Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 11

It should be one of the best days of the year: when you first see the cover for your new book.  The package that people have been working on for months, just out of view, to make sure that your story gets the best possible advantage on the shelf, designed to woo Your Reader over and entice them to lay on hands (and lay out cash).

And then it comes and you open the envelope, or click the file and you think…

”Oh my God the cover is AWFUL! And dear God, who wrote this copy?  The copy is ALL WRONG! ”

What then?

Sometimes – in fact, most times – it’s really not that bad.  It may not be the way you envisioned the character [Jerzy, in FLESH AND FIRE, was supposed to be a scrawny Low Steppes redhead, but the artist didn’t like to paint redheads.  Or apparently, scrawny kids], but that alone doesn’t make it a bad cover.

Or, more to the point, it doesn’t make it a useless cover.  Some of the most commercially viable covers have been ones I personally disliked… but sold the book effectively.

Therefore, my first piece of advice – my most important piece of advice – is that you remember the cover is a sales piece, not an illustration.  So put aside whatever you had hoped for, and look at the cover as dispassionately as you can.

1.     Does the cover catch the eye?

2.     Is the image clear to the reader, so that the type of book (romance, SF, historical) is apparent?

3.     Is it technically accurate? (the right number of limbs on the characters, the correct type of weaponry or backdrop, not smaller details like hair color or specific clothing)

4.     Does the copy convey the feel of the book, without giving away plot details or spoilers?

5.     Is your name spelled right?

If those five things are met, stand down a little.  It may not be the cover you wanted, but you don’t have enough ammo to storm the publishers office [not and win, anyway]

If, on the other hand, your Epic Fantasy Hero is holding a weapon that is clearly of the wrong era/style, your PI is a white male instead of an Asian, your romance heroine has three arms* or the copy gives away the whodunit in the first line- then it’s time to contact your editor.

However, here is where you need to remember three things.

1.     The package is NOT your book.

2.     Your editor is on your side.

3.     This is a business relationship.

The right way to handle this – the way that is likely to get any possible changes made – is to call directly, and say “yea, I got it, x and y are great, but is there time to make a couple of changes?  Because….”

If you’re looking at a cover flat, it’s highly unlikely that the art can be changed significantly.  Copy, however, can still be fixed without much fuss.

If you’ve been sent a preliminary sketch, there’s still time for errors to be corrected.  But be polite, and remember that your editor is your ally, not your adversary.  Give her the best argument you can come up with why it should be changed, so that she in turn can walk it down to the hall to the publisher and make the argument to the person who has to okay the expense.  Because it is an expense, and that’s how the publisher will see it.

If they make the changes, remember to say thank you not only to your editor, but to the folk who made it happen.  If it isn’t changed, or you’re still not happy, say so, in writing, to your agent and editor, and request that you be allowed to see the preliminary sketches earlier next time, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again**.  If you’ve established that you can retain a professional tone, they are that much more likely to agree.

And during your next contract negotiation, try for cover consult.  “Consult” doesn’t mean that they’ll listen – but you will get a say.

So, writers – do you have a packaging horror story? How did it turn out?

*yes, that happened once.  Apparently the artist’s model changed positions and the sketched-in arm didn’t get entirely erased.  VERY embarrassing for all concerned

**if you’re not already seeing the copy before it’s finalized: ask.  Generally that’s the easiest thing to get a finger on


Coming up in Week 12:    Refilling the (creative/emotional/physical) Well.

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 11 — 10 Comments

  1. The other thing to keep in mind about covers is that they are semiotic signals. Factual content is not the important thing, aside from things like the title, author, and ISBN. The cover is a signal to the reader: this is SF! This is romance! This is funny! If the signal is correct, then the main goal has been achieved.
    What is fatal is when the signal is wrong: the funny fantasy with the epic hero in a bloodstained loincloth on the cover; the cozy detective novel with an edgy hardboiled look.

  2. Brenda – absolutely. There have been times when the publisher has sought to “widen” the potential audience by either not including the usual signals (aka “a mainstream cover”) or including too many [“it’s a mystery, AND a dessert topping!”]. These attempts backfire more often than they succeed, something we writers should keep in mind.

    Of course, all bets are off once they can plaster “New York Times Bestselling Author” on the cover. That’s a semiotic signal all its own…

  3. Remember the space opera/romance cover of Bujold’s A CIVIL CAMPAIGN? (View it here: )

    This one shows you the fine semiotic line that cover designers have to walk. The waltz, the long gown, the handsome couple: romance, definitely. Do the soldiers and the butter bug supply sufficient SF? I don’t know.

    Oh, and a separate semiotic category is The Author In Big Type. There is a reason why the cover says STEPHEN KING in letters three inches high, while the title is in a weeny font towards the bottom.

  4. Spelling errors anywhere on the cover are reason enough to pick up the phone at once. I’m not illiterate, and neither are my readers.

    A small publisher once managed to mis-spell the name of an author I had translated. We were lucky they showed me the cover before it got to print. Otherwise we’d have been public laughing stock for months.

  5. Somewhere I have a mmpb horror novel, a freebie in a book bag from a World Fantasy Convention. When you look at it closely it is clear why it was in the free pile. On the back cover is the usual blurb about Eldritch Horrors and Nameless Dread. And then, right in the center in larger type, is a line promising that the heroine will LAY DOWN ON THE ALTER OF DEATH! This is exactly how it appeared; obviously the book could not be sold commercially and handing it out for free was the only way to salvage the situation. Some editor probably lost her job over that one.
    The moral? Never trust the spellchecker!!

  6. When I published my Daredevil novel…they left my name off the front cover. It was a very handsome cover (and by the time I saw the flat it was too late to do anything about it), and my name did appear on the back cover and spine. Ah well.

    And both my Sarah Tolerance books had handsome covers that said “romance,” which they were not. I think this was an attempt to broaden the readership–but it did not work. The takeaway, as frustrating as it was, is that this was the result of everyone trying to do the right thing. Covers (like so much in publishing) are not an exact science.

    Publishers want to sell books. That’s what they’re there for. They try to put a cover on that will sell books. Sometimes the result is not fortuitous, but it ain’t for lack of trying. Because at the end of the day, the publisher has money on the line and wants to make it back, and that means selling the book. It’s easy to lose sight of this when it’s your book, of course.

  7. Having been an acquiring editor, I agonized many times over the art and cover copy that was sent to me for approval. I do know how much most editors care. But I also need to point out that all editors are not created equal. Now that I have published several books, I would warn every author to politely express interest in the cover as soon as possible, so you don’t get the “sorry, too late to make changes” response. I have seen an all-type cover absolutely transformed by the use of better colors (WHAT were they thinking?), which is a ten minute change on the computer. I really cannot support the “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” approach, in which well-behaved authors never bother anyone and never rock the boat.

  8. Nellie – I don’t believe that anyone here – least of all me — advocated a “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” approach. However, the reality is that often by the time the editor – much less the author — much less the author — sees a cover, changes cost money, and money-changes have to be approved. This is true is larger houses, and it is often true in smaller houses, depending on how on-the-ball the publisher/editor is. You have to choose your battles.

    I also take exception to your assumption that “well-behaved” = gets screwed. In fact, much of my post dealt with the fact that there are ways to approach your editor, and being well-behaved and professional (as opposed to screaming and generally acting like an injured diva) is the best way to get changes made.

    And I say this not from the basis of having published a few books, as you have, but fifteen years working as an editor in a major house, and another ten+ working as an author with both large and small presses. Being badly-behaved rarely gets you anything but scorn.