Thursday, August 17, 2006

Text Fidelity

A couple people have emailed me asking about whether or not the artists read the books and why doesn't the cover imagery always match the text. It’s a question that I get at every convention so...

I think, to some extent, we currently get blamed for sins of the past. I know that “back in the day” it was fairly standard practice to place any painting on a book cover but that rarely happens at this point. What we do, occasionally, have is lack of information at the time that you need it. As the big bookstore chains asked for sales material earlier and earlier, we were required to start creating the covers earlier and earlier. At this point, I need to be working on a title at least a year in advance of the publication date.

Still, most of the time we do have the manuscript, or a least a first draft that we can use. While most artists do read them, I cannot. Too many books need to be worked on at the same time to meet a catalog due date. I rely on the editors to give me a detailed synopsis and descriptions. We have a form that I ask them to fill out that describes the book, the characters, the plot, the tone. We don’t always want the jackets to be literal scenes from the book (what I call “chapter and verse” covers) sometimes we want more of a “mood” cover or a cover that evokes the story rather than gives an specific example from it. Which approach we take for a particular book is usually decided on in a fuzzy equation between the editor, myself, and how the Sales and Marketing departments want to position the book. In either case, these forms offer a springboard that lets me begin to think about the book and ask the editors more in-depth questions as I go.

Our main objective, of course, is to sell books. An author’s fan base will already buy the book. We need to catch the eye of a casual browser and turn them into a reader. That only gives us a few seconds to make a big impression. My goal is to do that without going so far as to contradict the book. In other words, reading between the lines should be fair game. For the most part, people understand and welcome that interpretation, there is, however, a segment of the sf/f community that does ask for one hundred percent fidelity to the text. We once had a cityscape on a cover. The editor and author loved the artwork....but the fact that one stairway in the art was not described in the book kept eating away at the editor. In the end, he had the author write it into the book. This was inexplicable to me. I don’t imagine that the book described every brick and window that the artwork showed, but, that staircase had to have some textual origin for him.

I don’t require that an artist read the manuscript. Remember, they are often juggling many projects at once -- an author may work on one novel and a few short stories throughout a year, an illustrator will often work on a few hundred covers, gaming cards, and various other projects in that same time. Still, many artists will read, or at least skim, the books. Even so, you’d be amazed how different people perceive the same words. On a number of occasions I've had the author, editor, and artist all have three very different ideas on what something/someone looked like. You'd think the author is the authority, except, if the other two readers both have completely different ideas, than clearly there is a discrepancy between what the author has written and what others are perceiving...Given ten readers, you may well end up with ten different interpretations on what a character looks like. If those readers were intrigued enough to pick up and buy the book, then the first and most important part of our job is done.

“A cover needs to capture the potential of the book as well as give a spring board to the imagination. If we are not careful, we can box in the reader -- give them too much and thus take away their own participation in the read.” Jon Foster

“I do want a cover that people can look back at as they're reading and appreciate...I prefer to create a painting that evokes the book accurately. That's a nice vague way of saying, sometimes a literal scene is preferable, other times you have to be more interpretive, usually because the book has too little visual crunchiness to make a good cover.” Todd Lockwood

“Personally, I think we are responsible for the audience's first and strongest impression of what the characters and their world look like. I feel we owe it to the readers for that depiction to be an accurate one. So, whenever possible, I read the manuscript and attempt to be faithful. However, ultimately it comes down to this: An illustrator's first goal is to make a good cover. His second goal is to make an accurate cover, though never at the expense of the first.”
Daniel Dos Santos


Josh Jasper said...

An attractive cover can be an important thing, but there are occasions where, if an artist does no check up on the book, a cover can be in insult to the author.

My favorite example is Steve Barnes' book, "Street Lethal" Check it out here Steve is a black man. The character on the cover, Aubury Knight is black in the book. , but not on the cover. This was in 1983. I'm hopeful that things have improved since then.

Facetiousdude said...

My comments have changed upon reading Josh Jasper's previous thoughts. This was a great and relevant post. There is a delicate balance between accuracy and aesthetics. Neither of the two can be more important than the other. In the short term you can make sales, but in the long run your readership will not trust you if you fail to honor the text.

Elizabeth said...


It depends.

The character in this cover is Metis; she's mostly Mohawk and is described as having brown skin.

The character in this cover, however, is African. And I love that cover, because he does have African features and, if you peek around the mask, dark skin.

We'll see if it ends my career.


Anthony Schiavino said...

Ironically I just read a chapter of Pulp Art last night and it does mention some of things you're saying. Magazines, like books, needed to pop out in the newstands. One publisher even had a magazine rack, complete with all of the competitors, in his office to see if his titles would catch his eye from across the office. Particular covers were used. Bullets flew out of guns instead of the guns just being in hands. There was action, vibrant colors...anything that could get the public's hard earn dime.

I guess we have that same thing today just on a more massive level. Like anything else art related we're expected to just make things happen, more and more, earlier and earlier, without those same people even realizing what goes into it. I think, to an extent, some projects pay dearly for it but they all can't be winners.

On a side note Irene, I just got my pulp intro last night. I'll send it along at some point.

Josh Jasper said...

ebear - Actually, as I recall, Steve mainains that the white guy on the cover helped sales, even though it wasn't what he wanted.

Also, it was great seeing you at KGB the other night. Your story was wonderfull.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

The way I generally put it is that cover art isn't there to illustrate the book; it's there to convey a sense of what it's going to feel like to read this particular book.

Irene Gallo said...

I know that "hiding" the race of a character has been a problem in the past. I'm happy to say that we haven't intentionally lied about race on a Tor book in a long time....although I'm sure we've mistakenly done it from time to time. _Usually_ we catch it as the sketch stage. I may be told that the hero is "tall, dark, and handsome" only to find out later that she/he is specifically of Indian, Middle Eastern, or African descent.

Sadly, on the Forge side it is still harder to show non-caucasian peoples. We did a mystery series a while back about an African-American, female detective in New Orleans. We showed the character on the first volume or two and then I was told by Sales that that was limiting the audience. I would have hated to be the editor that had to explain that to the author.

Josh Jasper said...

Sadly, on the Forge side it is still harder to show non-caucasian peoples. We did a mystery series a while back about an African-American, female detective in New Orleans. We showed the character on the first volume or two and then I was told by Sales that that was limiting the audience.

Forge needs to have a long corrective chat with the people on the sales team who said that. Seriously. Anyone who can say that with a straight face is a long term hinderance to a company they work for.

FluffyBunny said...

Speakly strictly as a reader here, it does bug me when the text and the cover art don't line up. Patrick said the cover art isn't there to illustrate the book, but the general reading public doesn't perceive it that way, especially if the cover features a specific scene from the book, or specific characters.

Two recent examples that have bugged me mightily are the covers of Sarah Monette's most excellent Melusine and The Virtu. Both covers are portraits of characters, and both omit significant physical details. Yeah, maybe it's not crucial that Felix's eyes are two different colors, but Mildmay's scar has gone a long way towards shaping his character and his own self-image.

The artwork itself is well done, it's just ... not right.

Yes, I'm an anal customer. :)

KeVin K said...
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KeVin K said...
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KeVin K said...

On a much more limited scale:
I write fiction for a gaming market online. I often write black heroines, which lead to three cases of illustrations not matching the stories.
In the first case while I thought the character's ethnicity was clear, the artist understood "dark" to mean Mexican/Italian.
In the second case I went out of my way to mention her ebony complexion and that her hair was corn rowed. Illustration of another Italian, this one with flowing blonde hair. (Turns out the artist was German - as in lives in Germany. He'd read "corn rows" as "corn colored.")
In the third case the character was white, described as freckled with ash-blonde hair. But by now the art department was used to me -- in the original illustration (changed before the story published) she's black.

As a courtesy to those trying to package my words to sell, I now include an addendum to the art director listing gender/ethnicity/outstanding features of major characters.

My first novel is also set in the gaming universe. Wolf Hunters was packaged by WizKids but I believe the cover artist worked through the publisher. In any case, I was pleased to be part of the cover design process.

But I also believe it's a process best left to the experts. I write words, not images and even the artist's "also rans" for Wolf Hunters are far and away better than anything I could have imagined on my own.

r____tl_____t said...

The problem of depicting black characters accurately on covers dates back a long time, though it sounds as if not a lot has changed in some cases. When James Avati painted his late-1940s cover for the Signet edition of Last of the Conquerors by William Gardner Smith (a novel about a black GI in post-WWII Germany), he painted a man without particularly African features in the shadows, so that his skin color was ambiguous.

It's not that there haven't been African Americans featured prominently on paperback covers for many years. Another Avati cover for Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children from about the same time shows a dramatic scene of a clearly black woman hiding behind a tree as white men with rifles search for her.

The issue seems to be that some people have the idea that a cover that features black people will not appeal as much to a "general" (i.e., non-black) audience, while one with a white person on the cover will. In the 1940s this may have been true; it was certainly true that regardless of what the readers thought, certain jobbers in the South would not place books with blacks on the cover in certain markets. I have no idea what the story is now, but I suspect this is no longer true, and that any worries by marketing may be a hangover of the de facto Jim Crow practices of the past. I'd like to know more about any specific cases.

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