Artistry in the Cover

I recently had a chance at FenCon 2023 to talk to an independent publisher who crafted his own covers. There is something to be said for saving money on art. He does because he creates them himself. We all know that the publishing world has to watch costs if it is going to make a profit. This goes for the big boys too. Everyone in the publishing field, which also includes authors, understands profit margins are tight. There is not a lot of extra cash just flowing out of a spigot. We get it. My take away from meeting and discussing cover art with this publisher is that publishers believe art is one place where cuts can be made. Hell, artists are expensive. Who can afford that?! The better question is, “Should we?”

The answer is forth coming, but first I will return to a discussion of this publisher’s line of books. Taking a look at a series, sure they should and indeed must have the same or similar look and feel. I get it. The reader wants to pick up a book in that series and see that the cover is cousin to the last book. I want that as well. Well friends, this publisher understood that when he crafted a series. Each book in that series has the same look and feel that the other do. This is called… wait for it… unity. That is right. If there is a unity to the whole series, the way the characters act, the situations that occur, the evil-doers’ (borrowing a phrase from ole Bushie) actions, basically everything must contain a unity that unifies the series. This includes the cover art. Dark drafty castle with bold colors does not match child like art with bright sky and fluffy clouds. Thus, each cover should feed off the last cover for inspiration and design.

What publishers do not seem to understand is that this can also be used to great benefit. If the story takes a drastic turn, let’s say the author has written himself into a corner and he needs to reorient the story to get out of it, well… that is easy. Change the cover of the series to reflect that this particular tale veers off the beaten path. The cover is the first line of defense in ensuring that the readers will be willing to still take that journey down the series path. I do not see publishers taking advantage of this aspect of the publishing industry. Maybe they are scared. Regardless, most always we see a series maintain unity by keeping a similar feel to the cover art. I reference Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Covenant Series”. Have you see the paper backs? A-May-Zing! Each one is a different color but they still maintain the same style. Perfection on paper. Great job big publishing house whose name I don’t know. I think it was Bantam-Del-Double Day-Person-Prentice Hall or some such name. You know how they love to gobble up companies but still keep the names. Maybe call them Bloat and be done with it. Pha! Anyway, back to it. Where was I? Oh, yes—Art.

So, I started analyzing the other covers that the publisher had. There were a few series but there were also some one offs. The startling thing I came to realize is that ALL and I mean ALL the covers had the same look and feel. The overall experience of looking at them made them feel as if they were in fact the same series, which they were not. So, how does a reader react?

If the tale is good, it is good regardless of the cover, yes? If that is true, then why doesn’t the publishing world simply publish books with white covers and black letters with the title of the book and the author’s name? Why? I will tell you why. The art on the cover sparks the imagination. It is the beginning of the journey that the reader takes. I myself will dump a book because the art sucks. Tolkien? Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but he’s not worth reading. Have you seen that crappy cover? Yuck! Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. It could be the best tale ever told in the last ten years (notice how I limited it to ten years? Wink.), but if the cover sucks, I won’t be purchasing it. Sure, others might tell me all the great stuff going on in the book. I might even purchase it on a lark when I find it at a garage sale or at half price books, if there is enough hype about it. This fact does nothing to help the publishing world. It does not thrive off garage sales. It needs sales. Are we starting to see how important the cover is? Oh sure, there are some great greats out there that ignore cover art. I will mention that insanely awesome cover for Catcher in the Rye. That cover purple/magenta/whatever with simple yellow letters. That is a great cover for that novel. I wouldn’t have any other one. The latest space opera novel needs a great cover. Don’t you agree?

I return to my publisher. I didn’t want to bag on him at the Con either directly or to others attending the Con, but I will here. Sure, he is proud of his books. Even better, he is making sales. A hearty high five for him. I also point out that everything matters. So, if you have all these same styles pumping out, what kind of authors will you attract? I know that I would NOT approach him to see if he would publish my book. Heck no. He didn’t get it that the authors he attracts are authors who are either desperate or who are attracted to the covers.

I took a look around at other publishers. They have variety. Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery… they all have a different feel. I am not one to demand that Mystery novels have murder covers or that Fantasy should have nothing but dragons on the cover. What a publisher needs to consider is what will each genre’s feel be for that publisher? Will the same artist be used for that genre? I think that making your genre have the same feel as EVERY OTHER PUBLISHER is also stupid. Sure, murder mystery authors want XYZ, but that does not mean we should accommodate them.

If we can take two things away from this crazy discussion we will see that one, and this is a major number one so I will repeat it, one! Artists do matter and they should be hired, and try to hire one not because he or she is famous, but because you like that style or feel or whatever makes you attracted to that artist. Hiring them just because they are famous is stupid. I would argue even more stupid than having every cover similar. Two, and this is almost as important as one, not get trapped into thinking that your genre has to match a certain style or feel just because other publishers are doing the same thing. This is the United States of America. We invented individuality. We should adhere to that simple lesson and create a uniqueness about all that we as Americans do. This includes the covers we make. Sure, it might be scary, but think of the amazing covers we will have if we take the plunge and give a measure of freedom to the artist and the author. Wow!

About Kevin Pajak

Of the many, many things I have done, nothing compares to the excitement I feel when writing and playing with both language and theory. Although challenging at times, wordplay brings a special flavor to the universe and allows all of us to see in unique and magic ways. Playing with language--that beast that can never be tamed--gives me an unfettered, ever new vision of the world around. I want to share this love of the written word through the stories I write and the language I craft.
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