Pub Rants

What We Say When We Talk About Covers

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STATUS: It’s been one of those days. It’s almost 4 o’clock and I haven’t even tackled my TO DO for today. Seriously, I think I only get my scheduled work done at the office between the hours of 3 and 7.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAY HEY (I LOVE YOU) by Michael Franti and Spearhead

What is said 1: “I’ve shown this cover to everyone here in the office and we all love it. I hope you love it as much as I do.”

What is said 2: “This has been approved by sales & marketing and they just love it. I hope you love it as much as I do”

What is said 3: “We believe our concept is very strong and will really signal that this is a big book. We are excited about the author and these covers.”

Possible Translation 1: Everyone in the office indeed loves it. Sales & Marketing also love it and has approved it. The cover really does rock. It’s new, original, fresh, and innovative.

Possible Translation 2: Editor is worried about the cover but is hoping for the best. That we’ll like it and won’t raise a fuss. There won’t be a cover issue.

Possible Translation 3: That this is really not the greatest cover but time and money have been spent on the concept and the art design/photo shoot and the publisher really doesn’t want to start over. Editor will have a tough road to try and change it.

Possible translation: Editor actually doesn’t care for it but must present it as is. Is hoping we’ll raise a fuss so she can go back to the Art Department and say “see, I thought this was a miss.” Editor then fights strongly for a cover change.

I’ve never had an editor come to me and say, “gee, I think this cover stinks. I think it needs a do-over but what do you think first?”

For the most part, I really do believe that publishing houses and their cover departments have a good handle on the creating of the cover art. That it is their expertise more so than it is mine.

But I don’t believe that publishing houses always know best. If they did, there would never be bad covers. There would never be two covers for two different authors with the same image or the same model on the cover. And released at the same time. There would never be covers that are nixed by the B&N buyer.

The Cover art wouldn’t ever miss.

But it does. Far too frequently.

19 Responses

  1. C.D. Reimer said:

    The only gripe I have with cover art is when a science fiction novel has a female character, some hot and heavy romance, and a woman author, the cover looks like a bodice ripper in space. I’m not sure if I would picked Linnea Sinclair’s “Gabriel’s Ghost” with the new cover art.

    Blah… I guess science fiction romance sells…

  2. Alessa Ellefson said:

    It’s funny how we always say not to judge a book by its cover, yet I know that’s that’s the deciding factor that makes me pick up a book versus another. If it doesn’t get my imagination going, then I don’t even bother to know what the book’s about (I know, a “nasty” habit I should break).

    So thank you for fighting to get really nice book covers! 🙂 It has allowed me to find some really nice stories (and I’m hoping I haven’t missed too many good ones for that reason as well)!

  3. Janet said:

    Cover art has never made me buy a book. It has prevented me from picking up many a book to check further.

    If I have enough confidence in the author already, I ignore the cover art.

  4. Susan Kelley said:

    I agree with you, Jane. Good cover art my inspire me to pick up a book and therefore read the blurb. I have bought books that have ‘not so good art’ but usually it’s because I know the author or word of mouth recommendations. I hope I have editors that will fight for good art for me.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I have a question for any one who may know the answer.

    How much input does the author have in determining the cover?

    What if the author doesn’t like the cover that is being proposed by the publisher?

    Since the story is the creation from the author, I would assume that the author has ideas of what the cover should be.

    I don’t like the idea that the author creates an entire world in the novel, and the publisher is the one that determines the cover.

    I’ve seen some covers that I think are just dreadful. If the cover doesn’t peek my interest, then I would not even give the content of the novel a moment’s glance. For me, I think the cover is extremely important because the cover gives a gist of the entire novel.

    I do think that a really cool cover does help sell books. For me, sales does define success.

    I don’t know if I could ever sign a contract without knowing that I have final approval of what the cover would look like.

  6. Julie Weathers said:

    The cover question worries me. As a debut author, I understand I won’t have much say. However, after seeing one murder mystery cover featuring some legs sticking out from under a bush and at the end of the legs the most hideous carnival yellow boots with all kinds of gaudy designs, I do hope my future agent has some persuasive abilities.

    The author of that book, a knowledgeable horsewoman, said in an interview, “No cutting horse trainer would be caught dead in those boots. Well, mine was, I guess.”

  7. Anonymous said:

    Interestingly, when it comes to my covers, I’ve had less input with the smaller, indie publisher than with my major one. The smaller company went through a cycle of designs, but in each case, it was a courtesy ‘here’s what we’re showing the buyers’ rather than a genuine consultation. My agent had to chase and push to see anything, and in the end, I was sent a brand new design out of nowhere that looked nothing like previous ideas and told pretty much, ‘this is it’. Which I understand is their right, but still felt ambushed over.

    On the other hand, the major publisher I’m working with right now have been lovely. I’ve been invited to send ideas, and I’ve even been sent the rejected designs, with the comments from art and s&m, so I know what their thought process is. My editor and I chatted from the very start about design direction – and this is all without my agent lifting a finger. I guess the individual editor really makes a difference to the process!

  8. Anonymous said:

    Anon 10.04, I’d suggest having a read of the previous PubRants post. The situation described is pretty standard: most contracts will guarantee that the author will be ‘consulted’ (but as discussed, what counts as ‘consultation’ varies a lot), but the publishing company usually has the final say.

    I wrote the comment beginning ‘an editor’s 2 cents’ in the previous post, so I’m again commenting from an editor’s point of view. Giving the publishing company the final say is, in my opinion, for good reason. The author and agent may have plenty to contribute, but ultimately the cover is a sales/marketing tool, and, in my view, the collective wisdom in a publishing house (editors, publishers, marketers, sales reps, designers etc etc) has a better chance of getting this right than most individual authors. Also: collaboration is valuable, but it also has the potential to go on endlessly, and in practice decisions have to be made to tight deadlines. So, someone has to have the authority to say, ‘Right, we have to settle on a cover by next Wednesday’ and to declare the collaborative stage officially over.

    Anon 3.16: my experience as an editor at both a big multinational and a small indie matches yours. In my current job, at a small independent, we often give authors only a very perfunctory chance to ‘approve’ covers – we often send covers to authors only once we consider them to be pretty much final, and we frequently bypass agents altogether.
    I’ve become used to this now, but it was definitely a shock when I first arrived fresh from a big commercial publisher. There, the author would have much more input into the cover, and the cover would often go through many more rounds of revisions.
    I think this difference reflects good and bad things about small publishing houses. In a realy small publishing company, everyone may sit in one or two rooms, and decisions are often made in spontaneous discussions rather than drawn-out scheduled meetings. This has its advantages. It avoids some of the creativity-killing committee-think that happens in big publishing companies. But when it comes to covers, it may mean that the in-house designer comes up with a few cover concepts three weeks before the book is due to go to print. Let’s say it takes a week for the publisher, editor and sales/marketing person/people to discuss these and suggest some tweaks. A week later, there’s an agreed-upon ‘final version’. Some time in the following week, the editor sends this to the author/agent for ‘approval’. But the editor knows full well that there’s no time left for a new cover to be drafted, so he/she doesn’t encourage much real input form the author/agent. Obviously, this is not a great situation for the author.
    I have to say, though, that in my experience small publishers still tend to come up with better, more faithful, more original covers than big publishers. But I don’t think this has anything to do with the too-short time allowed for agent/author input. It’s because at big publishing houses, conservative sales/marketing teams often reject covers that might seem risky/creative/etc. The big publishers are therefore more likely to end up with covers that are safely familiar – they’re unlikely to be radically weird, but they’re also unlikely to be sparklingly fresh.
    An ideal publishing company, in my view, would combine elements of both. There’s no reason why a small publishing house, while still avoiding the stifling group-think of bigger companies, couldn’t allow a more decent amount of time for author consultation. Small companies can make decisions much more quickly than big companies, so we get into the habit of making decisions at the last minute – but that’s no excuse for excluding authors from the covers process. When books end up with bad/boring/ugly covers, it’s nearly never owing to the author, I’m sure. A much more likely culprit is a lazy compromise between editorial/marketing/sales/publicity people, resulting in a boring/bland/blah cover. Small publishing companies have the agility to avoid this. But we should still make an effort to incorporate the author/agent’s thoughts and suggestions. These last couple of blog posts have reminded me of that.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Yes, it’s true that there are some horrible covers out there and I always feel bad for the authors in that case. There are also some beautiful covers espousing some horrible books like those found on anything by the author Sunny.

    As a fantasy author myself I would shudder to see an old school Boris Vallejo-style cover on anything of mine. No dragons or bikini-clad ladies, please!

  10. Madison said:

    Since I know if I’m ever going to get lucky enough for publication and what I say may not go, I don’t worry about any type of cover issues right now. I don’t even imagine what my books will (hopefully!) look like, and that’s strange considering my imagination! 😀

  11. Ellen Gerstein said:

    I feel like I should post this anonymously, but I won’t, because it’s against my nature.

    My biggest issues as a marketer are often dealing with the art department. I don’t speak the language. I come at cover design knowing what I want to see on a cover, but utterly hopeless when it comes to translating it to something that a designer can understand. I work with some of the most talented designers in the business, but they’re still your co-workers and they can only take so much. They don’t like when you say “can the font be a little less fru fru” or “would you flip the art with the type.” I’ve been in situations where I exhausted my goodwill with designers and have had to go back to an author with a cover that I know could have been better but if I asked for just one more re-do, they were going to explode. That’s one scenario you didn’t cover, but it does happen.

    Thankfully for everyone, I’m not hands on with covers anymore, and the people who are, for the most part, speak the language. Heck, one of my marketers is married to one of our designers, so you KNOW she’s getting good covers.

  12. Kathy said:

    This may be a crazy question but does anyone in the AD ever read the book beforehand to get an idea on what the cover should be? Or are they just given a synopsis and draw from there?

  13. Margaret said:

    Regarding never hearing from an editor that they hate the cover: in my experience, if an editor really hates a cover, it will never see the light of day, not even for the agent or author to look at. It will be sent back to the art department before it gets any further.

  14. a writer said:

    My first book had three covers that were public: the original cover (appeared on the ARCS), the cover that came after that after the accounts nixed the original cover, and the reboot cover for the paperback. I have no idea how many versions didn’t even make it to me. There was a whole photo shoot at some point that they scrapped entirely. I didn’t even get to see outtakes.

    My new book already has three covers, and that’s not including the one that they mocked up from an outtake of the photo shoot so they could put SOMETHING on the ARC. Ironically, in their newest attempt, they are going back to the concept I’ve been fighting for since we sold the book (and that they insisted wasn’t saleable — apparently the accounts disagree).

    Cover designers are really really scared to do anything “different.” That’s why covers always look the same.

  15. L.C.McCabe said:


    I understand the passion that book covers can generate in authors, but I wonder if spines ever become a matter of contention as well.

    I remember working at B&N about ten years ago and coming across one book with a white cover and pink italic lettering on its spine. It was hard to read when the book was in my hand and would have been impossible on a shelf.

    To me, since most books in a bookstore are placed spine out on a shelf rather than face out, I think it is more important to have a good spine along with a good title to compel a browser to pick the book off the shelf than it is a killer cover design.

    Has the spine ever been an issue with any of your clients?


  16. Melissa Walker said:

    I love your translations here; I never thought about this!

    I interview other authors and get their Cover Stories for my blog on Mondays–it’s amazing how many have gotten new covers after an original version was deemed not quite right. (Or maybe those are the ones who give me their stories most often!).

    Tomorrow (Monday) is the story of Alexa Young and FRENEMIES–it’s a doozy!