Lois McMaster Bujold’s new Penric novella, “The Prisoner of Limnos”, came out just Friday, and we’re very pleased to bring you our interview with her about covers – a subject near and dear to our hearts, because every good book is in the need of a cover, eventually.
EMD: For the early Penric covers, I know you asked for fan input about the public domain pictures you used, and I believe you mentioned that your agency helped you with the typography. Before that, did you have much input in the covers of your traditionally published books? What was the most useful piece of advice you got when you were choosing your own covers for the e-publications? What kind of parameters did you use for choosing the public domain pictures? And can you share any websites you found helpful in your search for a cover?
LMB: My input on my traditional-publisher artwork has varied over the years, from none to intense. There seems to be no discernible relationship between the amount of my involvement and the results. I’ve had great covers with no involvement, disappointing covers with lots, and the other way around, apparently at random.
I don’t recall I had much advice when I embarked on doing e-covers years ago with The Spirit Ring. (That would have been back in late 2010.) My helper putting them together could at the time only work with one image, cropping but no photoshopping, so options were limited. I wanted to choose historical paintings for the fantasies, because not only could I see what I was getting, but they were already at a high level of artistic accomplishment. Bad photoshopping/image collage is much worse than none, amateurish and off-putting, and any hint of photography was very wrong for the fantasy mood. As we’ve worked together over the years, my e-wrangler and I have both grown better at sorting through the challenges.
The websites I found useful might not apply to other sorts of stories, but Wikipedia Commons proved fruitful for a couple of the early Penric covers, due to a link with a goldmine of artwork from a Swiss museum. After that I was on my own. The main problem was of finding paintings that suggested the right technological level and settings for my fantasies, but without figures in too-our-world historical dress. Cropping and photoshopping can eliminate such problems (we once got rid of a steamship and a lady in a bustle), but not always. E-covers also require a high pixel density in the original art image, sometimes not available. Also, as the novella project went on, it became harder to find images in the right style to match the earlier ones.
My Google-fu is not strong, so I’ve learned to ask for help in finding things. With each round, I learn a little more how-to for the next time.
EMD: The first three Penric novellas have public domain pictures. The fourth published book (“Mira’s Last Dance”) is a public domain picture that was tweaked by your artist friend, Ron Miller, and the fifth and sixth published books both feature original artwork done by Ron. What factors led you to segue from free public domain pictures to new art?
LMB: In part, I needed to know that the novellas could pay for the cost of professional art, which I had pretty much determined from “Penric’s Demon” forward. I went to Ron for “Mira’s Last Dance” because I could not find a satisfactory public domain still-life with the plot-and-theme elements I wanted—mainly the masks—even though it seemed there ought to be some out there. Ron came through brilliantly on the first try. He’s also been willing to educate me on the issues from the artist’s point of view (about some of which we must agree to disagree), dating back to the big project in 2015 of re-e-covering the 17 Vorkosigan backlist books. I did a long series of assorted posts on my blog about that whole process starting here: [Lois’s Goodreads blog, Sept. 18, 2015] and going on for a couple of months.
“Penric’s Fox” led me back to Ron due to similar issues. I’d found a public-domain image I very much liked, and almost went with it, but it was pixel-poor and would have needed more work than just cropping. I originally thought I might have Ron do the adjusting, but he was not willing to chop into another artist’s work that way. (The artist hadn’t been dead long enough, I gathered.) So we used the picture as a jumping-off point for the design of “Penric’s Fox”, but with all-original elements underlying it.
Ron’s method for these quick e-covers starts with creating a skeleton collage of images to which he has clear rights, either reference photos he took himself, his own art, or other sources. He then electronically paints as needed to blend, unify, and balance color. But the images available in his library files put another set of constraints on what can be produced and how well it can match the text. We wrestled a lot over the woman on the cover of “Fox”, and I eventually actually went back and tweaked the brief description of her clothing to more nearly match the picture. This was only possible because the novella hadn’t been released yet, and the change didn’t alter anything plot- or characterization-significant. Much, hnh.
EMD: Our Jilly Wood asks which came first, the cover picture, or the typography? And with the later covers, did Ron Miller design the typography, or did someone else do that?
LMB: The image always has to come first, because the typography must fit it, in color and style as well as placement. (Unless, I suppose, one were doing an all-graphics cover.) The lettering style for my e-editions of the
Chalion books began way back in 2011 when we were trying to work out something for The Hallowed Hunt in its UK e-release. I wanted something that evoked old manuscript calligraphy, and the font chosen was as close as the then-available menu of typefaces offered. We stuck with it thereafter for series continuity. (Legacy decisions can sometimes drive these choices more than they should.) Ron had a more readable font in his bag that was still similar, so we switched to it with “Mira”. He does all the type design for his covers, which saves me a world of hassle and micro-decisions, though he does run everything past me for approval and some tweaking discussion.
EMD: You’ve known your artist, Ron Miller, for quite some time. The cover to the new story, “The Prisoner of Limnos”, is stunning. I love how the colors and the shadows mix, and that sky gives me a real sense that this is set in another world. What was your process? Do you have any advice for writers talking with artists?
LMB: I’m not sure one can talk with artists. You have to show them pictures. Jim Baen first gave me that tip, and it has seemed to be generally true through the years. Happily, now with the internet and its bottomless well of images and links, this is actually possible. It didn’t used to be.
Ron’s and my discussion of the cover possibilities for “The Prisoner of Limnos” began with this link, which I had also used for inspiration for one of the key settings of the story, a religious retreat on an island:
https://www.google.com/search?q=greek+monastery+pictures [EMD: note, Google searches vary upon time and location, but you’ll get an idea.]
of which this was my favorite.
We first discussed trying to put the characters in the foreground with the island in the background, but it didn’t work with the composition he had in mind, as well as running us up directly into the trickiest and most contentious issue between writers and artists, character portrayal. So all those links I found to Bollywood actresses had to go into the bin for another day.
Ron’s own views on the issues are summed up here:[Ron’s website, Black Cat Studios].
To which I disagree in part; if a character is portrayed very differently on a cover than they are in the story, the cover version will conflate, confuse, or even replace the vision in the readers’ heads that the writer’s words are trying to convey. It as if the art has muscled in and edited the text, without the writer’s permission. So I find myself increasing in favor of cover art that does not attempt to picture the characters at all, but rather, other elements of the story, especially (if one can capture it visually) the theme.
In my grumpier moments I sometimes wish my e-covers could all just be plain blue rectangles, like the early Fictionwise ones, but there would still be no end to artistic decisions: what fonts in what color/s, what sizes and placements, which extra information to include besides title and author’s name, what shade of blue, and on and on.
“Dress (your book) For Success” is a complex consideration, since the wrong garments can mis-shape how a book is perceived by readers and reviewers even as they read the actual text. Accurate presentation of subgenre and tone seems to me very important not only for initial sales, but for the word-of-mouth follow-up. A grim, grimy noir cover put on a fantasy novel crammed with delightful wit, for example, would give no clue to the sort of readers who would enjoy it, and steer it into the hands of readers who would not. It also seems to me that the e-book world is in process of developing a set of customer-perception protocols that do not necessarily match those of the old print world, a new culture. It should be fascinating to watch how this develops over time.
You can see a larger version of the Vorkosigan covers poster on Society6’s website.
And here’s a list of the Penric and Desdemona novellas in story-chronological order (with links to Amazon).
And if you’d like to see the cover game from Jennifer Crusie’s perspective, here’s a link to the story of the cover of Maybe This Time.
Also, see Kay Keppler’s post this week about hiring a professional designer: https://eightladieswriting.com/2017/10/26/kay-keppler-rethinking-a-cover/
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Missing paragraphs in early editions of “The Prisoner of Limnos”. Check Lois’ blog for details and how to get it fixed. https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/15922151-aaaaarrrrggghhh-limnos-missing-paragraphs
(To be honest, I only noticed it in one case! I thought, “Well, that’s a cliffhanger. But it’s a Bujold; I’ll roll with it.” Watch this blog for further analysis of endings and transitions. )
UPDATE: I’m receiving reports as of 2017/10/29 7:00 a.m. (GMT) that newly purchased novellas of “The Prisoner of Limnos” are fine. You can probably check the first chapter with the “read inside” function to make sure you’ve got the right edition.