Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Judging Books By Covers

The sf/f cover debate has started up again. I feel obliged, although slightly reluctant, to jump in. The question is: Is it better to cater to familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes to hit your target audience or embrace a mainstream look in an attempt to branch out. Short answer: Depends. Tor/Forge/Starscape publishes about 400 books a year (last I checked), which leads me to think there is room for all kinds of covers.

A while ago a friend asked if it was still true that dragons "sell". My flippant answer at the time was, "Dunno, but as long as the buyers believe it, it's true." (And by "buyers" I mean the folks that decide which books will be stocked in stores, not readers who buy books.) The reason I'm slightly reluctant to jump in here is, as much as I'd like it to be otherwise, I am not really hired for my personal preferences on cover art, but rather to get books past book buyers. If the books don't make it into the stores in the first place, readers can't buy them in the second place. I'm also a bit shy of the topic since, while my personal preference may lean toward more expressive styles, I can point to dozens of artists with more rendered aesthetics that I truly love. I suppose the only common denominator among my favorites is that they are all good painters. I try to create as much overlap between my tastes and my job as possible, but it is not entirely one and the same.


I believe the breadth of what is recognized as sf/f art today is so much more varied and vibrant than fifteen/twenty years ago. As people often point out, it was a shame that covers evolved from the abstract work of the 60s and 70s into a far more restrictive idea of what sf art could be -- highly realist, literal narrations. I have no problems with that kind of cover, but it's refreshing that in the past decade+ we've been able to embrace more stylistic decisions. Personally, having that diversity allows me to enjoy both points of view without tiring of one over the other.


(Yes, this is all so "middle of the road" boring, isn't it. But it's true.)


Someone in the debate mentioned the trend in bringing movie and video game concept artists to book covers. The internet and annuals like Spectrum and Expose have opened up avenues to see all kinds of work that was typically only seen by industry insiders. I'm proud to say that I am the fist to have hired Martiniere for book covers and I've loved working with Craig Mullins, Daniel Dociu, Shelly Wan, Sparth and others. I'll admit that I haven't played a video game since Pong (ok, maybe it was Asteroids) but I love working with these loose and expressive painters....Just as I love working with artists like Donato, Dos Santos, Julie Bell, and the like, that have mastered a fine craftsmanship.

The question is when do we use which approach. That all gets sorted out within a series of discussions between editors, marketing peoples, and myself. Hopefully we get it right. I would say, we mostly get it right...even if there are a few covers each year that I would love to get a "do over" on. If someone told me they loved Tolkien, my first reaction wouldn't be to give them a Jonathan Carroll book...so packaging them the same seems silly. It doesn't mean that the same reader wouldn't enjoy both, but they would enjoy them for different reasons.

S'all good.

15 comments:

Carl V. said...

Interesting to read your thoughts on this. It sounds like you truly have a middle of the road opinion and that it is a good one: if the cover looks good, is laid out well and presented well then it matters not so much if it is a retread of familiar themes or something entirely different. I certainly have that approach. While I love a good Martiniere sci fi cover, I am also impressed by more graphic design elements like the recent Spaceman Blues cover. I like to see a mix of different ideas. I think the school of thought that says that we have to shy away from more traditional sci fi/fantasy imagery on book covers is a bit silly. I don't see it as a detriment to book sales. I think science fiction and fantasy will always struggle with being 'genre fiction' because of its labels, not its covers and I'm not sure a striving for 'legitimacy' is a good way to spend one's time. I love fantasy and science fiction and find it legitimate and relevant. I promote that on my own site and amongst those I come in contact with. If I can hand someone a copy of a good, entertaining story who is open minded enough to give it a try, the cover isn't going to put them off, it is the content. I personally think we have the best of both worlds regarding cover illustration right now because we have artists like John Harris and John Berkey and others producing 'old school' book illustration that is every bit as cool today as the first time their work graced a book cover and we have newer artists creating a whole range of fantasy and science fiction covers in many different mediums which produced a great variety of results. Spectrum is a perfect example of just how wonderful book illustration is right now. It is a good time to be a book lover.

ces said...

I must admit - unless the book is by someone I already know & love - the sole reason I buy a SF book is the cover. If the cover doesn't grab me, and the book is by someone I don't know, then I'll never "see" the book on the shelf.

Martiniere's and Picacio's covers always grab me. And there are certain artists whose work I definitely dislike and when I see a book with their art, I completely ignore the book.

Randall Ensley said...

Irene,
I hope you saw this cover by Stephan Martiniere from Writers of the Future vol. XXIII. It really smacks of 'old school' with a cutting edge. Love the solitary figure on the edge of a new adventure. Reminds me of Heinlein.
So many book covers are similar these days so it takes a special one to stand out. A non sci-fi book cover which grabbed my attention and led to me reading the trilogy and eventually into correspondence with the author was the cover for "Knights of the Cross" story by Tom Harper (American Version not UK) artist unknown.
Here's a link to the Martiniere cover
http://randallensley.blogspot.com/2008/03/cover-art-by-stephen-martinierre.html

Randall Ensley said...

Well,
That link didn't post right so go here
http://randallensley.blogspot.com/
and go to the March 8, 2008 post if you want to see the cover art.
Thanks,
Randall

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