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.

9 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!

  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!

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