Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bad Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Covers

Via Carla, for your weekend entertainment and edification, a wonderfully British site, Good Show Sir.

Little further discussion on my part is required. On the whole, and consistent with my bookstore experience, fantasy covers are worse than SF covers, but SF-oriented Baen Books seems to be staking a claim as the capital of the bad-cover universe.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Over at Judge A Book By Its Cover, Baen has its own posts label.

http://judgeabook.blogspot.com/

Ian_M

Anonymous said...

I'm not even sure I actually remember the covers I look at anymore...it's pretty bad when the more abstract they are, the better...

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

In Baen's defence - Their covers may be garish (And cluttered, and sometimes downright eye-scarring) but they work. The books stand out on the shelf and make people pay attention. Anything that gets the books off the shelf is good.

Ian_M

Jean Remy said...

As a graphic designer I have to say that stuff like that is *not* our fault. No one I graduated with would willingly cause these things to come into being. We just limit the damage. And no matter how understanding your art director is, he's not calling the shots either.

A guy in a suit who never read the book, and wouldn't know good design if it hit him in the face with a nuke, makes the decision. You don't want to know what he considers in good taste.

No. You don't. You really really don't.

Would you believe a radio-active orange Garfield tie and a UV-glow print of Mona Lisa?.

Told you.

Makes you wonder why I spent four years in college learning design. Should've stuck with engineering.

Rick said...

Now Jean's gonna spoil our fun! I just spent a few hours at the link Ian provided, feeling wonderfully superior. Though some of the noir-ish detective covers from the 50s era are kind of cool.

Jean Remy said...

Oh there's fun to be had, to your heart's content. I'm just making sure the contempt is directed the right way.

It's rather frustrating to be a graphic designer, and it takes rather thick skin. Graphic design is not so much the art of making it look good, but the art of making someone's horrible idea into something that sort of not quite as horrible as it could be.

Design is balanced on the razor's edge... well rather on the paycheck's edge.

Carla said...

I can confirm, from an acquaintance who works in a related field, that Jean's comment - design is the art of making a horrible idea somewhat less horrible - is 100% accurate.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder what authors think about the covers to their books...whether they are happy just to see their names on a book issued by a 'repuable' publisher, or are horrified by the fact that the cover bore little or no resymblace to what they've written; it may well be a mixture of the two...

Ferrell

Rick said...

Without really stopping to think about it, I sort of took for granted that 'the suits,' rather than the artists, are behind Bad Cover Art. That's a fairly universal rule of thumb!

Though there is also Ian's point, that covers may be painful to our eyes but still effective, in standing out from the bookstore clutter, and especially in catching the eyes of teenage boys. (The golden age of science fiction is 14, after all.)

Anonymous said...

Steve Jackson Games made a roleplaying game and sourcebook based on Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.

http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/vorkosigan/

In the introduction to the sourcebook the editor states that it was a high priority for the book art to match the author's vision. Every piece of character art in that book was approved by Lois McMaster Bujold.

The Vorkosigan Saga Sourcebook and RPG was originaly scheduled for release in 2004 and finally released in 2009, and went through two changes in artistic staff.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Mmm ... sounds like Bujold is a cover artist's nightmare.

And this points to yet another complication in cover design: authors. If Catherine of Lyonesse gets picked up - knock on wood! - I certainly want it to have a good cover, and I have my own notions of what constitutes 'good.' But I'm not a graphic artist, and there's no inherent reason to suppose that I have the first clue about what actually constitutes good cover art.

As a noob I'd have no say to speak of, but established authors like Bujold have more clout. We know what happens when Famous Authors become editor-proof - and it is nothing good.

Jean Remy said...

Rick said: "As a noob I'd have no say to speak of, but established authors like Bujold have more clout. We know what happens when Famous Authors become editor-proof - and it is nothing good."

You are quite right, on both accounts.

Publishers are risking a lot on a new novelist, and are banking on only one thing: the writer's ability to write. They're not banking on him also having the ability to design a cover that satisfies both his needs for artistic integrity and the actual needs of the publisher, which is to design a cover that will jump off the shelf to grab unsuspecting teenagers by the throat, tackle them to the ground, and yell "buy me" in their faces. In fact, as a new writer, unless you can prove some knowledge in graphic design (as in: a degree, not a crude scribble on a ruled sheet of paper that was torn out of a spiral-bound notebook) you have no chance at all of pushing for a design. Even if you have such a degree, probably the best you get is a chance to see the cover before they print it. But basically the truth is this: you're the beggar, and they know it.

Once you become a majorly superfamous writer, that is the teenagers from above flock to a book simply because of your name on the cover, that changes. You can always tell when an author reaches that point: the author's name takes the place of the title in big bold shiny embossed letters, while the title itself becomes a dull afterthought at the bottom. At that point the publisher becomes the beggar. That's when the bad becomes ugly.
First, the covers become even more garish. Aluminum-covered, embossed covers with very bright inks are more expensive, and since more expensive = better they throw all of that in. At once. If the author wants a say in the cover and has zero design backgrounds, the struggle between the already harassed designer becomes a lost cause: at least the suits hired him because they trusted his opinion, if loosely. The author rarely has such rapport and (unless he demands a specific artist) will be even worse to deal with: the author is just as convinced as the designer of the artistic vision. Even if the author is more flexible, you still have the problem of embossing, aluminum and bright inks, which generally get thrown on the design last.

One last thing: you can never foresee the full effect of embossing and metallic finish and bright colors because, on a computer screen, everything looks bright anyway. It's also hard to simulate the effects of light on metal surfaces, or how it will play in different light situations. In the end you only see the full effect when they print the first one, and if they're already being printed, they're going to be most unwilling to revise it. Been there, done that. I'd say that have of what you learn in GD classes is the difference between what's on the screen and the final product, and how to compensate for it. In the end it's half "feel".

P.S. All of the above applies to the actual text editing. Editors are your friend, not your enemy. I suggest you read the unedited version of books by your favorite author, once he or she gets famous and publishes it "the way he saw it". It won't take long before you sympathize with the editor and wish he was back on the job.

Rick said...

Ah - now I understand why so many books by Big Authors make a laser sensor-blinding attack on me!

I haven't yet experienced editorial input - gotta sell the book first! - but when I do, I'll try to remember that the editor probably knows what they are doing, and is viewing the manuscript with a reader's eye.

Jean Remy said...

Oh I haven't yet experienced the full brunt of editorial meddling, but I did get a very nice five-page rejection letter from an agent detailing, with examples, areas of improvement. Of all my rejection letters, it is the only one I keep and cherish. After the first 15 two-line rejections printed on a small slip of paper, a five-page rejection is a step forward.

I also have to say every singly suggestion was right, and my book was all the better for it.

Rick said...

A five-page rejection is a step forward.

Yes. I'm reminded of the cautionary (and perhaps apocryphal) story of a writer who got back a ten page - single spaced - rejection letter and was totally crushed, having no idea what it means for an editor/agent to take that much time on an ms.

Anonymous said...

"Mmm ... sounds like Bujold is a cover artist's nightmare.

In her defence the editor did say that the artistic challenges were the least of the problems. It just turned into one of those projects where anything that can go wrong...

And yes, a steady growth in the length of your rejection letters is a good sign. It means you're holding someone's attention.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Re Bujold - I'm relieved to hear that!

Anonymous said...

Re: Bujold covers
Bujold is seriously let down by her book covers.
Just read an excellent blog on this same issue at http://split-infinities.blogspot.com/2010/02/grumpy-sunday_07.html

Rick said...

Welcome, presumably new Anon!

My theory of Bujold covers is that Bujold has discovered that you can sell romance novels to teenage boys, if you make them think it has something to do with blowing up spaceships. The covers try to do the same hat trick, but without Bujold's talent for it.