A Look at Cover Art

by Sherwood Smith

The other day, Jim C. Hines cracked up a portion of the Internet with his attempt to assume some of the female poses on cover art. A few of those poses seem only possible if said female’s spine has been lengthened an extra half a foot, or if she can dislocate major limbs at will.

That got me to thinking about covers. We’ve all heard the yadda about how marketing is about catching the eye, and that sex sells. Many have complained bitterly that the sexy appeal of said covers is aimed exclusively at young het males roughly between the ages of eighteen and forty . . . the very demographic that, in another corner of the Netverse, is decried as the demographic least likely to buy books.

For several years now, the women at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have run posts about the staggeringly awful cover art that has been stuck on romances for years and years. Women pretty much uniformly hate those clinch covers, and the pair at the website crack up readers by making fun of especially egregious examples. So . . . why were those covers used? I’ve heard (can’t corroborate) that the covers were solely to catch the eye of the (mostly male) sales reps, who otherwise would not have bothered to place romances in bookstores.

Dunno how true that is, I only know that readers buy the books in spite of the covers—and that, too, is well-trod ground.

I’d like to come at the question of cover art from another angle.

Back to Jim’s first book in the Stepsisters arc. The cover art features three attractive young women, who give off all the signals that they are feisty warriors as well as pretty princesses. The detail is quite complicated, but the central elements say fantasy (the castle silhouette), action (sword) the poses of the women (hips cocked, come hither glance from the left one, an attack pose from the one on the right).

What would happen if we took those elements and put them into words simple enough to catch the eye?

Yeah. Not so hot.

Even complicated imagery still hits us faster, and with more power, than the written word.

Cover art has a vexing history. Since someone got the idea of putting art on covers, writers have complained that the cover was utterly wrong for their book. The details are wrong, it’s ugly, it’s too dark, it’s too bright, it’s too silly, it’s too serious, it doesn’t stand out. Unless a cover is deliberately misleading (and many writers, and readers, are disturbed by whitewashing cover art), discussion of what is going to appeal to any readership, much less a specific one, can be so subjective!

Back in the sixties, a great noise was made about the authorized Ballantine editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, when they were issued in paperback over here in the States. I remember looking at the cover of The Hobbit, and wondering why Tolkien authorized that.

Well, years later, when his letters were published, we find this in a letter to Raynor Unwin (his UK publisher) in 1965:

I wrote  . . . expressing (with moderation) my dislike of the cover. It was a short hasty note by hand, without a copy, but it was to this effect: I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into debate about taste—(meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering)—but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?

Back in those days paperbacks were often matched with art already on hand. Maybe that happened here. However, the trilogy’s cover art was in the same style, and it does sort of represent some story elements, in a very sixties way.

On the other hand, sometimes art and story can be such a gorgeous match that the art will sell a book instantly.

I’m thinking of the original cover to Ellen Kushner’s award-winning Thomas the Rhymer, with its fabulous Thomas Canty art.

For a while, those Canty covers were much cherished by writers as well as readers. A friend of mine was at a con when the second of a particular series was just out. She was at a dealer’s table when a pair of women walked up, and one made a noise of delight and snatched up the book. Her friend said, “Have you read that? The first one was awful!”

“I buy them for the art,” replied her friend. “I’m collecting Canty covers.”

Well, fashions evolve. Thomas the Rhymer has had several cover changes in various editions.

But what style is going to appeal to the eye—get people to reach for books—is so difficult to predict. The piece of art that your neighbor displays proudly in their living room can look so hideous to you that you always sit with your back to it. Cover art can be the same, which is why the old saw still gets quoted, with intent, “Don’t judge a book by its cover!”

Anyway, I got to thinking about what sorts of cover art gets me to pick up a book. Almost always it’s paintings that evoke the old masters, or period art. But not always.

Period art usually doesn’t have the elements to catch my eye when I’m in the mood for science fiction, say. Another cover that I thought perfect for the book?

The Price of the Stars, one of my favorite space operas of all times.

The way the lettering both evokes the old magic of the Star Wars crawl, yet forms a triangle pointing down to the androgynous figure leaning so casually against the command pod of a space ship. He? She? Definitely looks dangerous, but in a stylish way. All the angles point inward, drawing the eye inexorably to that level gaze, half-masked by the eyepatch. Which matches the main character perfectly.

What are some covers that complement the book for you? Did the cover lead you to the book, or did you already know about the book, and found the cover a perfect match after the reading experience?



A Look at Cover Art — 40 Comments

  1. When I couldn’t get English books except for doing a weekend trip to London once a year and spending the money I had earned in six weeks of factory work on (literally) a suitcase full of books at Forbidden Planet with its 28 shelves of sf and f in the basement (end 80s to middle 90s) – the ones that I picked up while doing my browsing were often first because of cover art (then I started taking my handwritten list of authors I had liked with me).
    Tom Canty and Michael Whelan were a good bet – but you know the one cover artist who led me to an amazing amount of good sf&f – mostly written by women at that – was Jody Lee (who actually sells some of her stuff on Etsy now, I own a postcard sized oil).

    I think I discovere her via the Mercedes Lackey covers (and they were PERFECT for those), but she also had covers for Fiona Patton, Katherine Kerr, Jo Clayton, Tanya Huff, etc. etc.

    I would love to have DAW give you a cover by her ^^ – I think she’d have done a great stylized Inda epic – considering how incredible her Michelle West covers are. I’m happy with the covers that you got, especially the later ones, but the first one I wouldn’t have picked up on the strength of the cover.

  2. I did run into one critique contrary to the Jim Hines critique who quite effectively pointed out two things: first, some of these pix were meant to capture a brief moment of movement, not meant to be static positions like Jim did them and second–a not-so-fit, heavy guy is gonna have problems taking some of those poses. Considering some of the stuff he was critiquing were moves I could hit easily enough, I could go along with that particular critique (but granted, I’m female, fit, and flexible, even though I’m also in my fifties).

    While his critique of the hypersexuality of these covers was valid from the approach of the hypersexuality, for me (even before I read that other critique) his claims that no human could hit those poses was…um…off the mark. The one of the woman hanging on the side of the tree especially ticked me off, because I have so done that particular move scrambling over a big thick tree trunk like that.

    I liked your breakdown MUCH better.

  3. Unless I know the authors’ work already or have a rec, I am highly influenced by cover art–romantic naturalism for preference.
    Maybe the artists who did the LOTR paper back covers were on drugs?– because it was the sixties after all.

  4. Pilgrimsoul: or wanted to suggest them? It was ’65 . . . good question.

    Joycemocha: yeah, I’m 60 and arthritic and I can hit most of those poses, too. But Jim cracked me up, and I found the commentary in his post interesting!

  5. You know, I rather like your eords-only mockup!

    But then, if I think about covers that really say ‘read me!’, I think of going through the library looking for the yellow Gollancz covers: some of them were SF and some of them were crime, and I read both! (But that’s as much about trusting a particular publisher…)

  6. Since Jim is a skinny guy, and studies martial arts, it’s weird to read that someone thinks he’s “a not-so-fit, heavy guy”. *g* However, he is a guy, so definitely his hip joints aren’t as flexible as a woman’s for the same poses.

    Check out this post for more analysis of cover poses, this one from a woman who studied dance.

  7. There was a book cover I disliked so much I drew my own to take its place. (Loved the book.) And a lot of people agree with me that the cover for Franny Billingsley’s Chime is all wrong. The girl on the front looks like a cheerleader, not a troubled protagonist seeped in swamp magic.

  8. Thomas Canty aside, there are a couple of other artists whose work I liked enough that I picked up books specifically because their work was on the cover. One was an artist who worked for Fawcett in the 60s-70s, and did mostly covers for gothics (and I cannot remember his name, alas).

    When I was trafficking covers at Tor, I sometimes found that some artists had almost insurmountable notions that meant that the art went back and forth between editor and artist. There was an Elizabeth Peters gothic reprint we did, where the image the editor wanted was a very specific dress in a glass case in a museum–a dress worn by a Viking woman. Peters describes it really well, so I thought if we sent the artist that paragraph we’d be home three. Instead, we got back a Knighthood-in-Flour satin dress on a dress form. After repeated discussions did not yield what we wanted, I drew exactly what the dress was described as (within limits of my drawing skills, which are many) and the artist painted that, and it was lovely.

    In the same way, with my own The Stone War there is a character, an elderly black woman, homeless, missing a couple of fingers on each hand, who the protagonist repeatedly calls an angel–because she’s a sweet person. Through the major fantastic event of the book, she is transmogrified: winds up with wings. But they’re bat-like wings, dark, leathery… My editor wanted her and the protagonist standing on a roof overlookng a ruined cityscape. And that’s what he got, only Maya was rendered as a Judeo-Christian angel: robes, big fluffy wings, and–oh, yeah, white. Editor and artist went back and forth more than once, until someone in the sales force saw the cover and liked it. “An angel! He said brightly. “I can sell anything with an angel on the cover.”

    These things are complex, and happenstance plays a role.

  9. And after my Jody Lee fangirling I might want to actually answer your question:
    A cover that complements the book perfectly is the original The Wheel of the Infinite Hardcover for Martha Wells – although she tells the story of how the artist had a fit about what they had done to the colours on the book first. I like her new Kindle cover, too, but that one really works in terms of what people look like and for the world building.

    The cover I discovered Mercedes Lackey with was Arrows for the Queen.

  10. @Beth, I like that post you linked to! The woman there is quite persuasive in all those poses!

    Sherwood: I always liked Trina Schart Hymen’s cover art, though it was generally for a much younger audience.

  11. This post made re-purchase Price of the Stars. I haven’t read it in years and now I MUST re-read it. Tonight.

  12. I don’t take much notice of the cover art on a book; mainly the title and author… as a lot of the cover art I see it quite corny and weird and doesn’t match what the book is about (as you’ve covered).
    However, being a writer, I do need to think about my cover art and it does pay to actually pick my own cover when it comes to attracting the right readers. My dream cover artist is Michael Whelan. He has done an immense amount of cover art for many writers and calendars as well. I have also found of his books in a Life Line charity store for a few dollars in very good condition – only to find it was worth a lot more because it was also out of print. What a find! And the pictures of his artwork inside are brilliant! I have noticed he did a lot of work for the late Anne McCaffrey.

  13. At World Fantasy about 10 years back, I was very taken by this painting in the art show. The artist is Charles Keegan and, as he notes on the website, it won Best in Show at the convention. I liked seeing a woman in reasonable armor and the naturalness of her pose, and I really liked the heft of her arm muscles. She looked like someone who could swing that sword.

    Fast forward several years. I was at WisCon and Laurie J. Marks was having a launch part for her novel Fire Logic (first book in the Elemental Logic series). And there was the Keegan painting as the cover of the book. “Oh,” I said. “How great that you have that painting for your cover.” And then someone who’d read the book already explained to me that the character in the book that painting is supposed to represent was not a white, blonde Viking warrior with a broadsword, but rather a small, dark-skinned woman who fights with long knives.

    It’s a fine painting. It’s a great book. The two do not belong together.

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  15. Hmmm… I usually pay no attention whatsoever to covers. That is, I have preferences, especially when there are several versions of the covers, but it won’t make me read or buy a book. I read Narnia with the old covers, (for example: http://images.wikia.com/lostpedia/images/e/e8/Narnia_books.jpg), but I much prefer the new covers (again: http://conservapedia.com/images/e/e8/Narnia_books.jpg).

    I think the only artist whose cover art I really enjoy is Matt Staiwicki, and that’s probably because of the abundance of books I’ve read with his cover art, all of which (or so I felt) were not only very good, but also very reflective of the book.

  16. I loved the cover, by Gary C. Halsey, for The Moon and the Sun, so much that I bought the painting.

    You can see it at http://vondanmcintyre.com/bfob.html#MoonSun

    I’ve been pretty lucky with covers for American editions. Foreign editions not so much, as you’ll see if you search the blog for Droomslang.)

    Some of the US covers have been kind of dumb, like the paperback of Superluminal and the hardcover of Fireflood (never, ever ever tell an artist what the character doesn’t look like — that’s what you’ll get), but the first Starfarers cover had three of the four main characters on it and got them pretty right — neither Victoria nor Satoshi was portrayed as white, which is what would have happened at some publishers in previous years.

    I thought Jim’s article was a laff riot.


  17. Books I Bought Solely Because of Their Covers:

    Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen
    Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
    Fallen by Lauren Kate
    The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A McKillip
    The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

    There’s art that will draw me in no matter what the book is about. It’s pretty much guaranteed that I will take a second look at any book that has any art by John Jude Palencar, for example. Or Kinuko Craft.

    But I’m also a sucker for really good graphic design. Tana French’s books, for example, are exquisite. The UK edition of Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde is really great (I like the US version too), and the darling hardback editions of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books are awesome.

    I like my collection books to look good on my shelves. I like for them to line up together. I hate it when they change the overall design midway through a series, and it especially kills me when they go from a 9 inch to a 10 inch (or, god forbid, back and forth) as the series progresses.

    That’s for my hardcover collection, though! Paperbacks are about content, not how they look on the shelf. 🙂

  18. Kinley, thanks.

    I have to confess that I love good-looking books, too. I have bought old used books that are yellowed with age, and eighteenth century typography because of their beautiful binding.

  19. I am also someone who will always give a book a second look if the cover is by Kinuko Craft. In fact, Craft is entirely responsible for my discovery of Patricia McKillip. (I heard about her through a convoluted series of events involving the artwork for Ombria in Shadow. Still a favorite of Craft’s work, though interestingly, there are actually other books of McKillip’s which I like better.)

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, my first read-through of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice actually took place over several different editions of the book, one of which was an old mass market paperback from the library. The cover depicted a young lady in a fluffy, flouncy, crinolined pink dress with a matching parasol, having the vapors as a young gentleman kissed her hand. (I know I haven’t a prayer of digging the cover out of the internet to show everyone, which is a shame, since I remember I found the image strange on many levels.) Since I was partway through the book and already acquainted with Lizzy Bennet at the time, I was incensed on her behalf. I had gotten used to covers that didn’t match the book, but that particular image struck me as so distractingly misleading that I actually checked out a different edition as soon as I could.

  20. Cassie: I remember the truly hideous covers on the front of P&P and also the Georgette Heyers, depicting the characters in the strangest combinations of clothes that had no relation whatsoever to period costume.

  21. Obviously, that cover depicted Lydia or Kitty!
    Historical romance covers is a particularly fraught subject — so many ways to go wrong! In addition to the “nothing to do with the story” issues that we all know, there is the period look problem. Many a cover has the clothing more or less right, but mysteriously the heroine has a totally out-of-period hairstyle. Or better yet, she sports mascara and eyeshadow and eyeliner, if not Botox and silicone lip plumping and breast implants — Angelina Jolie’s head stuck onto Emma Woodhouse’s body.
    The problem for the Art Department is that it is not 19th century readers who are buying this book, so they have to appeal to modern readers with a clear expectation of how a heroine should look.

  22. Oh, I wish I’d seen this on Sunday to have commented then, but I was busy that day. . .

    I have a friend who I quote: “I’m a sucker for a cover!”

    I honestly had never even given it any thought at all as to whether I would like a book based on the appeal of the cover. And just the other day, I was entering a book give-a-way contest and one of the requirements for entering was to list the “best” cover for 2012 releases. I had no idea. I did a quick scan on goodreads to see some of the 2012 releases and to fulfill the entry rules, hastily picked a couple. Honestly, I could care less what a cover looks like, for the most part. I don’t want it to be pornographic, or on the verge of being so. If I’m reading a book at home, in front of my kids and husband, I don’t want to be embarrassed by some scantily clad woman or such on the front.

    I understand the marketing appeal to many that the cover grab their attention. But for me, that doesn’t sell the book for me. What’s inside still matters to me.

  23. Don’t ever talk to an art director, Greta — he or she will go into a decline. Unfortunately the cover frequently serves as a gateway; a truly inappropriate cover ensures that the readers will never find that book. Possibly there is a book that you really would enjoy, out there with a cover with a bare-breasted Playboy model on it.

  24. There was a brief vogue, when the Twilight books hit big, of covers for classics (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice) that used that black-white-red design scheme. Made me want to hit someone, although I do wonder if some kids were seduced into reading them by the thought that there would be vampires tucked away somewhere at Pemberley or Thorncross.

  25. I have avoided cover art because I have read one work I disliked with the same art-style. So, it is a two-edged sword. If I like an author, I tend to recognize the artwork and pick it up to check it out. Once I HATE a writer, any art done by the same artist will get nothing more than a disdained sniff and strict avoidance. Sad, but true.