The Art and Science of Book Covers

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.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, cover

(Click on image for a larger view.)

For. The. Win, baby. (Literally.)

So tell me what you think. If it does what it’s supposed to do — hooks you — then feel free to pre-order the book, since that can now be done on Amazon. And if you want to compliment the creators, head on over to the Orbit blog to offer your praises to the art director (and also hear her thoughts on how the design was decided-upon and finalized). Or head over to the site of Cliff Nielsen, the artist, where you can ooh and ahh over the rest of his phenomenal work, and remember to nominate/vote for him come awards time.

At least I’ll be sleeping easier for awhile. Until Launch Day, that is. ::ulp::

11 Responses to “The Art and Science of Book Covers”

  1. 1 rachelaaron
    April 30, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    That is LOVELY, and I get the tone right away. If I saw this in a bookstore, I would guess that we’re going to have a deep and twisty story here, probably with a clever, strong, but not gun toting heroine, probably with some political drama (since there’s a castle on the cover), obviously for an adult market, serious, dramatic, sweeping fantasy. And looking at your description, I wasn’t far off.

    Super duper congrats on getting a great cover! Orbit does the BEST covers (*pause for squeeing, since they’re my publisher as well, eeeee!)

  2. 2 Terri-Lynne
    April 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Oh, yeah! I commented on someone’s blog within the last week (I think it must have been your agent’s) about that cover. It’s probably the most gorgeous cover I’ve ever seen. No, seriously. If I saw it in a bookstore, I’d pick it up without question. Of course, I’d never buy it because it probably sucks…

    Ha! Kidding. It’s already pre-ordered on Amazon. I honestly didn’t know it was yours when I did so. Score!

    I have to admit that I much prefer a ‘landscape’ sort of cover to a peopled one. I don’t want the cover to tell me what the characters look like. Leave that up to me, thank you very much. If I wanted a visual, I’d watch TV. I love the mood your cover evoks, the promise it makes. Awesome.

    Looking forward to that Amazon package coming!

  3. April 30, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Great looking cover! Looks very professional and intriguing. I agree that the cover can make or break a story just as good or poor music will do to a movie.

  4. April 30, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    First of all, great cover. Mine was also by Cliff Nielsen, so obviously he’s a genius!

    With my book, which has two primary POV characters, they chose not to feature the male POV character (who gets about 60% of the POV) on the cover at all, and instead went with the female POV character (who gets about 40% of the POV).

  5. April 30, 2009 at 7:44 pm


    Huh — that’s interesting. Coupled with the back-mostly-to-the-viewer pose, and the cityscape in the background, it seems clear they were trying to appeal to the “kickass heroine” urban fantasy segment of the market. Makes sense; probably sells better these days than Yet Another Male Fantasy Protagonist. (I often wonder if one of the reasons my first novel hasn’t sold is because it has a male protag, now that the commercial roles have reversed so thoroughly. I wonder how long that’ll hold?)

    And wow, that’s Nielsen too? So different! And yes, definitely a genius, though I think we might be a leeeetle biased.

  6. April 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm


    Wow, then you ordered it on the strength of the cover alone?? That’s so cool! (Maybe I shouldn’t say that too loud; might have to do a profit-sharing agreement with Nielsen then =P)

  7. 7 Rachel Aaron
    April 30, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Haha, I was just looking at our sidebar… and we’ve got such LOVELY complementary colored covers! It’s like a rainbow! You’d think we’d planned it that way or something.

    Watch as mine comes alone and ruins the theme :p.

  8. 8 Terri-Lynne
    April 30, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Wow–they really ARE very nice covers. Every one of them. Gorgeous artwork.

  9. May 1, 2009 at 3:26 am

    Yeah, they are nicely complementary, aren’t they? Can’t wait ’til the set is complete with your book, Rachel — and I’m sure it’ll be gorgeous. Orbit does great covers, as you can see!

  10. 10 Siobhan Carroll
    May 1, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Looks like a sweet cover. You win!

  11. 11 drtombibey
    December 7, 2009 at 8:58 am

    My book, ‘The Mandolin Case’ is due out in 2010. I’d love any comments as to book cover design ideas. See today’s post 12 7 09.


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