Covering Genre

So, last week we talked about what the function of a cover is and what it is not.
To summarize: what it is not is an accurate representation of your book.  Sure, it sort of kind of represents the contents, but the scene on the cover doesn’t need to be a scene that appears in the book. Nor does the character need to look like your character. Because before they read it, nobody cares, and after they read it, what matters is how good your book is.

Your cover is basically a billboard to sell your book.

So what does matter about your cover?  Well, signaling genre does.If you’re looking for fantasy or science fiction, a book that looks like a regency romance might come up on the search, but you’re probably not even going to read the title, let alone the description to see if the person actually is writing science fiction or fantasy. No. You’ll glance, then go to the next book.

So, how do you signal, say, science fiction?

Fashions in book covers and such change pretty much every year or so, from the most favored font, to the favorite color.

However, one thing is important. Before you even look, you know the science fiction book should have something on the cover: planets, or spaceships, or something, to give the impression that it is in fact science fiction.

The first thing to ask yourself about your science fiction book cover is: how do I convey this is science fiction?

Do not mis-advertise. If your book contains no spaceships, don’t put one in the cover. If it has nothing to do with space, do not have planets and stars in the background.

DO however, try to convey the idea of futurism.

So, today let’s go with science fiction (the week after next we’ll do cozy mysteries. Yes, there’s reasons. They’re very different from sf covers.  Yes, we’ll get to fantasy and romance and such, too.)

The first thing you do is go to Amazon and look at their bestseller list.

Ignore the perennial classics or the hyper pushed books (who in NYC thinks that Handmaid’s Tale is the book of the hour? Never mind) because those will always sell, no matter what. Instead concentrate on new (or new to you) books.

In science fiction too, even if you specifically choose science fiction, you’re going to find both science fiction and fantasy because some people have a shaky hold on what science fiction means.  Ignore those, for now.

The first thing you notice about science fiction covers is that they are NOT drawn.  They might be paintings, or renders, but the aim is to make them realistic. This is not true for all genres.

And then the second thing you notice is that there are a lot of hyperpushed and perennial sellers, and frankly I’m getting sick and tired of dystopian.  Not withstanding which we can cull a few covers.

Looking at the cover with no context try to guess what type of science fiction they are and whether indie or traditional. (Answers after.)






Okay, reveal below.  I’ll add that these covers are not at all like the bestseller covers for sf that I saw when last I looked a year ago.  There is a reason for that.  SF has many subgenres and these are almost all things I don’t write in/the people I do covers for don’t write in.

Ready?  Winter World is a coming Ice Age story, with a thriller feel.  Indie, but the writer does what he can to obscure that.

The One is WEIRD.  I would not expect this to be science fiction.  And it turns out it mostly is not. I’d guess the reason it’s one of the bestsellers is that it’s published by Harlequin and my guess is it’s also tagged Romance, which sells magnitudes better than Science Fiction. I’d honestly assume mystery from that cover, and not recent mystery either.

Cyberstorm is also dystopian/after the disaster fiction with an edge of thriller. Dystopian. Masterfully marketed. – indie

Alone is mostly thriller also, with sf elements. – indie

Harden is a thriller/military SF in the future but not in space.- indie

So, what have we learned from this expedition? That thriller near-future sf dominates the bestselling lists. We kind of knew that, anyway, because thrillers are to males what romance is to females: the favored and go-to genre.

We also learned that you can get away with a background and a silhouette, which is the easiest thing to do (yes, I’ll show you how later). And that fonts can be very fancy. (We’ll cover fonts later.)  Oh, also that indie is the way to go for these.

Now, for the covers I’m mostly likely to do, for myself and others: Space opera.

Also not drawn. And mostly some kind of spaceship.




Harper Collins




And because it’s a subgenre I often find my friends doing, let’s skip some (they’re ALL spaceships, pretty much.) and go to military:




Now, Humorous science fiction, note it’s drawn (which always seems to indicate “humorous” or “light”)


And something that MIGHT be time travel/alternate universe:

For this set how is science fiction signaled?  Well, spaceships, futuristic armor, robot and futuristic buildings.

At a glance, all in this second set will “read” science fiction.

Confused? Don’t be.

Give me suggestions for a futuristic thriller, space opera, mil sf, humorous sf and time travel.  I’ll assemble the covers before your very eyes, explaining my choices, which should make it easier to understand.

Drop suggestions in comments. Yes, it can be your book. No, you’re not bound to use it if you hate it (I’m going to do them on the fly and from found elements, not rendering each. That’s the last post in this series, and I’ll use covers I’m doing anyway.) so it might not be to your liking. Yes, if you like it you can use it. No, if you don’t give me suggestions, I don’t skip it, I just make up something.

So, next week “Assembling covers.”

Till then.





  1. What I find interesting is that the conventional publishing wisdom is that putting the character on the cover leads to fewer sales. And yet when I look at the bestsellers in SF and Fantasy on Amazon, most of the indies on the Top 100 show a character.

    1. I like characters on the cover. It’s easier to do poorly compared to a spaceship though.

  2. Geez, I believe most, if not all, of the Tarzan and Doc Savage novels I have owned or read had the main character on the cover! Not to mention Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc. But then again, I reckon it wouldn’t be wise to try to put a picture of Cthulhu on the cover, as it would instantly render even a casual observer insane, eh? (Not to mention, how could an artist try to draw Cthulhu without going insane! 🙂 )


    1. You can’t even say Lovecraft’s name with driving some people insane . . .

  3. The Harden book doesn’t signal SF to me at all. I’m not conversant with that sub-genre, however, and could be missing subtle clues.

    1. I know it is because I’m familiar with his earlier work. Maybe the dark colors and ruined buildings, signalling a post-apocalyptic setting?

    2. Looks more like current military action somewhere in the sandbox. Doesn’t look at all like SF to me.

  4. I’m starting a new series which is a pure colonization story–lost colony world, degrading tech, second generation–and had a terrible time finding comparable covers to check the style. When I looked at the top 100 Colonization books on Amazon I saw 97 mil-SF books with spaceships. The three actual colonization stories all have vast sweeping alien landscapes, but I’m nervous by how swamped they are. I’m going with the alien landscapes.

        1. Trust me, it is crazy.
          While called musketeers because they were SO fargin proud of the tech, the muskets were a tiny part of it, unless they were in battle.
          ALSO no one links that with musketeers.

          1. Especially the Three Musketeers. 😉

            Of course, I’ll still kid you about the Vampires vs Musketeers novels where there’s no sign of gunpowder weapons. 👿

    1. Believe me, I feel your pain. That’s why the Colplatschki covers (especially _Elizabeth of Starland_) signal so oddly. Yes, I need to re-do them, all of them. No, now is not the time.

  5. I’m putting together a collection of stories from the Dimension Cops. I hate trying to depict portals, or parallel worlds. With magic.

  6. And the Union Station books break another rule for covers. They are all the same in the series, just the colors on the dress and bow tie change.

    If you haven’t read them, they are a delightful romp about humans, robots, and aliens all living together on a space station. Highly recommend.

  7. I confess I’m puzzled about the distinction you make between “drawn” and not-drawn covers, since to my mind they’re all drawn (not photographs). Could you explain the difference, please?

    1. not-drawn look like photographs, or TRY to look like photographs (and a lot are rendered.)
      Drawn are OBVIOUSLY drawn and often cartoonish. When we cover cozy mysteries you’ll see.

      1. So if I’m writing a science-teacher-cozy-mystery I have to have that cartoonish kind of cover?

        1. Jane – the first, smart-aleck answer is “Nope, you don’t have to have it. We can’t make you do anything, and there’s no one to stop you uploading your book with something else.”

          Now that I’ve dodged the carp Sarah just flung at my head, the more serious answer is, “If you want cozy readers to find your book, then you want it to look like a cozy book.” I recommend going to the just-released list, and look down it – can you tell which books were mis-tagged into the cozy genre at a glance? And the ones that just don’t quite seem to fit?

          The answer is: yeah, the ones with thriller covers aren’t cozies. And the ones with photobashed elements to look like the cartoonish illustrations, they’re just not quite right… including the one that says it’s a “cosy mystery.” Yes, that’s a correct alternate spelling, but it betrays that the author or designer missed that the genre itself is spelled “cozy”, just like the photo vs. illustration cover.

          Once you’ve played “What doesn’t fit?”, you’ll have a good eye for what does – and what a reader looking for a new cozy mystery is going to think is good indie vs. amateur.

          1. So after a little hiatus to have my grandbaby born I came back to check. You guys are funny and the best. My daughter/designer is looking into cartoon ideas. At least I have progressed to the point that I can say about this particular work that it has a genre and give the genre a name. Progress!

    2. You’re seeing some photographs to come in, because indies who don’t care are in, but it’s one way to look like you belong. You match the style of the covers in the field.

    3. There are covers that clearly look like illustrations, and there are covers where the illustrations try to look realistic. For example, cozy mysteries generally have almost cartoonish, flat 2-D covers like this:

      On the other hand, the scifi spaceships are trying to look more photorealistic – and, indeed, a good number are actually using NASA spacescapes as the backdrop, put through a filter so the contrast between actual telescope photo and rendered planet and spaceship isn’t too startling (See Record of a Spaceborn Few, above). Otherwise, they go for an oil painting look (See: Constitution and The Last War, above)

    4. Thanks, all, for the explanation. I kind of figured that was it, but it’s good to have it laid out more explicitly (with good examples, too).

    5. Thanks for the clarification. I kinda figured that was what you meant, but it’s good to have it spelled out.

  8. I counted the first group (wrote it down before looking)
    Post Apocalyptic
    Not-a-Clue (possibly Mystery)
    cyber punk (because it says “cyber”)
    Urban Fantasy
    Military Thriller (contemporary)

  9. Honestly … I don’t think much of a lot of modern covers. I feel like they bounce between two extremes: Overly busy, or overly covered by text.

    I know: Marketing. Covers are designed busy to attract the eye, screaming for attention. And the massive text is so that prospective readers can see how important the author is (the bigger the name of the author, the more important and successful they are; how long until we bring bad fold-out covers so we can make the author’s name even bigger?).

    I can’t stand it. I prefer striking, carefully designed covers that aren’t overdone. I like the text to exist but not overwhelm. When I think of a good cover, my mind always jumps to the iconic imagery of Alien. It’s just so stark and attention-grabbing.

    I know, it’s not the trend right now. I’m not even that old and I’m “old.” And Alien is a pretty specific example. But I’ve always enjoyed covers that get the most out of their design rather than slapping together a lot of elements with shouting text in the hope to get eyeballs on it.

    Again, I know, not the current trend. Covers are either very busy or just text and a giant author name across a generic image. But I enjoy covers that don’t just shout for the reader to pick up the book, but ask them to linger on the image, wondering what might be within the pages.

    I was actually planning a post on the business of modern covers once my hand healed, so this was all on my mind already.

      1. The problem being that if you only care about selling and not about aesthetics, you run into the classic advertising problem of creating something that’s ultimately generic and utterly forgettable. Like many of the covers in this article: They’re designed as an advertisement of genre, but in the process have little other identity and are ultimately forgettable. They don’t look that appealing because while they sell “genre” with broad statements like “spaceship” they lack any identity more unique.

        You walk into a bookstore and see a whole row of identical spaceship covers, and there’s little to make one stand out over another save “spaceship” and the name on the cover. It’s the advertising problem: you’ve recycled the laugh track, the jokes, the tropes so heavily that there’s nothing to make anyone look twice.

        At some point, you have to think of aesthetics or you’ll end up utterly forgettable. And a lot of covers these days are completely and utterly forgettable, to the degree that most readers wouldn’t even be able to identify the book based on its cover.

        And that’s not a great solution. We ALL judge a book based on its cover, like it or not, in some fashion. And a cover that is unremarkable compared to every other cover next to it on the shelf because they’ve all adopted the same generic genre style may bring a reader to the right section, but they’re not about to grab a reader any better than every other cover following the same limited toolset and simplistic approach to design.

        Overly busy random Sci-Fi elements and massive titles don’t really do well when placed against one another. There has to be some aesthetic design, or a cover simply becomes so genre-specific it’s textbook and no more or less attention-grabbing than any others of dozens of covers delivering the exact same thing.

        1. Unfortunately, Indies aren’t in bookstores. They’re thumbnails in the “also boughts” and need to catch the eye, signal genre and scream a title or author, and hopefully get a click, if not then, then after that oversized author’s name has popped up enough to start sounding familiar-maybe-I-should-check.

          1. Then I believe that should make my point all the stronger. A generic image, especially a busy one, will be nigh-unremarkable next to any other similar busy and genre-generic thumbnail. At that point, an aesthetic design choice that causes a thumbnail to stand out next to its peers would be far more valuable than making a cover even more identical to its fellows.

            1. However, most of the time, “aesthetic” means “literary” to the reader. You push that line too hard and they assume it’s not fantasy but some kind of Profound Treatise pretending to be fantasy or sci-fi or whatever. You can have something that looks good but stray too much from the conventions and you start telling people the wrong thing, like someone who starts using polysyllabic words to make a point and uses ones that aren’t QUITE what they really mean and becomes Malaprop Man and unintentionally hilarious rather than conveying sophistication or precision (which is the usual intent).

              1. All the more reason to consider the aesthetic of one’s cover then. Too far in the wrong direction can send the wrong image just as much as becoming too generic.

                If you don’t think of aesthetic at all, however, you send another message entirely. As a friend of mine put it in a conversation about this “If your goal is to say ‘hey, my book is generic’ then having a generic cover is fine.” We don’t want to say that our book is identical to every other book in line (at least, I presume not). Overdoing an aesthetic would also be as bad as not having one or putting any thought into it.

                But that happy medium is the point where there’s something that stands above the sea of plain genre indicators. That’s what gets clicked, and that’s what sells.

                  1. I don’t think he KNOWS what he’s talking about. He isn’t using words with any precise meanings. It’s like pinning down water.
                    For one for instance, saying current day covers are busy when the hot new aesthetic is “symbol in middle, nothing more” is odd. (And honestly the symbol thing only works with a ton of push.)
                    Second, it’s giving me flash backs to “I don’t want to write genre because my book will be unique.”
                    … I won’t say what those books usually are.

                1. Alright… are you using ‘Aesthetics’ to mean “beauty”? Or are you using ‘Aesthetic’ to mean ‘over all look of the thing’?

                  1. Aesthetic as defined. IE: a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.

                    In this case, that would be the principles of a genre cover. As I’ve said repeatedly here, you do need to have those elements to be part of the genre. But if you only consider them as elements and don’t go any further, you get generic Sci-Fi cover. Or worse, you end up with what one author in this very discussion did: A cover that was a photoshop-filtered picture of a bunch of Halo action-figures, a fact they refused to believe until people started naming the actual characters behind the figures.

                    All they were concerned about (and indeed one of their defenses) was “Well, it fits the genre elements, and that’s what matters.”

                    Except it doesn’t. They’d gone and (unintentionally) cribbed another Sci-Fi universe’s branding in their search for a quick genre cover. And they didn’t see it because “Eh, it fits the genre.”

                    Fit the genre, yes, but don’t settle for just that. Or you’ll end up looking like someone else (or everyone else) who’s only settled for that.

                    Get a good artist. Capture the “je ne sais quoi,” that “I don’t know what” that gives your cover that extra edge. Don’t just settle for “I am a Sci-Fi book like all the others.” You cover should say “This is MY Sci-Fi Space Marine story, and you should read it.”

                    1. Thank you for the clarification. In the vernacular, especially when discussing things like covers, ‘aesthetic’ has simply come to mean ‘the pretty’. (This is why I asked.)

                      Returning to the rest of the topic, you’re missing the core, fundamental point. “Branding” (your aesthetic) is absolutely 100% WORTHLESS unless you get the genre cuing right. You can have an eye catching cover that signals YOU all you want, if it cues the wrong genre it’s hurting you not helping you. And frankly, I’ve seen people who paid way too much for absolutely gorgeous art that was completely wrong. It’s easier to get good art than good genre signalling. The point of THIS article is get the genre signaling right first, foremost. Worry about ‘awesome art’ later. And DITCH any art, no matter how good, that doesn’t accurately signal genre. Better to have a meh cover that signals the right genre, than a gorgeous cover that signals the wrong genre and thereby pisses off the readers that do try it. It’s the cover version of my grandmother’s advice to her English students: “Eschew sesquopedalian obfuscation.” (Or sesquopedantic depending on which dictionary you look in. She said sesquopedalian.)

                      You can’t learn calculus without algebra, nor algebra without basic arithmetic. You have to work through one to get to the others.

                      For your example, I’d like to see the conversation you’re referencing before I take your unadorned word on it. Given how orthogonal your arguments have been to this conversation, I’d like to see the original for a full understanding of the situation.

                2. Because what we’re saying is “Don’t sacrifice meaning (genre) for pretty (aesthetics)” if I am understanding you correctly (which I am not certain I am any more) you are saying “Make with the pretty so people care about the meaning.”

            2. You’re missing the point. By about a mile and a half.
              First, what you consider beautiful is not what others consider beautiful. Second, covers send signals.
              Look up the original cover for my book Ill Met By Moonlight (No, the cover I have on it now ain’t great, but I haven’t got around to it.)
              It’s gorgeous. Lovely. It must have sold the book, right?
              No, because it did not signal “fantasy” in any way shape or form. That book got shelved everywhere from Theater to painting to history. BUT NEVER IN FANTASY.

                  1. My paw to Bog. I went looking for it, and that’s where it is. I tried to get them to change it, but nope, it is locked into their cataloguing system that way.

              1. No … I think if anyone is missing the point by a mile and a half, it’d have to be you, unfortunately. All I did was point out that one can dive so deeply into these conventions of the genre with covers that the cover becomes completely meaningless. All it says is “I am a fantasy/Sci-Fi/genre book like any other.” There’s nothing to it that speaks of the book itself, and so that book becomes just another title that has trouble standing out against dozens of other books with the exact same cover. Your signal can become, as my friend put it ‘I am a generic genre book like all these other genre books.’ You’ve pegged genre, but nothing else.

                Since we’re bringing up examples now, on multiple occasions I’ve had reviewers specifically mention the eye-catching quality of my covers and how despite being genre, they stand out by holding their own identity. They follow just enough of the imagery of the genre to cement themselves as that genre … but then stand above a bland cover by being memorable and unique, either with color, use of space, or any other number of elements (these come from the artist, who knows how to make a cover work like this). And they sell well, even when they “violate” some of the “rules.” The lone book I offer with no human character on the cover has outsold all of my other books put together (and at this point probably twice over), even though all those other books have human characters on the cover. Why? It was designed so by an artist who knew his craft.

                If you focus on nothing other than sending the signal of “I am this genre” then a cover can become little more than that lone message, standing next to dozens of nearly identical covers. Great for telling someone they’re in the right place. Not so great for getting them to pick up your book over dozens of others with the same signaling.

                Which goes right back to what this all boils down to, and as you put it, SELLING. A book that is so mired in the stereotypes of its own genre signaling that it fails to stand out amid its contemporaries cannot hope to stand above them in sales.

                1. No … I think if anyone is missing the point by a mile and a half, it’d have to be you, unfortunately.

                  Here I am trying to decide if you’re a fool, or just such a pompous twit that you can’t admit that not everything is about how fucking awesome you are.

                  You are saying this to the person who wrote the post. Also, someone who has more experience in the space being discussed than you, me, or most everybody else commenting here.

                  And when the person who wrote the post says that your comment misses the point, you … say that she’s missing the point?

                  A few *possibilities*:

                  Sarah A. Hoyt doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Uh huh. Highly likely.
                  Sarah A. Hoyt, who speaks … four? five? … different languages, doesn’t understand your point. I’m also not buying this one, considering how she demonstrated that she understood you very well, but that what you said makes little sense in the present book cover market.
                  Your point is reasonable, but you expressed it so poorly that nobody but you understands it. This also seems unlikely, but possible
                  You are talking out of your ass, and don’t like it when people call you on it, then explain how obvious it is that you are, and give examples, but politely refrain from doing diagrams with crayons as that would imply unkind things about your mentality and maturity. Here, I think we have a winner.

                  But hey, you got to pretend to be superior to everybody, so you’ve got that going for you.

            3. Max, you keep saying the same thing, over and over again no matter what anyone else has to say. As noted by another, we aren’t talking about what “looks good on a shelf in a bookstore”. One, most of us are indie authors and won’t be in bookstores. Two, bookstores are becoming few and far between in a large part of the country. So gearing our books to “what looks good on the shelf” is foolish whether you are an indie author or traditionally published.

              As for the size of text vs the imaging on the cover, we have to consider what the image looks like in thumbnail. the title and author name must be legible.

              But, most of all, what you keep ignoring is that the cover IS advertising. Just as genre fiction has certain tropes readers expect depending on the genre, they expect a cover to have certain signals as well. If they don’t see those signals, they aren’t going to pick it up. So pardon the rest of us while we continue doing what works instead of worrying about the “aesthetics” of our covers.

        2. I don’t see the issue of “generic” as an aesthetics problem… It is why I tend to like character depictions, because those stay with me as individual books more than a piece of machinery or a landscape. And if the cover art changes I get rather annoyed because what I remember is the picture of the person on the cover.

          Most of the time when an author chooses a beautiful piece of artwork or something emotionally evocative, they pick something “arty” or abstract and no one much actually does “wonder what’s inside”.

          I have a lot of sympathy for those who really want good art, but it’s best to look for good art that meet the marketing requirements.

        3. Dear Lord. What you want is for the covers to blend in enough that people read your description.
          Do you want to have the cover that is “beautiful” but has nothing to do with signaling?

          1. As I”ve stated NUMEROUS times, NO.

            What I’ve said is that you can’t have a cover that’s so beholden to the “signals” that there isn’t anything else to it. There are thousands of books with generic spaceships or Sci-Fi marines on the cover that state “I have marines/Sci-Fi/Spaceships” but are completely unremarkable compared to each other cover offering the exact same image in a slightly different frame.

            A good cover speaks of its genre while also being different enough to stand up amidst the sea of identical covers. Be that aesthetic in color, layout, design, or title size (and this is where you listen to a skilled artist or graphic designer, hopefully and ideally, instead o guessing), you have something that also says “And out of all these books, you should pick THIS ONE.”

            1. “…you have something that also says “And out of all these books, you should pick THIS ONE.””

              Great idea. Be in the crowd, but stand out from the crowd.

              Now, any practical notions you got on exactly how to go about that? Because otherwise, I’m following Sarah’s advice to the letter.

              Example, my SF book has giant tanks in it. Currently I’m going with giant fricking tank on the cover, because giant tanks are a Thing in SF. What, -particularly- will make one giant tank stand out from all the other ones?

              Oh, and it has to cost less than $200 bucks, because otherwise the book won’t make me any money.

              That’s where “aesthetic” usually craters. You don’t get “skilled artist or graphic designer” for Indy rates. You get -me- using Rhino 6 and Daz over a few weekends.

              1. Color. Tone. Angles. Look at other covers that display giant tanks and look at what they do in common, but also what might set yours apart.

                Find a graphic designer and just ask for some pointers. Don’t hand them your work and ask them to do it. Just explain what you’re doing and what you’re trying, and ask for advice to give things a nudge. Much like asking someone about their job, as long as graphic designer is aware you intend to do it and aren’t angling for free labor, they’re often happy to point out some things you can try or small adjustments you can make (just don’t overdo it or abuse it; ask once and thank them for the advice).

                Are all the book covers you’re seeing a uniform color or shade? Another color might give it that edge. Are all of them using the same vehicle you are? Maybe there’s a different tank? What about a border? What font is the most eye-catching?

                Then when you’ve got something you like, asks some artists what they make of it. Not just fans, but random people too. Again, as long as you don’t approach an artist with “I’m hoping you’ll fix this for me” but “can you give me some pointers to make this more eye-catching?” a lot of them will be happy to take a few minutes and give some pointers you can act on.

                It’s a little extra work, but it’s worth it when someone says “Oh wow, I love that cover!” or leaves a review that says “I bought this based on the cover and it was worth it!”

            2. I think I get what you’re saying here. If I’m right, what you’re saying is that the indie book covers are either too text heavy, or they’re all a bunch of spaceships, exactly alike, yes?

              If that’s what you mean – and in that case people really are talking past each other, the word you want is “branding”, not “aesthetic.”

              First, because the word “aesthetic” is a major distraction, as it’s been used by the lit-SF crowd to mean the art style difference between TOR books and more literary-signalling ones, and indie and pulp books.

              Second, because branding is how you create a cover that’s recognizable genre, but still recognizeably you. Date Night On Union Station obviously skips generic starships and goes straight to alien, android, chick with sign taped on her butt. Which works for SF- Humor.

              But for MilSF, you’ve got an issue in that your basic alternatives are exploding starships, or military officers on starship bridgesa la Honor Harrington or Commander Leary. And the latter tend to be oil paintings licensed at $3K/cover minimum. There aren’t any good stock photo shoots to raid, so exploding spaceships it’ll be, and then the cover designers have to head to the typography to stand out from the crowd. Ideal? No. Functional at less than $1,000/cover? Yes.

              1. You’re right, though, that you want your cover to be unique enough to stand out. I’ve seen romance authors fret over this, and the comment above was sidetracked for half an hour where I tried to find a romance author posting about how she went with her cover artist and designer, trying to find a “same but different” cover for a romance – where the styles are very, very heavily restrained (and there’s a distinct lack of good cover photos available).

                Found it! Finally!

              2. I think you’re correct: There’s been a major disconnect in terminology here.

                And for that I apologize. My use of aesthetic is not as the lit-SF crowd would use it as you’ve explained, but as the artist and graphic designers I’m friends with use it.

                For them (and by association me), branding is something that’s a brand. The Nike swoosh and coloration, or the Halo Spartans. Aesthetic meanwhile, is the choice of color, tone, and design inside an already established set of rules, be that genre or cubist art.

                This one was my bad. Next time I’ll be sure that I’m defining terms as I understand them first rather than assuming everyone is one the same page.

                On a slightly unrelated note, I wonder how many folks going off of one definition or the other have completely confused their cover artist if there’s whole clumps of the book industry where a term that means one thing in art has taken on another meaning.

                But again, that’s my bad, and I apologize. I threw the term out as my art buddies use it without thinking that it might have evolved a very different meaning.

                As far as finding covers goes … all I can say there is that the internet is vast and cavernous, and there are a lot of artists out there producing fantastic art. I follow art subreddits on reddit and bookmark good artists for later reference. I’ve bought art from them for use in covers, or hired them outright and many of them work for very good rates because of where they’re from. An oil painting will set you back 3-5k easily, but a digital painting of a trio of ships scything across a nebula in a swirl of color might only run you a few-hundred from the right artist.

                Granted, all of that requires more work on the author’s part. I’ve gone through the “pay a few hundred for a fast cover” from a cover business before and ended up with … a decent cover. But the best ones are ones where I sought out artists personally and licensed artwork or commission things, working with the artist to make something nice.

                I’m getting away from myself. I agree with you, in other words. We used different terms—I used different terms—and that made for a near head-on collision.

                I still think that one can find a unique bit of art for a cover for less than a thousand though, as long as they are willing to do some legwork. And I say this because I’ve done it many times. My best cover cost me only $75, because that’s a generous 2-3 week wage in the country the artist was from. I got a beautiful cover out of it that he made very striking and eye-catching (so much so that reviews commented on it and the art itself is downloaded often from both the artist’s and my own respective sites. And still sells the genre.

                Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that time was a waste. Some could (and perhaps would) say that. But I’m happy with it, even if it did take extra time, and it does sell.

                1. Yay, we got the misunderstanding sorted out! I’m sorry, I’m afraid you’ll find that there are many, many heavily-abused definitions of words across industries that are related. Military to civlian is rife with them (and interservice, too), but they’re expected – but publishing’s own terms have shifted as people make a word mean what they want it to, not what it meant in original context. Heck, even the word “blurb” originally meant the pull quote on the cover, but now it’s used to mean the ad copy on the back.

                  (This recently bit me when I asked a friend for a blurb on a book. I normally write ad copy, so she naturally assumed I meant I wanted a pull quote from her to complement my ad copy, when what I really meant was “I can’t come up with ad copy. Can you?” I should have clarified…)

                  Anyway, to bring my ADD brain back to the point in your comment I wanted to answer – if you enjoy looking at art, and you’re willing to spend time on it, it’s never a waste. Especially if you have enough of an art background to deduce what’s in genre/subgenre and then commission / license rights to something that’s signalling that, but clearly your unique brand.

                  …The worst that happens is you lose time looking at stuff you enjoy, and have to work to make it up, and that your artist gets credited, and then gets busy and you have to work into a full schedule because other authors and publishers go “Awesome!” and start commissioning him. (Luca Oleastri, for one – he started on royalty-free sites, and now you have to seriously work to get a custom cover, because he’s high demand. But work it, because his stuff is popular enough people look at one at it and instantly know mil-SF, just as a single look at Michael Whelan or Luis Royo is enough to say “high fantasy!”

                  The best that happens is great covers, branding (in the advertising terms, branding is not just the single Nike swoosh, but the typography of the nike logo, the specific color combos and designs of the shoes, the market niche they strive for, the customer demographics they aim to present themselves as having (as opposed to their actual customer demographics), and their public representation. It’s a whole package. So, too, the similar typography across multiple books in the same series is branding, as well as the art style, artist choice, placement of text and name, placement of art elements on the cover, and even names chosen for series & individual books.)… and that translated to browsers clicking on it for the cover, and then sticking around to pick up everything else you have.

  10. I am currently trying to decide if i need to model out my main character’s powered armor for 1: reference for myself when discussing details in the book and 2: cover illustrations. Also means I can drop in a reference tech section and geek out a little….

    1. When I have time — probably in a couple of years, if the kids have both moved out of state — I’d like to learn to model original apparel, because of that.

  11. A very interesting article! Though the Galaxy’s Edge Legionnaire annoys me slightly because that is a *crappy* patrol carry… I know, realism not necessary. And I do like the cover, overall.

  12. How many books have to sell before the authors name becomes the selling point?
    I know there are quite a few authors that I look for, before looking at a title.
    And many of those are here on MG.

    1. That’s a hard question to answer as asked. To break it down into the ways it could be answered:

      1.) To fans of an author, the author’s name is a selling point.
      2.) To non-fans (and not-yet-fans), the author’s name is not a selling point.

      If the author has a lot of fans, then the name becomes a prime selling point. As in, if you slap John Ringo or Larry Correia on the cover, then it will sell because there are literally thousands (tens of thousands, more like) of people who will go “A new one by him? Cool!” and snap it up.

      If the author has 15 fans, then they’ll do the same – but if they want to move a few thousand copies, they need stronger signalling than just their name, eh? They need to attract all those not-yet-fans and want-more-in-subgenre readers who don’t know or care who they are.

      The complicating factor: because large name on cover == bestseller in trad pub, large name on cover == good/popular in subconscious signalling. So… sometimes you want large name on cover anyway…

      1. There comes a point where the name may attract non-fans who’ve heard of the author. That tends to be Really Big Names.

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