Judging a Book by its Cover

We got a letter from a long-time reader the other day, who, perplexed by the fact that Steve and I aren’t Rich and Famous Writers, as we clearly deserve to be (a thesis, by the way, that I agree with completely), mounted a study to figure out why this was so.  The results of study led the reader to the conclusion that we lacked the readership enjoyed by Author X (as a fer-instance) because Author X has better cover art.  The reader therefore directed us to instruct our publisher to get us cover art like that gracing the books of Author X, so that we, too, could become New York Times bestsellers.

Now, I have no doubt that our correspondent is well-meaning, and that the expressed concern regarding our continued state of non-famousness, or at least, non-richness, is genuine.  However, there are a couple things. . .off-center about both the conclusion and the directive to us.

Let’s do the easy one first:  Authors do not dictate to publishers.  Authors do not commission cover art.  Authors may, in this enlightened day and age, actually get to consult on the cover art for their books.  Sometimes.  Other times. . .not so much.  Some authors, the rare writer-illustrator, get to do their own cover art.  These folks are the exceptions.

Now, leaving aside for the moment the whole can of worms that is “better” in terms of art, our correspondent appears to have missed a couple of important nuances.

The first, and most glaring, is that Author X writes Urban Fantasy, and thus her covers are Urban Fantasy covers — specifically of the tits-n-tatts variety (which, as a reader of this particular author’s work, make me nuts, because while, yes, the heroine is indeed kick-ass, she is not tattoo-entwined, as depicted.  I can offer textev.).  Now, there’s no question that these covers are effective sales tools — for Urban Fantasy books.  For space operas, they kinda suck rocks.

This is because genre cover art is shorthand; it is not designed, necessarily, to illustrate a particular scene from the book, nor is its mission (see my parenthetical, above) to accurately portray the characters.

The Mission Number One of cover art is to get the book into the hands of a prospective reader.  Note that our concerned reader had this bit dead on.

The way cover art sells books is by accurately “reporting” to prospective readers what’s inside the box.

Thus, this cover. . .

Cover for The Dragon Variation by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

. . .accurately reports that there is action and romance inside.  A reader — I should say a reader of genre science fiction — who is looking for action-romance will not be misled in their buying decision should they purchase this omnibus, and they are primed to be pleased with what they will find inside.

This cover. . .

. . .promises magic, adventure, perhaps some romance.  I happen to like this cover very much — full disclosure: I’ve been happy with almost all of our cover art, in terms of accuracy of reporting and reader allure — despite the fact that the two front-ground characters look nothing like the people I described in the story; nor is the horse, while bat-winged, particularly my bat-winged horse.  The art accurately reports what kind of story is between the covers, and invites the browsing bookstore customer to pick the book up and have a look at the first page or two.

Once the art has done its job — enticed the browser to pick the book up and look at the text — my job as an writer begins.  I’ve got a paragraph, maybe a page, to grab the reader’s imagination and convince them to buy this book, out of the hundreds of others right there in the science fiction section, or the thousands inside the boundaries of the bookstore.

The argument could therefore be made that the first pages of our novels are weak, while Author X is strong in the force.  It could be that there are more romance readers (a huge market segment) seeking out Urban Fantasy than will take a chance on a scifi novel.

The truth of the matter is, nobody actually knows which books will have “it” and become bestsellers.  If we did, we’d all do it, right?  I mean, we’d be idiots, not to.  The best any of us can do is the best we can at what we do; hope for good art, good marketing support, a steady breeze in the sails, and kindly people at port.

6 thoughts on “Judging a Book by its Cover”

  1. “The argument could therefore be made that the first pages of our novels are weak, while Author X is strong in the force.” Em? Let’s see…

    “NO?” HIS MOTHER echoed, light blue eyes opening wide.
    Er Thom yos’Galan bowed hastily: Subordinate Person to Head of Line, seeking to recoup his error.
    “Mother,” he began, with all propriety, “I ask grace . . . ”
    She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Let us return to ‘no’. It has the charm of brevity.”

    Hum? Weak? No, I already want to read on… in medias res and all that.

    “SINIT, MUST YOU read at table?”
    Voni’s voice was clear and carrying. It was counted a good feature, Aelliana had heard, though not so pleasing as her face.
    At the moment, face and voice held a hint of boredom, as befitted an elder sister confronted with the wearisome necessity of disciplining a younger.
    “No, I’m just at a good part,” Sinit returned without lifting her head from over the page. She put out a hand and groped for her teacup.

    Equally engaging, and the heat just goes up…

    Eight chants past Midsong: twilight.
    In the plaza around Maidenstairs a crowd began to gather: men and women in brightly colored work clothes; here and there the sapphire or silver flutter of Circle robes.
    The last echo of Eighthchant faded from the blank walls of Circle House, and the crowd quieted expectantly.
    In a thin pass-street halfway down the plaza, a slim figure stirred. She adjusted the cord of the bag over her shoulder, but her eyes were fixed on Maidenstairs, where two of the Inmost Circle stood.
    The shorter of the two raised her arms, calling for silence. The crowd held its breath, while across the plaza a dust devil swirled to life. The watcher in the by-street shivered, hunching closer to the wall.

    A bit baffling — wasn’t this in the SF section? But it’s intriguing. How are we going to get from here into space?

    And then, of course, there’s that “weak” beginning…

    THE MAN WHO was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.

    One sentence in, and I’m hooked!

    Let’s go back to the relative sizes of the market segments argument, that one seems more likely.

  2. I recall reading an interview with Lois McMaster Bujold about the cover art for her [fabulous] “Sharing Knife” series. She said she had deliberately challenged herself by setting the series in a North-American-type background as opposed to the medieval-Europe-type background she used in the “Chalion” books. Then there was great angst lest cover art that accurately showed the main characters on horseback in an unpopulated low-tech landscape lead the readers to believe, horrors, that the books were Westerns.

  3. You do deserve to be rich and famous. But sorry, your books do have pretty bad cover art. You should complain. However I don’t think that keeps people from reading your books. Mouse and Dragon had horrible cover art. Carosel Tales is a bit better.

  4. Mouse and Dragon had horrible cover art.

    Now, that’s harsh. What’s so very wrong with it?

    As for complaining, why would I? I’ve liked most of our covers just fine.

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