Author’s Note: Covering Books

I met Jenny Wurts one year, while I was working at the art auction at San Diego Comic Con. I thought she was an artist, and hadn’t made the connection that she was the fantasy novelist. That year I was assigned to help people hang their artwork, and while hanging hers I went, “Hey… isn’t this the cover of a fantasy novel? You did that?”

She smiled just a little bit — she seemed slightly absent, but maybe she was shy — and said, “Yes. I wrote this book, and I do all my own covers.”

Being chatty as I am, I oohed and ahhed over how neat that was, and asked her when she learned to paint.

She laughed and told me, “After I wrote my first novel. I learned to paint because I didn’t want a cover artist messing up my characters!”

Every time I see a Jenny Wurts book, I think about that exchange and I laugh. I feel the same way that she does (I know quite a few authors who do); I don’t want a cover artist with a different concept of my characters giving the reader the wrong impression. I, however, don’t have the time or patience to learn to paint like Jenny Wurts did. Writing is the most I can keep up with at the moment — and I think that’s true of most authors, as well.

Lately, there’s been a few blog articles about publishers pushing the “wrong” covers on people. Johanna at Comics Worth Reading talks about webcomic guys who put helium hussies (her term, and I love it) on the covers of their comics and then can’t figure out why women might not want to read them. Book blogger Bookshop talked about how they changed a character’s race from Chinese to Caucasian for the release of the sequel to the fantasy novel Silver Phoenix.

I see things like this all the time, from covers that are clearly sexist to covers that are racist to covers people make fun of — like the fact that (due to a contract) for what seemed like years Harlequin Romance used only the infamous Fabio on their covers no matter what the hero actually looked like. Johanna and Bookshop are kind enough to point out that it’s the publishers of these things that are screwing up. See, here’s the rub if you’re an author: unless you’re Stephen King and can support your publishing house on your own, or Jenny Wurts and you paint your own covers, most authors really don’t get a choice about what goes on your cover.

Sucks, doesn’t it?

I’ve been pretty lucky in the covers I’ve had done for my books. They’re not all perfect, but they’ve all been something I can be happy with. Readers have commented that on one of my books the heroes on the cover aren’t as tall/short or broad as the guys described in the book. Sometimes, readers are just asking about why that is. Other times they’re complaining. But here’s the thing: I don’t really get a say. I was able to convince my publisher to photoshop the tattoo off one of the models, and that was a BIG win.

Now, in the case of Johanna’s article, the guys pushing the comics were probably also the artists of the comics, and could have drawn more realistic women. They chose not to, because (in theory) bigger boobs sell better. Generally, that’s the same reason publishers give for putting a Caucasian on the cover even when it’s an Asian character, or any number of other painful things they do. From the author’s perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating. You pour your heart and soul out trying to make your audience see what you see, and then the publisher knocks the wind out of your sails by giving the audience something else completely — something that will probably stick in their mind pretty well.

You write the best you can, and then you cross your fingers that whatever you end up with will actually represent your work. There’s a reason that author blogs are filled with things like, “I got my new cover, and I really like it!!!!!!!!!11one!!!!!!11!” Overly enthusiastic? Yes. But spend months hoping that it won’t be something repulsive, and the relief is great.

There are things you can do to help, of course, though you probably won’t get a say in the final product. But after five novels, I’ve figured out some tricks. The biggest trick? Be anal retentive and over-request.

In the publishing houses I’ve been with (and, I assume, all publishing houses), they send you a cover request form where you can say what you want. These forms can be very simple or very complex. One of my publishers sent a form that included physical descriptions of the hero and heroine, any specifics you do want on the cover, any specifics you don’t want on the cover, and then small details — when and where is the book set, what’s the genre? The other publisher sent out a form that’s several pages long.

When I first started filling these out, I figured the cover artists knew what they were doing. They know what looks good, what sells, etc. Then I learned the hard way that that isn’t always the case, and they don’t generally have a chance to actually read the book they’ve been sent. I submitted a Western with a very strong female lead, filled out the short cover questionnaire, and got back a cover that was, frankly, offensive. Thankfully that got nixed; my editor felt it was so offensive she didn’t want it in her line. What I had sent was what they’d asked for: genre, when and where, physical descriptions of the characters. The second time, what I sent was all of the above, plus personality descriptions of the characters, past histories of the characters, a detailed summary of the book, the character’s philosophies about life in general and the way they treat each other, animals, exes, friends — I sent them the sort of profile I write up for my characters, complete with the stuff that doesn’t make it into the book. Then I sent them links to covers that were similar to what I was looking for, models who looked close to the characters, ideas I thought might work, and what I didn’t want to see on the cover. All of this information was stuff I’d pulled from my other publisher’s cover questionnaire, and sheer desperation.

The cover I got was still wrong. But I could live with the small discrepancies.

I imagine that after all of that, the cover artist really hoped to never see me again. Heck, I’d hope to never see me again! As I publish more books, I like to think that I’ll find an even better trick to getting a cover I like — one that doesn’t annoy the artist in the process. (Your artist is your friend. Remember that.) If I do succeed in that, I’ll let you all in the on the secret. In the meantime, remember: enjoy or hate covers as much as you like, but don’t assume the cover is representative of the content. For good or bad, the author probably didn’t get a say at all.

Posted on July 16, 2010 at 18:02 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , ,