Friday, March 02, 2007

Cover Art - an Article and a Plea

Laura Resnick has posted this 5-part article about cover art that was originally published around 10 years ago. It is a fascinating and troubling look into cover art and its importance to a writer’s success. A writer’s career can be made or unmade by cover art, and they have very little control over it – of course do they have any true understanding of the market and how it works?

As interesting as it is, I have to think that this article is out of date. As I say here, cover art has almost no impact on my buying a book (the title is probably most important to gaining my initial interest). Either I’m very rare, or I reflect a new trend in the market. This is the world of the internet, on-line buying, blogs, endless reviews of books easily accessible with a computer, and fewer and fewer actual book stores (and it seems that more often they actively hide everything but the best sellers).

I believe that publishers, art directors, and marketers need to give us readers a bit more credit when it comes to cover art, and realize that to us end purchasers – the cover may actually be the last thing we see when we choose to buy a book. The buyers for the big bookstore chains need to get with the times as well – STOP JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS! The out-dated model of reliance on cover art may be a reason for declining sales of books (among others of course). Work on a good title, a good jacket description, get the book out for reviews in traditional and non-traditional sources, and good cover art – but remember, in an on-line world, it’s the words that matter.

It’s a whole new world out there and I believe its past time for some evolution here…

…but what do I know, I’m just a guy who buys a lot of books.


Andrew Wheeler said...

I'd believe you, except...

Readers have always denied that cover art influences them. Vehemently. Across all genres. Denied it to their dying breaths.

But studies of marketing have shown, time and again, that retail packaging (in books as in everything else) does influence buying behavior.

So either all the people denying the influence of packaging are mistaken, or they're a tiny minority among a larger sea of people who are affected by packaging. Either way, book design works. Admittedly, it's an art rather than a science, but there are clearly successes and failures (and those are determined by the sales of the book, not by anything else).

And it's often the case that the most successful covers are ones that the target audience declares that it doesn't like -- Resnick mentioned romance readers and "the clench" (the most successful romance cover concept ever) in her article.

Neth said...


I'd be curious to see just what the raw data of these marketing studies show (particularly about the sample size, book types, etc) and when they were done - specifically before or after the internet becoming a huge factor.

I almost always go strait to the SFF section of a books store - books are not set up in a way to see the cover art. I see the title and author. This is what makes me pick up the book. If cover art influences me at all, it's to cause me to put a book back that I've already picked up (I try not to do this becuae I like a lot of books that have terrible cover art).

Now, the vast majority of books I buy I get from internet recommendation of some kind - a review, discussion, blurb, etc. Much of the time there is not even an image of the cover art associated with it, or their is - I tend to ignore it.

The bottom line is that if my rec is coming from the internet, I've made my decision before seeing the cover art. If i'm browsing in a book store, becuase I don't go for the best sellers and strait back to the stacks, I can't see the cover art until I've already picked up the book (and I usually read the back before looking at the front).

So, I still conclude that cover art has very little influence on me - which is a good thing since SFF covers in the US usually suck balls (though it's changing a bit recently).

I understand the point about more genre-neutral covers being more successful - I generally dislike a 'traditional SFF cover', so I suppose that's me proving the point.

Neth said...

Bah - please ignore the typos and ommitted connectors.

Carl V. said...

Honestly, and this is just my opinion, I think you are somewhat rare, Neth, at least as far as genre readers are concerned. I base this solely on my very limited circle of friends and many internet conversations where cover art seems to be a big influence in buying least in regards to just walking down the aisles in a book store and picking up a book at random vs. going there to buy the latest and greatest from one's favorite authors.

By and large I am a buyer as opposed to borrower of books. And for the most part I buy hardbacks, then trades, and then, only if I really want to read something or it is old, classic, pulp sci fi, I get paperbacks. If I am going to buy a book and spend that money I am much more apt to do so if the cover is appealing to me. Many, many of the authors I have 'discovered' in my life were due to cover art grabbing my attention.

Although it is easily proven that we as individuals are somewhat easily swayed by certain images (thus the basis for advertising), I think it would be a mistake to say that this equates to poor consumer taste, etc.

I admit that my taste in cover art is not the same as some, and is exactly the same as others. I think I have a fairly good sense of design, etc. and am somewhat of an artistic bent, but that doesn't mean I am right about what good cover art is. I am only right in regards to my own personal opinion as it affects me.

Like AW says, it is an art and not a science and not all cover art experiments are successful, but so many of the larger genre companies are employing talented art directors who are finding the best and brightest in the fantastical art field to do cover illustrations for their books.

There is a reason why cover art by artists like Frank Frazetta and Robert McGinnis are somewhat timeless. It isn't just the titillation factor, there is a true genius of talent in their work. Sure, for every Frazetta there are a million imitators, but that is the nature of marketing, to copy a good idea until it is done to death.

I may, or may not, be in the minority, but I do believe cover art has a huge impact on sales, especially for authors who have not established a name for themselves.

We are a visual people who respond to color, shape, texture, movement, light...all those things can be captured in such amazing ways with cover art and there are a handful of artists whose work is magical and draws readers to pick up their books. Is it fair? No. But it is a reality. Even with the advent of book blogging and finding out about good stories, etc through internet reviews, cover art will still go a long way towards affecting book 'sales'.

I may hear great things about a book, but if I hate the cover art I am more likely to borrow it from a friend or the library than to purchase the book. To me books are treasures and as such both the story inside (which is obviously most important) and the way the book looks influence whether or not I want to 'own' them.

Again, I can only speak for me and the many people I have 'met' over the past few years of blogging who purport to have the same book buying tendencies as I do.

It has actually been a real treat to 'meet' someone who cares so little about cover art, or at the very least has different ideas than I do about what 'good' cover art is. It challenges me to think about why I like certain imagery and I enjoy the discussion.

Neth said...

Carl, I too enjoy the discussion.

I don't really know if I'm different or not - with my scientific training and way of thinking, I often find that I tend to think a bit differently from other people. But it just feels logical to me that cover art these days means less than ever.

Anyway, this is getting to be a very intersting discussion.

Carl V. said...

It is unfortunate, though somewhat understandable, that publishers don't release books with different types of cover art to compare sales of that specific book with the various art. I think it would be an interesting experiment.

Like I mentioned before, I can only speak for me (and possibly for a few close friends who have the same thoughts on this as I do), cover art strongly influences me. It may not be the only deciding factor of whether or not I buy a book, but it is what draws me in to pick up the book in the first place and look at it.

There are, of course, other influences. If I love a book cover but have read reviews online from sources I trust saying that the book is awful, I wouldn't buy it just because I like the cover. All told I believe I have bought at least 10 books so far this year because the cover art intrigued me enough to look at reviews to see if I would like the book. In a few of those cases I just decided to take a chance on a new author or new anthology just because I liked the cover image.

I agree, very interesting discussion.

Lou Anders said...

I may be the anti-Neth, but cover art really matters to me. I've bought books I know I will never read for their covers, and I have refrained from buying books I really want to read because I refuse to own an atrocious cover.

Neth said...

-Carl, Lou

Don't get me wrong - I can appreciate what I consider good cover art (and I loathe the bad stuff), but for me the book is about the book, not how it's clothed.

I'm not a very artistic individual and my training is much more scientific in nature. Images are functional, sources of information. Maybe this explains a bit why I seem to be different from the majority here.

It is an interesting discussion though.

-Lou, I just can't fathom the idea of buying a book for the cover art, knowing full-well that I'll never read it. But hey, people look at me strange for having boxes full of rocks in the garage.

Also, with you as the editor as involved in the cover art process as you are - results are good cover art (IMO anyway) over at Pyr.

Carl V. said...

You know that I can't let it lie...what are the boxes of rocks for? ;)

I've actually done the same thing, Lou. I just wasn't man enough to admit it until someone else did.

Neth said...


I'm an engineering geologist - a love (or at least like) of rocks goes along with that.

I always get great amusement when friends or family helps me move - I eventually get that fated question: What do have in these boxes, rocks? With as much smug satifcation as I can get in my face, I answer "yes, pretty ones".

Anonymous said...

Neth, thanks for posting here about that cover art series I wrote. You're right, it's out of date. I'm too busy to do a new set of articles on the subject, so I'm encouraging NINK to find someone else to do it. Because I would really like to see the subject continued and updated, viz developments in the market, technology, and changing demographics.

Laura Resnick

Neth said...


I would love to see an updated discussion on this - I feel like something of a minority with my opinions on the importance of cover art. I'd like to know just how alone I am in all this, and I'd like to see books judged not by their cover.


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