Cover Art and SubGenre


A lot of our blogs are coming from questions from ya’ll and from other readers on other blogs, and today is no exception. This blog is from a question by Rich Rennicks on a sifi/fantasy group at yahoo about how a pub selects the direction to point an entire series, and more specifically, how they direct the readers of fantasy into a specific direction via cover art.

Market trends and cover art are all decided by the marketing department at a pub with input by editors. In the contract, a writer agrees to provide a polished manuscript that the publisher wants. This means that rewrites are usually a must, and a writer who refuses to follow guidelines, especially in this market, might not last long.

Sometimes an editor will guide a writer in the wrong direction, sometimes he/she will hit the nail. Just like in RL, not all decisions are right.

I’ve had baaaaaad cover art, more notably the book that looks like horror—flames burning down a deserted mental institution, while a man walks calmly out of the flames and a gurney burns in the background. It was supposed to be a medical thriller. The pub had the book placed on the romance aisle. Did it sell?  Ummmm. No. Bad decision by the marketing dept. Baaaaaad.

Most books’ sub genres are pretty obvious from cover art. Take the basic scene of an impossible, un-airbrushed, buxom beauty crawling over a man with unlikely six-pack abs. Romance, yes?

Add in handcuffs and chains and a hint of blood, and one clearly has a different sub genre—erotica with an S&M angle.

Same original art with a hint of fangs becomes paranormal romance.

Same original art with a dragon in the sky and ship in the back ground, or a magical staff glowing with blowing ether, or with swords and a jolly roger and on and on.

Rich’s question came because the sub genre of the Rogue Mage series, my own first fantasy series, was presented in two *very* — and I mean *very* different manners.

The covers of the TP (trade paperback) versions each depicted the six-pack abs, but each ab package was on a naked man with wings and a sword. Very pretty naked men, each with a stern expression on his face. Wings and sword made him a seraph of judgment. In Rich’s opinion, the covers were for paranormal romance, and he passed on the books. Then thy came out in MM PB (mass market paperback) with a tough chick holding a gun and edged weapons, and he picked them up and liked them. He noted that the MM and TP each appealed to very different audiences.  Rich wanted to know why the pub started off in one direction and then changed. The answer is that the market changed after the series was purchased and during the writing of it.

I sold the series based on 3 chapters and a proposal, so my editor at the time had a lot of input in the crafting the storyline in terms of market trends. I originally intended the series for dark urban fantasy, with a bit more forbidden sex in it, the sex to start in BloodRing, book one.

While I was writing book one, my editor asked me to cool it down, as there was a lot of anger and unhappiness building at another urban fantasy writer for leaving her urban roots and going for more erotica. So, I never wrote the first sex scene at all, though parts of it ended up in book three, Host. The only real sex scene came in book two, Seraphs, and it was toned way down. I held off on the institution and resolution of other sexual relationships, concentrating on building sexual tension, until books four through six. (Assuming there will be more in the series. With the market so unpredictable, it’s hard to tell if the pub will ask for more books.)

Was my editor’s decision to tone down the sex and then to put an angel on the cover of the trade PBs wise? Changing cover styles certainly brought me two very different readerships and that was what she intended. In the case of the Rogue Mage, more sexual freedom starting at the end of book one would have balanced out the fighting and given the main character a softer side, which had to be developed in other ways. And while the winged covers were beautiful and lots of people ooohed over them, I think the urban image fits the storyline better.  But all that is IMHO, and we all have those. (smiles) And I have no idea if something else might have worked better.

Any horror stories or comments from ya’ll? Thoughts about cover art and other trends?


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19 comments to Cover Art and SubGenre

  • I’m no pro in this department by any stretch. I’ve not published yet so I can’t even complain about bad covers from personal experience. I will say however, I do believe they have a reasonably significant impact on sales, just from a reader standpoint. Browsing through a bookstore, it can be even more limited to titles, which is probably worthy of its own blog post. Since most books you see on the shelves are spine out, the initial draw, unless you are looking for a specific author is by title. Only the books sitting face out get the advantage of the initial ‘glance’ at cover art. This is different of course if you are shopping online, where you always can look at cover art right off the bat. Online versus store shopping is yet another blog post. lol. Just on the subject of covers though. I will admit, a bad cover will turn me away from a book right away. Sometimes, I’ll pick up a book to see if the book sounds as bad as the cover looks. In general though, bad cover means I’m not buying it. Sad to say, but it’s true. I will say though, that I will cut the cover some slack if the title sounds cool or interesting. I’m not a heavy reader. My current life doesn’t allow for much of it if I want to have decent time to write. I also don’t browse a lot for books online. I don’t see who the ‘hot’ authors are currently. I snoop around the bookstore on the occasional times I make it over there. A face out cover may catch my eye, but mostly, I’ll walk along the rows of shelves, head tilted far enough over for me to read the spines, and I look for catchy titles. Catchy title gets it in my hand, decent cover helps to pique interst, interesting blurb has me opening pages, and then if the writing hooks me, I’ll seriously consider it. I’m sure folks have their own ways of going about finding books. That’s just my usual way. Word of mouth is obviously another very good way to get me to think about buying. That will generally trump all of the other above factors.

  • Yeah, I agree. If I can’t see the cover the title does influence my decision to at least look at a book as well.

    Yep, I ofttimes judge a book by its cover, so when a bad piece of art or art that just doesn’t fit the book makes my eye twitch I will pass it up. As Jim said, I might pick it up anyway out of morbid curiosity, especially if it’s an author I know (another reason to not change the names on other genres, but I personally like seeing diversity in an author), or has a catchy (very at this point) title, but generally I’ll leave it be.

    Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the first book of Faith’s trilogy based on the cover. Yeah, it was sort of pretty in a Fabio-like I can’t believe it’s not butter sort of way, but wasn’t particularly eye catching for me (the new covers are sweet though). I actually did think going into it that it was going to have more romance than what it did, in which I was pleasantly surprised. There was just enough without being bogged down in it.

    I’ve read romance, I’ve written romance. My wife says that I should get into writing romance, because I do it well, evidently, much better than most she’s read, but it’s not really my favorite genre. Much of it just seems the same.

    I actually picked up Faith’s book because of hearing about it through Christina Stiles. The premise sounded pretty cool, so I gave ’em a shot. I actually gave a little review on my Myspace because I put Faith in my number 40 spot. I do that for business and artistic people I know on there from time to time and then blog about what they do. But I digress.

    I think I’ve said on here before that I tend to judge a book by cover first, then Author and back cover tend to interchange between second and third, then the teaser on the inside. If the cover’s not all that good or doesn’t give me a good indication of what the book is about I’ll check the author. If it’s a new author I’ll look at the back for sure. Then the inside teaser. Then if the book blows my mind I’ll constantly wonder at who chose the artwork for it.

    And Faith… The sentences, “impossible, un-airbrushed, buxom beauty crawling over a man with unlikely six-pack abs”


    “a magical staff glowing with blowing ether,”

    should maybe not go together. Then again, it does kinda fit the genre. 😉

  • I was terrified about my cover art. It being a novel about a female pirate, I had nightmarish visions of a scantily-clad woman, gripping the lines and leaning out over the stormy seas, her gravity-defying breasts edging dangerously close to escape from the shirt that was closed by a single, desperate button.

    When the cover sketches finally showed up, I burst into tears of joy. I may never be so lucky again, but at least I have one gorgeous book cover to comfort myself. 😀

  • While dust/cover art sometimes succeeds in catching my eye instead of repulsing me, the book’s title needs to have some poetry or music to it in order to engage my intellectual curiosity sufficiently to get me to pick the book up to read the back blurb. If I can get past that point, I’ll check the first sentence/paragraph, and if I get past *that* point I’ll blindly open the book to somewhere in the middle to see if the quality of writing is consistent.

    But there needs to be truth in advertising. The visual cues in the cover art need to be authentic to the story between the *koff* covers, or I’m gonna feel gypped — which *will* make me cranky — and less likely to trust that author’s byline ever again.

    @Misty: “…a single, desperate button.” Oh, that was beautiful!! 😀

  • Jim, keeping up with the *hot* authors is pretty important, especially in this market. Being able to say, “My book is like the love child between Anita and Kestrel,” might win you a sell. But you are right to get it written first.

    Daniel, one of the best romance writers I’ve read is a guy,(his real name is Harold…) and he is a huge attraction at romance cons. And…mmmm…I guess I shouldn’t add *tongue in cheek* to the list of nonsequiturs… Or sequiters? Hmmm.

    Radish, I totally agree about the *single desperate button* comment. Misty does have a way with words!

  • Misty, that whole description had me rolling! 😀

    Faith, I have honestly thought about it. Hrmm, maybe Danielle Daviston wouldn’t kill me as a pen name. 😉

    QUOTE: I guess I shouldn’t add *tongue in cheek* to the list of nonsequiturs… Or sequiters? Hmmm.

    LOL! You’re bad, very bad! 😀

  • Covers are important, up to a point. For instance, there are certain versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that have absolutely hideous covers that I refused to buy for myself or anyone else.

    That said, I didn’t give Faith’s books a second glance when it came to their old trade covers. It gave the impression of a very different book. Now that they’ve been released in MM with those new covers they really stand out.

    As has been mentioned, since most books are binder out it is the titles that first catch my eye.

    There was a big debate going on recently about the cover for Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold novel coming out soon. His First Law covers are of burnt parchment/maps and really nice looking. The cover for his new novel (set in the same world as the trilogy) is a combination of the parchment look and a female character (the lead protagonist). Reaction was quite mixed and quite vocal from what I remember.

    Authors I already read do have an advantage in that a horrid cover art won’t prevent me from buying the book. However, I might not bring said book out in public.

    By the way, the cover to Mad Kestral is excellent and quite different from most fantasy covers.

  • CE said: However, I might not bring said book out in public.

    AND: By the way, the cover to Mad Kestral is excellent and quite different from most fantasy covers.

    I totally agree CE. MadKestrel’s cover gave a new look to fantasy that I quite like. It’s elegant and colorful and almost forces a reader to pick it up.

    And I’m glad you like my new covers too. Happy dancing!

  • Just gotta share…
    Today’s been a good day. After a week of marathon writing, I finished the first rough of the WIP at 5:05 pm EDT. And it’s official name is..(drumroll) Blood Cross. I love it!

    Now for an epilogue and a rewrite.

  • All I really have to say is there had *so* better be more books, or this reader might have to do something drastic.

    To add to the conversation: Most of the books I’ve picked up lately have been through word of mouth from an author I already read – whether due to a blog post or blurb. For instance: I picked up Simon R Green based on Jim Butcher’s cover blurb. I first read BLOODRING because of an endorsement from Kim Harrison, and after a few posts here at Magical Words, I picked up at least one book from everyone. You were all to witty to do otherwise. 🙂

  • Er. I meant to add that I don’t normally pay attention to the cover if I’ve already got an endorsement from an author I love. And well, I read all of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series despite the awful cover art, so that proves I don’t judge a book by its cover!

  • *blushes* Thanks, guys!

    You know, I did actually choose a book by its cover once. Back when I was newly graduated from college and working in a bookstore, I ran across The Initiate by Louise Cooper, with simply amazing cover art by Robert Gould. I had no idea what it was about, but the cover was stunning, so I bought the book. I think I stared at the cover for a couple of weeks before I even started reading it. To my great good fortune, the story was as wonderful as the cover.

    That doesn’t happen as often as I wish it would.

  • Misty, The Initiate was one of those covers that just drew me right to it. I just had to buy it. The Time Master trilogy remains one of my favorites. Tarod is pretty high up on my all-time favorite characters from a fantasy book.

    Robert Gould is one of my favorite cover artists. His covers of Louise Cooper’s books, his Elric covers and his Avaryan Rising covers for Judith Tarr are all outstanding.

  • I am a sucker for good cover art. If something interests me on the cover, I will buy it. One of my favorite covers has been for David’s Seeds of Betrayal. There is so much passion there and intrigue. Alternatively, bad covers can kill my purchase too. I haven’t read any GRRM because I hate his covers. He may write great, but I am not really interested in his covers.

    A good Coverart is like a good first impression. It sets the tone for the whole book. If you give a bad first impression, then the reader will start off expecting the book to be bad. It would be then up to the writer to overcome that in writing. However an awsome cover better deliever too. Otherwise it would be like putting a pig in a tuxedo.

  • Coming a bit late to the conversation…. First of all, congrats on finishing the WIP, Faith! Great news. And I love the title. I agree that your mm jacket art fits the story much better than the trade jacket did.

    I was very lucky with my first cover — Children of Amarid. The hardcover version was a bit dark, but Tor printed so few of them that it didn’t really matter. What did matter was that they got the color and contrast dead on perfect for the mass market paperback. No one had ever heard of me, but the book sold; I think it’s now in its fifth or sixth printing. I credit the artist.

    Thanks for the kind words about Seeds of Betrayal, Mark. I actually was nervous about that cover because of the nearly topless woman on the cover ( for the curious). I thought it would keep some people from buying it. But as my editor pointed out, many of my readers are adolescent boys, and no one ever went out of business trying to sell breasts to an adolescent boy . . . . Overall, I’ve been quite pleased with my jacket art. No bad ones, really. And a couple of gems.

    And I LOVE the description of your nightmare jacket, Misty!

  • I’m the absolute opposite; I care zero about covers. Since I only buy online these days, it’s summaries, recommendations, reviews, blogs and whatnot that gets me interestested in a book, not a cover thumbnail. When the book arrives and the cover looks nice, it’s just a bonus.

    That said, the WoT covers are terrible. 🙂

  • David said: But as my editor pointed out, many of my readers are adolescent boys, and no one ever went out of business trying to sell breasts to an adolescent boy . . .

    David, I nearly spewed my tea. My editor said something similar about men and a woman in leather with a sword and a gun, but yours works much better.

  • Yeah, it’s probably much harder to sell a naked male angel with six-pack abs to a man than it is to sell a kick-butt (not sure of the age groups here) woman in leather armor with a sword and gun to either a man or woman. 😉

    My wife prefers the new covers too because she likes strong kick-butt female characters. She likes naked male angels too, but prefers this one that’s sporting a two-liter instead of a six-pack. 😉

  • Mark, you are so right about the good first impression. My one horrid cover (as opposed to the some great, some not so great cover art) was a total failure. And the sales…well, I still deal with it on a professional level.

    David, I like the cover!!!!

    Daniel, one thing I guess I could have mentioned about the naked angels. I got a *lot* a gay men fans. Go figure…