Guest Post: Does the Rise of Ebooks mean the Fall of SFF Cover Illustration?
Posted January 19, 2013on:
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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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.