get to do it. That’s just about the highest praise one designer can give to another.
- Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick: (design by Lucy Ruth Cummins, photo by James Porto) I love how the image is so subtly colored towards the top. A really subtle touch. And the pearl paper is so nice. Such a spare design, it really was a breath of fresh air when I saw it. Not such a huge fan of the type, but it is more appropriate for the YA section, so I’ll let it slide.
- Fallen by Lauren Kate: (design by ?? Art by Fernanda Brussi Goncales) can you say atmosphere? I want to know who that girl is and why she is in despair. Great typeface choice, Elegant but with a little subtle creepiness.
- Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl: (design by David Caplan, lettering by Si Scott, photo by Robert Clark) 3 words: Hand. Lettered. Type. You don’t get it better than this. It doesn’t tell you anything about the book, really, but it’s so sexy that you just have to pick it up. The purple foil didn’t hurt either, but even flat color online, it’s gorgeous.
- Graceling (UK Edition) by Kristin Cashore: design by ?? Art by Larry Rostant) Larry is one of my favorite photo-illustrators working today, and I just thought the lighting on this figure was fantastic. And I love the really spare background. I was so disappointed when I saw the US cover…kind of quiet in comparison.
I’ve probably been too involved in the industry over the last few years – bookseller, commercial editor, now novelist – to really look at this as a question of aesthetics. By successful, I assume we mean commercial – for that, the answer is usually that a successful cover captures the fanbase of another (preferable large selling) author, and captures the casual bookstore browser. Just look at what “people also bought” on Amazon pages, and you’ll often see how buyers work. A good cover though doesn’t have to please people in the genre community, strangely. It needs to communicate with the casual bookstore customer, the ones who don’t get involved in online flame-wars. This is the bulk of the industry, whether we like it or not, and a cover needs to communicate to them.
Other things influence sales – how much advertising is spent; how much money publishers pay in order to have books on table displays (What, you thought they were free?) – but the cover is the best weapon a new author might have. So “successful”, in real terms, in terms that feed the author, means the cover which communicates to that casual reader. Sometimes it’s making the book look enough like something similar (just look at the glut of Twilight rip-offs); sometimes it’s taking an element and modernising it slightly (hooded figures against a white background is nicely high contrast and eye-catching). If it catches their eye (high contrast again) and then informs them about a whole bunch of things they need to know, then it’s successful. Then it’s up to the writer.
So I think of all these things when I look at a cover. Who’s it speaking to? What does it tell customers about the book? What else would they have read that’s similar? It really needs to inform the customer enough to make them pick the book up. I don’t make buying choices like this – I tend to browse what people say online, and then explore my own quirks and whims, and covers are usually the last thing I’m concerned about as a consumer.
As a result, I don’t tend to get blown away by a cover, but I can certainly get blown away by the art in isolation. So let’s plug an artist. One that has recently awed me is this guy, Jesse van Dijk.
Hah! Pretty loaded question. I would say as an illustration professional, the most successful covers are the ones that help the book connect story with audience, publisher and author with cash, while at the same time, creating a resonant image that’s true to the best intentions of the manuscript’s spirit. When I illustrate a book cover, I pursue the intersection of those vectors. I’m hoping to create an image that not only makes an audience take notice, but hopefully resonates in their heads long after first glance.
As far as my personal tastes, the most successful sf/f/h book covers have a sense of “becoming”. This can mean a lot of different things. “Becoming” can be an aspect of the tactile making or technique of a piece of cover art, such as the loose paint strokes and shape-making of John Berkey, John Harris, or Greg Manchess. It can also apply to the associative way a traditional/digital hybrid artist like Dave McKean layers disparate materials together to create an image. Becoming can be an aspect of conceptual communication. Look at the works of Brad Holland or the great Polish poster artist Wiktor Sadowski. They present seemingly simplistic images that unfold complex ideas, unveiling a transcendent truth, far greater than the sum of its parts. Becoming can be the way an image might seem unfinished, waiting to be completed, half-seen, or even transformative. It can be the way it suggests just the right combination of narrative questions, rather than the promise of resolution. Becoming doesn’t spoon-feed and isn’t slave to the latest game of “follow the leader”. It isn’t the path of least resistance. It favors an audience that is active, rather than passive, dynamic of imagination, rather than static with nostalgia. It favors an image that evokes, rather than an image that crams the frame with every literal detail. Becoming welcomes the audience into the making of the image in some way. It trusts their minds, hearts, and imaginations to complete the picture.
Becoming is a relatively rare thing in today’s cover art world. I’m not quite sure why. I aspire toward becoming in all of my work, regardless of subject matter, and yet I feel I often fall agonizingly short. It’s not easy and it’s elusive, but when it manifests, it’s my favorite victory. When I see a fellow illustrator pull it off, it stops me in my tracks. Here are a few recent works by other artists that were successful in that regard for me, and resonate in my imagination:
- Cover art for Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch by John Coulthart (Underland Press) [Hi-Res]
- Cover art for Carrie Mac’s The Gryphon Project by Sam Weber (Penguin Canada) [Hi-res]
- (Although this image of Weber’s is more resonant to me than The Gryphon Project, but is not a book cover): Art for Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind by Sam Weber (Tor.com) [Hi-res]
- Cover art for Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician by Eric Fortune (Starscape) [Hi-res]
From an artistic point of view, the cover realized for a book is the link to another Universe, a door to a vast array of words, concepts and images wishing to play with our minds for many years to come. Each time I visit a bookshop I see all those volumes blinking from the shelves like fishermen hunting for the left hemisphere of our brain, the fantastic side of our souls. My Italian friend and publisher Silvio Sosio at Delos Books says that a good illustration must tell the story inside the book, in some way tell a story “by itself”, autonomously, not work just as a static representation. This is the reason why I try to hide secret messages inside the lines of my work, messages that sometimes you understand only after you’ve read the book. Our primary task is pushing you to pick up the book, then elaborating a supernatural bond, something transcending the sale of the novel.
A successful image has to be aesthetically perfect and let the perspective choices, the composition lines, the “weight” of the different parts strike your mind with no mercy. After many years of fantastic illustration and many thousands of books, after generations of artists and almost two decades of Spectrum annuals, the bar is higher for anyone trying to mark his/her passage with an unforgettable work. I like very much what Tor and Irene Gallo have done with the Wheel of Time series, delivering a well-known milieu in the hand of fourteen top-class artists, such as Sam Weber and Dan Dos Santos. We get here an art director and an illustrator trying to outdo themselves at the same time, feeling the responsibility of the event. The recent covers for Fires of Heaven and The Shadow Rising blew me literally away.
Other elements that we cannot underestimate are the name of the writer, sometimes the name of the artist whose style can be recognized by careful eyes, and most of all the type design. Subterranean Press and Pyr Book are coming out with many editions where elegance is the key word. I like so much the covers for Desolation Road and The Taborin Scale.
Where’s the secret? What about the ingredients of the magic recipe? What’s behind the joint-venture between an art director and the artist’s talent, trying to unleash a 3D-cover without the help of glasses? Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly what’s so alluring… the eyes of a character maybe, the lettering, a mixture of color and spells? We artists keep humbly working hard searching for the perfect cover… it’s the best statement we can release on behalf of the literary genre we love!
Oddly enough, one recent one that blew me away was for the cover to Red Claw. It’s not even art, but a photo involving toy spacemen and dead bugs. It actually made me pick up the book and then buy it once I started reading through it. The design was great and the red color just jumped out at me. It’s very stark but that’s what did it for me. That and the fact I actually OWN the toy spacemen used, of the same era. And the book is terrific.
Another one was The Breath of God by Harry Turtledove with the cover by Greg Manchess. I love mammoths and Greg’s work anyway. End of story there!
And still another was the cover to Gary Gianni’s graphic novel version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea… very painterly, like Greg’s cover mentioned before, and very colorful.
I suppose the main goal of the cover is not only to sell the book, but also to stick to the overall theme and subject of the novel. Artistically speaking, I would say the best is to often, not to say always, have either a strong contrast, or a strong color duality with saturated tones. I would even say it is wise to raise saturations above the “reality” norm in order to have it pop out even more to the eyes of the viewer. As usual, composition is the key, with one very strong subject surrounded by secondary background elements. Adding details only where it’s vital for the overall visual circulation, is best.
However, as we often say, break the rules a bit and you’ll bring your image to another level.
Well I am always blown away by all the new pieces by my friend Stephan Martiniere. Shrapnel 3, or Terra Insegura, are absolutely awesome. Perfect sense of composition, perfect balance. Even though not strictly “new”, John Harris has been having a few good covers that I love, as they go straight to the point in a subtle “painted strokes” way.
Ahh, a topic close to my heart.
I’ve written in the past about my displeasure for the current trends in cover design. It seems like every publisher is caught in some self-fulfilling prophecy that to sell books, you need to have an Abercrombie & Fitch model on the cover. This, of course, is absurd, and looks painfully cliché on the shelves of bookstores.
Of course, the hooded man applies mostly to secondary world Fantasy, but every sub-genre seems to have its own cliché. I mean… how many tramp-stamped heroines do we really need?
What do I like? I love when an artist is given free reign to be inventive and capture the tone and character of a story. I’ve often heard the argument that clichés enforce a readers perception of a novel (the publisher wants to make sure that they know what they are buying… or buy something simply because it looks very similar to another book), but I think a good designer can identify a novel while still being creative and artistic.
That said, there are some covers that are terribly traditional… that I absolutely love.
I’ve picked a few covers that fall into both categories.
- Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie – My favourite cover in years. It captures all the swashbuckling charm of Abercrombie’s novels, while also hinting at the ruthless nature of the story within. With The Blade Itself, Gollancz took a chance, produced a cover that looked like nothing else on the market and each subsequent novel since has topped the last.
- The Sad Tales of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington – Lauren Panepinto at Orbit pulled out all the stops with this amazing artwork. Sure, the layout and typography is simple, but the stark, complicated image immediately captured my imagination.
- Red Claw by Philip Palmer – Another cover by Panepinto that takes chances and seems to split opinions. I absolutely love it. Reminds me greatly of playing in my back yard and launching my own adventures into space and onto alien planets.
- The Dervish House by Ian McDonald – Really, you could pick anything Pyr Books publishes and stick it on this list. Lou Anders does a fantastic job of hooking up with the best artists in the industry and letting them run wild. The imagery on The Dervish House is at once familiar and otherworldly.
- The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (UK edition) – In North America, Sanderson’s Mistborn series have rather traditional covers. Gollancz (funny how the same publishers keep popping up on this list…) went the opposite direction and created moody, impressionistic covers that both stand out, get their hooded figure and capture the story within.
- Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren – Angry Robot Books is new on the scene, but their cover for Walking the Tree quickly put them on my radar. What can I say? I’m a sucker for anything green. Screams ‘Fantasy’, but in a good way, not an I’m-embarrassed-to-be-seen-reading-this-in-public kinda way.
Really, this list could go on forever. Others that could easily fall on this list are The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham, The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham (the Doubleday edition), The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan (the E-book edition, not the horrendous cover you find in bookstores) and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston. And that’s just looking back over the past year or two.
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