Everybody knows the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. To the relief of writers everywhere, however, readers ignore it all the time. Cover art is a book’s first opportunity to impress a reader—if it’s not begging to be read, there are a million others waiting. As hard as the author has worked to write a best seller, there’s a world of artists, marketers, booksellers, and art directors burning midnight oil to make sure that book has a chance when it finally hits store shelves.
From their separate offices in Manhattan, Irene Gallo (Tor Books, Tor.com) and Lauren Panepinto (Orbit Books, Yen Press) lead the creative output of two of science fiction and fantasy’s most prominent and successful publishing houses. Their fingerprints cover your favorite books, and their influence creates new trends, playing a huge role in launching the careers of new writers. Along with SF/F’s best artists, Gallo and Panepinto offer readers another door to the fantastical worlds they love to explore.
“Science fiction and fantasy art exudes a sense of mystery and wonder,” said Tran Nguyen, an artist who has worked for everyone from Tor Books to Playboy, pinpointing the irresistible imagination that has fueled SF/F creativity for decades. “It illustrates imagery that doesn’t exist in everyday living which can be very conducive for innovation.”
Harnessing that sense of wonder is a collaborative process between the publisher’s team of talented artists and designers, and a careful balancing act of meeting expectations of dedicated fans and drawing in newcomers. “Designing covers is all about bridging the gap between mainstream and genre,” said Panepinto. “I want die–hard fans to think they’re amazing and genre–correct, but I also want the mainstream fan who doesn’t know the genre checkpoints to be attracted to the covers as well.”
One of the main challenges in crossing over to a mainstream audience is the (sometimes fair, sometimes unfair) criticism of SF/F’s history of plastering bikini–clad women and bare–chested beefcakes across its covers. Many readers who discover SF/F as children or young adults begin to associate such covers with juvenile stories, unfairly maligning two of fiction’s most intelligent and imaginative genres. As SF/F continues to become more inclusive and self–aware of the misogyny associated with its lineage, cover art is evolving to better represent its broad and diverse fanbase.
You can’t hold anything sacred, said Tommy Arnold, who has provided cover illustrations for Tor.com and Orbit Books. “Genre illustration, like any art form, is evolving—growing more intelligent and sophisticated,” he said. “Illustrators in other genres have reached incredible heights in the past by constantly challenging themselves and the expectations of the field.”
This sentiment was echoed by Nguyen. “Art should have a strong composition, color harmony, and a good concept,” she said, “whether it depicts a muscleman barbarian or a unicorn. I believe the audience is always open to refreshing ideas and interpretations as long as it’s done well.”
“I don’t know that doing the same type of covers over and over is really doing the reader any favors, even if the reader has certain expectations,” said Hugo Award–winner Julie Dillon. It’s important to break away from these cyclical expectations not only because the community has matured, but because tastes and ideologies among readers are constantly shifting.
“Just because a type of book has looked a certain way in the past doesn’t mean that that’s the best or only approach,” Dillon said.
Kekai Kotaki, who has illustrated for Paizo Publishing and gaming companies like Wizards of the Coast and Bungie, suggested that leaving these unsavory tropes behind requires a methodical approach. “It’s important to be able to take influence from the past, but at the same time move things forward,” he said. “Maybe not overtly, but little–by–little. I don’t mind moving away from boob plate armor and chainmail bikinis. I’ve done it in past, but my design sensibilities have changed over the years.”
“Societally we’re becoming more aware of how we communicate through the media we create and consume,” said Gallo. “I grew up with girls in bikini armor, but never questioned it until I was much older. I hate to say it, but I think writers were quicker to start this conversation than artists—leading to a lot of artists who felt blindsided by the issue. Everything we create sends one kind of message or another. It doesn’t mean chainmail bikinis are always bad, it just means that we need to be aware of the context, and sure of the message we’re intending to send.”
“The great part is, I see artists coming into the field each year that are smart and articulate, unafraid to talk about these topics. It’s really exciting.”
Striking a balance between classic SF/F art and contemporary design is something that specifically appeals to Paneptino. “My favorite thing is to take a retro look and spin it into something fresh,” she said. “I loved working with John Harris on Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. His art defined what space opera covers for me when I was growing up—however when I started working with him, I told him I wanted to think outside the box. I consider those covers a total win—they take a very established look, but turn it on its head subtly, an approach that closely matches Leckie’s groundbreaking story. It’s magical when projects come together like that.”
“I’ve heard from publishers that they like certain types of books to look similar,” said Dillon. “The thinking here being that a reader is more likely to purchase something that looks visually similar to something they’ve previously enjoyed. That might be true, but I think putting an honest and authentic effort into something will always resonate more than adhering to a formula. Readers respond to works that looks like the creator(s) behind it put thought and care into the design and creation of the end product.”
It’s a bit of a chicken–and–egg problem, said Gallo. “I’ve backed a lot of new artists who obviously appeal to the inner core of SF/F readers,” she said. “But that kind of conscious championing can only go so far. Ultimately, a cover is judged by how well it sells (regardless of the fact that so many other things go into a book that sells well). So you get one best–selling hooded figure and suddenly you start seeing a lot of hooded guys yelling, ‘I’m like that book! You’ll like me too!’”
“However, trends are an excellent shorthand between artists and readers,” Gallo continued. “If you liked X then you’ll like Y. The trick is knowing when you are speaking a language versus just being stale. We’re working on books a solid year before they hit the streets, so if you follow trends too much, your new releases start to look like last year’s model. We spend a lot of time trying to find the balance between speaking that agreed–upon language and stretching boundaries.”
Hands down, audience buying choices are the largest factor in dictating cover trends, agreed Panepinto. “It’s a guessing game,” she said. “I’m always trendcasting. There’s a misconception about how much marketing and sales is swooping in and mucking with cover art. In my experience, that doesn’t happen very often in genre—especially not with Orbit.”
But there’s still a need to strike a balance between originality and appealing to casual fans, illustrating the sometimes paradoxical nature of designing for a both a commercial– and fan–driven market.
“It’s my job to take risks and push our covers forward—but I can’t do that unless I’m also selling books,” Panepinto continued. “Bloggers and super–fans are visually well–educated, but casual buyers outnumber them by a fair margin. You, me, and our authors might be sick of hooded guys on the covers of fantasy novels, but if the books with hooded guys keep selling twice as well as the books without them, then the hooded guy’s not going anywhere. Readers vote with their wallet.”
These two audiences aren’t always far apart in their tastes, argued Arnold. “Striking, well–drawn art rises to the top. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly the kind of thing that excites readers and sells books. So, really, everyone wants the same thing.”
The idea that good art is also commercial art was loudly echoed—though most artists admitted that their process for approaching a contracted project differs from personal projects. All art starts with a blank page, and from there the creative process spirals outward. Dillon admitted that the guidelines provided by contract work can sometimes make the creative process a bit easier compared to the endless possibilities of a personal project.
“While I have total creative freedom on personal work, I also have to be my own art director and decide what is good enough and what isn’t. I don’t have anyone else to ask or defer to, it’s all on me,” Dillon said.
Jared Shurin, co–founder of Jurassic London, a small press focused on creative literature, looks at things a little differently than the artists. “Let’s be ruthless for a second,” he said. “Like with the text of the book, we all like to pretend we’re doing art for art’s sake, but we’re not. Even the tiniest, not–for–profit press like Jurassic London still operates under commercial pressures.”
Publishing is a commercial venture for all professionals in the field, whether they’re artists, authors, editors, or art directors. They’re selling art, but sometimes that comes at a cost to the creative process, said Shurin. “The primary purpose of any cover is to catch a potential reader’s eye, persuade them to take the book off the (physical or digital) shelf, and examine it more closely. The blurb, reviews, the description—they usher the reader along from there. The cover has a really important role, but it is also only a single step in the customer’s journey. And what the cover ‘says’ needs to be understood in that greater context.”
“So, do you appeal to a broad audience, but then risk some readers’ dissonance when they read the back cover copy? Or do you appeal to a niche audience, with the goal of meeting their expectations precisely?”
Those are two very different goals, both of which have an established and important place in the publishing industry.
Arnold recognizes that as a professional artist he’s being paid to perform a job with a specific set of goals, but admitted that obeying reader expectations isn’t always top priority if there’s opportunity to innovate. “We should always be trying to break the mold and compel people in new and interesting ways,” he said. “Rather than comparing ourselves to the field, I think successful illustrators focus on being genuine to their own visual and narrative interests.”
Doors are being opened for artists who might have otherwise been lost behind the predictable art splashed across SF/F literature for decades, due to what Arnold believes is something of a renaissance in the field.
“The internet, combined with art’s natural evolution, and compounded by the increased attention on genre work, is creating a more and more varied visual landscape,” Arnold observed.
Who has the ability to shape that new landscape? Readers, said Dillon.
“Great art will continue to evolve, it’s just a matter of whether or not it ends up on book covers. The future of published art really depends on what readers are buying,” Dillon asserted. “I think artists are taking more chances and broadening their scope, and I’d love to promise that cover art will become more diverse in approach and content, but that won’t happen unless readers and publishers take chances on different types of art. There are some publishers leading the way, and hopefully that’s a trend that will continue.”
“Many traditional barriers seem to be disappearing as SF/F enters the mainstream,” said Arnold, a relative newcomer to the cover art world. “As this field opens up, I’m being introduced to new artists at an incredible rate—many of them aren’t up–and–comers, but people drawn in from other areas of illustration. Ultimately, people supporting new and different artists is what will cement a more diverse and interesting visual landscape for SF/F.”
Among those carving the way for more varied and diverse genre art is Tor.com, one of SF/F’s preeminent short fiction publishers. All of their stories are published exclusively on digital platforms, meaning they don’t have to fight with traditionally published books for shelf space at bookstores and Walmart. This gives Gallo a certain leeway with cover art that doesn’t exist with physical releases.
“The free short fiction on Tor.com is meant to be the flagship of the magazine as a whole,” said Gallo. It’s rare for art to have such unfettered freedom in a commercial market, but Tor.com affords an opportunity to work with many of the best and brightest young genre artists.
“As such, there’s no commercial pressure to sell any individual story. I have complete freedom, and it’s a joy and a blessing,” Gallo shared. “I’m still given a lot of freedom with the Tor.com novella program—but we’re selling these books individually, so they need to be commercially viable. The whole point of the new program is to allow us to take more risks than we can at Tor Books, so I’m hoping to push boundaries here and there while still appealing to broader audiences.”
Increasing those boundaries is the first step in building an SF/F genre that is welcoming and inclusive to all readers.
It’s not all fun and games, though, said Dillon. “There are many more opportunities available for artists these days, especially with the rise of indie publication. However, there is also a lot more competition for those opportunities. More and more artists have better access to online programs, forums, and drawing groups, which is a great thing, but it means there are a lot more talented artists now competing for the same jobs.”
“I’m not sure it’s necessarily easier to find steady work,” Dillon continued, “even with the growing amount of work available. I know a lot of established artists have been having a harder time finding work lately, so I imagine it’s difficult for new artists as well.”
Shurin agreed. “Like any other form of creative activity there are more ways to get your work out there than ever before. But it’s still a challenge for any artist to stand out from the crowd.” Running a small press, Shurin does what he can to give artists a leg up. “We give them a lot of creative freedom, take extremely limited rights, use the highest–quality printers and production options, credit the artist formally and vociferously, and always do our best to find them other, related opportunities.”
“There is so much online publishing going on now and everyone’s learned that you need attractive, high–end imagery to compete,” said Gallo. “The old short fiction magazines used to commission a lot of black and white drawings for their stories—I feel like I grew up at a time where that started to dissipate, but that’s changing. I love that we’re in the thick of considering illustration whenever we think about SF/F short fiction. I’d like to take a little bit of credit in having forced that issue with Tor.com but, really, the image–friendly nature of social media meant it was bound to happen eventually.”
“The last decade has been about SF/F publishing screaming at fans of genre film and TV, saying ‘Hey, over here! You’ll like genre books, too!’” said Panepinto. “Game of Thrones and True Blood broke down that wall, and you can see a conscious trend in genre book covers emulating TV promo posters. People want to see a touch of humanity again on film, and on covers that’s going to translate, I’m betting, as a more painterly, abstract style—resulting in something that feels more like art than photography.”
The bookselling world is rapidly changing and directors like Panepinto and Gallo have to stay on their toes to make sure they’re not left behind. Most book covers aren’t seen on store shelves anymore, said Shurin. Instead, people are browsing online bookstores and apps on their phone, and the future is full of thumbnails; or, as booksellers adapt to the noise generated by a world obsessed with social media, something more interactive.
“The unfortunate fact is most covers are seen at a very small size, on a search results page that’s being scrolled through at high speed,” said Shurin. “That’s one of the reasons that the latest trends have focused on bold colors, big type, and striking images. Publishers are optimizing for Amazon, because that’s where the vast majority of books are sold. So, imagine what will happen when, say, Amazon allows animated gifs. Or video.”
“I have no idea where things are going from here,” Gallo said, “but it’s going to be fun to find out.”
As the world changes, young artists will be inspired by people like Nguyen, Kotaki, Arnold, and Dillon, turning fresh eyes to familiar worlds. It’s never been easier for them to connect with a like–minded community, to share their passion for the visual arts. As we become more and more connected, the possibilities grow exponentially.
“When I was a kid,” Gallo said. “I thought I was the only person in the world who cared about art. Now kids are growing up neck–deep in peer–critiques, online classes, and demo videos. They’re privy to so much information and support—I can’t even imagine how I would have handled it when I was in high school or college.”
Art is about inclusivity and encouraging the exploration of every corner of humanity’s vast potential for imagination. Book covers are just one small part of the art world, but as a convergence of commercial interests and creativity, they remain endlessly fascinating. We may be told not to judge books by their covers, but we do. Every time we go to the bookstore. For the artists and designers who create those covers, that’s exactly the point.
© 2015 by Aidan Moher