Apologies in advance to people who heard about this first on my blog; yeah, I’m still psyched about it. Sorry.
So at last I’ve reached the first of hopefully many psychological milestones in my career as a pro writer: seeing my book’s cover art. But wait, you say. (Go along with me, here.) How is that your first psychological milestone? Shouldn’t it be, oh, learning to deal with rejection? Your first conversation with your editor? Your first reading? Your first look at a book contract, with all the promise and peril that it entailed?
Pshaw — all that stuff is business. This is personal.
Except it’s business too. A book’s cover art is probably its most effective marketing tool, short of the author’s name once that name becomes a known brand. A good cover must convey many things simultaneously — whether the book will appeal to its target audience, some hint of the book’s plot or theme, and enough mystery to intrigue readers into pulling it off the shelf. Most covers actually convey quite a bit more than that, including subliminal messages. For example, I’ve been told by folks in the publishing industry that the reason we see so many “faceless” (e.g., back turned towards the viewer, head cut off, or silhouetted) female characters on a certain kind of urban fantasy novel is so that the reader can “project” herself onto the character more easily. These tend to be urban fantasies featuring the “kick-ass” heroine archetype, and they’re meant to appeal to women readers of SF/F who’ve been starved for agency and empowerment in their entertainment. By encouraging reader projection, these book covers send the message: “Read this and you’ll feel more powerful.” And given the popularity of this subset of urban fantasy, the message must be working.
Thing is, this kind of messaging can go both ways, inadvertently discouraging readers if the cover is cliched, tasteless, or makes incorrect assumptions about the book’s audience. A great example of the latter is the infamous practice of “whitewashing” (usage best-known from Ursula LeGuin’s reference to television, but applies to books too), in which cover art depicts a character as white when the character is actually some other race. I’m told that in the bad old days, a similar phenomenon happened to female protagonists too; they got sex changes on the cover, or the cover art was arranged in such a way as to put male characters — even minor ones — at the forefront. The message inherent in these kinds of covers is a little less friendly, at least beyond the target audience: “Hey, white males, come check out this book! And if you’re not white and male, you know you want to be, so come enjoy the vicarious experience of being a white guy, as if you don’t already get that experience every time you open a book!”
So, since the protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a non-white non-man, you can imagine I was a little anxious about my cover art.
Worse, my book doesn’t fit so neatly into the existing subgenres of SF/F. It’s a “big” story, full of world-changing politics and religion, so I guess that makes it epic fantasy. We’ve seen what epic fantasy covers usually look like: sweeping vistas, one or several characters doing “dramatic” things, maybe some monsters. But wait! There’s a prominent love story in my book too, including a couple of (if I may say so myself) steamy scenes. And the story takes place in a palace so huge that it’s a city in its own right. That means it might appeal to urban fantasy and paranormal romance readers too. And we know what those covers tend to look like: the aforementioned faceless woman in a sexy outfit or pose, or a handsome man baring his arms, chest, belly, etc. Maybe a vampire/werewolf/demon hanging out nearby, and maybe a cityscape in the background. There’s more! The story includes a Plot-Critical Magical Object, which the characters are all vying to control. So it’s also got some quest fantasy elements, and those look like… heck, they’re all over the place.
All marketing considerations aside, though, this still is my baby we’re talking about — the story that I poured several years of my life into, wrote twice in fact, had dreams about, spent vacations working on, annoyed my friends babbling about. So although I tried to keep my expectations open for the cover art… y’know, in secret? I was a nervous wreck. I even had a nightmares about it. In one, the cover art featured a dog in a tutu, racing up a mountain. (No, I hadn’t been drinking. That’s a stereotype, you know.)
Anyway, last week, finally, the wait was over.
Continue reading ‘The Art and Science of Book Covers’