Monday, March 19, 2012

On Covers and Fantasy Books

Recently it was brought to my attention, by Mr. Bryce Dayton and others, that the cover for Daniel Polansky’s new book,  Tomorrow the Killing, is very similar to the cover of my book, The Emperor’s Knife.

I have seen a lot of blue-tinged books in the stores, especially this luminescent, greenish blue, featured below on (the newest edition of?) The Name of the Wind, which also shows a hooded man and a landscape, though in each of these three books the landscape is different:

Though all these covers are beautiful, I notice they seem to be made up of photographs that can be recycled (I think I have seen the man on my cover gracing other books, and you can see a similar device on both The Emperor’s Knife and Tomorrow the Killing). They also use the identical font. Contrast this with the unique cover of Prince of Thorns, drawn by Jason Chan:

Here you see more variation in color, the dramatic cut-out of the cloak from the white background, and the specially created font. I don’t think many would deny this is a special cover.

In the SFF world much is made of covers. Good covers, bad covers, covers that misrepresent the contents. There is no end for discussion here. Since I use a kindle I often don’t see the covers, or see them only in passing as I order the book, and so it is sometimes difficult for me to know how much they might influence the buying habits of others. Still, there are things I have come to understand. First, a cover with a naked male torso, or a romantic-looking male looking off into the distance, are a big turnoff for some men:

While hooded men are code for lots of action and assassin-type stuff:

Swords and men in historical getup mean “fantasy” of one type or another. A girl with her back to the camera, twisting around to look at the reader, means paranormal romance and/or urban fantasy (yikes! This one is holding onto a blade!). A more abstract cover on an SFF book signals that the contents are more adult or literary. A beautiful, ornate cover means you’re going to get some old-school magic and wonder.


Marketing minds at publishing companies must think about who is going to enjoy a book, and then tailor the cover accordingly. (Perhaps Daniel Polansky and I appeal to the same type of reader.) But marketing is more than covers; marketing is price, promotion, placement, distribution, timing, and so much more. The cover is the last thing at the end that causes the shopper to pick your book up from the shelf – but getting that book to the shelf, hopefully at eye level, is a series of other hidden tasks. Count into that the continuing loss of standard bookstores, and you begin to wonder how many sales are still made through covers. 

I’m thinking that besides selling books, covers serve to code a book and help you decide what not to buy as much as they help you decide the opposite. When readers buy such coded books and they don’t match to expectation, the disappointment is greater than if they had known they were trying something new.

In some ways publishers might be more in the dark than amazon. Amazon can reliably tell you, ‘people who clicked on this book also clicked on that book.’ But publishers can only hope that the same people who liked one book will like another, and design the cover accordingly. They know what they want to put out there, and thank goodness for that – but as to who will buy it, perhaps they don’t know the answer any more than you or I. So they use the cover as an opportunity to advertise, to catch the eye, to place the book in the buyer’s mind.

So to answer those who asked whether I planned to protest in some way the similarity between my book’s cover art and Mr. Polansky’s – no (I don’t even know if there is such a mechanism to complain about someone else’s cover art). I don’t care. Maybe we’ll sell one another’s books. Maybe not. But we are both communicating the same thing – an old city, some (perhaps regretful) killing, and some nice prose. At least I hope that’s what we’re communicating. And good luck to all of us!


  1. As far as the blue and red, orange and teal is a pretty common color combination lately in movies...

  2. I do think that covers ARE a code.

    This is UF with a kick-ass heroine.
    This is Epic fantasy
    This is Science Fiction

    Lisanne Norman insisted her covers, although with her two characters front and center on them, always include a spaceship.


    So it would be identified as SF instead of fantasy (one of the characters was a feline humanoid)

    But covers can be more than that, if done well.

  3. Covers are definitely a code for the reader, and not just in Speculative Fiction.

    A huge proportion of cozy mysteries have a cute almost cartoonish cover that clearly identifies their sub(or sub-sub)genre - culinary, vacation, any number of crafts, etc. With so many mystery novels all shelved by author's last name, this makes it much easier for readers to choose which books to investigate further.

    As much as I love a good cover illustration, it is the back cover that will sell me on a book or convince me to put the book back on the shelf.

  4. I hadn't really thought much about covers as telling me that a book is one I DON'T want to read, but it's totally true. I can tell you that I immediately avoid any book that has a dragon on the cover, and it still takes some convincing from others to get me to give it a read. Very nice post! Although, I am rather partial to any post that mentions me by name :P

  5. @Lisa Cover copy is a whole other issue I could blog about! I have issues with cover copy . . .

    @Bryce I avoid dragon covers myself.

  6. Your article is very informative. Being fairly new to the SFF genre, I consider it very helpful in making future choices. Thank you

  7. Hi Mazarkis,

    Great blog entry. I think that covers are integral to getting people to pick up a book and there's definitely a code interlaced in there. Perhaps regretfully, I still judge books (at least initially) by their covers. If I see leather-clad woman on the cover of book I run a mile, whereas if I see a cloaked figure I'm more likely read the back as I have an idea of what to expect. I have grown somewhat bored of the copious amount of cloaked figures on covers recently, though covers like Glenda Larke's Watergivers trilogy (UK) show that they can still be interesting (unlike the Dutch cover of Mark Lawrence's recent cover).

    I'm finding that more and more covers are using photo shoot images of models placed over CGI backgrounds. For me, seeing the face of the person on the cover too clearly puts me off as it places preconceptions in my mind of what the protagonist looks like, denying me my imagination. I also find that these covers often just don't look very good, looking flat and the protagonist seeming separated from their surroundings.

    The popularity of kindles and e-readers and the effect they may be having on covers an interesting question. I don't know the statistics of how many people use these now (I still read paper books) but would be interested to know. For me, the cover is a pretty important part of the book selection process (obviously partnered with recommendations, author history, plot etc) and I don't think I would feel all that comfortable reading a book from scratch without seeing the cover if someone hadn't suggested it.

    Just some thoughts!


  8. Thanks, Ally.

    I like what you said about not wanting to see the face. Someone else said that to me, too, and it's true that readers want to build the character's image from their own imaginations. Still, some of my favorite covers *do* show the face (Prince of Thorns, for example).

    I may be exaggerating when I say I "don't see the covers." The covers are after all displayed on amazon and may influence me more than I think. However, it's usually the ratings and the reader reviews that tip the scale for me. Interesting stuff.

  9. With the face revelation aspect of covers I think it depends a lot of time. With Prince of Thorns you don't see much, so it's not really giving too much away. Covers like the Carol Berg's above and Anne Bishop's for example (indeed it tends to be more paranormal/fantastical romance) ruin things for me sometimes.

    I was just discussing the influence of covers with my colleague, and it definitely varies. I'd say that if the reviews were good, I'd give a book with a rubbish cover a read - obviously. That being said, I probably wouldn't ever give the typical female-led urban fantasy/paranormal romance with a typical cover a go even if the reviews were good as I know it's not my thing. Whereas is the cover didn't so obviously pitch it as that and the reviews were good I would read it - so it has a lot of effect in that sense.

    I also think it's interesting looking at the covers released in different territories. I go over to France a few times each year and am always so impressed with their covers. They favour original fantasy artwork rather than the photoshop stuff. The French covers for Brent Weeks' 'The Black Prism' is gorgeous, America still seems to release a lot of their fantasy with older style artwork covers as well. It's interesting to see how each territory markets the books through the covers differently and I sometimes wonder if we all traded styles, the effect it would have on sales.