Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Art of Cover Appeal

I’ve been following the thread When Right Is Completely Wrong over at by author Jane Lindskold. She blogged about her book covers, and it’s a fascinating journey.

It’s also more than a little disconcerting.

In the comment section, I learned more about the industry term “cover appeal” from illustrator Tara Larsen Chang. Her comments prompted me to reflect on this issue in ways I hadn’t contemplated before.

To wit: I was well aware that to many publishers, covers are one of—if not the key element—in selling a book. But choosing what goes into a cover is far more of a daunting task than it would first appear. Cover appeal can be so effective that it prompts customers to buy books regardless of content. Not only that but, “Reviewers may decide to review a work based upon cover appeal.”

Take the mood of a cover, for instance.

Which mood best drives a potential buyer to purchase (an aspect that likely applies to booksellers as well)? If a book contains dark themes and a cast of angry, brooding characters, should those elements be portrayed on the cover? Would it limit the appeal for some readers, even if the story might very well be up their alley? In other words, even if you’re always hungry for angry, brooding characters and turbulent content, do you expect/want a cover to reflect those elements? Or should a more moderate mood command the spotlight?

Then there’s the agonizing decision of which scene to depict, a choice to extract from hundreds of scenes. What image will jump out at potential buyers the most—the couple having sex, the sleek starship destroyer, a striking abstract design, or a silhouetted, disembodied hand? (Here’s A Before and After…, courtesy of Fantasy Debut).

Font, not to mention title and author name placement, must tie in with the illustration to create a cohesive whole.

Or, as in the case of Jane Lindskold, covers misrepresent the content to some degree.

Romance covers can always be counted on for some fun discussion. One of the most exciting aspects of a romance is the conflict between hero and heroine, yet we almost never see that portrayed on a cover (Linnea Sinclair’s FINDERS KEEPERS is a refreshing exception). Rather, entwined couples in various states of undress tend to dominate. But how much do these illustrations tell you about the story? Not much—except, perhaps, the ending.

All of the above caused me to reflect about cover appeal for science fiction romance, and what would appeal to me as a reader. Even though I make decisions to purchase a book based on the story & writing, I’m not immune to a well-designed cover.

What kind of cover appeal do I expect? Images that depict both the SF and romantic elements—not wholly one or the other. A mood that conveys excitement and adventure. Colors that are neither too dark nor too frothy light. Content that showcases technology without being too “cold” and appealing character interactions without being too flowery. (That all narrows it down considerably, eh?)

I can’t say exactly what the ideal cover appeal would be for SFR, but I’d know it if I saw it. And of course, another chink in the process is that what works for one book may not be suitable for another.

All of this made me even more inquisitive about the process behind book cover illustrations, a scratch that demanded to be itched. Therefore, I went straight to the source. Tara Larsen Chang was kind enough to participate in an interview, and now I’d like to share her insights with you:

Troll Cover

Artwork ©Tara Larsen Chang, 2008

The Galaxy Express: Please define cover appeal as it applies to books.

Tara Larsen Chang: I think "cover appeal" can mean different things to different people. Depending on your point of view, a cover is successfully appealing if it has: a.) A strong, compelling image that makes you want to pick up the book and buy it (many publishers'/book sellers' primary concern), b.) An evocative scene or image that accurately describes the book contents (many authors'/readers' primary concern), c.) An appealing image which does both (a) and (b) but is also an incredible piece of art or design (many illustrators'/designers' primary concern).

TGE: Please describe the main illustrating tools you use when creating a cover.

While many covers now are created digitally, I still work almost 100% traditionally. After receiving the specifications for a cover (content, mood, size, type placement, etc…), I read the manuscript, concentrating on the scene I'm depicting for visual and relevant details. I submit initial sketches to the art director to get the concept and composition approved. I then make sure that I have visual reference to consult, many times shooting photos of models, items, and background elements to be incorporated. I draw a detailed and refined version of my initial, approved sketch (sometimes getting this one approved also), transfer it to watercolor paper and after some preliminary value and color studies, paint the actual cover illustration.
[Actual tools most often used: pencil, kneaded eraser and tracing paper primarily. Laptop and printer (google images is my friend), camera, scanner, my reference library, watercolors, and colored pencils.]

TGE: What are some examples of the way elements such as color, tone, mood, and shading are used in covers?

For the kinds of illustrations I do, color, tone, shading are all design elements used to convey mood and to appeal to a specific type of audience. If you want the cover to attract young girls who love whimsy, magic and fanciful stories, the illustration and design elements are probably going to be light, brightly colored and cheerful with liberal sprinklings of glitter (you can probably picture just that type of cover with only the tone, color and mood referred to this minimally). On the other hand, if you want to appeal to the paranormal romance reader you are probably going to use dark colors, shadowy images, with larger, more graphic type. If you see a cover with a naked, well-muscled male torso with the background and face in shadow you have a pretty good idea what kind of book it is without having to read the jacket copy.


TGE: What's the most surprising thing you've learned as a book cover illustrator?

The most surprising thing to me initially was that the perceived sale- ability of the book cover was more important to the powers-that-be than making the cover consistent with the book contents (also more important than making it the strongest illustration possible) . (See the example I gave on the comments.) This can be very frustrating if you are a literalist, as I apparently am, but they are the client: my job is to make them happy, not to satisfy my artistic and literary sensibilities. (I'm always afraid the reader is going to blame me for the inconsistencies, but I have little control ultimately over the end cover content).

Cover Comparison

Copyright owned by: "The Fairy Chronicles," illustrated by Tara Larsen Chang, Jabberwocky, Sourcebooks Publishing

Another note - I was also surprised the first time I saw a cover that looked quite a bit differently from the art I had submitted (see the "Luna Cover" here in comparison to the Mermaid file). Depending on the contract, the publisher may have quite a few manipulation rights of the actual art. This can be very disheartening when you have worked really hard to come up with the strongest image you can compositionally and accuracy-wise and have that fairly obliterated by Photoshop-after-the-fact (for instance, notice that the eye-lines completely don't line up in the 'revised' cover), but again, I have no control after I submit the art.

TGE: What are some things authors should know about cover appeal?

Be aware that with very few exceptions, you will probably have very little to say about what goes on your cover. The publishers' primary objective is to *sell books*, so all the decisions that theoretically impact sales (cover appeal being a big part of that) will have that as their basis. Also, the author and cover artist do not work together or collaborate in any way. In all the books I've illustrated (Amazon lists 26 or so. I've done at least a dozen more covers than that) I've never once spoken to or interacted with the author.

TGE: Is there anything else you'd like to add, either about cover appeal or your work?

Books and art are pretty much my favorite things, so when they are well and beautifully matched, it makes me unreasonably happy. It makes me even happier when I am able to be part of that process.

Thanks, Tara, for your insights, and for your art! It was great having you aboard.

To learn more about the illustrations of Tara Larsen Chang, please visit her blog Silver Apples of the Moon.

Also, here are two more articles on the subject:

A Daily Dose of Architecture discusses Cover Appeal
Over at Naughty and Spice, Tawny Weber discusses Cover Appeal

Now that you’ve had a chance to digest the topic, my astute passengers, what do you find appealing in a cover? What images are compelling enough to make you part with your hard earned cash? Is it a case of, “You know it when you see it,” or are there certain elements you always look for?

Joyfully yours,