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A Book By Its Cover
Everything you ever wanted to know about book covers...
...and then some!
This 5-part series of articles was originally published in Nink, the journal of Novelists, Inc. (Ninc), in 1996. Some of the articles in the series were later reprinted by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA).
In addition to adding visuals to this web presentation of the articles, I have also edited out some anachronisms. However, please note that some technology and some market trends still remaining in these pieces have changed since 1996; for example, bad packaging ends a writing career much more quickly now than it did then. Nonetheless, the basic concepts in this series remain the same, including the principles of how an author can effectively participate in the packaging process.
Please also note that a number of the people quoted in these articles have switched houses or changed positions during the decade that has passed.
A Book By Its Cover
How does a book's cover affect sales, and consequently a writer's career? Why are some books (and some writers) uniquely blessed or cursed? What did a publisher do right (or wrong) with regard to a given cover? How do publishers ensure success (or stumble into disaster) when planning a book's cover?
Yesterday's conventional wisdom becomes today's common misconceptions as art directors from New York's major publishing houses explain the step-by-step process of giving a book a cover.
If author input were actively desired in the cover process, somebody would have mentioned it by now. Nonetheless, there are constructive, productive, and useful ways for an author to contribute to the cover process; there are also contractual ways to gain influence over this process.
Next to word of mouth, the cover is the single most important means by which an author reaches new readers. Find out how this has led to increasingly ruthless and volatile competition among publishers, and why people who don't even read often have more influence over a book's cover than the author, the editor, the cover artist, or the art director.
A profile of three illustrators: sf/f cover artist Michael Whelan, winner of many Hugo, Howard, and Chesley Awards; romance cover artist Pino, with over 1,500 covers to his credit; and Janny Wurts, a bestselling sf/f novelist who is also an award-winning cover artist.
When asked once at an Romance Writers of America (RWA) luncheon about why some books get bad covers, Bantam editor Shauna Summers told the following story. On one of her father's business trips to New York, he went out to lunch with his boss. Mr. Summers ordered a steak, a reliable choice in this well-known steak house; his boss ordered a lobster. When the food came to the table, the man's lobster was missing one whole claw, as if it had been torn off. He called the waiter over and pointed out this problem.
The New York waiter's response: "Hey, buddy, somebody's gotta get the loser."
Not only is this a typical New York story, but it is illustrative of the problem with covers; art directors and editors all seem to agree that, despite hard work and the best of intentions, there's inevitably going to be a loser now and then, and someone's going to get stuck with it. And unlike the man who could see he was getting a loser before he ate it or paid for it, sometimes no one knows a book cover is a dog until after it's been let out of the publishing house and has rolled over to play dead.
Ulterior Motives, 1989
Notice how this man appears to be biting
Out of the 12 series romance novels I
Every single person interviewed for or quoted in this series of articles on cover art emphasized that (occasional evidence to the contrary) publishers want to make money. They want your book and every other book they publish to fly off the stands like new-release DVDs at the start of a three-day weekend. And since the cover, everyone agrees, plays such an essential role in helping a book sell well, every publisher wants every book they release to have a great cover. They even — wait for it! — all want the author to like the cover.
"So why," I hear you ask, "did my last cover virtually bark and beg for treats?"
Well, there are any number of answers to that question. My personal favorite is Kensington editor Denise Little's theory that some people simply have bad cover karma. Who among us cannot think of at least a few fine writers who, book after book, have gotten the worst covers imaginable? If they're wonderful writers, they finally overcome the muddy, poorly-executed, badly-designed, washed-out, nauseatingly "cute," or appallingly tasteless covers that besmirch the face of their books year after year. Their audience eventually finds them despite the curse of mediocre and banal illustrations that do not accurately represent their books and which wouldn't attract the interest of a bored bibliophile stranded on a desert island. But please note those key words: finally and eventually.
Denise Little, like numerous other publishing professionals, strongly emphasizes the importance of book covers. "Next to word of mouth," she says, "packaging is the way most writers reach new readers." A wonderful writer will (probably) always be able to overcome bad packaging; but years will be added to the process of achieving the success she deserves. One particular example which comes to mind is a New York Times bestselling author whose re-packaged backlist now sells fast and furiously; but when those backlist books were originally released with consistently bad packaging, her sales were so poor that, at one point, she could barely make ends meet while writing four books a year.
Not only can bad covers hold back a good writer's career, they can even devastate a new writer's career. One agent interviewed for this article represented a new writer whose sales figures on a particular book were so bad that the publisher refused to pick up the option on her next book. The publisher privately admitted that the dreadful cover they had put on the book was undoubtedly the reason for the book's abysmal sales; nonetheless, they didn't want to invest the time and money needed to resurrect this writer's career — despite being, in their own estimation, largely responsible for this disaster. And, in one of those ironic twists which characterize this business, although a new writer needs a good cover to help her career, she has little if any influence over the process, while established and bestselling writers, whose readers will find them regardless of the packaging, often can influence what goes on their covers.
When author Cindi Myers saw this cover to
To this day, no one really knows. Arf!
(My take is that there appears to have
Sometimes, however, a publisher believes in a new writer enough to really invest in her cover. When Denise Little bought Mickee Madden's Everlastin' for her new imprint, she and Kensington believed enough in this first-time author's work to take an expensive gamble; they gave the book a costly 3-D cover with an appearing/disappearing image. The technology used on the Everlastin' cover was relatively new in publishing, and was chosen specifically because it would stand out and attract attention. Kensington's gamble paid off: the book made #71 on the USA Today list and #8 on the Waldenbooks overall list, setting up that new writer for some hefty orders on her second book.
According to Little, "If you can draw attention to a talented writer in this way, you can cut three or four years off the process of getting recognition for her, and that expensive gamble saves you money over the long run."
Unless a reader is specifically looking for your book or your name, the cover is the single most important factor in convincing her to pick up your book. Gene Mydlowski, Vice President, Associate Publisher, and Creative Director at Harper Paperbacks, illustrates this point with the following scenario: "Someone's catching a plane at the airport. He rushes into a bookstore, where he's got three minutes to choose a book to take on his flight. His glance skims the rack for something, and your book has two or three seconds to grab his attention, to stand out from all the others enough to convince him to pick it up." George Cornell, Vice President and Mass Market Art Director at New American Library (NAL) offers a more optimistic view: he estimates the book's cover has five seconds to capture the reader's attention.
Ah, well. Let's keep in mind that according to a survey done in the 1980s, the average museum-goer spends no more than 6 seconds looking at any given world-famous masterpiece.
Having picked up the book, of course, there's no guarantee the reader will buy it. He may well read the cover copy and put it straight back on the racks. However, unless he's moved to pick it up in the first place, he definitely won't buy it.
In the early 1970s, when gothics were hot in the paperback market, the covers almost always portrayed a girl running from a house on a hill. Would you assume that those covers, at least, didn't affect individual writers' sales? That they were identical and interchangeable? If so, you wouldn't be quite right. An executive at Charles Levy, a major distributor, revealed the following figures to a pseudonymic gothic writer in those days: if there were lights on in the house in the background, sales dropped 2%; if the title was in yellow, sales went up 3%; if the title was in green, sales dropped 2%. The author's name, by the way, never had any bearing on sales
While the market today is more sophisticated, it's also more competitive. Consequently, your book's sales to new readers still depend largely upon things as unrelated to your prose as the minor details of a standard cover were to any gothic writer's prose decades ago.
Now let's examine the most appalling element of cover karma (yes, I'm sorry, it gets worse). If you're an ordinary novelist who's not enjoying any special status or promotional effort from your publisher, and particularly if you're a new writer with no track record, your book's cover is not only the most important factor in getting a reader to pick it up, it's also the most important factor in getting it put on the stands so that readers will have the opportunity to pick it up.
Harper's Gene Mydlowski, an interesting and articulate man with many years of experience in publishing art departments, explains why covers are so important. A publisher's sales representatives go to the buyers with their publisher's current list several times a year. The "buyers" are the people who represent the major chains, the superstores, and the various distributors; they are the people who decide whether or not your book will get into bookstores, supermarkets, bus stops, airports, department stores, and other outlets, locally as well as nationally. "The buyers," says Mydlowski, "say to the publisher's representative, 'We can take twenty-two mystery titles this month. So we'll take Paretsky and Peters and twenty others.' The salesman lays out all the mystery covers on a table, and the buyers choose their remaining twenty titles from the covers they like best."
And I'll bet you thought technology was taking over the Western world.
Denise Little, formerly a buyer for B.Dalton/Barnes and Noble, adds that track record is a major factor, too, in a buyer's decisions regarding your books. Computer technology has enabled buyers to easily access sales figures for your last book (sales figures which were, of course, influenced by your last cover), and they apply this information when placing orders for your new book. However, Little says that a book by a new author or by an experienced author entering a new genre "will almost always be chosen solely by cover — unless it's a book the publisher is giving tremendous push."
So how hard does a publisher work to get attention for your book? That depends; in some cases, they work very hard. For example, years ago, in an attempt to attract the buyers to a new Jonathan Kellerman thriller and convince them to place big orders, the publisher sent out shrink-wrapped copies of the bound galley with a knife piercing the cover, as well as a letter from the publisher inviting readers to send in their comments. However, such effort is usually reserved for bestsellers and lead titles, and the average novelist is unlikely to get that kind of publisher promotion for her book.
Nevertheless, there is a bright side to this dilemma, and this is where karma may favor you with sheer dumb luck. Irene Gallo, Art Director of Tor Books, points out that while more time, thought, and money may be (and usually are) devoted to the covers of books for which the publisher has paid large advances, more people are also involved in planning those covers, and this doesn't necessarily guarantee the best results. Gene Mydlowski says such covers can sometimes turn out like camels — the only animal reputedly designed by committee.
Therefore, Gallo thinks that, at least at Tor, a book with a lower advance can often wind up with a fabulous cover — indeed, a better cover than a book enjoying strong publisher promotion and support. There are fewer people involved in planning the cover of a book with a modest advance, and hence fewer people to muddy the waters or interfere with the artist and the designer. Gallo also says, "The more money is involved in a book, the more people tend to get conservative and shy away from anything new." Hence, it could well be a low-advance or midlist book that winds up with that miraculous cover, the one which is new, fresh, surprising, unexpected, and eminently noticeable, the one which says to the reader, "Hey! Over here! Buy me! I'm worth your money! Really!"
"So if covers are so important, Resnick," I hear you ask, "and publishers are so conscious of this and put in so much effort, then why is my last cover unnaturally attracted to fire hydrants? How does a disaster like this get put on a wonderful book like mine?"
Good question. Clever of you to have asked.
Although the small press that published
Sometimes, it's just bad karma.
A bad cover is sort of like that clawless lobster poor Mr. Summers' boss got stuck with. Out of perhaps a dozen people who ordered lobster that day, one guy had bad karma, and he got some deformed, inferior thing while people all around him enjoyed an attractive, succulent shellfish.
“Unfair!" I hear you cry.
Well, yeah. In fact, it sucks.
However, we're not stopping here. In the remaining articles of this series, we will explore the process by which a book gets a cover and how you can be part of this process in a productive way. We will look at trends and influences in cover art, and we'll have interviews with some of the most successful cover artists in the business — including one novelist who is her own cover artist. We will journey through this bewildering wilderness, metaphorical machete in hand, stalking the elusive Cover Beast — the sought-after creature that jumps off the racks and says, "Hey, you! Over here! Buy me! Buy ME!"
My editor Denise Little told me [in 1996] that my cover suggestion (mine! my idea!) will grace the cover of my romance novel, Fever Dreams. The illustration will depict a Peruvian scarlet macaw, wings gracefully spread, flying over a tropical jungle. Tasteful, attractive, different, and... my idea!
However, while celebrating this news, I heard that, according to conventional wisdom in publishing, "Green books don't sell."
Guess what color tropical jungles are?
Was I wrong to make such an effort to influence what would appear on my book's cover? In a moment of weakness, I wondered if writers are — as was suggested to me recently — incapable of contributing productively to the cover process? I clung feebly to the belief that "conventional wisdom" is an oxymoron, especially in publishing, and I hoped for the best.
Fortunately, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden pointed out to me that The Firm had a green cover, and it sure didn't seem to hurt John Grisham's sales; indeed, the book was his first major hit. So I have continued to celebrate my upcoming cover — particularly since my publisher and I also agree on which artist should paint it.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden also points out, "Leaving aside silly (and usually disprovable) 'rules' like that, any art director with real professional training can talk at some length about general theory of composition and what usually works to get people's attention. That's what they learn at places like Parsons or Cooper Union."
They can talk about it, that is, if you can get them on the phone. Most of them are very busy. Gene Mydlowski, Art Director at Harper Paperbacks, puts out some thirty covers every month with his small team (two staff members and one newly-hired secretary). Mydlowski got his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, a school, he says, for people who wanted an actual job in art. Like a lot of people in publishing (almost everyone except writers, it seems) he wound up working for his first publisher simply because there was a job available. Irene Gallo, Art Director at Tor Books, says that her department is even smaller and consequently assigns a lot of work to freelancers. NAL's and Bantam's art departments are bigger, but they have to produce more covers. Some publishers have two art departments; one for cover art, and the other for promotion, advertising, and publicity. The latter would be responsible for brochures and promotional packages, among other things.
The process by which art directors put a cover on your book varies not only from publisher to publisher, but also from book to book within each publisher's list. The process generally begins with the cover conference, which can take place as early as one year before the book's publication. The book's packaging, remember, must be ready to enthuse sales representatives and buyers well before the book's actual appearance on the stands.
Who is involved in the cover conference? "Too many people, really," says one art director. The art department, marketing people, sales reps, editors, and copywriters may all be present, all contributing their expertise (which sometimes is expertise, and which other times might be the subjective opinion of a 23-year-old newcomer who's heard that green books don't sell). And, as explained in the previous article in this series, the more important the book is to the publisher, the more people will be involved in the cover process.
Irene Gallo, a graduate of Cooper Union Art School, where she studied fine art and design, says that the process is much less formal at Tor Books than at most other publishers. Cover discussions and decisions are frequently left up to her and the book's editor. Indeed, when Tor first started publishing books, editors tended to function as their own art directors, and the official art director's job was mainly traffic management.
"Due to the strong convention culture of the science fiction and fantasy world," Gallo says, "editors tend to know all the artists, and many writers and artists know each other. So Tor editors were often able to choose an artist they thought would be good for a particular project. They might also ask the author, 'Who would you like to illustrate the cover?' And then they'd try to get that artist for the book."
The science fiction and fantasy genre has long recognized its artists, and they are as much a part of the community as the writers are. Any sizeable sf/f convention will include an art show and art auction among its attractions, where both cover art and original artwork are displayed and sold. It's a rare sf/f convention that does not have an artist among its guests of honor, as well as a number of other artists attending. Artist panels, as well as author panels, are a featured aspect of almost any sf/f convention program, and three of the thirteen annual Hugo Awards are in art categories. This recognition of artists in a field where they have used their talent to give visual images to fantastic concepts is not only well-deserved, but it also sure beats the hell out of making body-builders and models the featured guests of a book convention. But I digress.
Tor Books has grown and expanded since those early days when editors had so much control over book covers, and Gallo is truly an art director rather than a traffic manager. Even at Tor, however, when dealing with a "big" book, one where a lot of money is at stake, marketing people, the sales force, and the publisher himself all become involved in decisions made about the cover and packaging.
Harper's Gene Mydlowski explains what sort of things are discussed at a cover conference. "I want to know the relevant details of the book: type of book, author, audience, and subject matter. The meeting defines the peripheral elements and helps us develop a strategy." He adds that covers, while always important, are most important for a new or unknown author; in that case, it is the cover which sells the book. At the other end of the spectrum, famous authors' names will be the most important feature of the cover — names like Grisham, Clancy, Roberts, and King.
After the meeting, the art department chooses a specific type of cover: graphics, illustration, painting, photo, etc. Based on these decisions, and keeping the budget in mind, Mydlowski starts making assignments: artist, photographer, models, designer, etc.
Cover "art" refers to the illustration or depiction; usually a painting, it's always done by a freelance artist. "Design" refers to the things which many of us, unfortunately, scarcely even notice, even though they are often as important as the art to the cover's appearance and appeal. "Design" encompasses many features: lettering, typography, graphics, copy, layout, spine, step-back, dye-cutting, and so on. These are all usually implemented by in- house designers at most major publishing houses, though freelance designers may be hired for specialized detail work. Therefore, a cover which is all graphics and type can usually be completely done by in-house staff.
Selecting an artist depends on the book and the budget. A publisher seldom uses high-priced artists on midlist books. So, despite the occasional rumors one hears, it's highly unlikely that your cover artist gets paid more than you do; and if he does, that may well mean that although you got a low advance, your publisher believes enough in your book to hire a great illustrator. In that case, you should be pleased; remember, the cover is extremely important to your success.
The budget, of course, will not be the only factor. What type of book is this? What's appropriate for the cover? Not only do artists specialize in terms of genre, but they also become known for certain specializations within that genre. And by the way, most artists are no more happy about being asked to do the same thing over and over again than any writer is. In "A Short History of SF Art In Paperback" (SF Chronicle March/April 1995), science fiction cover artist Vincent Di Fate writes: "Trained as a figure painter, I had grandiose visions of creating huge, complex surreal canvases, but was brought up short when my first few dozen assignments were to paint spaceships. I hadn't a clue as to how to do such a thing and it took me years to get good at it, but when I finally did become proficient at hardware, I was rewarded by hardly ever being allowed to paint anything else."
(A later article in this series focuses specifically on cover artists: who they are, what they make, how they work.)
While the terms "artist" and "illustrator" are used pretty interchangeably here, "illustrator" is probably the more accurate word for a cover artist. His job, after all, is to portray the essential story idea. It could be represented by something as simple as a couple of lovers embracing; or the illustrator might have to find a way to portray something as complex as a social crisis on an imaginary alien world.
Not only do illustrators specialize in vastly different areas, they also work at very different paces. Some can have a cover painting ready in just a few days; others may take a month to complete a painting. If an illustrator is in very great demand — as with Michael Whelan, for example, winner of over a dozen Hugo awards as Best Professional Artist in science fiction and fantasy — the art director may have to wait six months for the cover painting, due to the artist's busy schedule.
The illustrator usually sends sketches to the art director once he's developed his concept for the painting. He may have done so independently, or he may have received very specific instructions from the art department. At this point, the art director might suggest revisions. The editor will often be asked to approve the sketches, too. The bigger the book, of course, the more people whose approval must be solicited for these sketches. While one art director interviewed emphasizes how valuable he finds the input of sales and marketing people, others point out that too much second-guessing waters down the concept. "Objections and suggestions can range from the ridiculous to the sublime," one of them says. The publisher, editor, and marketing director may all have more input than the art director — the person who is actually trained in composition and design.
Happily, although sales feedback and marketing trends do play a big role in publishers' decisions about book covers, most art directors give no credence to sweeping generalizations such as "green books don't sell." And, after tracking sales records for thousands of books during her career as a buyer with B. Dalton/Barnes and Noble, editor Denise Little has formulated only one generalization: women consumers seem to respond positively to horses on a book cover. Unfortunately, after two years in charge of her own imprint at Kensington Books, Little has yet to acquire a book for which horses would be an appropriate cover illustration.
The original cover painting for the book is the property of the cover artist. He sells the publisher rights to reproduce the work within whatever limitations have been agreed upon. Vincent Di Fate writes in SF Chronicle, September 1990: "Thus a painting can be created, for instance, to illustrate the cover of a mass market soft-cover edition of a particular book intended for distribution and sale in North America... All other rights not specifically transferred or restricted by the agreement between artist and client, remain with the artist and can be made available for sale." Most art directors mention that occasionally a painting arrives at their offices which isn't right for the book for which it was intended; however, as long as it's good work, they can usually find a book which it suits better. Denise Little, however, admits that some paintings won't work for anything; she has vetoed several such paintings. In these cases, the publisher eats the cost. In the long run, the publisher figures this costs them less than releasing the book with a cover they believe will kill its sales.
Once the cover illustration is completed and approved, the cover goes into design. Irene Gallo says this shouldn't just refer to how type goes on the cover, but rather to how the entire package is conceptualized. She's interested in seeing covers become more design-conscious, so that the art and design appear as a whole piece, rather than as a painting with some unrelated lettering slapped into the blank space.
Costly extras such as gold foil, embossing, and other attention-getting devices, Gallo says, "Can be assumed by the book's position in the list. The higher up in the list the book is, the more stuff it can get on the cover. And, of course, the more books printed, the cheaper the per-unit cost for these extras." However, even a gamble on a new book can be taken if the publisher expects a good return on his investment. Remember first-time author Mickee Madden's Everlastin', mentioned in Article I: "Cover Karma"? Editor Denise Little stresses that her conviction that the book would fulfill the excitement created by the cover was essential for Kensington to risk creating such expensive packaging for it.
Sometimes the size of the advance dictates how committed the publisher is to getting attention for your book. Sometimes the excitement comes from your editor. "I deal with everybody's books," Irene Gallo points out, "whereas the editor only deals with those of his own writers." Hence, she often relies on the editor to tell her which books are special and need (or deserve) a special cover. The editor's excitement generates Gallo's excitement.
Once the cover is out there, for all the world to see, what feedback does the art director get? Book critics don't review covers, after all. Hugos are awarded to illustrators. So what recognition is given to the art director?
Sales seem to be the primary feedback upon which art directors rely. Occasionally, there's a rare, consistent, across-the-boards response where a book virtually flies off the stands — or simply dies without a whimper. "Otherwise," Mydlowski says, "there are so many variables, the cover may be just another variable." Gallo also mentions "call reports," wherein the sales force indicates how buyers are responding to the covers. In addition, Print Magazine offers awards; but many publishing professionals are too busy (or uninterested) to enter their work.
Of course, feedback can also come from authors. "Everyone would like to please the author and hopes the author likes the work," Gallo says. Gene Mydlowski, editor Denise Little, and various art directors all echo this.
But how much actual input do they want you to have? There is no single answer, since that varies tremendously. Rather than just sending roses (or suicide threats) to your publisher's art director after the cover has already been printed, what can you do to influence the cover process? Should you contribute your opinions, or simply stay out of the art department's way? How can you best protect your interests?
These and other intriguing questions will be explored in the next article in this series, "But I Wrote the Damn Thing!"
A young (or at least not yet old) novelist is writing a series of articles on cover art for the monthly journal of her writers' organization. Despite the blonde hair, she's reasonably bright, and she has guessed what her fellow authors want to know more than anything else about the cover process — because it's also what she has always wanted to know.
Pen in hand, clean notebook spread out on her desk, she phones various publishers and, in her most reasonable, neutral, polite tone of voice, asks their art directors what a writer can do to assist the art department and influence the cover process in a useful, productive way. The answers she gets might discourage anyone who isn't a writer and consequently used to being at the bottom of the publishing food chain. The tone of the answers varies more than the substance.
Nervous: "As little as possible."
Bewildered: "Excuse me?"
Contemptuous: "What do they know about the marketplace?"
Suspicious: "Who are you?"
Discouraging, yes, but not entirely unexpected. Surely if the author's input were actively desired in the cover process, somebody would have mentioned it by now. However, there are ways to establish productive communication with your publisher's art department, just as there are ways to influence your book's cover. You won't always be successful, and it won't always be satisfying, but, just as you can't sell a book unless you submit it and risk rejection, you also can't get the cover you want unless you make every effort to get it — and risk being rebuffed or ignored.
First of all, you probably already know that some authors can get cover "consultation" written into their contracts; a rare few can even get cover "approval." Obviously, getting something in writing is always better than relying on a verbal promise — and it's much better than a vaguely hostile mumble suggesting that someone at the publishing house might let you see the cover sketches if they feel like it. So — can you get cover consultation (or approval), and what does it really mean?
Let's deal with the easy one first: cover approval. This means exactly what it says; the contract says that you must approve of the cover before they can put it on your book. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that this is extremely difficult to get. Not only must you be a terribly important author, a real cash-cow (if you'll pardon the expression), but literary agent Ruth Cohen suggests that your publisher will usually need an added incentive to give you this privilege: you might get it if, for example, another publisher is trying to seduce you away and your publisher has every reason to fear they're in danger of losing you. Since the previous articles in this series have already pointed out that as more people get involved in the cover process, the art director's job gets proportionately harder and more frustrating, it's not surprising that art directors dislike (to put it mildly) the whole concept of giving an author cover approval.
Moreover, giving a writer cover approval can be very expensive for a publisher. Agent Eleanor Wood explains: "I believe that would be extremely difficult to include in a contract, as the publisher might have to commission multiple paintings at that rate. Several years ago I heard that Bantam had agreed to cover approval, and after at least three paintings, Bantam cried, 'Never again!'"
Cover consultation, a more nebulous concept than cover approval, isn't easy to get written into a contract, but a writer who is important to the publisher can often get it. George Cornell, NAL's Mass Market Art Director, considers author consultation "problematic" and likens it to "choosing a wife for your son." However, contractual cover consultation doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Irene Gallo, Art Director at Tor Books, points out that cover "consultation" merely guarantees that the publisher must show the author the cover somewhere along the way; the art department is not obliged to pay any attention to the writer's opinions. So your entire "consultation" may actually consist of looking at a reproduction of the completed artwork and saying, "What is this washed-out, tasteless, semi-pornographic monstrosity you intend to put on my book?"
However, there are ways to make your cover consultation more effective. Agent Ruth Cohen says that the key issue is to try to get control of when the publisher must show you what they're doing. She recommends trying to see the illustrator's sketches in order to get some insight into what the art department is trying to do with your cover; remember, this is the stage at which the art director and editor may well be suggesting revisions, so it's a feasible time for you to make suggestions, too.
"Similarly," Cohen says, "the earlier you see the design, the typography, the placement of your name, and so on, the more likely it is that your opinion can be taken into account."
For the most part, Cohen warns, the author must rely on her editor's good graces if she hopes to see the cover art in its early stages. Indeed, Irene Gallo says that at Tor, the author's involvement in the process often depends on the editor; certain editors at Tor, she adds, routinely consult their writers about the cover. Whether or not you officially have cover consultation, most art directors seem to prefer that you communicate with them via your editor. Although Gallo doesn't actively encourage author input, she does say, "If the writer has a strong idea for the cover, then by all means, pass it along. Send your editor a page or two of vivid cover description." She cautions, however, that writers should understand that the cover won't look like the visions in their heads.
Agent Eleanor Wood once negotiated a contract where the artist was specified: Michael Whelan, winner of more than a dozen Hugo Awards for Best Professional Artist in science fiction and fantasy. Wood adds, "I [also recently negotiated] a contract that included author approval of the artist, as well as an agreement by the publisher to republish three previous and in-print books by this author with new art by the approved artist."
Although fantasy and historical author Jennifer Roberson has never had cover consultation written into a contract, she says, "I have on many occasions requested particular artists, and explained why. Often my editors do make an attempt to fulfill my request, so long as it suits the marketing direction they feel is vital." She even cites one instance where "I was very vocal with regard to repeating a particular artist's name because I liked what he'd done for one of my novels, and although the publisher didn't want to go that way, they did hire him to please me. It was a successful and effective cover, and I bought the original."
The most detailed and helpful advice about how an author can offer input on the cover in a way which is considered helpful and productive (rather than annoying and interfering) is probably offered by Gene Mydlowski of Harper Paperbacks. He recommends that the author send him lots of information, via the editor.
"Don't lock into a specific idea," Mydlowski warns. "Don't demand that it must be this. That's not useful or helpful." He suggests, rather, that the author send him a variety of visual material to point him and the illustrator in the right direction: photos and illustrations; other book covers that you feel express the right mood or style, or which would attract your audience; photos of people who resemble your characters — or verbal suggestions such as, "the character looks like so-and-so in this particular movie;" photos from costume books to illustrate the right fabrics and styles; photos that illustrate the right furniture, setting, flora and fauna, background details, and visual orientation. Mydlowski defines the writer's useful input as giving the art department visual brainstorming, support, inspiration, and suggestions — as opposed to demanding a specific cover.
In the decade since Gene Mydlowski gave me this advice, I have
developed a regular habit of gathering a file of visual cues while
working on each book. I send it to my editor—to be passed along
to the art department—shortly after I deliver the manuscript.
These covers are some of the results.
Mydlowski adds, "Writers need to understand that the cover is not a visual representation of their book. It's a marketing tool." It is the means by which a new reader with 3 seconds to spare is convinced that she simply must pick up your book. "Writers tend to be literal rather than visual," Mydlowski says. Hence, they may have misconceptions about what makes a good cover.
These are things to keep in mind, because your art director is only going to pay attention to your input if something you suggest or send him makes him stop and say, "Hey — now that's interesting! That's eye-catching! That's a good visual concept!"
If you're that rare author who doesn't want to participate in the cover process, either because you think you have no understanding of visual imagery or because you figure that the publisher's employees know better than you do, you may want to consider some of the things that strongly influenced my opinions about this while researching these articles.
I would say that I am indeed more literal than visual in my thinking; I admire visual art because my mind doesn't naturally work that way. I don't for a moment suppose that I know more about composition and design than art directors and designers who have studied these subjects and worked in this field for years. However, I do think I know more about my book, its audience, and what's appropriate for its cover than (to name a real-life example passed along to me) a 23-year-old editor who's going to leave publishing forever next year to have babies. Yet, in too many scenarios, she has more influence than I do over my cover, the cover that will affect my career (possibly for years to come) rather than hers. I also think I know more about it than (to name another on-the-ground example given to me) a 35-year-old editor who doesn't like the genre I write in and is looking for another job.
And you know what else? I think I know more about it than some of the sales representatives who offer their expertise in cover conferences where my opinions, in many cases, would be resented or ignored. One publishing professional tells a story about a sales rep who insisted that the title of a romance novel must be changed because the title character's name made no sense to him. The editor explained to him that the name was, in fact, also the name of one of the most popular perfumes in the world. Any woman who's ever watched television or flipped through a women's magazine would recognize the name instantly. The sales rep had never heard of the perfume and remained convinced that he knew best what women would recognize and buy. One of the few bits of conventional wisdom in publishing which I actually believe is that half-naked female models dominated the covers of the romance genre for a decade because male sales reps and male buyers liked to look at them.
If people resembling the above examples are adding their two cents to decisions about my book's cover (in addition, yes, to publishing professionals whose input is more astute and valuable than mine), then I can't afford to stand by idly and hope for the best. Remember the golden rule: other than word of mouth, the cover is the single most important means by which a writer attracts new readers.
Now, if you remember the last article in this series, you may remember that I was celebrating because I had recently learned that my suggestion is going to be used on the cover of my next romance novel, Fever Dreams [Kensington, 1997] . I do not have cover consultation, but my editor is Denise Little, one of the few people in publishing who actively seeks cover input from her authors (indeed, one might even go so far as to say she nags). Considering how many publishing professionals are leery (to put it mildly) of authors who want cover input, I was curious about what led Denise to actually solicit author input on her imprint's covers.
Her decision, she says, was the result of two factors: inexperience and overwork. She had never worked as an editor before the first day she walked into Kensington Books and took charge of her own imprint, Denise Little Presents. Managing DLP, as well as acquiring and editing books for other Kensington imprints, and receiving up to eight feet of mail per week, left Denise very little time to research cover ideas for every book.
"Since Kensington is not a system-oriented, hierarchical house," Denise says, "there were no hard-and-fast rules laid out for me about 'how it's done.' I made up the rules as I went along, and I thought that asking for cover input from the person who wrote the book and therefore knew it — and the period and background — best, made perfect sense."
While some authors have been so favorably impressed by the DLP covers that they choose to leave all decisions to Denise, she finds that most of her writers do come up with good cover concepts — even if the first few ideas have to be tossed out. Since writers are usually pretty accustomed to having some of their ideas rejected, Denise says that saying "no" to an idea has never presented a problem and usually results in the writer simply coming up with better ideas.
Denise advises writers to focus on an arresting image which is representative of the book. Taking this advice into account, I finally — after weeks of leafing through magazines and art books — found an image that I knew was perfect for my South American jungle book: a Peruvian scarlet macaw, wings slightly blurred in flight, soaring over a tropical jungle. Since I was only halfway through the manuscript at that point, I even found a way to use the imagery in a pivotal scene in the book.
The Kensington cover for Fever Dreams
Finally, as agent Eleanor Wood points out, "Art directors differ widely on how receptive they are to authors' or agents' suggestions. My advice is to keep the editor and, where possible, the art director informed of your opinion (e.g. the kind of message the cover should convey, whether or not you liked the artist's work for your last book, etc.)." In this way, bit by bit, step by step, you may eventually gain some influence over what everyone agrees is an extremely important aspect of your book's (and your career's) success.
The Difference Design Makes
After seeing the cover for the paperback edition to Fallen From Grace, below left, I felt it was a major improvement over the hardcover's disappointing cover, but still needed work. After seeking the input of a friend who was a graphic designer before becoming a successful novelist, I made the suggestions for the design changes that resulted in the cover that was actually used, below right. These were simple changes that could be done in-house, on budget, and in very little time; but the result was a noticeably more effective, eye-catching cover. Design changes are an excellent area for an author to make constructive suggestions for improving a cover, whether the illustration is weak, average, or superb.
If you're interested in getting more involved in your cover design but know nothing about design, get some books on the subject; find a friend (as I did) with a strong design background; study book design by exploring bookstores and analyzing what draws your eye to a particular cover; or take a class at your local community college.
Although I still seek input from people with design backgrounds, I can discern and suggest far more on my cover designs without help now, due to taking a course in my MSJ program in 2004 that included studying design concepts and learning to use graphics software (Photoshop, Freehand, and Quark).
As one of my class projects, I made a mock-up of a different cover for A Blonde In Africa. For your amusement, I include it here below.
"In those days, publishers were open to new ideas because everything was new and untested. If a thing worked, they used it until it didn't work anymore and then went on to something else. Symbolic covers, interpretive covers, generic covers, literal, narrative covers — all coexisted in a field that was still too young and unsophisticated to appreciate the value of demographic studies or to be obsessed with a bottom-line marketing mentality."
This publishing Eden which Vincent Di Fate wistfully describes in "A Short History of SF Art In Paperback" (SF Chronicle, March/April 1995) occurred in the 1950s and 1960s; long ago and far away.
"Competition among mass market publishers is heating up for retail rack space," Publisher's Weekly proclaimed in January of 1988. The article's title, "Mass Market Covers — Key Weapons in the Rack-Space War" (and its use of phrases like "biting the bullet" and "cutting edge"), conjures up images of Rambo and the Terminator squaring off in a battle for the last remaining rack space in some post-modernist hellhole.
"In addition to the growth of editorial control over our covers," science fiction artist Di Fate writes in his art history article, "the marketing people began to intrude into the process. Art directors, once among the most powerful people in the industry, were reduced in many cases to being part of a committee, or even just traffic managers overseeing the constant flow of artwork."
In November of 1989, PW featured another article on the changing world of cover art: "Mass market paperback publishers are continuing to innovate, spurred by an intensely competitive marketplace." (Indeed, I picture Spanish spurs, the sharp points of the rowels drawing blood.)
"If such things [as sales figures] were absolutely predictable," Di Fate writes in his Chronicle article, "no book would flop, no movie would go without an audience, no product manufactured would go unsold. Marketing is not an exact science, yet people in sales tend to regard their beliefs as absolute fact."
In May of 1994, one of PW's feature articles began: "With romance making up close to half of all mass market books sold, catching the attention of romance readers is both increasingly difficult and crucial." The article examines innovations in romance cover art, as well as ways in which publishers are trying to make their books automatically identifiable as romance while simultaneously trying to make them stand out from the pack. The article contains comments by editors, sales officers, promotions officers, associate publishers, deputy publishers, advertising executives, marketing directors, publicity directors, publicity managers, and... oh, yes, art directors. The science of "keying covers" to attract impulse buyers is explored, as well as the virtues of special gimmicks, the life and death of the notorious "clinch" cover, the male cover model as "a great marketing tool," and the "romance look of the future."
Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
America's corporate culture began invading publishing in the '70s, and to a large (and not unreasonable) extent, the big communication conglomerates which then began acquiring New York's major publishing houses are now blamed for the current state of affairs in publishing.
"To such vast and highly profitable business operations," Di Fate points out, "the income from book publishing must seem abysmal." (It seems that way to quite a few writers, too.) Di Fate is not the first person to note that the conglomerates' "pressure to maximize profits from publishing may be founded on unrealistic expectations."
We all know (or fear) where this leaves us as writers; it's the subject of articles in every writers' trade journal and newsletter. But what does it mean to your book's cover?
If you remember only one thing from this series, remember this: next to word of mouth, the cover is the single most important way you reach new readers. Covers are therefore the area in which we see the most competition, the most rapid change, and (apart from our own prose) the most innovation.
Joni Friedman, Art Director at Berkley Books, stresses that it is essential to learn during the initial cover conference who the target audience is so that all plans made thereafter can attempt to attract those consumers. As Harper's Gene Mydlowski says, "The cover must be representative of the type of book the reader thinks he's buying, so it must be fair, accurate advertising." Therefore, it must not only stand out in some way, it must also tell the reader — in that brief 3-second glance — what type of book it is. Hence, each genre develops a "look."
As a writer or avid reader, you're probably well aware of genre "looks." Indeed, if you see the cover of a mystery, western, fantasy, romance, or science fiction novel and can't automatically identify it by genre (however special, innovative, or unique the cover is), you know something's wrong. Even romance, with its rapidly changing look, remains identifiable as romance. Of course, just in case buyers, bookstore staff, and consumers have doubts, the book's genre is helpfully printed on the spine. But the cover always attempts to help not only you, but also the occasional reader who has never even consciously acknowledged these signals, to instantly identify what kind of book is before you.
For the purposes of this article, I've chosen romance as the genre in which to explore the origin, effect, and evolution of a genre "look." I recommend that readers specifically interested in the evolution of sf/f cover art hunt down Di Fate's fascinating SF Chronicle article on the subject — in many ways a more complex subject, due to both the nature and the age of the genre.
While no one I've interviewed has pinned down the exact origin of the romance genre's notorious and formerly ubiquitous "clinch" cover, certainly Kensington Books and cover artist Pino were instrumental in the success of this look in the early 1980s, when the genre was growing almost faster than books could be released. The look — a lot of flesh and a passionate embrace — matched the trend of increasing sensuality inside the covers.
An articulate and interesting man who will be featured in the final article in this series, Pino is well aware that the clinch has fallen into disfavor with some people, but he points out that the look nonetheless helped the growth of the genre's sales during the 1980s, when romance rose to become the single biggest seller in mass market fiction.
"Buyers liked the sensuality on the covers," Pino notes. And buyers, as discussed in a previous article in this series, are ultimately the people who decide if your book is going to get on the stands where consumers can see it.
There is, of course, a counter-argument which says that many readers are embarrassed to carry around a book whose cover portrays a half-naked couple locked in carnal embrace; an extension of this argument suggests that many readers who might like romance novels won't even consider buying one precisely because of this look. Most publishing professionals, however, believe that the genre's sales figures in the 1980s speak for themselves.
Denise Little, a senior editor at Kensington Books who was a buyer for B.Dalton/Barnes & Noble during the 1980s, says, "The clinch gave the genre a uniform, identifiable look which helped it emerge as a force in the late '70s and the '80s. Also, since most people selecting the books [by cover] and putting them into racks in grocery stores, truck stops, drug stores, and so on, were men, the 'look' helped get those books out there in huge numbers." Those outlets, Little adds, accounted for about 80% of the romance distribution network at one point; and while the look undoubtedly discouraged some readers, it nonetheless attracted many more. Most importantly, readers knew at a glance that the book was a romance novel. The goal of genre identification was achieved with stunning success.
Although Warner Books Creative Director Jackie Meyer told Publishers Weekly in May of 1994 that "the clinch is dead," publishing executives from Avon and Leisure speak up for it in the same article. The clinch still instantly identifies the books of many new and midlist writers as romance novels; and some publishers prefer to continue using a clinch even for (at least some of) their romance lead titles. According to Steve Zacharius, Kensington's Vice President and general manager, "Our research shows that the people in our book clubs definitely prefer the clinch covers." Yook Louie, Bantam's courteous and articulate Art Director, believes the clinch will always be around. "It won't be on every cover," he says, "but it will continue to be part of the genre."
One now-familiar innovation which Louie mentions is the use of graphics or a still-life on the book's cover, with the clinch portrayed in a step-back illustration and/or on the spine of the book. As you may have noticed, step-backs have always been comparatively rare outside of the romance genre. According to Steve Zacharius, "The step-back is more widely used in romance because there is the feeling that many women are embarrassed to be seen holding romance books with clinches." Therefore the clinch, still part of the genre's identity, is concealed in the inside cover. Yook Louie describes it as combining the new look with the old.
The high cost of step-backs is another reason they're far more common in romance. Since, compared to other genres, the romance market is so big and print runs are so high, Louie explains, publishers know they're more likely to see an acceptable return on their investment when they put a step-back cover on a romance novel. However, Zacharius says that at Kensington, "We have seen no evidence that step-backs perform better than the normal clinch cover. The buyers do not increase their buys, and the sell-throughs... are not any higher." He cites numerous examples where Kensington has been able to discern this through their extensive publishing program, and concludes that, considering how high the cost of producing a step-back is, "That's a lot of money to spend without seeing any benefits." So perhaps step-backs will become much less prevalent in romance during the next few years. [Author's note, 2007: This is indeed the case now.]
Many romance writers, of course, have been vocal about objecting to clinch covers — or at least to the so-called "nursing mother" covers that many writers regard as particularly tasteless. But guess what? While your objections may have had an effect, not one single publishing professional mentions that as a factor in the genre's changing look. Not one.
So what has caused a change toward what many writers (and readers) consider more tasteful, attractive, and even original packaging? Answer: competition, of course.
Naturally, publishers are well aware of what their competitors are doing, and they watch what succeeds and what fails in the marketplace. While everyone stresses the importance of good books, packaging (as Publishers Weekly keeps reminding us) is usually where the rack-space wars are won or lost. All publishers admit they are competitive with each other; it's the American way, after all. While most deny it, one publishing professional says that, in the flavor-of-the-month and do-it-again syndromes that characterize New York publishing, people walk into art departments with a cover that worked for another house and say, "Steal this cover!" Yook Louie of Bantam Books, however, points out that the best policy is "to outdo a competitor's cover, not steal it."
The clinch, as we all know, wound up flooding the market. The look, as Berkley's Joni Friedman says, "got really tired." Or, as Gene Mydlowski told Publishers Weekly, "We created a monster with the clinch." When Harper Paperbacks started up in the late '80s, Mydlowski purposely took a new approach to packaging the genre: "I'm going on the basis that the woman is approaching the rack because she's a 'professional' romance reader. If I can get one cover to stand away from all the rest, I've done my job." Since publishers' decisions (occasional evidence to the contrary) don't take place in a vacuum, more than one publishing house began experimenting around the same time, searching for a look which would say "romance!" without being identical to all the other romances on the stands.
This atmosphere of ever-increasing competition inspired even more innovation when something happened that completely changed the nature of marketing romance novels. While the superstores were rising to prominence as the chief outlet for many books, the romance genre's traditional primary outlets were simultaneously drying up. The grocery store, truck stop, drug store, and other wire rack, non-bookstore outlets which had been the genre's mainstay suddenly discovered that they could make more money by stocking nothing but major bestsellers, the backlists of major bestsellers, and lead titles. Midlist romance genre books simply weren't as profitable as this new cash cow.
"Consequently," Denise Little explains, "there are almost no slots left in this market, and romance writers — except for bestsellers — have seen dramatic reductions in their print runs." [Author's note, 2007: This trend has continued, and midlist romance print runs and distribution have declined further since this article was written a decade ago.]
The upshot is that bookstores, including the superstores, have now become the romance genre's primary market. "The traditional '80s look of romance doesn't appeal to the buyers in this market," Little says. "It also doesn't appeal strongly to the consumers in this market. So a new look is essential for the success of the genre in this new structure, a look which will appeal to every layer of the process — sales force, buyers, store staff, and readers."
And this, to a very large extent, is what's influencing the changes in the romance genre's covers during the 1990s; changes that not only reflect where the books are sold and how boldly they each need to stand out, but also which new readers must now be induced to pick up a romance novel — by making the cover is so arresting that they can't bear not to pick it up.
As publishers search for a new look, we see novels in the romance genre released with a variety of covers featuring flowers, jewelry, scenery, still-life objects that (presumably) represent an aspect of the story, and models in poses besides the clinch. Some covers still feature an artist's illustration, but others are done strictly with graphics or a combination of photography and graphic design.
New technology is another factor in the genre's covers. Kensington Books experimented with 3-D covers and holograms, though this technology was expensive. "As we experiment more with these techniques, they will continue to improve," says Steve Zacharius. Pointing out the excellent sales figures on first-time author Mickee Madden's Everlastin', he adds, "At the current time, we are negotiating to use this technique on three upcoming titles during the next year."
Tor's Art Director Irene Gallo, however, says she's more interested in improving design and conceptualization on covers than in "fancy effects." Some publishing professionals refer to these effects as "bells and whistles" and don't have much interest in pursuing them. Some even consider the effects unattractive, while others believe that novelty soon wears off, ensuring that the substantial investment required for such effects ceases to be mitigated by good sales figures.
Bantam's (other) Art Director, Jamie Warren-Youll, doesn't anticipate exploring expensive new techniques any time soon. In her department, she jokes, "we still think foil is expensive." However, she talks at length about other innovative packaging which she, as Art Director for Bantam's mystery and sf/f releases, has overseen. A woman of refreshing enthusiasm — she actually reads most of the books that her department packages — Warren-Youll's excitement is evident as she talks about the way the visual look of mysteries, in particular, is changing. She finds buyers and consumers to be — in the mystery genre, at least — open-minded and ready for "a curve ball." The covers, of course, also reflect the literary changes we've seen in the mystery genre; Warren-Youll notes the growth of the historical mystery as a major phenomenon that provided opportunities for her to work with a "more painterly approach" on many covers (she mentions The Dutchman by Maan Meyers as a particularly good example). Her department has also worked with innovative photography techniques and computer art, and has experimented successfully with combining a traditional look with special effects on certain covers, such as Leslie Glass's Hanging Time.
Above all, though, most art directors seem to think that the look of mass market books — like everything else in our society — will keep changing and evolving. Who knows? One day someone's clinch cover may stand out by being the only one on the stands, thus attracting enough attention to turn some writer's midlist romance novel into a sensational success.
"So with all of this money, effort, thought, and manpower going into covers," I hear you ask, "why is my last cover lifting its leg on fire hydrants?"
Don't think for a moment that I didn't ask!
Answers vary, of course. Some publishers deny that they've ever released a book with a bad cover; others nervously express hope that they never will. Some are more forthcoming. Yook Louie of Bantam Books points out that in some cases, your loathing of your cover may be a matter of individual taste. He explains that covers usually get vetoed in-house if they aren't good. After all, as agent Ruth Cohen says, "A bad cover doesn't help anybody." The publisher wants your book to sell; and, yes, your publisher even wants you to like the cover, though this isn't their primary goal for it.
Thinking it over, Yook Louie adds that sometimes a cover simply doesn't look right — perhaps the art department started off with the wrong concept or the wrong artist. So the designers re-touch it and re-work it. In some cases, they end up with a much-improved cover. "In other cases," Louie concludes, "the cover risks ending up overworked." Another art director admits that, considering how many covers he puts out every month, no matter how hard his department tries, there's bound to be a dog now and then.
I remember author Susan Sontag once saying in an interview that she thinks every writer is entitled to a bad book now and then. If so, then I suppose the same is true of art directors and covers — as long as it's not my cover, buddy!
© Laura Resnick
A young pre-med student who used to help prepare cadavers for anatomy classes one day decided to become a science fiction and fantasy cover artist. Upon leaving art school in the mid-1970s, he sold everything that wouldn't fit into his car, left his native California, and moved to the New York area — where, he was advised, it was important to live if he wanted a serious career working as a cover artist for the major publishing houses (back in the days before email and Federal Express became such a force in all our lives).
Over the next twenty years, Michael Whelan would become the most influential and honored artist in sf/f cover art — probably in all of popular fiction — winning more than a dozen Hugo Awards in the process, as well as numerous other awards. His artwork has appeared not only on book covers, magazines, and music albums (including the Jacksons' Victory album), but also in books published specifically to honor the best of his work: Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder and The Art of Michael Whelan.
Advertisements for hardcover and paperback novels often highlight the fact that the cover art is by Michael Whelan — because fans collect the books for this very reason. He is the cover artist most often requested by every bestselling author in the genre.
As the market for his fine art — his non-commmissioned gallery art — grew, he told Locus in a 1993 interview: "I don't view myself as ever giving up illustration, because it's my first love..." His goal, he said, was to divide his time between his illustrating work and his gallery art.
Yet as publishers' sales and marketing people gradually acquired more and more influence over the cover process (remember Vincent Di Fate's Chronicle article, quoted in the previous article in this series, "Steal This Cover!"), some of them apparently decided they knew more about art than Whelan or their own companies' art directors. They began interfering with his work so much that, in frustration, Michael Whelan — cited in A Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists as "the most dominant force in modern science fiction illustration" — decided in the 1990s to quit illustration for at least two years.
An artist emigrated to the US from Italy in 1979, where, as a frustrated classicist in the era when expressionism and post-modernism were all the rage in Milan, he had begun his career by illustrating history textbooks for schools in the early 1960s. His talent and drive were rewarded in the US, particularly after he became — probably thanks to his dedicated study of anatomy in night school during his early days in Milan — the most recognized and prolific illustrator in the romance genre.
The artist, who is known simply as Pino in the publishing world, is still clearly grateful for his opportunities and enthused about his career, even after more than 1,500 cover paintings. He has found, however, that there is a price to success; publishers now tend to want the same type of art from him, the proven product, over and over; they are reluctant to see him experiment or diversify. And an artist finds that as unstimulating as most writers do.
As a result, Pino chose to add to his already long hours in the studio and returned, after many years, to producing original works of fine art in his spare time in the 1990s, to satisfy the creativity which is not often encouraged in the publishing world these days.
A science fiction/fantasy writer realized early on that none of the cover art she saw in her chosen genre really suited her writing. With only a little professional training (one semester in art college), she began teaching herself how to draw and paint. When her work got good enough, she sought cover art assignments for other writers' books, working to establish herself as a professional cover artist.
Now an award-winning cover artist who has illustrated books for over half a dozen major publishing houses, bestselling novelist Janny Wurts gets the covers she wants for her own books by painting them herself.
Like professional writers, cover artists are creative people who found a way to get paid for the work they love. Like authors, illustrators are always freelancers, independent of the internal structure of the publishing house. In a way (if I may appropriate some imagery from editor Denise Little), writers and artists are like the two slices of bread in a sandwich; we are very much alike, and we are usually separated by all the stuff in the middle — in our case, by editors, art directors, sales people, marketing experts, and all the other publishing professionals who have some influence over our work and its packaging.
As you will have already gathered, cover artists must have the same determination and commitment that professional writers do; and they not only face the same fierce professional competition, but also many of the same frustrations that writers do. So this final article in our series on cover art deals with the people who are, so to speak, the other slice of bread in an increasingly fat sandwich.
Irene Gallo, the Art Director at Tor Books, describes a great cover artist as someone who is technically strong and also smart; someone who comes up with ideas beyond what has been suggested or asked for; someone who is a good, imaginative fine artist who just happens to be illustrating books.
Although a cover artist must at first actively seek work from publishers (the way writers do), once they've gotten a few assignments and have proven their worth, publishers thereafter contact them to commission cover paintings. Art directors speak over and over about the task of finding "the right artist" for any given book.
Not surprisingly, artists tend to specialize, just as writers do. And not only by genre; remember Vincent Di Fate's dilemma: once he had learned how to paint "hardware," he was seldom commissioned to paint anything else. Having been instrumental in the success of the "clinch" cover that identified the romance genre in the '80s, Pino finds he is now seldom asked to paint anything else. (During our interview, he urged me to request him as my cover artist so he could do something different. Whether it was his art or his natural charm, I'm not sure, but I made the request—and he was commissioned to paint the lovely cover of Fever Dreams.).
Like writers, cover artists — at least the good ones — tend to gravitate to a specific genre out of love. Michael Whelan has been fascinated by the imagery of science fiction and fantasy since childhood. Janny Wurts's earliest interests were astronomy, science, and art; and she eventually became an sf/f writer. Pino has loved history since his early youth and has concentrated fiercely on the study of anatomy; the perfect resume for someone illustrating historical romances.
Time and budget are two more factors which art directors are forced to consider when commissioning a painting. As discussed in "Green Books Don't Sell," the money spent on your cover is usually in line with the overall positioning of your novel in the publisher's list. As for scheduling, artists vary as much as writers in terms of speed and availability; the time needed for each of them to complete a cover painting depends on a variety of factors.
When Pino gets a commission, he usually reads the synopsis, then visits the publisher's offices to discuss the author's, editor's, and art director's ideas, and to learn what they need and want for the cover. Reviewing this information, he then books a photographer, a studio, and the appropriate models, and also rents costumes and props. The photo shoot usually lasts about an hour, and the prints from this session must be ready before he begins work on his preliminary sketches. At this point, he also consults his vast reference library for background material — views of landscapes, scenery, architecture, flora, and fauna appropriate to the scene. The sketches must at this point go back to the publisher, where the art director and editor (at the very least) must approve them; at this time they suggest whatever revisions they think are necessary.
It takes Pino 5-7 days to do a cover painting, working at his peak for 6-7 hours per day. He paints in oil on board; the finished piece is usually 30" x 22".
Artists vary as much as writers in terms of their pace. Janny Wurts says a cover takes her about one month from conception to completion. Michael Whelan says his pace varies tremendously, depending upon the book. He may take up to a month doing preliminary sketches in pencil, oil, charcoal, and/or acrylics, exploring all the ideas and possibilities that interest him for the cover. Once he and the art director have agreed on a final concept, it can take him anywhere from three days to five months to complete it. This, again, depends very much on the nature of the work and the medium he chooses to work in. The illustration could be relatively simple and almost as small as an actual book cover, or it could be an immense and extremely complex painting for a wrap-around cover.
The original painting is the sole property of the artist, the publisher having merely bought the right to use the work for a specific and limited purpose. If the author is interested in buying the original painting, she has merely to tell her publisher, who will usually manage to put her in touch with the artist via the art director.
Pino, the most successful and prolific cover artist in romance, the artist who is always mentioned first by art directors when asked to name some particularly good romance illustrators, still owns most of his 1,500+ cover paintings, and he's never had an exhibition of this work. "Occasionally the author buys the original," he says. "There's a gallery in Soho that dabbles a little in this field, and one or two people have started private collections." For the most part, however, "there just isn't a market yet" for romance cover art.
There is a considerable market for Pino's fine art, however. He's had several exhibitions and, in two years, has sold about forty of the sixty original paintings he has done in his "spare" time, thus fulfilling the need to create — a need which is not so easily fulfilled as a romance illustrator.
Setting aside the books which appear to have had a generic spaceship or unicorn slapped on them, there is generally more room for creativity in science fiction and fantasy art. According to Janny Wurts, "You can paint from your imagination; you can paint anything. Just doing a realistic rendering of something is too simple — boring, if you will. The real ripping fun is the challenge of making something nobody has ever seen look real and alive. Putting a window into the imagination, through paint, as it were."
Moreover, there is an actual art world in the sf/f genre. It was only in researching this article that I realized how little recognition there is for cover artists in most areas of popular fiction. Romance, mystery, mainstream, and literary fiction scarcely acknowledge their artists, let alone honor them.
Meanwhile [as of 1996], sf/f artist Michael Whelan has won eleven Hugo Awards as Best Professional Artist, two Hugo Awards for Best Original Cover Art, three Howard (World Fantasy Convention) Awards for Best Artist, and a number of Chesley Awards (from ASFA). Janny Wurts's cover for her novel Master of Whitestorm was awarded Best In Show at the World Fantasy Convention for two consecutive years. Her painting Wizard of the Owls won a Chesley in 1992, and her cover painting for her novel Curse of the Mistwraith was nominated for a 1995 Chesley for Best Hardcover Jacket.
Interestingly enough, Michael Whelan dropped out of the Hugo Award race one year after seven consecutive wins. "I feel people outside the field would regard [the Hugo] as not having any value if the same person wins it so many times in a row. I want people outside the field to respect the Hugos, for the awards to be important to people in general, as well as to the fans," he told American Fantasy. "I'm really tired of the provincialism of Hugos which are the World Science Fiction Convention Awards. They're so often awarded to Americans simply because the people doing the voting are ignorant of the work done in other countries." Worldcon's English site that year was also instrumental in his decision to step out of the race. "There are some excellent artists in England and Japan especially, and they deserve some recognition, even if they just get nominated because there is an empty space in the nomination category because I've refused to accept the Hugo. Then, at least, [my refusal] has accomplished something."
While an award certainly boosts an artist's reputation and name recognition in the field, Michael Whelan says that a Hugo makes no difference at all to the artist's economic life. "I think it's far more important to have a notice in Publishers Weekly, an interview with the book owner who says your covers sell better than anyone else's," he told Locus in 1993. "That has tremendous impact on what you can charge for a painting. I don't think a Hugo makes any difference." However, Janny Wurts points out that "if a cover painting wins an award, my publisher will use that to help promote the book... Having an acclaimed piece of artwork just helps to draw notice to that title." As does having an acclaimed cover artist.
As discussed in a previous article in this series, science fiction and fantasy trade publications feature interviews with (and articles by) artists as well as writers, and the conventions feature artist panels alongside author panels. In addition, every major sf/f convention features an art show and art auction. Amateur as well as professional artists exhibit and sell at these shows. Having done some paste-up work for a printer, as well as some freelance graphics and calligraphy, Janny Wurts explains, "I then went on to sell inept attempts [at sf/f art] at conventions, which enabled me to learn to draw and paint and still get some bucks as compensation. When the work began to look professional level, I sold to the wargames market, and finally, paperbacks in New York City." The convention culture (as Tor's Irene Gallo calls it) provided Wurts, then an amateur, with a lot of the experience, exposure, and contacts she needed to turn professional.
And, as she mentioned, a little extra income from this source was not unwelcome. Pay scales for cover artists, according to Irene Gallo, range from $2,000 (at the low end) to $8,000 (at the high end); flat fee, no royalties. Regardless of how many assignments an artist gets, or how high his fee is, the extra income from these art auctions is a perk for sf/f illustrators, one which not enough cover artists in other genres enjoy. The market for original artwork also means there's a large market for reprints; Whelan began his own company, producing limited graphics of some of his most popular works.
In addition, sf/f artists enjoy considerable exposure for their work outside of the convention culture. Wurts's artwork has been exhibited at the Orlando Science Center, the Delaware Art Museum (one of her paintings is now in the permanent collection there), the New Jersey State Museum, the Worcester Science Center, the Jesse Besser Museum, and the Canton Art Institute — to name just a few. Whelan's works — both illustrative and original — have been exhibited and sold at the New Britain Museum of Art, the Society of Illustrators (New York City), the Greenwich Workshop Gallery, the Butler Institute of American Art, and the Brandywine Fantasy Gallery in Chicago (among many others).
Of course, the frequently imaginative nature of sf/f art provides for an emphasis on the artist which doesn't exist in more earth-bound fields. However, in talking to artists and art directors about sf/f, romance, and mystery, one feature emerged that some readers of this article may find startling. Except for certain generic covers, mystery and sf/f cover artists always read the novel — a process that seems virtually unheard of when it comes to romance cover art.
Bantam's Jamie Warren-Youll, who not only works with mystery and sf/f artists but is also married to an sf/f artist, confirms this without hesitation. Indeed, Whelan and Wurts consider reading the book an essential part of the process, and both of them telephone the author to discuss the book if the author is running late on deadline and they can't get enough of the manuscript to satisfy them. Indeed, even with the manuscript, they both cite instances of phoning the writer ("going to the source," Whelan calls it) to talk over ideas and key elements of the book. Not only do they welcome author input, but Whelan even mentions author C.J. Cherryh providing him with sketches. And why not? He hopes that when the cover is ready, the author will say to him, "That's exactly what was in my mind!" (One of my favorite science fiction covers is Whelan's illustration of Paradise by Mike Resnick — my father. I can't imagine a more evocative, accurate, or complete one-painting portrayal of that novel.)
Any romance writer who has spent years writing out "tip sheets" for cover artists who don't read their books can probably immediately appreciate the ramifications of the previous paragraph. While imaginary, futuristic, and alien worlds may provide more scope for the visual artist than contemporary and historical romance, it does seem that there's probably a huge, deep well of creativity going untapped by virtue of the fact that the majority of romance covers artists do not read the novels they illustrate.
Perhaps, in the fierce quest for better and better romance covers, someone in publishing may eventually consider this novel approach (you should pardon the expression) and start encouraging (nay, expecting!) romance cover artists to read the books as the basis of their sketches and illustrations. It seems ironic that this kind of care and attention is routinely applied in genres with lower print runs.
Meanwhile, writers who have deplored the ubiquitous clinch covers may now find some sympathy for artists who got rather tired of painting them. Indeed, art directors, too, express interest in finding that which is new, different, fresh, and exciting. And Whelan admits that input from art directors has improved his work just as often as it's made it more problematic; and he's subject to this input since even at his level of success, he admits wryly, he's not in a position to develop a prima donna attitude.
At one point, Whelan decided to limit his illustration schedule to twelve covers per year; he told publishers that whoever offered the best money and most interesting projects would get his time. Subsequently, he left the field for a couple of years. In addition to wanting more time to work on his gallery art, a career which became lucrative enough to continue supporting his family, he found that the growing "meddling" of sales and marketing people — meddling that is not concerned with quality and "which is often to the detriment of the art" —made illustrating the books he loves less rewarding than it used to be.
As it happens, romance writers are probably more aware of the growing pressures created by marketing figures, reports, and estimates than writers in any other genre — precisely because romance is still worth more money to publishers. Obviously there is no going back to the publishing world of the '50s, a world described in Di Fate's Chronicle article as "too young and unsophisticated to appreciate the the value of demographic studies or to be obsessed with a bottom-line marketing mentality." Besides, they undoubtedly had their problems, too.
Let's remember that writers and artists are the reason people actually go to the bookstore to spend those dollars for which everyone in publishing is competing so fiercely. Having perhaps alarmed some of you about the influence covers have over your career and the lack of nfluence you have over your covers, these articles have also tried to suggest various ways in which you can become a productive part of this process.
Open communications with your editor and your art director. Provide them with feedback on your last cover, and any visual materials you can on your next cover. If necessary, train them to accept your input as a normal and significant part of the cover process. And remember that the cover artist is, like you, a slice of bread in this gloppy sandwich. A good illustrator, just like a good writer, sincerely cares about that book and about doing what's best for it. So if you need to, shove your way past the ham and mayo; you might find a soulmate on the other side of all that artery-hardening stuff.