What Kind of Jacket Art Do You Want on Your Book?

The other day my editor sent me a sketches of the jacket art for my next book, The Horsemen’s Gambit.  (The book is due out in January or February of 2009.)  This is not at all unusual for me.  I have a terrific editor who seeks my input on all aspects of the production process.  Every time I hand in the initial draft of a book manuscript, I also send a description of a few different scenes that I think might work well as cover art.  Sometimes these are battle scenes, other times they’re just moments in the book that I think offer particularly stunning visuals.  More often than not, the artist winds up using one or another of those suggestions.

This time was no different.  And yet the result is slightly different, and I’m still sorting out my feelings about the art I’ve seen. 

Let me start by saying that I’ve been very fortunate to work with one particular artist for nearly all of my book jackets.  His name is Romas Kukalis, and I knew he and I would have a special rapport twelve years ago when he received Children of Amarid, my very first book, read it cover to cover, and created one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen on any book.  Over the years Romas and I have spoken by phone and traded emails; several years ago we met at a convention where, coincidentally, he was displaying the original art for Children of Amarid.  If I’d had the money I would have bought it on the spot.  Aside from the first two books of my Winds of the Forelands series, which were done by the wonderful Gary Ruddell, Romas has done every one of my jackets since.

For The Horsemen’s Gambit, I pointed my editor and Romas toward the opening scene in the book — a battle tournament featuring one of the book’s lead characters, a woman named Tirnya.  The sketch that Romas sent back is a stylized interpretation of the scene showing Tirnya holding her sword and dagger with a somewhat abstract background.  It’s beautiful really, and the more I look at it, the more I like it.  I also think it will sell the book well.  Romas has made Tirnya attractive, but also powerful.  I have no doubt that when he adds color and polishes the rough edges in the sketch, the finished product will be terrific. (He’s made her a lefty, which she’s not — but I can live with that.)

I think what’s giving me pause is my old assumption that the jacket art of a book ought to show a recognizable scene from the book.  I’m not even sure where this comes from, but I’ve always felt this way.  And yet, that cover for Children of Amarid that I loved so much did what this newest cover does:  conveys a sense of the book without illustrating a specific moment in the book.  Ultimately my editor and agent and everyone else will tell me that the only thing a jacket needs to do is sell the book, make it attractive to prospective readers.  They’re right, of course.  But I have a sense of what I want each of my books to look like when it hits the shelves — I think a lot of authors probably do.  And this cover sketch, as striking as it is, diverges pretty significantly from my initial image.  Maybe that’s all it is; maybe I just need a bit more time to get used to this “new” look.

I’d be interested in knowing what my fellow SFNovelists think of all this.  What kind of covers do you want for your books?  Do you like something that illustrates a specific moment in the story?  Do you like something more interpretive?  Do you care?  What do you want the jacket art to accomplish?  How much input do you have on your jacket art?

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  1. 1. deborahb

    >conveys a sense of the book without illustrating a specific moment in the book.

  2. 2. Greg

    Let me first say that I was quite startled to see a reference to Children of Amarid. And even more so to see that you were actually David Coe. I read and loved the LonTobyn novels years ago and still have them on my shelf, but, sadly, very few people I’ve met who read fantasy have heard of them or you. I’ve done my best to right that wrong!

    With regard to your question, a couple years ago I was at a convention in the town I was living where there were several authors who are signed with Baen Books as well as several of their editors and staff members. One of the events they did was a discussion of the art that they use for their books. The way they described the process was that for a lot of their new authors, they would use pre-made art that fit the theme of the books, but for their established authors (if those authors cared) they would go through a similar process where they would send the book or excerpts from the book to an artist and then the artist would return something representative of the theme of the book, or highlighting a specific scene. But there weren’t necessarily specific guidelines other than that the art have appropriate whitespace for placing the title and author’s name on top of the art.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    In my Path novels, all three of the covers are scenes from the book and they match the character well. I didn’t have much input on the scenes (and I didn’t mind because frankly I didn’t have a good sense of what they should be and was content to let them figure it out). What I did ask for was some sort of cover element to pull the three books together visually. I had seen this done with gothic arches on Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books and I thought it was an excellent idea, especially when the books don’t say they are part of a trilogy anywhere. I suggested the gold ivy since it is an important plot elements and was very pleased that they followed the suggestion and very pleased with the results.

    For the Crosspointe books, (and the cover conference for book III was today), I asked again for a cover element to tie them together, in this case a compass rose, which is key to the world. They put it on there, right behind the title, and this time they put on the cover a little banner that says “A novel of Crosspointe.” The covers of these books I also like a lot. They take some liberties, which is okay, but they capture the flavor of the books. The first cover isn’t really a specific scene, but the second one is. The third we talked about and we knew we wanted to stick with a single person on the cover. The third book has multiple pov characters, so we talked about which person would be the smart choice, and then also what scene might work. Because of certain Things That Happen, the scene has to be from early in the book. I know there will be liberties for the scene, since we only want a single person on the cover, but if they go with what we talked about, I think it will be really excellent. They also want to do something to convey a sense of magic on the cover and I’m not entirely sure how they’ll do that in this particular scene, but it should be fun.

    I had one artist for the Path covers and a different one for the Crosspointe books. Both are fabulous and both bring something very cool to the work.

  4. 4. Eliza

    I’m actually in the same discussion with a cover artist right now. I care about the style. The current book I’m working on has a classical, yet dark feel, so I wanted an artist who does beautiful, classical shading with a bit of an edge to it. I have a book in mind next that requires more of an abstract cover that doesn’t completely make sense. Another book needs more of a playful, vivid illustration.

    I like characters, but ultimately, I’m more concerned with getting the genre and feel right at first glance. If that requires a pair of hands around a mask in blue lighting, great. If that requires a scene, then so be it. Make it pretty, and get the feel correct.

  5. 5. Misty Massey

    When things first started rolling, I admit being a little nervous. After all, it was a book about a female pirate, and I’d heard plenty of horror stories…what if I ended up with a cover that screamed “Captain Boobalicious and Her Amazing Gravity-Defying Cleavage”?

    Instead, I scored a gorgeous cover by an incredible artist, Shelly Wan. My editor and I emailed back and forth about scenes from the book we thought would translate well to a book cover, but Shelly finally went with an evocative (though less specific) painting.

    No complaints from me!

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Di, I always thought the Path novels were packaged beautifully. (I need to take a closer look at the Crosspointe books.) The motif is something I like as well — as you say, it gives readers a visual clue: “These books go together.” I had that with the Forelands books, which had a Celtic motif on the borders. I’m not sure how they’ll do it with the Southlands books.

    Eliza, I suppose I’m coming around to the point of view you articulate, because you’re right: what works for one book or one set of books, may not work for another. A scene might be right for an epic fantasy series, but I have a darker, contemporary thing that I’m trying to sell right now, and I think that those covers, when the books are published, will need to be more impressionistic. Thanks for the comment.

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    What I hope for is a striking cover that will attract the eye and sell the book, and then if I love the cover as well that is like cake AND frosting.

    But then, I’ve been extremely fortunate in my covers, over all.

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    You have had beautiful covers, Alis. I would love to know what number of readers choose a book based on the jacket art. I have some anecdotal evidence that it does happen — people emailing me to let me know that they picked up one of my titles based on the cover and enjoyed the book, or something like that. But I wonder if anyone has looked into this in a more systemic way.

  9. 9. Kate Elliott

    I know I will pick up a book in a bookstore if the cover attracts my eye, and that is despite knowing that the cover is merely a marketing tool. And yet, my eye likes striking design and images. I may not purchase the book, but more than once I have only bought a book with a really crappy cover only after hearing other people mention what a good book it is, so even though I should know better, I’m still susceptible.

    otoh, not everyone shops for books in the same way.

  10. 10. Rubus

    That a book has to look beautiful on the bookshelf goes without saying, but I prefer abstract art or landscapes over portraits. First of al, I never get a good grip on if the picture was selected from the story, “is this how the person looks?”, or if it is stock art gallery that seemed to fit (a reasonable price and not too far off). Secondly, fantasy books tend to be quite colourful which make any decent bookshelf look like the rainbow on LSD. The best cover arts are those that has a specific art for the spine, e.g. the front artwork in a miniature or a darker hue for the background colour and the title in not too stylised typography. Heavy Planet by Hal Clement, Orb (0-765-30368-X), is a beautiful example of a good spine while most of Pratchett’s books won’t let your eyes rest on the bookshelf, they take your eyes and walk into the alley and make something abusive to them. The cover arts are true art, but letting the books sit beside themselves on the shelf is pure violence to the eyes.

    Something that gets on my nerve, and Misty Massey touched upon above, is the way women are portrayed; so many book covers scream “artist (and probably buyer) seriously needs to get out more often and meet girls”!

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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