Earlier this summer, we had a few laffs sharing the good, bad, and downright ugly covers that have come our Wenchly way. The more books you write, the greater your chances are for a real stinker, but also the greater your odds for a beauty, too. It’s just part of the writing business.
Yet many readers want to know how this happens –– or more, how we “let” this happen. The sad truth is that, depending on the publisher, the writer often has precious little to do with the cover design. It’s a bit like having someone else pick out your wedding dress. You may like it or loathe it, but you still have to smile for the cameras.
So where do covers –– that visual image wrapped around a written story that with luck will both entice buyers and capture the mood of the book –– come from, anyway?
In most cases, design for the cover “package” for a mass-market paperback begins months in advance of the book’s publication date, and often before the manuscript is even finished. Usually the editor will ask the writer if she has any suggestions: a particular scene or location in the book, something that will evoke the spirit of the book. Authors often send in photographs of men that resemble their heroes or other “visual aids” that might help the designers. At Harlequin/Silhouette, authors are given a multi-page “cover fact sheet” to complete that requires full descriptions of the hero and heroine (Among the choices for hair color is “raven” –– ah, only in romance-land!) as well as any scenes that might make a good cover.
After that, the author sits back and crosses her fingers.
Covers are a team project, overseen by the publisher’s art director. There will be a copywriter for the back and front cover blurbs, a designer who determines the colors, fonts, and final layout, and often an illustrator/artist (usually hired on a freelance basis) for the painting on the cover.
Representatives in marketing and sales also will have a say in the final cover. Mass market publishing is notoriously faddish, and publishers will copy one another relentlessly in their quest for readers. If one house has success with headless, bare-chested torsos, then others are sure to follow.
Authors who sell are the ones given cover perks: their name in a distinctive font bigger than the title, lots of foil and embossing, artwork on the front as well as the back. Stepback covers, with a second cover/illustration behind the first, can double the production cost of the cover, and are generally reserved for top-selling authors.
Genre fiction, whether romance, fantasy, or sci-fi, is the last bastion of elaborate cover illustration, and there’s a handful of artists who specialize in this work (though one of my earlier covers was painted by an artist who divided her time between romance book covers and the paintings –– Graceland, Mount Vernon, Princess Diana, Baby’s First Christmas –– that would be screened onto limited edition collectible plates for the Franklin Mint.) Some are, obviously, more talented than others, and it’s not uncommon for the best ones to be paid more than a beginning author’s advance.
For convenience and economy’s sake, artists work from photographs of the models (who are generally hired for only an hour or two per cover), so that the artist often has rough sketches of the pose for the models already in mind. The models change into costume, assume the pose, and the artist shoots as many as two or three rolls of film from different angles and with different lighting.
And yes, there is often a fan or wind machine, to blow about the hair and draperies for a suitably passionate effect.
Cover artists keep a collection of props and costumes in their studio, which is why, if you’re attentive, you’ll see the same pillows, vases, and gowns appearing over and over again on covers. This also explains why clothing anachronisms abound. That pirate-hero’s shirt that looks suspiciously like it’s by After Six probably is, and the “Regency” gown may in fact have begun its life as a high-waisted prom dress in the 1960s. And it’s also the reason why certain clinch-couples seem to transcend time, appearing on contemporary covers as well as historicals; artists will often shoot the photographs for several covers in a single session with the same models.
While the days of cover “supermodels” like Fabio and Steve Sandalis seem mercifully past, there are still those who specialize in cover work. I’ve been told that most of the men are unemployed actors, favored by artists for the ability to emote more convincingly for the camera than regular print models, and that the female models are often young women who came to New York to become fashion models, but proved to be too short or too voluptuous (!!)
Like much of the graphic design world, many artists are now creating their illustrations via computers. The cover-pose-photograph that once served as a reference for a painting in acrylics is now enhanced and manipulated and combined with other images electronically. While the feel of an original painting has been lost, computers do make it much easier to change the background color, or transform a blond heroine into a redhead.
At every step of production, covers are circulated through the entire design team as well as past editors and marketing. Yet accidents still happen: who can forget the infamous Heroine with Three Arms on that long-ago Christina Dodd cover?
Where is the author in all this? Depending on the publisher, a sketch may be sent to her for approval and suggestions, sometimes a more complete color version. Some publishers offer drafts of the cover copy for approval; many authors write their own. At other houses (like Harlequin), authors only see the completed, printed cover-flat (an actual unbound cover), with no chance for suggestions or corrections.
But no matter what the opinions might be of the author, the editor, the art director, the sales rep, or the bookseller: the only judgment that counts is that of the reader at the cash register. If a cover catches your eye among a thousand others on the shelf and you buy the book, then it’s done it’s job, and is deemed an enormous success. You’re the ultimate judge, jury, and tastemaker.
Did you ever dream you had so much power? 🙂