Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I'll be responding to your questions over the next several posts, mes auteurs, but I thought I'd start off with the topic of book covers and—in a rare two-for-one!—how covers are/may be affected by The Rise of the E-Book™.

As I've mentioned before, the process of designing a book jacket is largely beyond the author's control (especially if you're a debut or mid-list author) and you'll have relatively little input. It's unlikely that a cover you absolutely loathe will be selected, but it does happen and you'll need to keep the lines of communication with your agent (and, by extension, your editor) open so that any problems you might have can be identified and dealt with as soon as possible.

There are a few systemic problems in the art of cover design that invariably rear their ugly heads (for instance, the fact that they are occasionally super racist), and in the event you encounter one of these issues, I strongly suggest you talk to your agent and editor immediately. A bad cover may hurt your sales but probably won't seriously damage your career; a brouhaha over a racist or offensive cover could be a total disaster. (There is such a thing as bad publicity.)

On the e-book front, it turns out the cover question is a little more complicated than you might think. I generally find Motoko Rich's e-book articles douchey and annoying, and while this one is no exception, it does elucidate some of the issues endemic to e-publishing (namely, when you're reading your Kindle or Nook in a public place, no one can see what you're reading/how high fullutent you are). This doesn't spell the end of the flashy book cover, however: as the article itself notes, these covers 1.) are still used on the print versions of the books, 2.) are effective at catching the eye of both e- and p-book browsers on websites like Amazon's, and 3.) will be just as (if not more) effective in e-venues like Facebook or the iBookstore as/than their print counterparts are on store shelves and in subway cars.

What do you think, gentle readers? Are you as enamoured of e-book covers as you are of the "real" ones?


  1. I have jumped from hardcovers, all the way to an e-book. As much as the cover claims me right away, I have since realized as a member of a book club, that the choice of choosing is already taken away from me. I have a big box, hidden under the stairs, that is home to every jacket cover I have ever owned. ...dirty little book lover secret.

  2. Not so much in the e-book realm, though, Teri! Though I suspect that depends upon the publisher.

    The digital-only market is pretty much dominated by romance/erotica right now, and I can tell you how those covers are created. The author fills out a form, which is passed along to the cover designer. They create a piece, VERY much based on the author's wishes. The author, in essence, plays art director.

    Of course the end-product is approved by the publisher, but we see some pretty inept e-covers in part because no one knows better, and also because e-publishers pay a fraction of what print publishers do, typically.

    You get what you get if you're only willing to shell out $50-$100.

    But my question is: do covers really matter that much in e-publishing? And if so, why don't we take them more seriously?

  3. I love covers. I don't buy books because of covers, but I certainly pick them up and read the BCC/jacket copy. I like them so much that when I discuss what books I'm reading on my website, I list a copy of the cover too (http://josephlselby.com/bookshelf.htm). It's a simple mnemonic device to link the details of a story to that single picture.

    One important change this makes in cover design is rights. Cover designers sometimes only got cover components with rights for traditional printing without electronic rights. That's not feasible any more. The cover has to be used electronically or it's a non-starter.

  4. Remember the biggest complaint about the CD replacing the LP? The lost of the large record cover. The reasons were much the same as we hear now for HB to e-books. But I think people will adjust to e-books as they did to the CD.

  5. Yeah, you're right Michael. Do you think the guys that design cd cases get paid the same as album covers? I wonder...

  6. I'm enamoured if e-covers help sell, Eric.

    CGriffin, I'm glad you're joining in. I wish writers had more input on covers. I love covers too.

  7. Maybe they'll make an e-reader that has outside panels for a book cover and back. That way, people'll know what you're reading :D

  8. @CGriffin: Not so much. As an epub writer, I've filled out those forms but can honestly say that none of my suggestions have been taken up in any large way on my covers. Bits and pieces, but none that were mostly based on my input. And I'm very happy about that! Dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a graphic artist. (I often wonder why I have to fill out the forms when nobody listens to me anyway. And rightly so, judging by the results.)

    It all depends on the press. The more reputable ones tend to work like traditional houses, where you don't get to see the cover until it's got the tick from various editorial up the chain. The only difference is, the chain is shorter for digital presses. Also, the digital presses tend to look at the covers at various sizes (large, thumbnail, in between) to make sure the elements are still discernible. I doubt paper presses go to quite such lengths.

    A nice article may be comparing traditional to digital covers at various resolutions to see what comes out in the wash. My money is on the digital crews. Oh and I like what S.D. suggested. Mmmmm, panels!

  9. @CGriffin I'll second Kaz's comment. I filled out a form for my book, and saw very little of my input implemented. I even saw things I requested not be used become pretty major elements of the cover.

    But it's a cover, and my book is out, so I just dwell on the fact that I got published.

    What I noticed in a lot of digital presses while I was shopping for a publisher; there seems to be less effort put into e-books. Like, the artist just grabs some somewhat acceptable stock images, and slaps them together. And while I don't necessarily judge a book by the cover, these slapped-together covers don't make me want to find out more about the book. In my opinion, if the cover is that half-a**ed, how is the prose?

    And that's something I worry about with my own book.

  10. Real covers are still my cup of tea. There's just something about passing a shelf and seeing an intriguing book cover that pulls you in.

  11. I think the Nook does just fine. I often navigate which of my e-books to read next by flipping through the covers.

    I don't really care if someone on a bus or subway sees me reading a book. In my opinion, the fact that I'm reading means I don't want to be bothered with people asking how the book is. Talking about the book I'm reading is not the same thing as reading it. I could care less if people thought I was reading crap when I'm reading Goethe and Schiller. But oh well. Never will everyone be satisfied at the same time.

  12. @Kaz I think I love you. You're spot on, for the most part. Not sure about the 'nobody listens' bit, though. Personally, I always try to make the author happy and if there's something specific they want on the cover, I can weave it in. I listen to the authors' wishes, and try to merge that with what I know the publisher likes. And the publisher likes what sells, generally speaking...which can be the sticking point.

    HOWEVER! @Raven speaks the truth. Some cover designers put minimal effort into it, in large part because the publishers are okay with the outcome and/or are unwilling to pay for better.

    I really look forward to the day e-publishing is respected more than it is currently. But I suspect the quality has to rise, all around, from writing to editing to art, for this to happen. We shall see! I admire my publishers a great deal, but there's always room for improvement.