Monday, January 14, 2008

Cover Art Hell

You have this dream of the beautiful cover art that will someday grace your novel. If you're artistic, you sketch or paint or scrapbook fanciful mockups of it. If you're not, you still create them in your mind. If it's your first novel, Da Vinci likely could never equal the masterpiece of cover art in your imagination.

Nothing, however, can equal the dream of the moment you first see what your publisher has wrapped around your story. You've been fretting about it for months, if not years, and at last the day has arrived. It's here. Here for all of publishing and the world to admire, and of course they're going to. Because it's going to be perfectly executed, exquisitely tasteful and wholly appropriate for the book.

And then? You wake up and smell the rainbow transvestite dolphin.

Books are identified by the general public with the author, not the editor or the publisher. The average writer has little to zero input or control over what's slapped on their cover, yet when the art goes horribly wrong, it's the writer who takes it on the chin and in the heart. And it takes a lot of spine for an author to voluntarily post an image of a novel in cover art hell for all the internet world to see.

During my rookie year I was told that writers have two options when it comes to cover art: 1) Never complain about anything they put on your novel, and 2) Never complain about anything they put on your novel. Although I've mellowed quite a bit in my old crone years and try to be more diplomatic when I pass along my opinion of my cover art, I do give my opinion. Even when I express concern for the lacerations it may inflict on my readers' corneas.

One insider tip: when an editor shows you a lot of cover art examples and then asks your honest opinion of them? Find out if she likes them first before you answer the question.

Bad cover art is not the end of the world. Most pro writers become resigned to having stories regularly sent to cover art hell as part of the job. If nothing else, it's best to laugh at it and move on. Maybe to a cave in Tibet where no one knows you wrote the book.


  1. What's so sad about this--or maybe it's more a statement about me--is that I often pick wine and books based on their "labels."

    I've passed up buying plenty of books based on their covers. (Some I have later purchased based on recommendations, but others I'll keep ignoring if the cover art doesn't change in a later edition.)

    I'm also an internal-content bigot: some fonts just turn me off, and again, if I can't get an alternate printing, I often skip a book I would have otherwise purchased.

    I find it hard to believe I'm alone in this, so I am left wondering why publishers aren't a bit more sensitive to their authors' wishes in this area.

  2. bran fan7:34 PM

    I've seen so many great books with bad covers that I don't even pay attention to cover art anymore. A good cover can't make me pick up a book and a bad cover can't stop me. This, of course, is spoken as a reader. As a writer, I'll probably be traumatized by my first cover.

  3. Aaaaagh, cover art hell...I just know this is going to happen to me...oh wait, I have to sell the thing first. LOL

  4. You know, I'm hoping that if/when I get published, I'll be so excited about being in such a state that they could vomit on the cover and I'd be happy.

    On a similar note, my poor, dilusional friend thinks that if/when she gets published, she'll either get to get the best artists to design her covers, or she'll get to design her own. I tried to tell her that wouldn't be likely, but she wouldn't listen. I figure that experience will be the best teacher.

  5. Anonymous11:55 PM

    Great post. Book covers are the primary marketing vehicle for novels, and it's more than a missed opportunity when the cover isn't visually appealing -- it's often doom for the book unless good word of mouth happens fairly quickly from very early readers.

    A book cover that's not visually appealing or representative of what's inside the book (or at least evocative of an iconic idea of what's in the book) is going to sink a book. I've seen it happen, and I've experienced it, too.

    A good cover really helps -- bookstores want to display it, book reviewers are more likely to open it and consider it, it catches customers' eyes when they're in the bookstore, etc. A good cover can't make a book be a hit, but it sure can get the first readers of the book to give it a whirl - and sometimes those first readers are the booksellers themselves.

    I'm writing this anonymously, but I've had it happen to me: a dumbing down of a concept in a book cover to the point where it looked like a book cover out of 1953 and in an opposite genre from what the book was, and this repeated for the entire series.

    From the reader mail I got, the covers alone put many of the fans I already had off of the books, so they skipped 'em.

    I fought, but after hitting my head against that wall, I just had to give up and watch it happen.

  6. Its too bad you have no control over the artwork on your books! There is so much great work out there. Maybe you should peruse some sites like or to make a strong suggestion to the editor. You could always use my site too: . Good luck and happy hunting!
    Debra Bretton Robinson