Cover Story: A First-Timer’s Education

Pandemonium Thumbnail -- click to see larger pictureSo after about six months of a drum roll playing nonstop in my head, I finally got to see the cover for my book that’s coming out this August (you’ll have to click the thumbnail to see a clearer, larger version).

For the first-time novelist, this is a bit like seeing a sonogram of your first-born — your first thought is, Holy shit, it’s real! Your second is, Can I get a printout of that?

I also found the cover much more attractive than the sonograms of either of my children. Both of those kids looked like Doppler Radar weather maps.

I thought I’d write about this strange, graphical gestation period because (a) before it began I had no clue how the cover-creation process worked, and (b) even now I have no idea if my experience was typical. Why don’t we compare birth stories?

Part One: In which the Author Searches for his Own Opinion

It started with Fleetwood Robbins, my editor at the time (who has since, to my great sadness, left Del Rey to go to Wizards of the Coast — may they suffer a thousand hit points of damage for luring him away), asking me, Did I have any ideas about the cover?

Now, I’ve been a tech writer, a marketing writer who used to publish corporate newsletters, and a web designer. I have ideas about what I like in design. But I’m fundamentally a text guy, and I know my limitations. Because I’ve been lucky to work with gifted graphic artists, I’ve learned that someone with an artist’s eye can come up with something I’d never have thought of, and render it beautifully. I did not want to muck with that.

Also, what did I know about what made a good cover? Like all readers, I liked some covers better than others. But why did I like them? And even if I figured out the whats and whys, would that help me know what would make a good cover for my book? I suspected not.

But Fleetwood asked. So I went to the book store and started squinting at shelves, and started keeping track of my favorites.

Already Dead Cover I loved the covers on the Charlie Huston vampire novels — the bands of color, the strong typography, the cropped photographs (with fangs added). It looked cool, fun but literary. Plus, I preferred the papery feel of the covers, as opposed to something slick.

Looking for Jake coverI also very much liked the cover for China Mieville’s Looking for Jake. I loved combination of a muted palette and a single, strong iconic image.

IdleWild CoverThat stenciled butterfly on Nick Sagan’s IdleWild caught my attention. I also realized that my cover could be greatly enhanced by changing my name to Sagan.

London Revenant cover

I liked this one too, for Conrad Williams’ London Revenant. The photo montage face struck me as a little too messy, but the cover was saved by the use of the London underground symbol, the strong banded colors at the bottom, and the clean typography.

So from these examples and a few others I deduced a few of my own preferences. I liked muted palettes (mostly), a single iconic image over a montage (mostly), and papery covers over slick (again, mostly — but did I just like them because they seemed more “literary”? Did it make a difference?).

I sent off this “analysis” to Fleetwood. Now it makes me cringe. Thank goodness it had almost no effect on the cover.

Part Two: In which the Editor Explains what the Author’s Opinion Should Be

So how did we end up with the final product? As you may have suspected from the subheading, it was Fleetwood’s idea.

I’d suggested a couple images from the book — a slingshot, a boy lying in the water, a couple other things — and Fleetwood said, What about the farmhouse? In the novel there’s a recurring image of a farmhouse — literally a recurring image, in that farmhouse keeps showing up in a series of mysterious paintings and sculptures. Fleetwood wrote that “the tranquil pastoral scene juxtaposed with the title may be interesting.”

At first I was nonplussed. Would genre readers pick up a book with just a farm on the cover? How would we even signal that it was a genre book? The story’s about about demonic possession and Jungian archetypes, for goodness’ sake.

Then I started thinking a little more about it. Okay, I wrote to Fleetwood, it might be cool if the illustration at first looked pastoral, but something about the tone or mood suggested something more disturbing. And it also might be interesting if at first it looks like the cover is just a painting of a farm, but then there’s a hand or shadow or something that suggests this is a picture of a picture — we are seeing an artifact from the book as it’s being created.

Part Three: In which the Author Shuts Up and Lets the Artist Speak. A Little.

Freaks of the Heartland coverFinally it was time to bring in an artist. Greg Ruth ( is an illustrator and comic artist who’s recently worked with Kurt Busiek on his Conan the Barbarian series, and with Steve Niles on the beautiful Freaks of the Heartland. I hadn’t seen his work before, and didn’t even know his name until Del Rey sent me the cover, but I’m very happy they found him.

I e-mailed Greg and asked him if he could tell me how he got sucked into this project and what the process was like from his end. He graciously wrote back and said I could post his comments.

Greg writes:

Well I had met David Stephenson, the AD on this project last summer via my agent, Allen Spiegel. They had worked together in the past and Allen wanted us to meet with an eye towards working on something in the future. I have been doing a whole raft of covers for a bunch of different genres this last year, and was eager to see what we could do for this novel. David called me up with this project based mostly on what they liked about the first cover I did for a Dark Horse Comics series called “Freaks of the Heartland”. It featured an old hillltop farmhouse, menacing skies…. it was a perfect fit for what he wanted. SO the trick was to deliver something from that same source, but that would be utterly different as well. Often times I get the chance to read the manuscript, and pull an image for the cover from the text as I see it, other times the AD or the publisher already have an idea of what they want. This case fell into the second category, and while I typically prefer to find the cover in the book myself, we had precious little time before the solicitation catalogue, and so having a clear direction helped get us going. In a case like this, I tend to end up asking a good deal of questions to the AD to try and get the tone and feel of the book. Dave is great and had a lot to say, being a really accomplished illustrator and designer himself. Covers should sell and I think, enhance the book. They should reflect the story being told inside and I always find that if you look at the cover and it makes you want to know more, then read the book and look at the cover again and get more from it, that’s a success.

So. After a few quick pack and forth pencil sketches we settled on one and went to the final. I went straight to paints, making sure to keep the hand and brush portion as a separate layer, digitally, so David could move it about to accommodate the text. Sometimes a cover just pops right out perfect the first time, other instances it’s a long slow drag out of the cave- this one came on pretty solid out of the gate. Once the final was done there were only a few tweaks. It was a pretty smooth process. Fairly typical for a larger publisher with a committee system, and I look forward to doing more with Random House in the future.

Thanks, Greg.

David Stevenson, the Del Rey art director Greg mentioned, also solved the problem of how to signal that it was a genre book by suggesting that the the word “demon” be highlighted in red. And when the first draft of the cover came back it was Chris Schleup (the senior Del Rey editor who took me on when Fleetwood left) who suggested further tweaks, like toning down the red in “demon” to keep it more in the tonal range of the rest of the cover, and making the bottom of the picture degenerate into brush marks, as if it were a work in progress.

Epilogue: In which the Author Awaits the Opinion of the Market

So. A cover. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s born. I mean, printed.

I’ll also have to wait to see how the book will sell. But if the numbers are poor I’m pretty confident it’ll be the fault of the book’s interior, not Greg’s cover. But I’m still left wondering, and you fellow novelists out there might be able to answer this — was my little birth experience at all typical? And you readers — that’s everyone — how much does the cover matter to you anyway?

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  1. 1. Bran Fan

    At first glance it struck me that the hand is holding the paint brush as if it were a scalpel, and that the red paint looks like blood. I had to look up close to see that it was paint! I have to think it was intentional because I don’t think anyone really holds a paint brush like that.

    But really, I don’t pay attention to covers unless forced to. I know that they often have very little to do with the book. A pretty cover will not get me to buy a book I don’t want and an ugly one will not stop me.

    I buy books based on recommendaitons, reviews, cover copy and first few pages.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Very cool! Thanks for the info. This is the sort of thing I always wanted to know as a beginning writer, but people almost never talk about it.

    My experience with Doppelganger wasn’t so in-depth. I really wanted both protagonists on the cover, to play off the premise, but ran into Received Wisdom of Fantasy Art that said, there should only be one central figure. (Also the New Hot Trend of lopping off body parts.) Beyond that, my only real input had to do with visual style; I named off a few artists whose general look I like, and one I really, really hate.

    Apparently nobody at my publisher was terribly happy with my cover, though, because they’ve redone it entirely for the re-release in August. I can’t say I’ll miss it terribly; sure, it was an okay cover, one I wasn’t embarrassed to hold up in public, but I didn’t exactly fall in love.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    My cover experience with my first books were that I suggested potential images for the cover, and then they met and talked and completely ignored me. Which was fine. I didn’t feel I had a great sense of what should go on the covers and and I was really pleased with what they came up with. However, I did suggest one thing that they did do and I think it really helps. Roc doesn’t put on covers that any book is book 1,2 or 3 of a trilogy. So I suggested on my first books that they put a border around the edge of the gold ivy (an element in each of the books) to give a sense of connection between the books. (I saw this done on Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books with a gothic arch and thought it was a terrific idea). Apparently this was not the dumbest idea on the planet because that’s what they did.

    On the Crosspointe books, I mostly wanted a sense of the sea as an element on the covers and they apparently agreed. I really like these covers also. But again, I wanted something that marked them as together in some way (though they did put a banner on there that says: A Novel of Crosspointe). So I suggested a compass. They agreed and it’s on each book right behind the title.

    But I have been very happy with all my covers. They aren’t all dead on the story, but they are close and more importantly, they capture the mood and feel of the story. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed because the cover misleads about the nature of what’s inside.

    I like the titling, by the way. And the farmhouse in midpainting. It’s a good cover.


  4. 4. Daryl Gregory

    Bran, roger on the weird pose of the hand. It looked off to me too, but then I thought, hell, I’m not a painter, and since a real painter created it, I had to defer judgement.

    Marie, I had not idea about the lopping body parts trend! I guess the bodiless hand is only one more symptom. Byt the way, do you have before and after covers of Doppleganger? I’d be interested in seeing what they changed.

    Di, you give me hope that I’ll continue to like my covers. I’ve heard several stories about people being unhappy.

    Though since mine is a standalone, I didn’t have the extra level of difficulty of trying to tie them together visually. I agree– it’s about the mood and tone more than the adherence to the details of the story.


  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I don’t know if I can inline images in a comment, but if you want to see what changed . . . .

    Quite a bit. <g>

    (What they did, actually, was swap it out to match the cover for the sequel. Partly so the two books more obviously go together, and partly because Warrior and Witch appears to be defying the physics of publishing by selling more copies than the first book in the series, and all they can figure is that it’s got a better cover.)

    As for the body part thing, yours with the hand is of a different kind. The real core of the trend is a certain kind of urban fantasy that shows some selection of a woman’s body between her shoulders and her knees, sometimes with half a face, sometimes facing away so there’s a whole head but you still can’t see her face. The original mockup for Doppelganger showed the whole figure, and I preferred it; when my editor sent me the final version, I actually thought the image had gotten cut off by accident.

    I’m still not a fan of the partial-and-faceless approach; it sets off too many warning bells in the part of my head that views things through an academic lens. (I think it objectifies and depersonalizes the figure, though the idea is supposedly that this allows the reader to identify with her. I guess faces get in the way of that.) Also, the covers are starting to become indistinguishable from one another, with rare exceptions. And no marketing department wants that.

  6. 6. Daryl Gregory

    Hey, Marie, those are nice covers.

    And now that you’ve described it for me, I realize I have seen an awful lot of those isolated-chick-part covers. Those are ripe for deconstruction. Is someone writing a dissertation on covers yet?

    A semiotician could make short work of the signs in play in those covers. I’m guessing that their similarity to other covers is not a drawback, but a benefit. The covers aren’t trying to explain the uniqueness of the content of any one book, but the opposite — Here is a book that the reader will find similar to other books he or she has read.

    I think that’s true of every cover, though — it’s signalling the type of reader experience. SF is especially prone to (and I say this with love) the Big Dumb Object in the foreground — spaceship, ring, planet, whatever. For example, the cover for Paul Melko’s Singularity’s Ring just screams (attractively so) Hard SF. As it should.

    And my book? (Fair’s fair, might as well try to analyse my own…) By _not_ having a chick, sword, or spaceship on the cover, it’s signalling on one hand that the book is not paranormal romance, high fantasy, or Hard SF — which is accurate — but on the other hand it’s got that fantasy typeface, the red demon lettering, the ominous tone in the color palette, the creepy abandoned farmhouse. It looks to me like Horror. I was hoping that it would signal, uh “literary fantasy” — but I think horror wins out here.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    It’s a tension — they want to signal clearly enough what type of book it is that the reader’s eye, lighting upon it, can make the right judgment; but if the book ends up looking utterly interchangeable with others in its genre, then it isn’t going to draw most people in.

    And yes, semiotic analysis could and possibly has picked these things to pieces, urban fantasy and all the others. The result is probably not quite what the marketing departments would like to think . . .

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    My cover experience has been pretty much one of my editor asking what scenes I might like. Me answering and them ignoring me and coming back with something completely unlike anything I’d thought and also much better than what I had suggested or expected. I think it’s really nice of them to ask and really smart to ignore me.

    The WebMage stuff is a series of mostly standalone books that they’ve done a great job of linking together visually by making each cover look as though it were an image on a laptop, with the keyboard and bottom of the screen included on the cover thumbnails at amazon. Since the book are cyber-fantasy and the lead character is a hacker/sorcerer with a laptop/goblin familiar this a fantastic idea. I’ve been really pleased.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    The link went futzy, let’s try that again. Thumbnails.

  10. 10. Daryl Gregory

    I like how they handled that, Kelly. It could have been cheesey (artist photoshops a picture of a laptop with a scene from your book) but the way they used color is cool — at first you don’t even notice that it’s a keyboard at the bottom, but then it snaps into place…


Author Information

Daryl Gregory

Daryl's a science fiction writer who lives in State College, PA. Several of his short stories have appeared in "Year's Best" anthologies, and his first novel, PANDEMONIUM, will appearing in Fall 2008 from Del Rey Books. Visit site.



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