the Little Red Reviewer

Guest Post: Does the Rise of Ebooks mean the Fall of SFF Cover Illustration?

Posted on: January 19, 2013

Today’s guest post is from Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. When I first started visiting his blog about two years ago, I was immediately struck by his well considered and lovingly written reviews and all the beautiful artwork that graced his website. Beyond the artwork and enlightening content, every post generates warm and friendly conversation.  Please welcome Carl!

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(Image Credit)

The book cover—at its very best it draws you in, singling itself out amidst the noise of other books vying for your attention, and your book buying dollars. At its worst it provokes a visceral reaction, discouraging you from giving any consideration at all to what the book in question may be about and it may even turn you off from the genre in question completely. That is a lot of responsibility for an illustration to bear and the interesting dilemma facing art directors the world over is that the same book cover illustration will elicit both reactions at the same time. We are all different and we all respond to different visual cues, especially those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy, a genre in which the community is not afraid to vocalize their opinions. But this guest post is not about good or bad genre cover art, it is about the importance, or lack thereof, of the art itself in the wake of the rapid rise of electronic books, or ebooks.

Laying aside the pro and con arguments of reading paper books vs. electronic ones, let us agree with the premise that ebooks offer publishers a way to cut production costs significantly over their traditional paper offerings. That cost savings presumably translates into a cost savings for the consumer. That  being the case I have often wondered over the last year if there will be an increased move by publishing companies to eliminate or significantly reduce the costs associated with cover art by moving away from commissioning artwork from established artists and up and coming talent. This question was brought back to my mind when a reader asked this question on my Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Covers of 2012 post:

“Given so many people are using ereaders nowadays, does that make cover art more or less important? Ebooks don’t have covers, and they’ll soon make up most of the market (if they don’t already). Does that mean it’s not worth bothering, or mean the looks of dead-tree copies matter more as people attach more worth to them as actual physical things?”

My first reaction, which I stated in my reply, is that ebooks do have covers. As I thought about it, however, I understand that both answers are correct. Many ebooks currently have covers in the sense that they have an image advertising the book and for those books that also have print copies available the image used is often the same as that created for the book cover of the physical copy. On the other hand they do not have covers in that the word does not apply. The image attached with the ebook does not “cover” anything. Will publishers begin to think this way as well and if so will that translate into fewer actual pieces of art being commissioned for the use of science fiction and fantasy novels, short story collections and anthologies.

And perhaps more to the point, do you care?

If you know me or if you clicked through to the link of my book cover post then it is fairly obvious where I stand on this issue. My earliest recollections of exposure to science fiction and fantasy have to do with images. I would pour over my uncle’s science fiction collection, choosing books to read based solely on the impressions given by the cover art. Over the course of the last century we have seen an amazing array of Illustrators whose fame derives wholly or in part from the images that they created that came to public awareness because of their presence on a science fiction or fantasy book cover. Many of today’s best and brightest artists have been influenced by the work of artists before them and so on dating back to the golden age of science fiction. Artists have grown up with the dream of book illustration and I am wondering where does that dream go if the demand for that art is sacrificed on the altar of decreased production costs?

I often point disparagingly at the book covers for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as an example of what the science fiction and fantasy cover art may look like in an increasingly digital world. I don’t feel guilty in doing this as a) GRRM is a best-selling author and my criticism does not affect his sales and b) many people actually like these covers making my cry fall on deaf ears. In the end they are a great example for why there may be fewer demands for the works of individual artists in the future for SFF book cover illustration. The cost of having an in-house graphic designer create covers like this would lead to a cost decrease and thus a larger profit margin. A single book may or may not be significant but a big publisher like Tor Books, for example, who publishes a lot of SFF throughout any given year and utilizes a number of well-known, respected and I suspect expensive (rightfully so) artists could see a large cost savings over the course of a year.

To advocate for the other side of that coin, an author like George R.R. Martin has garnered enough fame that his books would sell if their covers were paper bags with the title and author’s name written in crayon. But would a new author or a lesser known author have a chance for their work to stand out

in the science fiction and fantasy crowd without an eye-catching cover? Are there enough people like myself who will take a chance on a book because it has a cover on it by Stephan Martiniere or Donato Giancola or John Harris or Michael Whelan and in the process discover an author that you are now so passionate about that you will buy his/her next book regardless of what the cover looks like? Is there still then an investment aspect to commissioning original science fiction and fantasy cover art? After all, Martin’s books were also published at one time with commissioned fantasy cover art on them too. Are the fears of the disappearance of quality science fiction and fantasy book cover illustrations in the wake of the success of the ebook market baseless? To take Tor Books as an example again, in the recent past they commissioned brand new art work for the ebook versions of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and are now making those books available in print form. Given the popularity of Brandon Sanderson’s collaborative work in finishing this series, that extra cost may not have been necessary, but the company did it anyway. The ship hasn’t sunk yet for those of us who want to continue to see inspiring science fiction and fantasy art on our books, be they electronic or print versions, and it may not be sinking at all.

I am not in the industry. I am a fan and consumer and while I am passionate about science fiction and fantasy illustration this is all idle speculation on my part. Speculation that is mixed with a little sadness and fear that something special may indeed be coming to an end, but speculation nonetheless. In the interest of full disclosure I am a vocal proponent of the incomparable experience of reading with the book as physical object. I also recently purchased an ereader and have been enjoying that experience as well. To further establish which side I land on in this speculation, I purchased the Kindle Fire HD because I wanted to be able to see the book and magazine covers and any interior illustrations in color. I like the art.

I hope to explore this question further with some artists I am planning to interview to get their perspective on how the rise of ebooks has affected their work and/or how they see it affecting the industry going forward. If any of you reading this are artists or publishers/art directors I would love to know your thoughts. But I mostly structured my guest post to ask you, the readers of science fiction and fantasy. You are the ones who spend your money to buy these books. Where do you weigh in? Is cover art an important part of the experience for you or has it never been a big deal? Regardless of where you fall, would the promise of less expensive books sway your opinion in regards to this issue? What other thoughts do you have to share?

I would like to thank Andrea for the honor of being able to guest post on her blog. This is one of the places I enjoy hanging out and if this is your first time here I would highly recommend that you check it out further, kick the tires, open the hood, checkout the leg room. I think you will like what you see.

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66 Responses to "Guest Post: Does the Rise of Ebooks mean the Fall of SFF Cover Illustration?"

Great discussion points here. I buy a fair number of e-books myself using Kobo, and I’ve found that some publishers there neglect to add the artwork that already exists from the print edition. The cover is on the Kobo site when I buy the book, but not in the file on my Kobo. That’s just shameful. The cover art is part of the whole package. If publishing houses choose to chuck it, I can see a lot of business going to smaller outfits who really care about the reader experience.

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That is shameful, I couldn’t agree more. It is one thing when you are offered a sample–for example the free episode of The B-Team by John Scalzi did not come with art work–and quite another when you pay for something and don’t get the cover image that should by all rights come with it. That kind of product handling makes the ebook feel even less like a book. I hope we don’t get to the point where a publisher’s attitude is “if you want the cover art, buy the physical book”.

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The format for ebooks (cover artwork, interior artwork) is still in flux. Will self-published authors of ebooks shell out more money for artwork for their ebook? I think it’s a open question. If would be helpful if there were ebook examples to point to where artwork generated more sales. Are artists offering their services to ebook writers?

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All good points George. We have at least one example that I referred to in the post where Tor Books went out of their way to hire some of the best illustrators working today to do new artwork for the ebook releases of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This happened back as Sanderson was beginning to work on the final volumes of the series. Now they’ve went ahead and used those same images to make print copies of the books.

Self-published is an interesting side to look at too. I know that my admitted prejudices against self-published or smaller press books are increased when the cover illustration is poor. For example, one of the reasons I had stayed away from Hugh Howey’s Wool series despite all the praise was the awful ebook cover (which I am afraid may end up on the print book too…lets hope not). [Disclaimer: just my opinion that it is awful]. I’m glad I did read it because it is an amazing book but had it featured a nice cover I would have whetted by curiosity much sooner. And you can have nice, intriguing ebook covers without hiring the best of the best. I really like Alex Scarrow’s ebook cover for The Legend of Ellie Quin. And there are artists all over the Deviant Art website doing incredible work who should be given a chance to have their work featured on book covers and would not command the same price as Martiniere or Dos Santos. I would love to see self-publishing make more effort to entice the reader with the art.

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Well, I have no qualms about saying I love book covers and think it would be a great shame if the growth in e-books brings about their demise. Two things that do occur though (1) as you say above – even if you buy an e-book you still go on line and the book is advertised with a cover so maybe publishers will continue for that reason (2) conversely and thinking about a lot of the older books on my shelves – books didn’t always have these illustrated covers – they just used to be bound books that gave away nothing of the content. I do prefer the illustrated kind though I must admit!
Great post Carl.
Lynn :D

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Your first point is a very good one, Lynn. I am truly hoping that in the future it will still be the rare blockbuster author who is saddled with GRRM-esque covers and that publishers will continue to realize that a captivating image sells books.

And you are right, books used to be just bound volumes but that was also a very different age and time. In the visual age we live in we are inundated by imagery and that ultimately may be the reason, as you point out in #1, that my fears may be unjustified.

Thinking about your comment about how books used to look, I will admit that I have seen some absolutely gorgeous old books with covers embossed with intricate, beautiful designs and I have seen a few recent novels published that way and they are gorgeous too. This wouldn’t translate well to an ebook, but in physical form they are works of art.

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I know what you mean – Susan Hill had two recent books published and the covers were made to look like old style gold embossed books. Really quite lovely and quite a good device for intriguing perspective readers – I couldn’t help but pick them up and wonder if they were going to have a ghost story or some such (which of course they did!)
Lynn :D

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I think cover images have been the reason I’ve discovered new authors in mainstream fiction, or literary fiction, much more than even SFF. I don’t usually stroll those sections of the bookstore as often or as faithfully as the SFF and YA/Kids sections and so when a book leaps out at me when I walk by them it is always because of a great cover.

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I recently read a ebook novella from an author whose cover art was, frankly, horrible. It looked like a piece of photoshopped crap, and I am convinced it WILL make a difference to the novella’s sales.

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I agree Paul, I think that name recognition can often be the key to a book with an awful, or just mediocre, book cover selling well. But only a small percentage of authors have that kind of name recognition. It is a very rare thing when I’ll spend my money on a book that I don’t have as much of an attraction to the cover as I do the story and the author.

Your ‘sales’ point makes me think of an example: Baen books is to be praised for their efforts to keep certain authors’ works in print.
Robert A. Heinlein and Poul Anderson come to mind. Over the last few years I have been buying Heinlein and recently started buying Anderson’s Ensign Flandry series. But when I do so I end up scouring the internet for old paperbacks with intriguing classic illustration vs. the poor (again my opinion) cover art on MOST of Baen’s releases. I’m just one person and my sales alone aren’t of great effect but if there are others like me out there that lack of effort to put attractive covers on the books is hurting their admirable efforts to keep books in print.

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Carl, if you mentioned Anderson’s Ensign Flandry series and the um, “iffy” Baen cover art, i assume you’re aware of this?

http://www.jimchines.com/2013/01/group-cover-pose-reveal/

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Yes. I think I threw up a little…or maybe a lot..when I saw that. :)

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I think that authors who take their work seriously will continue to seek beautiful covers, ebook or not. Paper books are still sought out, and one reason is the beauty of their covers. I think midlist to newer authors will be at a disadvantage because of the cost of really nice covers, and a marginal return on investment for self-published works, especially short stories and anthologies. Will they want to pay $300 or more dollars for a professional cover, spend the time to learn how to do it themselves, or pay less for a simple, workable cover?

I don’t think you need a terrific cover to sell, but it can help if you have nothing else to base your decision on buying an unfamiliar author’s story. As big of a fan of Hugh Howey as I am, his covers were not that great, and yet his Wool series took off. He’s since upgraded cover art he commissioned and had Random House UK do a phenomenal job on his UK hardcover. My point is that the relation between the rise of ebooks and a flood of self-published authors may mean more mediocre covers. This could benefit traditionally published and established authors by creating a gateway of sorts to persuade readers to judge quality of story by cover art. If I worked for a big publisher, I’d take advantage of self-pub’d authors’ lack of initial profits by making trad pub books more appealing to the eye.

As you noted about getting a kindle fire, more people are getting tablets with HD. Who wants to buy a book that doesn’t look awesome on their HD tablet, let alone on their bookshelf full of collectibles?

T.C. McCarthy has some awesome looking covers. His audiobook version of Exogene is phenomenal. Scifi authors are trying to sell high tech gadgets and futuristic war, having a cover that displays that seems imperative.

The rise of blogging, and book reviewers, also brings the desire to post beautiful covers when reviewing books. We want our blogs to look pretty, so the better the cover we can post, the more we benefit.

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That is a nice cover on McCarthy’s book.

The act of control is one thing self-publishers do have over traditional publishers in that they can choose to do whatever they want with their book covers. Authors whose books are bought by publishing houses have to go with the house’s choice which can sometimes be a disaster for a book’s appeal. Thankfully some of the bigger SFF publishers seem to do a good job of asking an author for an opinion of who they might want to work with and more and more illustrators seem to be either reading the material or getting really good art direction so that you don’t have a book with a cover image that has little to nothing to do with the story.

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It would be useful if there was an online exchange where self-published writers could buy artwork (or at least limited rights to the artwork) for their ebooks (covers, interior artwork, etc.). If ebook readers became used to cover artwork with their purchases, perhaps even demanded it, a whole new market for artists would open up.

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It would be nice to see that happen, George.

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I buy lots and lots of e-books, way more than I would have ever dreamed I’d buy back when I was hugely anti-e-book (which was only a couple years ago). I read on a Nook 1st Edition, which, like all e-ink readers, is not exactly wonderful when it comes to cover art display. Since I don’t buy from B&N, covers don’t even display in full color on the little touch screen at the bottom. So, covers aren’t necessarily all that important after I’ve bought the book.

Where they have proved to be hugely important is during my shopping stage. The covers are my way of browsing through pages and pages of e-book search results. If a cover stands out, catches my eye, sets off my “ooh, pretty” response, I’m more likely to click to the description page, which is one step closer to actually buying the thing. I think there is definitely a place for good cover art in e-books. If I know I enjoy a particular author’s works, or if I’ve read intriguing reviews from reviewers I trust, or if the book is really cheap and sounds at least halfway decent, I might buy it even if it has bad cover art. However, bad cover art doesn’t make a great first impression on new readers. Publishers (or authors, if they’re self-publishing) should avoid shooting themselves in the foot right from the get-go and try to draw readers in with appealing cover art.

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I hope that desire to capture market interest continues to drive the sales of good art to the publishing houses. I know that I have bought books in the past with ugly covers because I wanted to read the book either because I liked the author or had heard reviews from people I trust, but I am just as likely to spend the extra money on a paper version with a good cover if the ebook doesn’t have the same image or none at all. All it takes for publishers to get my money is to put something I like on the cover. Then of course the author has to have a product that keeps me coming back for more.

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While I like being able to carry a library around on an ereader, I really enjoy cover art. When reading a paperbook, I often refer to the cover, especially if it is detailed, as I go through the story. For some beloved authors, yes, i would still buy their books even if their covers were paperbags. However, cover art adds so much. I have an older Kindle, but perhaps in future ereaders there could be a feature that allowed the cover to hover in a corner and to be consulted throughout the book at the reader’s whim. In short, until ereaders have something like this, I am unlikely to spend premium ebook $ regularly because I love my cover art. Great conversation article.

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I like your hovering idea!!!

I bought the Kindle Fire HD specifically so that I could see cover images in color. That will tell you how much cover art means to me and that I’m willing to spend more to experience it it all its glory. I’m even likely to buy books first on an ereader and then turn around and buy a paper copy if I like the cover art enough.

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Even when an ebook has a good cover, you necessarily don’t see it. Often when I buy an ebook it starts itself on the first page of reading. I have to hit back, back, back, until I reach the cover if I want to see it.

And since I listened to audiobooks, I miss a lot of covers that way too.

I do look at a lot of covers, but I go to Google and search Images for them. I like adding a large hi-rez version of the cover to my blog reviews. And if I really like the cover, I’ll add it to my Pictures folder on my computer, and it will randomly show up on my desktop. I use a program called John’s Background Switcher to make my computer’s desktop into an art gallery.

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That is true, although on the Kindle I have it will show all the covers of books whenever I go back to the home page and I like that. I also enjoy going in to my bookshelf and seeing all the digital covers facing me.

I’ve done that same thing with images I like. And the bonus is that if I like a cover I’ll go seek out the artist’s work online and enjoy it, sometimes making purchases there.

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Hi Carl. As an unpublished writer, it is an issue that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind but had I had a book released, it would have hit me how much this is going to affect the work of artists who produce or hope to make a living from producing cover art. I guess most of the repeat work for physical books comes from releasing later editions when the earlier ones sell through.

That will be unnecessary for ebooks and that is a real shame as well as a potential disaster for the artists who will lose work. After all, it is the cover art that first draws me in as a reader. I read the blurb and then decide either to stick the book in my basket or put it back on the shelf.

I don’t know enough about this issue to offer words of doom or of sympathy but I am interested in seeing how it is going to pan out and how artists are going to react to this.

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From my experience at least when focused within this genre it is definitely true what you say about success and continued work. So many of the artists I am thinking of when writing this post are ones who I see frequently on the shelves with new releases.

I’m not sure yet if there is a doom, just a concern that has been on my mind for quite some time and one I really wanted to float out there to see if others had any opinions one way or the other or even cared.

I hope when the time comes for you to become a published author you get a great cover, ebook or print or both.

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I can only speak for myself…but in my opinion, cover art, whether for ebook or print, is still very important. I buy ebooks more than print now and if I’m looking at the Amazon Sci-Fi/Fantasy section, it’s often the thumbnail of the cover that catches my eye and makes me click to learn more about a book. And this is especially true for writers I haven’t yet read. I love the art so much that there have been books that I’ve purchased solely because the cover artist is one of my favorites. I also think, for this particular genre, the art is so much a part of the reading experience, at least for myself, that I hope (pray) that the dominance of the ebook doesn’t negatively impact that experience.

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I agree, I think it is of primary importance for the SFF genre which has become such a visual genre over the years with the prominence of film, television and games.

I think I’ve purchased (or at least uploaded) as many ebooks this month as I have purchased which is a BIG change for me.

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I, like you I think, Carl, have an obsessive burning passion for book covers, especially sci-fi/fantasy etc. So I share your concerns here. I also agree with your GRRM comments. About 5 years ago here in the UK, the covers of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books were changed from this:

http://tinyurl.com/a5ctkkj

to this:

http://tinyurl.com/b8vjhn6

Which is just Urrch. And, if I’m being really cynical, I would argue that it was just a lazy example of so-called associative marketing. That is, trying to get the product to look like another, already successful book. Such as this:

http://tinyurl.com/by6vd3z

It’s a bit too similar for comfort, in my opinion…

I’m choosing to look on the bright side though: maybe, as the e-book market becomes more and more competitive, publishers will spend more money on (or put more energy into) art work in order to advertise their books online. When it comes to advertising or marketing, the visual side of books is still really important, whether or not that book is a physical object. When it comes to selling stuff online, it’s all about the thumbnails.

I also think e-book art will come a long way, too, once colour e-ink becomes a norm. I have an e-reader (which I rarely use, to be honest), and seeing book covers rendered in black and white is pretty darn depressing. Of course tablet computers don’t have this problem, but still…

Great post, as ever:
Tomcat.

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Thanks Tomcat, I too hope that competition continues to drive forward the need for publishers and even self-published authors to utilize the services of established and up and coming artists to provide quality work for print and ebook covers. Your Robert Jordan example is exactly what I don’t like and do not want to see continuing on. It does seem very lazy to me.

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Nice post, Guest Carl. Like you – no surprise here – I love the painted artwork that graces many science fiction and fantasy books. I am seeing more and more photographic covers on those books, because 1) they are cheaper and 2) they are accepted by buyers, regardless, because the buyer wants the book and often doesn’t give the cover much thought. Unfortunately, I think those of us who love cover artwork are fewer than we’d like.

Since this seems to be the age of profit trumps everything else, saving a few cents per e-book makes sense to the seller so that’s likely what we’ll get. If there is already a painted cover existing for a ink-on-paper volume, we’ll get that, otherwise, a photograph or even all text is what’s cheapest.

Yet if we want a particular book, say Scalzi’s HUMAN DIVISION, which has a painted cover, wouldn’t we buy it even if it just had typeface? Yes, we would. Sadly. I think e-books are/will be responsible for a considerable cheapening of the entire product except that from a few larger publishers such as TOR and Baen and from small publishers whose customers will pay for the quality of cover art, physical construction of the volume, quality of paper and so on.

One last thing is the lack of maps and interior illustrations in e-books, at least the few I have paged through. This may be another sign of cheapness that epitomizes the electronic book world.

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“Unfortunately, I think those of us who love cover artwork are fewer than we’d like” I’m afraid that is the case as well, Richard. Add to that the group that likes cover art but despises the ongoing trend of spaceships on SF covers or anything fantasy-related on fantasy covers, and on and on and that just makes it worse.

Yes, glad you brought up maps and interior illustrations. There are far too few books that do that now but the ones that do are just a bit more exciting to me. I am thinking in particular of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series that has in its first book, The Way of Kings, great interior illustrations, some color included, and am hoping that two decades from now when the series is hopefully finished am wondering if I’ll be able to have a full set of hard covers with the same stuff I’ve come to expect from this first volume.

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Hey Carl, nice post, and some very interesting ideas. You hinted at it a couple of times, but I think it’s worth also noting how a signature artist or art style can get indelibly associated with a particular author. The late Josh Kirby with Terry Pratchett, and Quentin Blake with Roald Dahl spring to mind. For all that you dislike the SOIAF art (and you have a point), it’s part of the series now and I imagine you’d piss off more people that you’d attract if you changed it significantly for the next volume. Whenever that may be. And look at those recent Feist covers trying to hop on the Twilight bandwagon. I’m trying to say all this without using the phrase ‘Brand Identity’ but I guess I’ve just failed.

Another point is that it’s kind of reminiscent of the situation when DVDs were introduced. Originally they just had the movie and nothing else, like you had to with videos. Then you get The Matrix with all the extra features and people realise how much extra stuff you can squeeze in and start throwing in all sorts of things left right and centre. This reaches its bloated apogee with the LOTR extended editions and their 400 commentaries and extra documentaries before settling down to a fairly standard 20 minute ‘making of’ doc and maybe a cast or director’s commentary track.

I think we might be going through that experimental phase with ebooks now, and will be very interested to see where the new standard lies once all the dust has settled. Interesting to note that it was SF/F titles that bookended the phase for DVDs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true here.

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Yes, there are some great artists associated with authors. Kinuko Y. Craft’s covers for the Patricia A. McKilip books spring to mind as one of the most perfect combinations ever. Harris with Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Orson Scott Card’s Ender books. I could go on and on. Your examples are great ones and I often find that a book doesn’t feel the same if the artist changes after so long of a collaboration.

The Lord of the Rings DVD’s are actually a perfect example of what I wish I had with every DVD/bluray that I like. Unfortunately I think that streaming will eventually eliminate all those glorious extras. Hopefully not, but I’m worried they won’t be a worthwhile expense as streaming takes more of a hold on the film industry. That is another post for another time, lol!

It will be interesting to watch, that is for certain.

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I do love covers (sometimes) but I think it’s really that I love the overall feel of certain books–the weight, the size, the spine pattern, the thickness of the pages…and, of course, the cover. I feel like that’s the big distinguisher between paper books and ebooks. Maybe ebooks won’t lead to the end of quality covers–maybe paper books’ efforts to distinguish themselves will lead to BETTER covers.

With the trend going towards ebooks, paper books will need to justify their existence, and one way may be with those hard copy qualities that a digital copy can’t provide. The best image file will never be the same as a high quality print cover, especially one that’s glossy or embossed or full of intricate detail that you can’t appreciate on a screen.

At the same time, ebooks may find that they need to work their own magic to stand out from the pack of other ebooks. I’d love to see people do much more to explore the possibilities of the digital medium, as has been happening with some illustrations. We could end up with moving or interactive or changing covers. Which could be pretty amazing.

Well, I think that’s my optimistic two cents on the subject… :)

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Like you the whole package makes an impression on me which is why as much as I am enjoying my Kindle I cannot deny the tactile pleasures I’ve felt even today as I opened up a paperback book and started reading it. (One with a very cool cover, by the way!)

I hope you are right and that this does lead to even better covers. I hope that the reality is that great covers are still needed to attract attention and that we continue to see great creative output from talented artists. I know that art will exist anyway, but I want to see it on the books I love.

And you are correct about the quality of an image online vs. print, at least in most cases. Sometimes the print cannot quite match a digital image as well in its original creation.

I like your optimism and that is where I’m hoping things go, thank you!!!

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I could go on and on about this topic, but will try to be brief. First, I read mainly mystery fiction, but my son has tons of science fiction paper backs and I love (and covet) the covers. For mystery books, I am a big fan of the cover art for vintage mysteries and buy vintage copies based on the cover. Newer fiction, not so much. I do collect any type of fiction with a skull or skeleton on the cover. So, yes, cover art does matter to me and if I see a book with a great cover, I am more interested. And this is probably one reason I resisted e-books and e-readers for so long. We just got one in October, and added a second in December, but if I have a choice, I want hard copy, with a decent cover. Nowadays, it is a reality that you may miss some good books if you don’t have an e-reader, and some older books that are hard to find will be more easily available as e-books.

So I guess my answer is, yes, cover art does make a difference to me, and yes, I do think the proliferation of e-books will cause there to be less good cover art.

I agree with Richard above that e-books will lack maps and such. The e-book ed. of The Greene Murder Case by Van Dyne was missing an illustration that was essential to understanding what was going on (although other e-book versions did have it and I was able to find it online). Deborah Crombie’s hardbacks often have beautifully illustrated maps on the end papers. I don’t see that happening in e-books.

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This is no time for brevity, Tracy! :)

I like mystery fiction as well and I can say that there are several books that I picked up in the mystery section for the same reason I pick them up in the SFF section: the covers grab my eye. I read Alan Bradley’s first Flavia de Luce book right when it came out before the buzz hit because I was walking through the store and saw this apple-green cover with a black bird that caught my eye. Jedediah Berry’s excellent The Manual of Detection was the same thing: great cover made me take it home. Both are examples where I had heard NOTHING about the author but the cover caused me to pick up the book and read the description which lead to me giving them a try. I can think of many examples like that with regular fiction as well. In the case of me and the hundreds of dollars I spend on books ever year it is the cover 90% of the time that sells it for me, and if I wasn’t reading series of books and only stand alones by new authors every time that percentage would go way up.

You and Richard both touch on the flourishes that I have yet to see matched in ebooks, flourishes that enhance the reading experience.

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Great post! I have a nook HD and as a reviewer I get review requests for physical books and for both the look of the “cover” is important. If a book is suggested to me or buzzed about like GOT the cover doesn’t mean much. If I’m just browsing physical book shelves covers and the first page of text seal the deal :) Covers are EXTREMELY important with my e- book purchases.

Especially with the nook HD’s Channel feature where they show me hundreds of pictures of potential reads. The cover grabs me and I then try a sample and usually buy :)

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Thank Kai, it was nice to finally get this out of my head and down in print. Even when I really know I’m going to like a book then poor or nonexistant cover art bothers me. I like to have what I’m reading laying out, like to enjoy the cover, and if it is just a ‘meh’ cover it annoys.

And yes, I’ve seen that same thing with the Kindle where an eye-catching cover will cause me to consider a book that I might not have given a second look to before.

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I have similar concerns regarding ebook versions of picture books. One of the reasons I love picture books is that they can be a glorious marriage of art and literature. I love the way the illustrations play off the words (and vice versa); love the way the illustrations tell one story, the words tell another, and together they tell a third story. What happens to those incredible illustrations when they’re squeezed onto an ereader?

The first (and one of the only) picture book I read on my Nook was Actual Size by Steve Jenkins. Actual Size, if you’re not familiar with it, is a phenomenal book by one of the best nonfiction children’s authors/illustrators out there. It shows the actual size of various animals/animal body parts: a giant squid’s eye, an elephant’s foot, the open mouth of a great white shark. It’s an awesome book and one that’s been a hit with every kid I’ve read it with. When shrunk down onto an ereader, though, not only does the quality of the illustrations get lost, but the entire point of the book gets lost, too. When I read it I was absolutely infuriated and insulted on behalf of Jenkins. The man is brilliant, this book is brilliant, and they cheapened it.

So I understand your concerns, Carl. While I do love my Nook, I worry, too, about what we’re losing in the process.

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I hope my fears are much ado about nothing, I really do. I’m not yet to the place where I will buy picture books in e-format as I like them as works of art in and of themselves. And even though they are so pricey…ridiculously so…I’ll still spend the money to get the ones I want (like Gaiman’s recently released book).

I am not at all familiar with Actual Size but it sounds like a very interesting book that would indeed suffer on a screen.

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It’s definitely frustrating. I wish the publishers would at least attempt to preserve the integrity of these books and either skip making them ebooks or format them in such a way that at least some of the richness of the artwork made it onto the screen. I’ve heard the interactive picture books aren’t as bad, but it still worries me.

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I would like to see ebook publishers take advantage of the technology by adding more art. The sf magazines of the 70s often had multiple illustrations for the featured story with one illustration for each of the rest. Ace and others experimented with publishing short novellas with multiple illustrations(Larry Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away” is one example). One of my favorites was Byron Preiss’ “Weird Heroes” experiment. It started as a series of anthologies and grew into a handful of novels. Preiss had numerous illustrations that were connected to events in each story. Some of the authors who worked with him were Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Michael Moorcock, and Ben Bova. Illustrators included Jim Steranko, Alex Nino and Jeff Jones. While the stories were not always favorites, I enjoyed reading even the weaker entries. Based on the success of the digital comics publishing, I think this type of format would work for science fiction and fantasy.

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I like Steranko’s work! At any rate, I too think that ebooks could take advantage of the technology and do some really cool things, I’m just curious if they will.

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Hello Carl!

My opinion on this is summed up quickly: I think book covers will have as much importance as they’ve always had.
You don’t buy ebooks in a vaccum. You buy them on the inernet – and the human eyes is drawn to colors and pictures and illustrations. Even on a blog, especially on a websites like Amazon or B&N or wherever you purchase ebooks.
I’ve been reading ebooks almost exclusively for a year now and I’m still as influenced by the covers as ever. This goes so far that – when I got a few free classics from Kobo without a cover (just the title and author in print with a frame around the letters) – I run the book through Calibre and slap my favorite cover on there. I don’t know about other ereaders but my Kobo shows the cover of my current book when in sleep mode or even switched off. And when that doesn’t work, it bothers me. I need the visual clue to remind me what I’m reading, to give me a feel of what book I’m in. If there’s a spaceship on my Kobo (even in shades of grey) I know what I’ll find in the book.

When I browse for books on the internet, I am automatically drawn to book covers. And it is still the ones done by professionals for one particular book (vs. stock images) that intrigue me the most. My most recent artist crushes are Jason Chan (he’s amazing, let’s just all agree) and Todd Lockwood. Having read “A Natural History of Dragons” as an e-ARC, including the cover and illustrations, I don’t feel I’ve missed out. But I will buy the hardback edition in addition to owning the ebook.

This is just me, but when it comes to good, beautiful covers, I want them on my shelf but I don’t necessarily want to read the hardback (heavy, difficult to hold, a bitch to carry around, etc.). So I am more than willing to pay for both editions. That’s my small piece for keeping the authors I like and the artists creating covers alive and fed. :)

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We are certainly kindred spirits Nadine and I do hope that you are right in that the artists we love continue to be the ones selected to do the work for the colorful covers that catch our eye. The benefit we have now is that most of these books still have print editions and so the ebooks benefit from cover illustration meant to stand out on bookstore shelves and I hope if it comes to a point where fewer books make it in print form that this trend will continue.

Jason Chan is indeed incredible, as is Todd Lockwood. There is something that stands out with each of their work, a unique touch where you can recognize their work as soon as you see it.

I so appreciate your thoughts and as I said am crossing my fingers that you and the other optimists here are correct and that my worries are just a tempest in a teacup.

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I was thinking about your post last night after reading a review of the latest Hellboy comic – which the reviewer got as an ebook. So, full illustrations. If we can do that to comics, surely we won’t loose our coverart for our fiction!

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I have yet to try comics on a reader but I should at some point.

And on a note related only to your comment: I do so love Hellboy!

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my difficulty with many comics in ebook is not if I am viewing it on my computer in which I can create the double-page spread, let alone a complete legible page on a screen. but on portable reader, I miss that dynamic.

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I do not have too much different to add to this conversation. I will chime in though with my thoughts…

1. I appreciate cover art; it adds to the pleasure of my reading. With a physical book, I look at the cover frequently, and if I like the cover lots well it then enhances my reading pleasure. Same goes, if I am loving the story then looking at good cover art for the book only enhances the liking of the story even more.

2. I appreciate cover art for an eBook. It’s important for me to see the cover before I start electronically flipping the pages. I like admiring the covers on my electronic shelf, and sometimes it’s the cover that makes my decision for which book to read next. Sometimes, it’s the cover that makes my decision to even look at the eBook in the first place before buying.

3. While cover art is very important to me with both formats, the physical cover art is much more important because I flip back to it frequently while in the midst of reading; that is hard to do with an eBook – not impossible but not the same feeling.

4. As far as concern with self-published ebooks and the affordability for covers – I guess my first response is…why? Why the concern? Was this concern for self-published authors there when it was only physical book format? I don’t know, I don’t get the full concern and ask these questions sincerely.

Great conversation. I liked reading all the comments.

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The thing that has changed with self-publishing is now you actually have a chance to see the works of self-published authors because companies like Amazon have their own publishing arm and will put those things out there for the reader to see. Prior to the online experience you wouldn’t be seeing the result of self-published works on your bookstore shelves. So I think in order for someone like Hugh Howey, whose book Wool is as good as any SFF work I’ve read, to catch my eye on a regular basis they are going to need to invest in a cover that will cause me to take a look. And I hope they start doing so.

I too flip back to look at book covers often when I read but I’ve found that I do that with ebooks too. I just bookmark the page and choose “Go to” and then go look at the cover. I’m in the minority, I am sure, but I do enjoy cover art enough to do that. :)

Thanks for chiming in ibeeeg!

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Apologies to anyone whose comments got stuck in moderation, I’ve been away from the computer since Friday, and am now approving comments as fast as I can.

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E books scare me on one level. I can’t physically browse through an e book store and be seduced by covers. I don’t know how I will ever replace the feeling of meandering through a bookstore (and I hope I never have to do so completely). Shopping online is fast, convenient, and more than likely cheaper. But it robs me of that feeling of being surrounded by possibilities. Given that, I still love e books. Why? Besides convenience, cost, and availability, I’ve discovered many talented writers who have self-published. New doors have been opened and there seems to be endless possibilities. And for me, I still love looking at the covers of e books. It’s not the same as a physical book, but I don’t know if I will ever get away with the “what’s the cover look like” gut reaction when I hear a book title. It’s the first impression and it still rings true to me.

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I don’t think that experience ever CAN be replaced and I hoping that the ebook experience continues to be just a different experience, not the only one we can have as things go forward.

It is frightening to me on some level how quickly I’ve adapted to ebooks because of their convenience and because of the instant purchase options.

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Great post Carl.

I am a big ebook consumer — have been for quite a few years now. However, that doesn’t really apply to SFF books. I like to physically hold my science fiction and fantasy books and enjoy looking at those beautiful covers on and off while reading.

Having said that, I do buy SFF ebooks. Usually when I want to read them and can’t find them in print format (I look for them in used book stores first) or if they are only available in digital format (i.e. Scalzi’s Human Division serial, or Corey’s novellas for The Expanse series). In those cases, I do have my Kindle Fire and I enjoy them there. It is not the same and never will be.

It is interesting that you mention the Wool books by Howey. I’ve had the Omnibus in my Kindle for a long time. It was recommended to me a long time ago by a friend and I purchased it with the intention of reading it right away. But it took me almost a year to read it (read it last week). That cover turned me off. Well, the series is fabulous and it’s a case of not “judging the book by its cover,” but it proves your point.

I do like the idea that ebook competition will lead to even better quality covers for print books. That would be a positive.

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Thanks Hilcia, I’m turning into a big ebook consumer myself, if this last couple of months can be used as a barometer. Yikes!

I would still rather read SFF the way you describe it, at least when the cover images make me want to own the book.

I went and looked at Howey’s book on Amazon long ago and the cover made me say ‘no way’. It wasn’t until I was “forced” to read the first short story for a book club that I was hooked and decided I didn’t care, I had to read it NOW. Of course if the print version has a decent cover I will still be buying it because I want a physical copy of the book.

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hello, Carl.

great post.

I like cover art, and it does have a marked influence on whether I pick up a book, whether the book is paper or electronic. And publisher’s know this–though I think only some of the self-published only seem to realize this by varying degrees. I know a lot of out-of-work or under-employed artists and graphic designers. be desperate for your art together and attract some customers.
Besides thumbnail-sized art in catalogs, there are other venues for cover illustration to consider, like posters, site banners, displays. someone mentioned liking pretty covers for reviews, we want them for advertising as well. then there are prints that artists sell to fans, as well as for charity, or kickstarter, etc. True, whether the variety of covers continue are a curiosity: hardcover (1st edition), tradepaper, mass paperback, the 3rd edition… Will there be a need for that? If only to give the book another run with a refreshed look?
SFF has an advantage over many other genres in that their artwork is remarked up and collected. There are books and magazines and sites dedicated to them and the artists in ways you do not see with other genres, that or I missed my subscription to the bodice-ripper anthology of covers…
There is bound to be a cost differential w/ the ebook. but there I am completely unfamiliar and curious how that will effect the artists, but I do not believe there will be a Fall.

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Your comments make me think slightly off topic in that back in the “old days” much of the work by the greats was then owned by the publishing company and often originals either got whisked to private collections or destroyed. Artists like Frank Frazetta and others helped turn that around by refusing to allow their originals to be retained by the publisher. Makes my heart ache to think of many great old SFF works just tossed out with the trash. The horror!!!

I think my biggest thing with self-publishers is that I think they have a unique opportunity to pair with new artists in potential win-win situations. I mean I think it would be really cool to write a book and if my only way to get it out was to self-publish I would only want to do so by bringing an artist along for the ride with me. Even if my book sucked their artwork would get some exposure and that would feel like a victory to me.

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did they do that?! that is awful! I’m glad that has changed.

I like the idea presented that ebook form could offer more illustrations in a book. maybe an added incentive that I would pay more for. I think GRRM could put out some e-formats with some of the fan art at play right now. there is some good stuff. It would be a cool contest and we could get some of the art we would like to have attached to the work.

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Yes they did.

I like that idea, that would be a fun way to get fans even more excited and more involved.

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The most rewarding ebooks I’ve built for authors are those that incorporate illustrations throughout the book. We will include comic strips, illustrations, sigils, maps and the *entire* cover as a special graphic. Hey become more than a translation of print to digital and become something that a printed book can’t be.

We still and will continue to think about books linearly. But it is changing fast, and where we put our dollars will determine the future.

In purely marketing terms, to market something it must have an image of some kind for the potential audience to latch on to. You can not market without an image.

You will notice that smart publishers will give their repeat authors a distinct graphic layout. Even the font is special to an author, where the name is vs the title, etc. thus a fan can visually spot onto “oh hey, another Wilbur Smith novel.”

I don’t think covers are going anywhere. I think this is just another syndrome of the entire industry turning itself inside out. There are all kinds of functions of the process that are being cut back, not just artwork, and we all bitch about it all the time: copyediting, concept editing, marketing, etc.

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I do hope ebooks take advantage of their strengths in the future and do just what you said, offer something more than just a simple conversion from one format to the other. Give me something extra that makes me want to choose the ebook besides just price. Heck, give me something special on both and I’ll buy both the print and ebook.

I could certainly go on a copyediting rant too. I hate paying for a book and then seeing error after error in the book. I feel like I’ve been given an inferior product even when I love the book.

I appreciate your insight as it is unique from many if not all of use here so far, Eliz.

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I forgot to point out that the only reason your ebook doesn’t come with cover art included is because the publisher doesn’t want to renegotiate rights with the artist for *that* distribution. It’s the same reason your audio books will often have a different cover, too.

The industry is changing, and it’s fascinating. Libraries are changing, too, in reaction to the digital age. That’s a fascinating thing to learn about, how they’re just rolling with the times, not screaming in agonized death throes.

A lot of people say the book industry is collapsing, I see change, not collapse. We will always be demanding quality reading material, and there will always be someone there to fill it. I think a lot of the future is goin to involve Libraries, Print on Demand, crowd-funding, and small presses.

Blah blah, sorry for the ramble.

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Ramble away, we enjoy the discussion!

I’m not worried about books going away in any significant way, what I do worry about is a diminishing of the things that make them additionally special, like the cover art but also brick and mortar stores where you can go browse new stuff. I’m sad to see that the industry hasn’t figured a way to appropriately roll with that and instead results in stores closing and people losing jobs.

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The publisher probably intentionally borrowed this cover art staple to appeal to the types of readers already drawn to the romance/chick lit books. It’s pretty: the cool blues and greens…the title tucked into the shadow of the gown. But it still doesn’t sit quite right. Why showcase a dress and not its wearer? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover featuring a male dressed in armor or a suit of clothes only from ankles to chest. And that lack of parity in male cover models makes me think there’s something kind of insulting in this. As if women readers (who this is clearly targeted at) can’t handle seeing a pretty female face or are attracted above all to fashion. Though I can’t quite get myself to label it as one of the “worst covers of the week,” I’m not particularly happy to see this style of cover seeping into the SF/F bookshelves.

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