Monday, November 17, 2008

Book covers, creative vision, and the author

Today, you find me counting my blessings ... because there's an aspect to the work I do that's so rare in writing, publishing and book marketing. For me, DreamCraft is publisher, book-packager, web host and online marketing consultant -- and I get the opportunity to work hand-in-glove with the cover artist. This is so unusual, and so cool a thing to do ... and this morning I'm very much aware of how great it is to be able to do this.

(Incidentally, I'm sorry to tell writers, DreamCraft does not take on book clients ... this post isn't any kind of testimonial and/or touting for work; just a discussion of some of the publishing process, from my own perspective.)

As I said a few days ago, we've been cleaning house (stinking job, but somebody has to do it), which means dusting, which means getting a long-handled feather duster and getting in among the books, which seem to attract dust magnetically. The dust gets everywhere, into everything. Two drops of water, and you could forget the dusting and plant something instead.

So, as I was dusting I managed to hook this long, green furry object in behind a bunch of books, and when I pulled -- you guessed. About 50 hit the deck. As I was picking them up, I couldn't help noticing the covers ... and I realized, in some cases the covers are butt-ugly, and in others, the cover art has nothing -- zip, zero, nada -- to do with the book.

Which got me to thinking about science fiction book and magazine covers across the eons ... and where covers are going today -- and also in the non-Anglophone world. When you're given the opportunity to collaborate with your cover artist (in my case, Jade, the resident commercial artist at DreamCraft ... and I must say, there are few digital artists I'd put in Jade's league), it's critically important to know where the market's at, and where it might be going.

There's also a sort of "theory of cover art," which is on the one hand about layout and design, and on the other hand about color theory. It's a fact: some colors can make people gravitate to pictures, objects, things, while other colors make people move along. Reds, oranges and warm tones make more people, more or the time, put their feet up and settle down, while blues and mauves pique the interest, get the adrenaline going.

There's color theory for you, in a thimble; and I'm not sure I agree with it wholeheartedly, because, being fractionally color blind myself, my perception of color, and therefore the theory behind it, is skewed. (No matter what the color, I see shades "cooler" than other people see them. It doesn't usually make much difference, but on the line where green turns into blue and blue becomes purple, I'll always see the blue and the purple, never the "warmer" tones. Weird, I know. I was also one of those little brats who was born left-handed and compelled to become right handed by teachers who didn't know any better. I didn't grow up schizo; just ambidextrous.)

If there's a science to book covers, to me at least, it's more about geometry, design. Some things work, some don't. For example, the cover right above is clever and well balanced, but for me it just doesn't work. In the bookstore, I wouldn't take that vital second look.

Here's the exact opposite of the previous cover. The first is so plain, there's nothing to draw my eye; this one is a cover in the classic 1970s/80s pattern ... and it still doesn't work for me. My eye sees clutter, although this reaction is, I admit, entirely interpretive, and utterly subjective. A dozen other people will look at this cover and love it, while, at the bookstore, this is another one I'd pass by.

As a general rule, when you're working with a publisher (any publisher, anywhere), you're not consulted about the cover. An artist on contract to the publisher will be assigned the job, and will be given a few chapters of the galley. In many cases, the artist reads just a few pages. It's quite common for the cover to illustrate something depicted on the first page or two. With so little exposure to the book, the artist has no real idea what the characters look like, so it's no surprise that, often, the writer was describing Viggo Mortensen and the artist painted Clint Eastwood. Both male Europeans with dark hair and a glare that would stop a truck, but ...!

There's also a chasm between the covers envisaged for hard SF novels and fantasies. Often as not, it's people -- faces, figures -- which are on the covers of fantasies, while SF is dominated by images of ships, battles, planets.

This could be a shrewd guess as to where the average reader's mind is (if they're adolescent males, it's a toss-up between massive machines and naked females), or it could also be a cop-out ... it's far easier to slap a generic SF spacewar shot onto a book than to actually nail an artist down for long enough to have him read some of the book and maybe, just maybe, get one of the characters to look right!

In all the years I worked with GMP, Prowler and Millivres, I was never consulted about what ought to be on the cover. And some of those covers were ... waaaay wide of the mark. I've said many times, I was far from happy with a couple of them I don't count my brief publication with Alyson here, because my piece was in an anthology, and the cover, there, is in the lap of the gods -- and the minds of the editors!

If I was forced to choose a format and color scheme which catches my eye, holds it, and would make me pick up the book and take a look at the back of the jacket, it would be this one, or something like it. This format seems to me to comprise the best of many worlds: it has the digital "look and feel" one is accustomed to, and expects, of modern books; at the same time it has the depiction of a scene, which embodies the richness of the "classic" book covers of the 1960s to the about 1990. It has the clean lines of the digital composition, which says, very clearly, "2006 onward; hey there ... I'm new."

Cover design is a very personal matter, and for me it's a constant source of pleasure to be able to work in collaboration with Jade to produce the jackets. We'll even sit down and thrash out what, and who, the characters look like, and then the digital magic happens. Amazing. And so nice to have the ability to do this.

Incidentally, if you're just happening along, and would like to see our covers, here's a link to take you directly to the cover gallery:


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