Cover Her Face, Mine Eyes Dazzle* — by Sarah

Recently, through a series of unconnected incidents, including discussing the cover for my upcoming Sword And Blood (as Sarah Marques, from Prime Books) I became aware that not only are covers still important, but what’s a “good cover” has changed dramatically over the last few years.

Or perhaps it isn’t a good cover that has changed but my perception of a good cover.

When I first sold my Shakespeare Fantasies, my idea for the cover was that it would show a young Shakespeare meeting a lady in the forest. It might have done well. Instead I got what many small presses are resorting to these days: out of copyright art from Sandis, utterly nondescript, even if gorgeous.

This probably would have been salvageable, if the cover said ANYTHING about “fantasy” or even “Fiction.” But it didn’t. Rumor has it that it was supposed to have the big marketing plan that is limited if one restricts the audience to “those who read fantasy.” Anyway, speaking of slips betwix the cup and the lip, that got lost… somehow. So what bookstores were faced with was this book called Ill Met By Moonlight (Until M. Lackey reused the title, the only book by that name was a WWII non fiction, btw) with a classical painting on the cover.

Children, that book got shelved EVERYWHERE except… where it was meant to be. From Art to Shakespeare Biography to Theater, the book went everywhere… and no one could find it.

This was when I learned that a cover was not just a piece of art to put on the outside of the book and make it pretty – it wasn’t even, at any level – an attempt to represent what was in the book. Rather, it worked like those drawings on the outside of packages to grab the attention of the distracted shopper. (Those can misfire too. Once in Germany I spent my precious last money on a container of lard, thinking it was ice-cream. Yeah, I knew German – two years – but not enough. I saw the word “creamy” and the drawing looked like ice-cream.)

If you’re selling, say, crackers… do you have a drawing of a beautiful, laughing baby? Why? You might have that in teething biscuits, mind, but it best have a large biscuit superimposed. Trust me, as an often distracted shopper, I often grab the wrong thing because I forget to read. However, even if the best thing about your teething biscuits are oat flakes, do you have a drawing of a bowl of oatmeal too? Well… no, that would confuse people. Particularly if it’s the only thing you have.

For books this is even more tricky. You have to look at it, pretend it’s not yours and analyze what it says. The cover from Prime, on first iteration, had a sword with a big polished shield behind, ghostly wings coming out of the shield, and a chain around the top. There was also some dark stuff that might be lace, but what I got was the type of cover that should grace a title called “the Sword of the Conqueror.” With Sword in the title, nine out of ten people would look at it and go “military fantasy” or “historical military” and never even notice the black lace. After I talked to the editor, it came back with a heart where the shield had been, which signals “romantic fantasy” and perhaps even “vampire”. I hope. The black lace seems more obvious and serves notice the book has… not exactly uncomplicated sex within its pages.

I will tell you in all earnestness, though, even two years ago, I’d have been appalled at the cover. It’s too simple, too Symbol filled, with too few human figures. But now we’re in an age of ebooks, and in a thumbnail, the sword, the heart and the chains will be very visible, and perhaps lead people to click on it, which will then reveal the wings and the lace. I think it will work.

Frankly, even the debacle that was my Shakespeare series didn’t teach me how to see covers properly – the second book shows a woman in historical costume wandering the streets of London carrying a lantern. Very pretty. However, there’s not even a flying fairy to give the idea that this is not an historical romance. And btw, in the book, they used mage lights, which might have served as more of a warning. The third does have centaurs – in the distance. So tiny you could barely see them. Behind the large woman, holding a lantern.

Note that NONE of these said “this is fantasy with fairies and Shakespeare. You’d think it would be easy, right? Have the iconic Shakespeare image somewhere, even if you prettify him and youngify him. Have an elf or a fairy, or something. Nope.

Strangely, the people who bought the book, unless they’d read a review, weren’t looking for fantasy or Shakespeare. It took years for word of mouth to get started, and by then the book was out of print, and I was getting no royalties, though for a while (until two years ago) boxes of the book were apparently discovered in the publisher’s warehouses and thrown into circulation. (Yeah.)

Fast forward to my first book with Baen. I don’t know what Jim was thinking, except that he was very ill at the time, which is the only possible excuse fo the cover of Draw One In The Dark – the hard cover cover – which managed to go one better on the first Shakespeare cover. Not only didn’t it have almost anything to do with the book, but it signaled all wrong as to genre and style and, oh, yeah, it was repulsive to look at.

Children, while a pretty cover won’t sell a book, a horrible-looking cover, no matter if it is accurate, won’t sell your books. (The exception will be some zombie anthologies.) I mean, if you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with that picture on the wall… it’s not a good cover. It has to draw the reader forth.

The cover has been described as “A zombie with an udder fetish.” For reasons semi explicable, he stands in front of a castle. For reasons even less explicable, the castle is called The Athens. The only element that rings true are the dragons behind the castle… but they are… uh… strange looking.

In the context of the castle, the dragons and the zombie, what you think is “uh… historical fantasy with dragons. VERY dark fantasy. Possibly set in Athens.” Actually, the story is light urban fantasy with shape shifters set in a diner.

Because the book cover is executed at middle-school skill, you will also – probably – assume it’s a YA. A… uh… horror YA.

I was VERY happy when the cover was changed for the paperback, and I’m still grateful to Toni for changing it. She got me Tom Kidd, an artist I love, too. The cover shows a city street and a Chinese dragon. It’s not quite… I mean, it still looks dark and all. But it is a nice cover as opposed to a “Good gracious, what’s that?”

For the sequel, Gentleman Takes A chance, the cover shows the diner on which the plot centers, and on the roof of it a dragon, a panther and a lion. It looks nice and inviting.

Being a writer, I just thought “well, they’re both scenes from the book.” And “Nice.” And it didn’t hit me that the covers weren’t doing their job until I was at a convention with Ilona Gordon, (half of Ilona Andrews) and we were signing at the same table. She picked up my books and said “What are they?” I said “Urban fantasy” and she said “I’d never have guessed.” And proceeded to instruct me on urban fantasy covers. They always have a hot girl or sometimes a hot guy, with a tattoo or a weapon or a hint of danger. Yes, it gets monotonous, but in the quick-signage game it works like a dream. People who like urban fantasy will pick it up immediately, and give it a chance.

(BTW, my instincts were right even if I knew nothing, because what I wanted for the first cover was something that resembled Tattoo by Boris Valejo and for the second, I had the vague idea of a woman in a short skirt, leaning against a lamppost in noir style, while a saber tooth jumps at her. Ah, well, maybe for the third book. And no, I don’t blame Toni for the mis-signaling on the covers. I didn’t know any better, and I DO read UF, which Baen isn’t known for – well, okay, not traditional UF.)

My Magical British Empire series, again lovely covers. But except for the details (a ship flying in, a flying building and a dragon) they could be travelogues, rather than historic fantasy with a hint of steampunk (i.e. magical machinery is big in the stories.) What could they have done to show that? I don’t know. I’m not a cover artist. Perhaps put goggles on the dragon? (G)

Frankly, the cover I like best, so far, is the Darkship Thieves cover. It doesn’t show a scene from the novel, but it evokes the novel beautifully. First there’s Athena, unclothed and looking like she’s quite sufficient onto herself. behind her is a spaceship and the powerpods twine around her. It has a “Heinlein” feel, says science fiction, and says it’s about a woman. The “sexy” bit suggests romance, which the book does have. Forget that the scene isn’t anywhere near the book (you can’t walk naked in space, okay. No, not even Thena) it’s perfect signage.

And now you know, I think, why romance always has some beautiful half clothed woman in period clothing/not and often being held by a brawny man (but not always.) Because the signage says “Romance” and that’s all. After that people go with title and blurb. SOMETIMES they will also go with “how nice is the cover” which hints at how good the company thought the book was. But that’s all. I can pick out regency romances based on clothing alone. (And do.)

So, how has that changed for the net? I’m seeing a lot more – even in Romance – of just partial shots of a woman in luscious clothing, or a brawny man supporting her. In the seventies and even recently, it would show man, woman, their faces, the ducal mansion, a horse, a butterfly and three kittens. (I’m exaggerating, but look up the covers at smart bitches.) Now it’s tightly focused and uncluttered. Why? Ebooks. Thumbnails.

One of the small publishers, who is trying to go with the “scene from the book” approach has a woman sitting on a buckboard wagon. From the position, in the thumbnail, it looks like she’s doing what bears do in the woods. Okay, it got me to click on it. For all the wrong reasons.

Take the cover for Death Of A Musketeer with Naked Reader. If it were still the market we had two years ago, I’d hate that cover. It’s just a hand, with a frilly glove, holding a sword.

I’ll grant you that mystery covers are in general more sparse (unless it’s funny mystery. No, don’t ask.) but that, on a shelf says “historical book on swords. Non fiction.” On an ebook it says “Hand, sword. What? Oh, Death – ah, mystery – of a musketeer, ah historical mystery. Okay. maybe I’ll download sample!” In other words, for a book I expect to sell MOSTLY in electronic format, it’s perfect.

Do I have a handle on this? Well, no. Cover artists and designers make a living from this. I wouldn’t take over their craft anymore than I would expect them to take over mine. Do they backfire? Sure. They’re human. The problem is, until recently everything depended on the cover. Now, it sort of does. The cover needs to signal the right genre, the right feel, and be intriguing enough for people to pick up the book. It also has to be clear in black and white, which is all the kindle (still by far the largest ebook platform) displays.

This seems to be leading to clear/concise signage and just enough visual interest to encourage download.

What are you feelings, both on cover and on how it’s changing?

*Yes, I HAVE been reading Agatha Christie’s Sleeping murder, again.

Crossposted at According To Hoyt

17 thoughts on “Cover Her Face, Mine Eyes Dazzle* — by Sarah

  1. Covers are definitely getting more challenging. About two itereations of Bar software ago, someone posted an excellent rundown of what was required on the covers of which genre to properly cue what sort of book they are. I wish I’d copied it.

    The addition of clear thumbnails, and “works in B&W” doesn’t help a bit. That last was new to me, but probably obvious to all Kindle owners.

  2. Found it! This is from “V” on the Bar, I’m afraid I don’t know her name, to give proper attribution.

    Cover art, like the fiction it is created for, has tropes (or, to use Art Language, “vernacular”). It has to.

    According to People Who Know These Things (J. Crusie is one of them), cover art has to do three things: catch the browsers attention from across the room or from the other end of the aisle, be appealing to the browser when they get close, give an accurate representation of the story. This is why books face out on a shelf sell better than the ones spine out. You’ve got a mini-billboard advertising your story. (This would also be why a book’s cover is decided by a committee made up of art, marketing and sales, if my research into the business is as correct as my findings are consistent. ) This “______ inside” imperative combined with the billboard-on-a-book creates styles/schools/genres of their own. They have to. They’ve got about thirty seconds at the absolute max to convince some to “come look at me.” That is a lot of data to encode.

    So Cover People like to stick with what works. As far as I can tell from, Frank Frazetta set the Fantasy Vernacular for cover art and other artist like Michael Wheland, and Boris Vallejo continued it. They made the fantastical and the unreal look real and alive and, above all, possible. It also helped that all of their work (that I’ve seen at least) were either “action shots” or provocative portraiture in a wait-a-minute setting.

    I’ve yet to see any of this in any other genre except science fiction. This is not an accident. Science Fiction is starting to sub-divide into Frazetta inspired standards, photo-realistic art with futuristic settings or graphic design stuff like Stephenson’s and Gaiman’s covers because those stories are set in the “real world”.

    Romances have various schools of cover art. A regency will always have a woman in an empire waist gown posed artfully either with or without a man in period dress. Typically, the more risque the plot the more the people are falling out of their clothes. Unless there is some period-like thing on the cover. A fan. A shoe. A carriage. Pick a museum quality example of a something period, and I can pretty much assure you that it’s a modern story with modern characters doing modern things in period dress. The same goes for all the other historicals.

    Category romances will always have a photo-realistic or just plain staged photo of a scene from the book.

    Thriller/Suspense crossovers will have one of two things: body part covers or evocative-and-shadowy images (think museum piece, only modern and dark pop-culture-ish that reflects a scene or thing from the story).

    Chick lit has cartoony, stylized covers to reflect the highly styled lives of the characters.

    Paranormal romance is borderline goth/punk with fangs/fur/claws and/or headless bodies in an urban setting when it is not a CGI star field/fuzzy light effect with some sort of skiffy-ish image as the focal point.

    All the westerns I’ve seen have a Remington-like cover or a photo-realistic painting of a scene from the book. The rare instances where I haven’t this are the kinda-sorta crosses over to men’s fiction. Those tend to have a lot of gun play in the story and a magazine layout like cover with men in period dress and guns.

    There are some changes to these vernacular over time. The chick lit covers were a gamble that paid off. I’ve seen cover art styles that were rightfully let to die unmourned — a woman in leathers standing by a wolf surrounded by a glowing green grid (a la the Enterprise’s holodeck) for a fantasy novel is the one that comes to mind right away.

    IMO, Passage is a fantasy/romance/western crossover. On top of that, the series plays with all the tropes common to fantasy (its primary market) as well as a few from the romance side. It hasn’t violated any western tropes, yet, but that’s okay. The fact that it’s part western is mind-bending enough. Plus most of the action is about quietly defying culture rather than a rousing war to end all wars. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t been done before so the cover art people are left scratching their heads. So now we’re back to the mini-billboard thing. How do you show civil disobedience on a cover, make it look exciting and still do the “truth in advertising” thing? Start with the story. Select a scene that applies to the whole of the book and illustrate that. One way is to go with graphic design and a meaningful image/thing — which is modern and slick and doesn’t reflect the feel of the book. Another way is to mine museums for inspiration. With the exception of tCoC, Eos has gone with what I call Museum Art. (Renaissance for the 5Gods books, Curry and Bingham for the Wide Green World.) Which is good. There is a lot of range of expression there with a lot of different “genres” (schools) to choose from. Eos seems to have gone with naturalism of the 18th century. That fits the tech in your stories to date. The look is also organic and a little awestruck. That fits the feel of your series. So that’s the over all style — “Frontier Art.” (Actually, it’s Naturalism, Historical, and Middle West Regional Art. I just equate it with the “settling the frontier”. )

    That brings me to each individual story in the Wide Green World. _Beguilement_ and _Legacy_ had it easy. It was actually one big story about two people meeting, falling in love and learning about each other, each other’s cultures, and ground/groundwork while getting married. Taken as a whole, the picture has two people separated by a good distance in a dark wood (that scary place in children’s fables), yet they’re sharing a blanket (a colloquialism for sleeping together and/or marriage) and connected by a line of light made up of what looks like glowing magic dust (twu luv/groundwork). The knife that started this whole thing is prominently displayed on the heroine in a place and manner that doesn’t make sense when going into a fight. (I’d worry about cutting my own throat if I drew it without removing the sheath first.) _Passage_ has it harder. You say it’s a road trip story via river. The hero/heroine are outcasts/pioneers, only they don’t know where they’re going (beyond “down the river”) or what they’re looking for. On their travels, they pick up a motley cohort of farmers and Lakewalkers. Hijinks and quiet rebellion ensue. Right. You said marketing nixed the flat boat cover. Which is a good thing, IMO. River boats of any style are too Mark Twain-ish, and there has to be truth in advertising*.

    That leaves us with the crossover break down.

    Fantasy: heroic poses, something in the hand that could be either a walking staff or a weapon. Check.

    Romance: two couples, one of them embracing. Check.

    Western: open vistas and protective stances. Check.

    Plot: Morning storm clouds echo Dag and Fawn’s troubled new beginning. They’re temporarily motionless, looking off into the distances (each in a slightly different direction) as if trying to decide which way to go. Fawn is supporting Dag — who looks like he’s in pain. Whit is looking at them with watchful expression while the Captain has her back turned to the group so she can look at the river showing that she’s with them but not really _with_ them. Check.

    Action: The river winding off into the distance indicates what kind of road trip. Check.

    The only thing that’s really missing is the bandaged leg showing Dag’s wounded warrior aspect. — which would have help offset the “It’s too static” comments. All in all, it does a good job of getting the story across. However, it may be a bit too subtle for the average fantasy reader if the comments here are any indication.

    That is the problem with creating new cover vernacular — people want the kind of images/billboards/signposts they have come to expect and can understand at a glance. Sound familiar? On a goodish note, it will certainly stand out from the rest of the pack. (In a “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right” fashion.) Victoria *Diana Mott Davidson told the audience at a mystery convention of her cover for _Sweet Revenge_, which was originally titled _The Whole Enchilada_. (She writes murder mysteries where the sleuth is a caterer, and there is food all over the place, including the covers.) Davidson had 12 hours to come up with a new title because the marketing director and the art director got into a fight over the cover art. The Art Director said “a cupcake with frosting is the whole enchilada” (Apparently, there was no picture of an enchilada to be had. Anywhere.) The marketing director insisted that cupcakes were not enchiladas. The Art Director said “the cake with the frosting embodies the concept of the whole enchilada”. The Marketing Director said “No, they don’t. Change it.” Whereupon they degenerated into a kind of “is, too/is not” battle that was only ended by the looming deadline.

    1. I don’t think she’s QUITE right. The chick with the wolf would TOTALLY sell a UF.

      BTW, unless you’re J K Rowling, even if you have cover consult, it’s not… uh… binding. As I’ve found the times I’ve had it.

  3. I think it was the addition of the “holodeck glowing green grid” that was the problem. I’d have tended to assume that combo was a cyberpunk D&D gaming story.

    Yeah, I’ve heard before that you take the cover you’re dealt, and deal with it.

  4. Then there’s the really interesting problem that UK/Aussie/NZ etc readers have a completely different view of what covers should look like. The UK sphere for SF/Fantasy tends much more towards symbolic and stylized cover art, where the US market leans very heavily towards a kind of quasi photorealism with a big preference for faces and bodies. For a good example, search the Anne McCaffrey dragon books on Amazon UK and Amazon US. And realize that neither set of covers would work on grayscale ebook readers.

    1. And it can change, too. In Portugal even ten years ago, most of the covers were blank with just the title.. Now they seem to have US style covers, at least for the vamp novels. Also, in the seventies, the way to signal “mystery” in Portugal was “Photo of random body part.” I don’t mean dead or dismembered, but you know, the photo of a hand, or a leg… It was weird.

    2. I know as an Australian, many US fantasy covers make me gag. They seem stuck in the seventies with poses and artwork. It makes me wonder about the hard and fast cover tropes Sarah talks about. Could it be that these “rules” are being followed too slavishly, worried that the audience has no discernment at all? But then I have spoken to folks in the US who get Katherine Kerr’s Deverry novels, and they love the covers that to me look second rate, so it may just be cultural differences.

      Of course it doesn’t help that many covers look like they were done by art-school dropouts. One reason I love Micheal Whelan’s cover art is it is art.

      One site I visit that has fun with bad covers(and there are sooo many of them) is “Good Show Sir”. Even when they are ripping some of my favourite artists, what they say is always fun.

      1. Brendan,

        And there you have it – to the US eye, those covers are good, at least partly because US audiences have been “trained” that this is what a fantasy cover looks like.

        Even more interesting, to the US eye, the UK-style covers are “bad” because they don’t signal what the book is about and don’t look right – but because Oz/UK/NZ readers have been seeing that style of cover in their bookstores, they see the same artwork as “good”.

        Finding something that appeals to both sets of expectations and works in thumbnail and grayscale is, shall we say, challenging.

        1. Sigh. Pratchett’s US publisher uses very uh uncluttered, one object type of covers. IMHO this is why, without push, the books weren’t getting nowhere. The Tiffany Aching covers are somewhat better, but god G-d almighty, the art is still “cartoonish” and far too young for what it should be. In that case, I like the UK covers much better.

          Oh, and for the record, I HOPE my Japanese publisher will send me the cover to DST over there. I’m very curious. 🙂

  5. Hi Sarah and Pam,

    My understanding of the reason faces and people are used on covers is that readers are supposed to identify more readily with people than ‘things’. When I used to write reveiws for newspapers, the article would always be accompanied by a picture of the author. I questioned the paper several times on this. I mean, if I’m reveiwing a book, I want a picture of the cover – after all, that’s what a buyer will see in the shop. The editors of the paper didn’t agree. A picture of the author was apparently more appealing for readers of the newspaper.

    I’ve only had one cover and it was really terrible. It was a cover for a short story collection and I was pretty disappointed. Granted my story contained questionable charcters, doing questionable things, but there are ways of being subtle…if only for the sake of the other contributors. I felt like I’d let the side down when in fact I’d really had nothing to do with it.

    1. I have nothing against faces of people, my only complaint of my first book is that the cover did not signal “fantasy” and in the second and third it barely did, while the inclusion of a fantasy element would have been EASY.

      But weirdly, right now, in the US at least, faces are rarely on covers. Even romances, as I say, tend to show a part of the body — like the body from the neck or shoulder down. Usually from the back, at that. So does UF.

      I wonder — though I don’t know! — if it is because in small, on the thumbnails, faces can become distorted and look threatening or whatever.

  6. Athena is in space? I always assumed the picture was on a planet with some sort of plant life growing around her.

  7. I like the Darkship Thieves cover because it is very Golden Age and I think it represents the sort of fantastic science fiction before we’d tied ourselves down and made us small.

    I love Cory Daniels’ covers. What I expect from the books is stories about power and political-plots and skulldugery… likely magic but not promising it.

    I think that for a time US publishers were trying to go for covers that were less embarrassing. I think they gave up. There was science fiction trying so hard to look like literature, and romance going for respectability on public transportation… did other genres do the same, or were they never as embarrassed about themselves?

    The YA vampire section looks like one book with the same cover… at least there is no confusion. Boy’s adventure books have intricate and detailed covers, for the most part. Visually busy. Romances are more blush-worthy on the bus than they ever were… a person hardly dares take them through the check out at the grocery store… which means you already feel naughty before you start reading them, which is likely a feature rather than a bug.

    Military science fiction seems to have busy covers, lots of stuff happening in great detail that requires scrutiny to see all the little bits, but there doesn’t seem to be much doubt what exactly you’re getting when you buy it.

    But I’ll admit that most science fiction covers don’t seem to “do it” for me. I’m not entirely sure why. And they may be highly effective for others. I like space opera and adventure and so few of them seem to signal “fun ride.”

    1. Synova, bless you for the “before we’d tied ourselves down and made us small” — in case it’s not obvious I’ve devoted myself to reversing that trend. It might be impossible, but what the heck. I always liked lost causes, anyway.

    1. Oh, that’s funny.

      I once read that Fabio did some modeling shoots when he first got off the boat and didn’t pay much attention to what they were for (except the easy pay check) until one day he got recognized in a grocery store by a middle aged lady.

      I always thought the whole business was sort of repulsive, and never paid the least attention until that insurance ad where they are in a gondola and the girl looks away and then looks back and he’s *old*… I figured he must have a sense of humor. Seems he’s really nice to his fans, too.

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