Michaeline: Questions about Covers with Lois McMaster Bujold


e novella cover; Greek monastery, stormy sea and a ship

“The Prisoner of Limnos” came out October 27, 2017! The electrons are still piping hot! (Image by Ron Miller, courtesy of Lois McMaster Bujold)

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?

A set of the covers from a re-issue of the Vorkosigan series.

Even as mini-thumbnails, these graphics have big impact. See below for a link to a bigger image. (Image courtesy of the creator, Ron Miller)

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

The cover of the Amazon UK e-release of the Hallowed Hunt -- gothic font with castles.

The UK e-release of The Hallowed Hunt. (Image via Amazon.co.uk)

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).

“Penric’s Demon”

“Penric and the Shaman”

“Penric’s Fox”

“Penric’s Mission”

“Mira’s Last Dance”

“The Prisoner of Limnos”

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.

58 thoughts on “Michaeline: Questions about Covers with Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. LMB said: I’m not sure one can talk with artists. You have to show them pictures.

    Over the past few months I’ve been working with a web designer on my website (which, fingers crossed, I’ll release into the world on Tuesday). I told Trevor, my graphic designer, that I wanted the site to be “dark but quirky.” He responded (as LMB would have predicted), “Send me pictures of dark but quirky.”

    I spent the next couple of weeks googling images of everything I could think of that might depict what I was thinking about. I wound up sending him lots of pictures of snakes–snake jewelry, snake tattoos, snake everything. And apples. Lots of apples.

    In addition to generating a very cool website, the process really helped me get a handle on my brand. It was definitely a new way of communicating.

    • That’s such exciting news, Jeanne! Fingers crossed for Tuesday.

      I’m not a very visual person. I have to work at it. In my default mode, I just want to throw more words at a visual problem, LOL. But it’s really true that the right picture can be worth — well, even more than a thousand words!

      • LOL–I was really happy with where we wound up, even though learning to communicate really was a challenge. He’s so visual and I’m so not.

        We went high concept, which I love, although my publicity person doesn’t. She thinks romance readers just want a picture of hunky guy with a bare chest, but the books are more than that (says it’s loving creator). Here are the covers if you want to take a look:: https://www.jeanneestridge.com/category/books/

        • Very nice, indeed! I think you went in the right direction with these. There is a lot to be said about following tropes when working in specific genres…but by the same token, if your books look like ten thousand other ones, well, who is going to know they’re your books? All ten thousand may as well have the same author name on the covers if they’re all going to look alike anyway.

          It’s often a fine and tricky line to walk: you need to make sure that your potential reader recognizes what kind of book you have—is it fantasy, science fiction, thriller, mystery, romance?—but by the same token, your book has to stand out from all the others on the same shelf or page. I think you accomplished this extremely well! Congratulations! (In fact, I would have done only one very small thing differently.)

        • 😉 I would have made the title and author name a different color—or a better red at least.

          Red is a very tricky color to use against a dark background—especially if the values of the colors are similar. (“Value” refers to the lightness or darkness of a color compared to a grey scale. Yellow, for instance, has a very high value since in grey scale it would become a very light grey, whereas red has a very low value since in grey scale it becomes a very dark grey or black.) When you put red against a background that has the same or similar value there is very little contrast as a result. This is especially so if the red is not very saturated (“bright”) and the background is a neutral or unsaturated color. The “greyness” of the two colors become too similar. The resulting lack of value contrast can make the text on a cover much harder to read than it should, especially if the cover is seen in a small size.

          That is what is happening here.

          You can see what I mean if I convert one of your covers to grey scale, which emphasizes the effect: http://www.charliehills.com/gallery/picture.php?/304/category/3

          If the titles need to be red—and I imagine you want them to be in order to relate to the red in each image—it needs to be a bright, clear, saturated red and the background should be as dark or nearly black as possible. The color used for the subtitle and author name, which also tends to disappear against the background, also needs to be brighter and more saturated.

          You can see the difference here:

          I made no attempt to match the typeface and the yellow probably could have been more of a gold, but I think you will get the general idea.

          Other than this, I think your covers are really nice! Very striking and very memorable!

        • That’s a good thing to keep in mind when looking at potential covers.

          I don’t even want you to see mine, haha, because they’re pretty cliche for historical romance LOL. But okay, fine. Not that I expect you to critique it or anything. The first is here: http://www.justinecovington.com/books

          However, there’s something I like on a cover (revealing a lot of personal stuff here). It’s when the guy is looking at the camera, because it seems to me that he’s looking at me, and even though his HEA is with the heroine in the book, there’s a small part of me that thinks I’M the HEA, not the heroine (dumb, right? Anyhoo….). I know that the guys on my covers (my series revolves around a group of guys who went to Eton together) will look at the camera. It’s what I like.

        • I really like Jeanne’s covers. I’m not sure if they would prompt me to buy, because dark romance isn’t normally my cup of tea. But, it’s a very striking image. And after reading the story, I love the cover. It fits the story very well, and there’s just something about the cover that is art in itself, and sometimes I google Jeanne on Amazon to reference it. (-: And of course, the story inside is excellent.

          Jeanne, remind me again, what was your communication process like? Were you able to sit face to face with your cover designer, or was it purely email? Did you start from a questionnaire and work out? How much of your story did your person read?

        • This is such excellent information, and it also draw a pretty illustration about WHY we need someone doing this who does JUST this. A cover designer and artist is going to have spent major time thinking about stuff like color values and composition. If we are going to be excellent writers, we need to be spending our time in the nitty gritty of our craft; I think it’s VERY difficult for us to be great writers AND fabulous art critics AND expert marketers . . . .

          Of course, we’re coming at this from different angles. Some of the Ladies are looking to make a living at this. Some of the Ladies already have a decent retirement fund set aside, and can afford to make bold choices. And some of us are in the middle ground, where we have the dayjob or savings that allows our households the nice little extras, but it would be really, really nice if this passion turns out to fund our retirement.

          Some of us are going to make safe choices that don’t risk much until we’ve got firm footing. Some of us are going to make bold choices that we really, really like.

          Me, I’m firmly in that middle financial ground (as of this writing), but my heart goes towards choosing really interesting covers, and helping to support other creative people. There’s a synergy that happens when fields cross, and while more people may not “get it”, there are more people who will be in favor of it as well — it sort of flattens out the “don’t like/don’t care/like” bell curve, so that while you get more haters with a bold choice, you might attract more fans. Especially if you are playing a long game with your art (writing or otherwise).

          A lot of genre writing is disposable; read once, and then never come back again. And there’s nothing wrong with that! A bit of fluff on a rainy Saturday afternoon is a lot of fun. But sometimes, things resonate a lot longer than that rainy Saturday afternoon. The cover has to match that level, to some extent. I’ve picked up fabulous covers that had nothing but grey-colored fluff on the inside, and that’s not great, either. (I like my fluff pink and blue with little gold sparkles.)

          (-: I have gone off on a tangent. Again. But, to get back to the main point, hiring an artist/designer is a good idea if their portfolio sings to you. And for goodness sakes, let them do their job. We’ve got to be clear about our expectations, and be willing to be educated about our fantastical expectations, and be willing to merge visions with the artist, I think. A good cover person will be clear about when we’re expecting too much . . . too much of them, or too much of Art, that’s a fuzzier line, but still.

        • “hiring an artist/designer is a good idea if their portfolio sings to you. And for goodness sakes, let them do their job. We’ve got to be clear about our expectations, and be willing to be educated about our fantastical expectations, and be willing to merge visions with the artist, I think. A good cover person will be clear about when we’re expecting too much . . . too much of them, or too much of Art, that’s a fuzzier line, but still.”

          Hear! Hear!
          Well said!
          If you have found a cover designer you like, and they are experienced, capable and talented, let them do their job. I find myself sometimes wondering at people who would never consider second-guessing any other professional—their doctor, lawyer, car mechanic—but haven’t a moment’s hesitation thinking that they know better than the artist they have commissioned.

        • The font color of the title and author name–you’re absolutely right. I actually sent them back at least once to make them brighter but after a round or two I just figured that was the best it could be. When the publicity folks started creating ad copy with them, it came up again.

          Thanks for the info–I’ll know more next time!

        • The communication process. Let me see what I can remember.

          It was all via email. I’m tying to remember if there was an introductory phone call, but I don’t think so. (I could be wrong, though.)

          The other thing to remember is the covers were an outgrowth of the website design, That started with a questionnaire, which in turn lead to Trevor’s request for pictures to illustrate what I meant by “dark but quirky.”

          I sent them the first two chapters, so they read no more than that.

          Again, a huge amount of work and back and forth went on with the site (for months); much less with the cover because we’d already nailed so much down. We actually put a lot more work into the second cover, trying to decide what the hand would hold–an eagle (the statue from the book) or a contract. After a few failed attempts to create an eagle that I liked, Trevor suggested the scroll that looks a Torah.

        • “We actually put a lot more work into the second cover, trying to decide what the hand would hold–an eagle (the statue from the book) or a contract. After a few failed attempts to create an eagle that I liked, Trevor suggested the scroll that looks a Torah.”

          The decision to go with a Torah-like scroll was the right one. With the nice touch of the wax seal it conveys a sense of importance even with no writing appearing on it. I think that a contract per se would have been a difficult concept to get across in the brief glance that a cover would get. It’s one of those things that might be best understood or appreciated by someone who is already familiar with the book. I remember one of Lois’ readers suggesting that one of her covers should feature “the knife that Bothari held.” But the significance would have been limited to those already in the know…to anyone else it would have been just a knife, ho hum.

          Objectivity is always one of the hardest things for an author to overcome when dealing personally with their book covers. It’s too easy to focus on details that seem to be of overwhelming importance because the author is already intimately familiar with the story, forgetting that the potential reader does not share this knowledge. I don’t know how often I have heard something like, “Oh, the reader will understand when they get to Chapter 2.”

        • Thanks, Jeanne, for the information about your communication process. That’s another huge point, isn’t it? It’s not going to come together in a week or two (unless something amazing happens with muses and whatnot, and we all know YOU CAN NOT DEPEND ON THE MUSE). (I’m yelling at the muse; it’ll probably backfire this weekend when I need her, LOL.) It doesn’t take any of us three months to write a book, after all.

      • LOL, on top of everything, I’m a soprano. So, I only hear the top notes in both music and the words. Knowing one’s own blind spots is an important part of the communication process, that’s for sure! It’s just that finding one’s own blind spots can be so CRINGE as the kids say.

  2. That comment really struck home with me, too! Back in my magazine days, I met with the cover designers face to face, and we would sketch out (they would sketch out) what we needed. And then I’d send cover lines to them, and these would never come out correctly, even when sent in email and all they had to do was copy and paste. And if I needed a change on the art for some reason—fageddaboudit. Never send written directives to artists, that was my early learning curve.

    About the people on the covers not matching the text: I recently had my “Reading Gregory” novella cover redesigned, and the best image we found had a man with short, dark hair. The guy in the story, though, had longish, blonde hair. I changed the text. It didn’t matter what he looked like, I just needed to give him a description, a first impression, for my heroine. And it was a simple matter to change the text and have it match the cover. So glad to see the pros do it, too!

    Thanks to you, Michaeline, and you, Lois, for a really interesting interview.

    • I’m glad you (both) changed the text to match the images you settled on. I’ve read on many cover design websites that it doesn’t matter if the characters on the cover don’t match their descriptions, but if the difference is significant it annoys, confuses and distracts me. I suppose Ron is right that by then I’ve been enticed to read the book and if I like the writing I’m going to buy the next book irrespective, but it still niggles. And I can think of one urban fantasy series where (as Lois said) the character images on the cover have overwritten the mental images I’d created for myself based on the writing. I’ve stopped reading that series and I’m sure the images, which I actively dislike, are partly responsible.

      Thank you, Michaeline, for asking the questions, and many thanks to Lois for a very enjoyable interview. Off to read The Prisoner of Limnos now!

      • Jilly, I think for a lot of us, the cover of a beloved book can be almost as beloved as the text itself. So, yes, primary directive is to grab new readers. But it’s a lovely fan service if the cover can match the text in details. The best covers will be able to do both.

        And I know I said I’m not that visual of a person, and I’d like to think that I’m not so shallow as to characterize people on the basis of their appearance. But my Jack is so vivid in my mind, with his black hair and milk-white skin; Olivia with her milk-cocoa skin and curly hair. I think I could roll with changes like the shape of a nose or possibly eyebrows, but things like height, weight, and hair texture are really important to the sensuality of the work, I think. Also, somewhat related to themes. I don’t want those things overwritten.

        But there’s a lot of leeway on other visual aspects — things I may not have even clearly envisioned myself.

    • Note to readers: y’all are going to want to see Kay’s post this week about that cover. It really shows the difference between a good amateur and a real professional. https://eightladieswriting.com/2017/10/26/kay-keppler-rethinking-a-cover/

      When I was on the school newspaper, I remember asking our art director to give me something very New Yorker, 1920s era (with my words — my spoken words) and this sweet, nice guy gave me the most frustrated look! Then he used his words to basically tell me that he wasn’t an art automaton, and he and his artists needed a little more creative freedom. We were both in the beginnings of our careers, so I guess it’s a matter of live and learn! He did come up with the goods!

    • “the best image we found had a man with short, dark hair.”
      Sadly, this is one of the things that happens when dealing with designers who depend wholly upon found imagery: they are limited to what they can locate online or from other existing sources. Finding either an artist who can create original art or a designer who works with such artists is always the best course to take.

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  6. Lois mentioned that my reluctance to adapt an existing artwork for Penric’s Fox was because “The artist hadn’t been dead long enough.” Actually, it’s more an ethical decision. Rather, say, on the order of an author being asked to rewrite someone else’s novel. Even if that novel had been long in the public domain, it would make me feel uncomfortable.

    • I’m rather agnostic on that point; I’ve read many rip-roaring tales that were based on Pride and Prejudice, for example. That story is so great, it made even the Zombie version a delight to read. And of course, Shakespeare borrowed a lot. It is very important to me that if you are going to steal, you transform it. Not a lot of casual listeners are going to hear Mann/Weil/Stoller/Leiber’s “On Broadway” in David Bowie’s “Golden Years”, unless they know the story. Very transformative.

      But this (“Penric’s Fox”) wasn’t really a case of transforming. Photoshopping design elements is a lot trickier, ethically, than creating from scratch. At any rate, the story in question did deserve an original cover, and I’m glad it got it. I think as writers, we need to listen to our artists when they say something is too close to the original, because generally, we have very little art background. And certain requests may be broadly ethical, but anathema to the particular artist’s mode of operation — which is something we writers can identify with also! Last week, Kay was talking about being pressured to do a wedding finale by her betas; it sounds like she’s going to wind up changing the ending scene, but she’ll do it in a way that’s true to her style.

      Likewise, we can’t force our artist into a box. ESPECIALLY if it’s something a little dodgy.

      • When talking about my reluctance to redo work by other artists, I may not have chosen the best analogy when saying that it was like rewriting someone else’s novel. Or at least not explained what I meant as well as I could have. Of course there have been riffs on practically every classic novel. As you said, even Shakespeare often rewrote older works.

        But this really isn’t the case when you are presented with an existing work of art and are asked to “improve” it for use on a book cover (or anywhere else for that matter).* There are two sides to that coin. The first is the reluctance to mess around with someone else’s artwork (think how you might feel if you were to discover that a publisher asked another author to do rewrite parts of one of your novels). The other might actually be the more important of the two, now that I think about it. And that is that I would much rather create something original from scratch. Asking an artist to redo someone else’s work in order to suit your needs is tantamount to saying, “I would rather use their work but all I have is you.”

        *I exclude things like simple retouching or things like color adjustments.

  7. Lois mentioned, regarding the cover for Penric’s Fox, that ” 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.)”
    Actually, it is more of an ethical question. Rather as though, say, you were asked to rework another author’s book.

  8. “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.”

    Any cover artist worth their salt will try to depict a character accurately. Partly, if for no other reason, than that it is fun to do. Sometimes this is pretty easy when an author is explicit and detailed in their descriptions. But sometimes an author is not…and the artist, as much as they might like to be, is not a mind-reader. They can only work with what the author has written.

    I once did a cover for Baen for a book that had really interesting protagonist. Both the author and I wanted to feature her on the cover. Version after version was rejected and revised, with the author saying, “Her eyes shouldn’t be that shape,” or “Her hair should be a little longer.” The problem was, of course, is that the character isn’t really described in detail at all in the book. None of the details the author was focusing on were even hinted at. He wanted me to depict the character as he imagined her looking. As I said, I am not a mind reader!

    But even if the author is explicit in their descriptions, there are always going to be things that are left to the imagination of the reader…and of the artist. The author may explain very carefully that a character’s uniform has ten buttons…but are they in one row or two?

    Fans may be even a worse problem than authors, since each will have their own idiosyncratic vision of their favorite books. I don’t know how many times I found myself confronted by an irate fan of Dune, waving a tattered copy in front of me while telling me that the ornithopters in the movie or the throne room or Paul’s uniform or some other detail wasn’t how they had imagined it. The problem, of course, was that Herbert really never described anything in detail…

    Series books are even more of a problem since an artist may be working on volume seventeen of a series that is entirely new to them…and finding themselves faced with having to depict a character whose description was somewhere in volume two.

    At bottom, I sometimes have to ask myself: If the appreciation of a novel depends on whether or not a uniform has the right number of buttons or a character has the right color hair, aren’t there some questions that might be asked about the book itself?

    • This is a PS to the comment I just made above…

      Another problem often facing the cover artist is appropriateness. Sometimes what an author describes sounds great as words on a page…but simply does not translate at all well visually. What can the poor cover artist do if all the action in a book takes place in an unilluminated cavern filled with invisible monsters? Or, as is often the case, there are no good visual set pieces in the story? Or there may be two major characters who never meet face to face in the book…but who are both important enough to be featured on the cover.

      If the heroine is short, brunette, dumpy and homely you don’t depict her as a statuesque blonde Amazon. But if you get everything right but give her blue eyes instead of brown, or a calico dress instead of a gingham one…the author needs to take a deep breath before writing an angry letter to you.

      There are often many, many decisions that have to be made in the creation of an effective book cover where the art may have to veer from the strict words of the author. This should always be done with care and discretion, of course, since it is always important to depict the intent of a book accurately even if the details need to be manipulated in order for the cover to work as a cover.

    • Ron, is that you? Thanks for coming over to comment!

      I often feel sorry for the cover artists, because as fans, we often do trash the cover. We both know the old chestnut, “a picture is worth a thousand words” — but the thing is, an author often can’t waste a thousand words on a description. Things need to happen that are more important than a character’s eyes like Bette Davis (who did not exist in said character’s timeline or universe, so require maybe two thousand words in order to do said eyes justice). The reader is supposed to paint in the details, and if they’ve painted in Veronica Lake instead of the Bette Davis that the artist may have envisioned, they might be miffed. So the artist is working from the same 50 words that the fans are, and we get 10,000 different visions of how a scene should look.

      The other thing is that I’m given to understand that often in traditional publishing, an artist doesn’t get the chance to read a whole book; they get descriptions from the editor, who may have forgotten to include the bit that says the horse is black, not grey. Or the throwaway line that the action heroine was deceptively dumpy. Sometimes the artist is working from fewer words than the casual reader, let alone the super-fan who has read the book ten times.

      In the best of all worlds, though, I remember flipping between the story and the cover — the cover guiding my vision of the characters, and helping me to discover new interpretations of what was going on in the story. Great cover art is art in its own right. I’ve got a lot of favorites.

      (-: And once in a while, there’s that cover that outshines its contents. I’m a sucker for those Bewitched-styled quirky little witch girls or vampire girls with cute shoes and a shopping bag on the cover. I’ve found many good stories that way, but there have been a story or two where I’m tempted to frame the cover and throw away the contents because the book didn’t deliver on the promise that the cover offered of a cute, fun, stylish read.

      • Yup, it’s me!

        You raise any number of really interesting points. I will try to address some of them as best I can, more or less in the order they came.

        1. You are absolutely right in what you say in your first paragraph. As I mentioned in one of my notes, an artist is not a mind reader. If an author is not explicit in their descriptions, there is no way for the artist to have any idea what they might actually have had in mind. Like the readers themselves, he or she has to go by what they imagine…combined with what they believe makes an effective cover. Like the Baen author I mentioned in one of my posts, if the author never mentions the color of a character’s hair, for instance, they really have no basis for complaint if the cover artist comes up with something that doesn’t match their mental image.

        2. In traditional publishing, it is actually more the rule than the exception that the artist gets a copy of the entire MS. Sometimes, though, this is not possible. Often, a cover is needed long before a book is actually completed. For instance, a cover might be needed for the publisher’s new catalog, which might come out months before the book is even printed. Since the book might be still in the editing/rewriting stage, the artist may get only a synopsis to work from—or perhaps even just a single scene or description.

        Even when a cover artist gets an entire MS to work from, there is a time factor involved. There is often simply not enough time to read every word of a 100,000-word novel, paying close attention to every nuance and detail. There may be only a couple of weeks in which to go over the text and come up with two or three concepts for the editor or art director.

        3. (You actually didn’t bring this up, but I figure it’s worth mentioning again.) A book cover is not meant to please either the author or their fans. A book cover has one and only one purpose: to sell the book. It is packaging, just like a box of cereal or the label on a can of peas. All the accurate detail in the world is for absolute naught if no one even picks up the book, let alone buys a copy. That being said, a good cover artist will do their best to be as faithful to the nature of the book as they can: you never, never, never want to mislead a potential reader. You do not put Punk urban vampires on the cover of an Amish romance. But conveying the nature, theme or idea of a book is not synonymous with making sure that the number of buttons on a uniform is correct or that the heroine has the right color eyes. The first consideration absolutely has to be the effectiveness of the cover, it has to do its job. Everything else is really irrelevant. It’s all well and good to have established readers ooh and ahh over every minutely accurate detail…but the cover has to also appeal to new readers. It can’t make sense or be attractive only to those who are already intimate with the story. That is not its function…and, in fact, doing this can be counterproductive. If you only preach to the choir you will never get a larger congregation.

        This isn’t to say that a cover cannot do both: please existing readers who will pore over every detail while at the same time accurately convey the nature of the book while attracting new readers.

        • Excellent points! I didn’t know that a cover artist often gets the entire book, and I do see what you are saying about not being able to pore over every detail of a novel when one is on a tight deadline.

          This reminds me of an interesting conversation I had with an artist earlier this month. He said one of the “new” big things is the light novel, which he described as a book that has illustrations interspersed. Kind of like old-fashioned YA like the Alice books, or at least, that is how I imagined things.

          When I’m looking for illustrations for this blog, I often come across multiple files from old books that had a collection of black-and-white illustrations for the inside, as well as the frontispiece. I think that’s really quite cool, and I’d like to see more self-publishers work with artists. New writers, especially, don’t have so much to lose if they work with new artists who want exposure. Both groups will double their eyes-on-the-work (the writers get the artists’ fans, and the artists get the writers’ fans), and from what I see here, a lot of us at the blog are planning to break even, not fund a retirement. Why not support fellow artists?

          Of course, the image for the cover must be eye-catching and commercial, but if our goals are fame and longevity, why not support the great artists in our community, and add inner illustrations?

          Most genre stories have those dramatic set pieces that would make for great inside-the-book illustrations. I think it’s time to bring them back!

  9. Well, darn… Now I can’t stop thinking about this!

    One thing I will often do when working directly with an author (and, as a footnote, I should add that Lois is one of the very few authors I _will_ work with directly), is to ask them: If someone were to make a movie of your book and you had a choice of any actors, living or dead, to portray your characters, who would you choose? This sometimes lets me really zero in on what an author is visualizing—especially if he or she has not been very explicit in their descriptions. For instance, Joan Vinge told me that she’d cast Mia Farrow in “The Snow Queen.”

    Lois is very good at describing her characters, but I once asked her this question anyway, back when we were first tossing around ideas for the Vorkosigan covers. I even did two or three concepts in which I used her casting. I won’t tell you who she chose, though.

    • I think Pinterest (or at least the idea of Pinterest) has made this easy for writers. During our writing class with Jennifer Crusie (who was an art teacher for many years), we were taught to keep photo files and make collages (mood boards) out of visual effects. I think it’s helped a lot when our people have hired cover designers for their self-published books. We can instantly send 15 pics of the hero/heroine with short notes.

      This is a little different, but there was a movie called “Mute” that came out earlier this year. The art was very stylish and near-future with loads of neon and some blues and pinks that were very distinctive. But the director/writer had commissioned a 30s adventure/noir-movie-style poster for the movie, as well, and circulated the poster on his Twitter. As a follower, I got to see both styles before I saw the movie, and it informed my viewing. https://twitter.com/manmademoon/status/967273407678111744 (This tweet shows both.)

      Also, I don’t know how unusual this is, but the director/writer also encouraged fan art of the movie, and posted it on his twitter feed. Of course, the director’s father was also famous for being a connoisseur of art as well as being no slouch at creating visuals himself. So, I think it makes sense that this director would be so encouraging of different visions.

      Of course, I love your art for Lois. So sophisticated and minimalist, but it’s in no way generic or bland.

    • Thank you, Ron, for your interesting and valuable insights!

      I would love to know what is most helpful to you on projects where you do not get the entire MS to work from. I ask because it seems likely most of us will publish independently and our cover designers will not have the time or budget to skim a whole book.

      Most indie designers seem to work from a questionnaire, which means that the author’s chances of getting a superior cover will depend on the quality of the brief she provides. Doing this well sounds harder to me than writing a synopsis. If you have any advice to offer (like the ‘movie casting’ question), I’d very much appreciate it.

      • A detailed synopsis is the next best thing. This can sometimes be several pages long…the more information, the better, of course. In many cases, where this is all I have to work with, I will ask if I can contact the author. Not for their approval but rather for any special details I think might be important. One question I will ask if I have doubts about what characters look like is the one I asked Lois about who she would cast in the ideal movie version of her books.

        Even when I get an entire MS, I usually don’t read the entire thing cover to cover (mostly because of time constraints), but instead skim through looking for two things. The first is a general sense of the style and direction of the book: what kind of book it is, what it’s themes are, etc. To take a couple of really fundamental examples, this might be where the book is set—is it on earth? another planet?–its time period, etc. What kind of book is it? Is it fantasy, heroic fantasy, science fantasy, etc.? If it’s science fiction, is the book set in the near future, the far future, an alternate history, a steam punk universe…? The second thing I look for are set pieces. These would be those parts of the book that would stand out visually. This might be an action scene, for instance, or some interesting interaction between characters. A secondary consideration here is whether or not the set piece accurately represents the book. You don’t necessarily want to single out the one page out of 200 on which some action takes place. That would mislead the potential reader.

        Skimming through the book is also a good way to find those interesting, visual set pieces because they will have a tendency to pop out.

        I can’t even imagine working from a questionnaire! This process sounds much too mechanical and production-line-like. What I imagine (and I may be wrong) is the cover designer saying, “Well, the author checked off A, B, D and M, so all I have to do is assemble picture elements A, B, D and M from my stock image sources and there we go!”

  10. I know what you mean about illustrated novels! I have dozens and dozens in my personal library here at home. But it’s not quite as dead a form as you might think! A friend of mine, the brilliant illustrator, Mahendra Singh, recently did the interior illustrations for two science fiction novels: Luminous Chaos and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea. In the course of my own career I have done interior illustrations for a number of science fiction novels.

    And here is where doing this might appeal to the self-publisher. While the purpose of a cover is to sell the book not to illustrate it, that is exactly what interior art does. Including interior illustrations would be the ideal opportunity—and the appropriate one—to have artwork created that accurately depicts characters and scenes precisely as the author described them.

    While interior illustrations can work for any genre, they work especially well, I think, with any sort of fantasy.

        • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed them!

          The experimental covers were done largely for fun, to give myself a chance to work in some techniques and styles I normally wouldn’t have had a chance to. (One or two, such as Leaves of Flame, are actually rejected versions of covers for which I had wound up doing something entirely different…but where I like my original idea better!)

          Here are some of the ebook covers I’ve done over the past few years:
          Most of these were done for Baen Books.

          And, just for good measure, here is a collection of print book covers:

        • Thanks, Jeanne! These were all done as fun and as a way to try out some styles and techniques I might not have had a chance to do otherwise. I’m glad you like them!

        • Just in case this information might be helpful (and in light of the very, very long response I just posted to Justine), let me mention how I accomplished the three covers you liked so much.

          “Gatsby” was drawn by hand in Photoshop, using masks to get the hard edges and the airbrush tool to paint with. I deliberately tried to emulate the deco look of illustrations done in the 20s and 30s.

          “Fahrenheit 451” was pretty time-consuming. I scanned the first dozen pages of the book and put them into separate layers in Photoshop. I then distressed the pages, one at a time, by cutting away at their top edges and darkening the edges so they looked burned. The cover itself was a scan of a blank book cover to which I added the title and the darkened areas.

          On the other hand, “Dracula” was pretty easy! It’s simply a photo of my daughter with two bandaids added!

    • Ron, this has been a completely fascinating discussion for me, in part because most of the books I read are historicals, which lately tend to use lots of stock photography (albeit altered to look muted or painted) rather than original artwork, mine included. Any sort of discussion about creating original artwork for a cover is out of my league (for now, anyway). I will say, though, that I loved the artwork on the covers from Jude Devereaux, Johanna Lindsey, and other books in the late 90s, back when Fabio was the leading man and the ladies’ hair would blow in the wind for miles. *grin*

      And I agree completely that a cover’s purpose is to sell the book (which is why the cover model on my cover has blondish hair rather than dark brown, but when you’re trying to find period-appropriate clothing in stock photography that one can afford AND hasn’t been overused by other authors–particularly in my genre, Regency romance–one has to take what they can get).

      All of that said, I have one friend who writes Regencies who has started adding illustrative artwork to her novels. They’re primarily pencil sketches of her MCs, but they’ve supposedly been very well received by her readers. I’m not sure it’s something necessarily up my alley, but I’m curious to see if she starts a trend.

      • I’ve enjoyed this discussion, too!

        Here’s a thought regarding historically appropriate costuming. As most of my friends and colleagues know, I have a strong prejudice against stock images. There are several reasons for this. One is that it limits creativity. All too often I will find an author and/or cover designer who has to accept what is available—regardless of its appropriateness—simply because they don’t have the resources or ability to alter the image. A lament I hear far too often is, “I know the cover art doesn’t really work, but it’s all I could find.” Another and perhaps even more important reason—and one you mentioned—is that a stock image is likely to be found on dozens of other books. In fact, in a discussion about this very thing about a year ago in the Lulu.com forums, one of my colleagues showed where a single stock illustration appeared on at least six different books all at the same time.

        All that being said…

        When doing cover art for self-published authors, I do have to keep in mind the fact that the author is probably paying for this out of their own pockets…and I try to keep my fees as low as I possibly can. In order to do this, it is usually not possible for me to do an illustration entirely from scratch (Lois’s Prisoner of Limnos was an exception: I really like to paint boats and water!). So I will depend on a combination of work by hand and found art. But rather than turn to a stock image source I will depend on my own collection of photos and images. In the course of decades, I have accumulated thousands of photos of just about everything imaginable, in addition to a bookcase and file cabinet filled with public domain materials going back to the 19th century. When I need a figure in a cover, I will often turn to friends and family as models. In the case of Penric’s Fox, for instance, the immediate background was a photo taken during a hike, the castle in the distance was a photo taken at Carcasonne, the woman was based on three different photos of two different friends taken years ago, etc. Even the sky was from my photo album.

        Which is all toward saying that I try to never depend solely on a single available image. Where covers have been created from existing imagery, there have usually been a large number of images involved and all have been heavily manipulated.

        I want to see what I want, not what is imposed upon me.

        Here are a couple of suggestions for authors wanting to create their own covers or who are working closely with someone doing the covers for them.

        Recruit friends and family! They can be a pretty amazing resource. Another good resource for characters are the members of a local little theater. Almost every cover in my portfolio that has a human being in it is someone I know. The main character on the covers of the Susan R. Matthews ebooks was the chief of police of a neighboring town, wearing my wife’s leather jacket. My wife and daughter, being both handy and willing, appear on at least a dozen or more covers.

        Just to point out a few examples from this gallery:

        For Susan Matthews’ “An Exchange of Hostages,” that is my policeman friend in the foreground, my daughter in the middle ground and a collage of photos taken of machinery and construction sites making up the background. My daughter also appears, in various forms, on “Dracula,” “None So Blind,” “Strider’s Galaxy,” “Strider’s Universe,” “Worlds,” “Worlds Enough and Time,” “Worlds Apart,” “Detroit Christmas” and “The Undesired Princess,” among others. My wife is on about a dozen covers (the “Yoke of Shen” is one) and I am even in one or two!

        A local little theater can also be a great resource for costumes and props. As small as the town is that I live in (pop. 4000…it’s essentially Mayberry) the local theater group has an entire floor of a building devoted to storing thousands of costumes and props, from every imaginable decade, from the Renaissance to the Roaring Twenties. A large university or college may have a dramatics department which might be willing to help out with both models and costumes.

        If you need something very specific or exotic, there are resources online that are largely untapped…which means that the images are not very likely to be showing up on 200 other books. The US government is one of the best of these. The National Park Service, for instance, has a vast archive of images; NOAA has thousands of high-quality photos of everything from seascapes and the Arctic to coral reefs and weather phenomena; each of the different branches of the military have archives containing both historic and contemporary images. Etc., etc. All of these are absolutely free to use.

        The best of all of the government resources is the Library of Congress, with literally hundreds of thousands of high-quality images of just about every imaginable subject.


        Warning! Surfing on that site is highly addicting.

        Some of the covers in the ebook gallery that include elements from the LoC are “Prisoner of Conscience,” “Rage,” “Monuments,” “Franklin’s Crossing” and “Detroit Christmas,” among others.

        Sometimes creating a cover can be as simple as just setting up a few props. An example of this is the cover for “Ars Poetica.” I simply printed out one of the book’s poems and spilled a glass of tea (I wasn’t about to waste real liquor) onto it. “Les Miserables” in the experimental cover gallery was a loaf of bread from the grocery store and a prop pistol borrowed from the theater. “Dracula” in the same gallery involved nothing more than adding two bandaids to a photo of my daughter. All of these examples are also examples of where a little imagination can be your best resource.

        • WOW. Just…wow! In terms of using other resources, my neighbor’s son is very handsome and I’ve toyed with the idea of asking him if he wants to model in Regency gear (need to find Regency gear, but I’m sure there are reenactors in the area who have costumes I can rent or borrow, if I can’t find it at the local theater). But after reading this, I might have to seriously consider it.

          Thank you for the lists of resources and ideas. Amazing! And all things I never would have thought of.

          Now…off to surf!

        • I put together a few examples of where and how I used my own reference photos here http://black-cat-studios.com/reference/index.html

          I couldn’t find some the exact same images for a couple (I have stuff filed all over the place), but I came close enough. Clockwise from upper left:

          I added the blood on the main figure by hand. In the middle ground is a photo of my daughter and the background is composed largely of a montage of photos of machinery, various iron structures such as bridges, etc. I realize that I didn’t find the exact photo of my friend that I used, but this one is close enough.

          This illustration of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Terrible Old Man” was created from a photo of a friend. I combined this with a photo I took of a glass jar along with an image from the Library of Congress for the background. The wrinkles in the face also came from the LoC, in this case, an ancient American Indian woman.

          The right hand figure is a combination of two or three photos of my wife in a costume she created. The left hand figure is of another friend. The background is a combination of elements from my own photo files and (I think) a few things from the LoC.

          A black and white photo of a friend was colorized and combined with a background taken from a 1940s serial, also colorized. I couldn’t find the same photo of my friend right away, but you get the idea.

  11. (-: As a recovering control freak, I constantly have to police myself and let people do their jobs. There’s this story about Carlos Alomar, who was a guitarist for David Bowie’s band. Usually, they would collaborate together and create music, but on one of the albums, David did most of the demos with another musician (Erdal Kizilcay). Alomar said in a Rolling Stones interview, “At one point, I heard one of his (Bowie’s) demos and was like, ‘Why do you have someone imitating me and then you want me to imitate what they did?’”

    I think as nervous self-publishers, the temptations to tell an artist, “I want you to imitate this person who is imitating a long line of somebody elses” are many and strong. But, is asking for a “flavor” difficult? I wonder how the best way to phrase this is? Something that toes the line between suggestion and demand. I guess the line is different for every artist, just like every writer has a different line for what’s good writing practice, and what’s too derivative.

    • I can absolutely sympathize with how difficult it is to not micromanage your cover art!

      You are right about never asking an artist to imitate someone else. I’m sure that you and your seven friends would bristle at being asked to write in the style of another author. It’s just rude. The only real answer to being asked to work in the style of someone else is “Why don’t you go hire them?”

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking to the artist about broad things like overall effect or “flavor” (such as your “quirky but dark”), but at some point you do have to sit back, bite your lips until they bleed and let the artist do his or her job.

      Now…there is a kind of caveat here. That last line implies that the artist does in fact know how to do their job. But…pretty much anyone with Photoshop set up on their computer can hang out a shingle that says, “Cover Art Designed Here”—but that doesn’t necessarily make them a cover artist…or even an artist, for that matter. No more than owning a scalpel makes them a surgeon. Having access to 100,000 stock images isn’t enough…the artist needs to know how to be creative with these materials or even create an image entirely from scratch if need be. I don’t know how many times I have gnashed my teeth (which is just terrible for the enamel) at hearing a cover designer say, “That’s the closest I could come because I couldn’t find anything else online,” or “I can’t come up with the image you really need because there isn’t anything I can download,” or “I can’t get that effect because I don’t know how to draw or paint.”

      At the very least, basic drawing skills are an absolute necessity regardless of how a cover is created.

      My suggestion for anyone looking for a cover designer would be to check out their background, education, experience and training. Is it someone who has simply bookmarked a dozen stock image sources and downloaded a thousand typefaces into their computer?

      So., the bottom line..you need to let your cover designer do their job but, by the same token, you get what you pay for.

      • This is where I’m going to flounder. One thing about doing this blog is that it’s given me experience in looking for images that I like, and images that I think will convey something important about the post. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, and I can’t use Paint to create anything that looks professional. (And I have a feeling that using Paint is pretty laughable in itself.) But, I’ve got a more solid vision of “what I like” than I had five years ago when we began.

        I’m very insecure in my taste, though, because I’m often “out there” and out of step with current trends. And I really have no idea what sells a book or a blog post (except a vague notion that our readership goes up when I tweet something that has a picture of a red-head drawn in classic pulp fashion — but that could be correlation, not causation). I have to trust my cover designer; looking into their BEET (background, education, experience and training) sounds like a good start, and of course, making sure that their portfolio has got at least a few covers that make me feel happy and confident the designer could do a good job with illustrating my story.

  12. Pingback: Justine: Finding My Own Cover Models and Staging a Shoot (part 1) – Eight Ladies Writing

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