Where DO Covers Come From?

From Susan/Miranda:

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? 🙂

36 thoughts on “Where DO Covers Come From?”

  1. A most enlightening post, Susan/Miranda! I’ve never really had a picture of the whole process–only knew I had almost nothing to do with it–but lo, you have opened my eyes. I did recently reap some benefit from the new computer technology, when a hair color had to be changed–for which I am deeply thankful. And may I add that the cover for DUCHESS strikes me as perfect in every way.

    Reply
  2. A most enlightening post, Susan/Miranda! I’ve never really had a picture of the whole process–only knew I had almost nothing to do with it–but lo, you have opened my eyes. I did recently reap some benefit from the new computer technology, when a hair color had to be changed–for which I am deeply thankful. And may I add that the cover for DUCHESS strikes me as perfect in every way.

    Reply
  3. A most enlightening post, Susan/Miranda! I’ve never really had a picture of the whole process–only knew I had almost nothing to do with it–but lo, you have opened my eyes. I did recently reap some benefit from the new computer technology, when a hair color had to be changed–for which I am deeply thankful. And may I add that the cover for DUCHESS strikes me as perfect in every way.

    Reply
  4. Great topic, lots of interesting info!
    I remember my first visit to my publisher, which included a tour of the art department, where I saw the team’s graphic artists making changes to covers on computer screens — so cool to watch what they could do with a few clicks of the mouse!
    One of the neatest things was seeing some original cover paintings in acrylic on canvas that had arrived in the studio to be processed into final covers. The paintings were lush and gorgeous, with wonderful details that might never make it to the final covers. I was also surprised by the size of the canvases–the ones I saw were almost three by five feet. Some authors are lucky enough to be able to purchase the original art for their covers. 🙂
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  5. Great topic, lots of interesting info!
    I remember my first visit to my publisher, which included a tour of the art department, where I saw the team’s graphic artists making changes to covers on computer screens — so cool to watch what they could do with a few clicks of the mouse!
    One of the neatest things was seeing some original cover paintings in acrylic on canvas that had arrived in the studio to be processed into final covers. The paintings were lush and gorgeous, with wonderful details that might never make it to the final covers. I was also surprised by the size of the canvases–the ones I saw were almost three by five feet. Some authors are lucky enough to be able to purchase the original art for their covers. 🙂
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  6. Great topic, lots of interesting info!
    I remember my first visit to my publisher, which included a tour of the art department, where I saw the team’s graphic artists making changes to covers on computer screens — so cool to watch what they could do with a few clicks of the mouse!
    One of the neatest things was seeing some original cover paintings in acrylic on canvas that had arrived in the studio to be processed into final covers. The paintings were lush and gorgeous, with wonderful details that might never make it to the final covers. I was also surprised by the size of the canvases–the ones I saw were almost three by five feet. Some authors are lucky enough to be able to purchase the original art for their covers. 🙂
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  7. So, is there anything you the author can do if you are shown your cover, and you hate, hate, hate it and think it won’t work as a marketing tool?
    -Michelle

    Reply
  8. So, is there anything you the author can do if you are shown your cover, and you hate, hate, hate it and think it won’t work as a marketing tool?
    -Michelle

    Reply
  9. So, is there anything you the author can do if you are shown your cover, and you hate, hate, hate it and think it won’t work as a marketing tool?
    -Michelle

    Reply
  10. Loretta–Thanks for the kind words for the DUCHESS cover. I kinda figure after so many ahem questionable covers (like the sea captain Muppet-face), I had to get lucky. It IS my absolute favorite cover, though it’s also in kind of a different category, using an actual 17th century portrait of the heroine instead of a contemporary illustration.
    But I’ve been heartened to see mass market covers like Candace Hearn’s that are going the historically accurate route, too. It’s only a beginning, but maybe the art directors are beginning to see the light…..
    Susan/Sarah — I agree, seeing the original paintings really is a shock. They’re not only big, as you say, but the colors and brushwork are so much more vivid than what finally ends up shrunken and reduced to fit on a cover. I’m sure there are plenty of artists who are every bit as disgruntled with the final results as the authors.:)

    Reply
  11. Loretta–Thanks for the kind words for the DUCHESS cover. I kinda figure after so many ahem questionable covers (like the sea captain Muppet-face), I had to get lucky. It IS my absolute favorite cover, though it’s also in kind of a different category, using an actual 17th century portrait of the heroine instead of a contemporary illustration.
    But I’ve been heartened to see mass market covers like Candace Hearn’s that are going the historically accurate route, too. It’s only a beginning, but maybe the art directors are beginning to see the light…..
    Susan/Sarah — I agree, seeing the original paintings really is a shock. They’re not only big, as you say, but the colors and brushwork are so much more vivid than what finally ends up shrunken and reduced to fit on a cover. I’m sure there are plenty of artists who are every bit as disgruntled with the final results as the authors.:)

    Reply
  12. Loretta–Thanks for the kind words for the DUCHESS cover. I kinda figure after so many ahem questionable covers (like the sea captain Muppet-face), I had to get lucky. It IS my absolute favorite cover, though it’s also in kind of a different category, using an actual 17th century portrait of the heroine instead of a contemporary illustration.
    But I’ve been heartened to see mass market covers like Candace Hearn’s that are going the historically accurate route, too. It’s only a beginning, but maybe the art directors are beginning to see the light…..
    Susan/Sarah — I agree, seeing the original paintings really is a shock. They’re not only big, as you say, but the colors and brushwork are so much more vivid than what finally ends up shrunken and reduced to fit on a cover. I’m sure there are plenty of artists who are every bit as disgruntled with the final results as the authors.:)

    Reply
  13. Michelle–
    Hmm, what can authors do with covers that, ahem, don’t meet expectations? A lot depends on how well established you are. If you’re a bestselling author, they’ll do what they must to keep you happy, but if you’re a newbie, I’m afraid in most cases you have to just accept it with good grace. You can complain to your editor, but odds are not much will change.
    With the advent of computerized art. there is definitely more wiggle-room. As Loretta said, things like wrong hair-color can be changed much more easily these days.
    I had a heroine I’d described as a petite, brunette seamstress — on the stepback, she morphed into Pam Anderson. My editor got her hair color corrected and her implants removed. I was very relieved.
    Much also depends on the publisher, as well as time, deadlines, and how bad the error is. If the covers are already printed, then nothing will change, but if you’re able to point out the problem early, most editors will try to see what they can do.
    Better still, may you never be faced with the problem! 🙂

    Reply
  14. Michelle–
    Hmm, what can authors do with covers that, ahem, don’t meet expectations? A lot depends on how well established you are. If you’re a bestselling author, they’ll do what they must to keep you happy, but if you’re a newbie, I’m afraid in most cases you have to just accept it with good grace. You can complain to your editor, but odds are not much will change.
    With the advent of computerized art. there is definitely more wiggle-room. As Loretta said, things like wrong hair-color can be changed much more easily these days.
    I had a heroine I’d described as a petite, brunette seamstress — on the stepback, she morphed into Pam Anderson. My editor got her hair color corrected and her implants removed. I was very relieved.
    Much also depends on the publisher, as well as time, deadlines, and how bad the error is. If the covers are already printed, then nothing will change, but if you’re able to point out the problem early, most editors will try to see what they can do.
    Better still, may you never be faced with the problem! 🙂

    Reply
  15. Michelle–
    Hmm, what can authors do with covers that, ahem, don’t meet expectations? A lot depends on how well established you are. If you’re a bestselling author, they’ll do what they must to keep you happy, but if you’re a newbie, I’m afraid in most cases you have to just accept it with good grace. You can complain to your editor, but odds are not much will change.
    With the advent of computerized art. there is definitely more wiggle-room. As Loretta said, things like wrong hair-color can be changed much more easily these days.
    I had a heroine I’d described as a petite, brunette seamstress — on the stepback, she morphed into Pam Anderson. My editor got her hair color corrected and her implants removed. I was very relieved.
    Much also depends on the publisher, as well as time, deadlines, and how bad the error is. If the covers are already printed, then nothing will change, but if you’re able to point out the problem early, most editors will try to see what they can do.
    Better still, may you never be faced with the problem! 🙂

    Reply
  16. In a discussion of cover art on another board, someone knowledgeable pointed out that the bodice-ripper covers were originally designed to catch the attention of the truck drivers who delivered books to grocery and drug stores and shelved them there, so that they would put them in front.
    Considering how many writers and readers have been fulminating against bodice-ripping covers for so long, why DO publishers still go for them?
    On a sadder note, I have been asked to post the following:
    AgTigress’s father died last night, not unexpectedly as he had been very ill. At the moment she’s on a dial-up connection that is extremely frustrating, so she asked me to let you know. Once she’s got better access, I’m sure she’ll be back in touch–though of course she won’t be free to play online for a while.
    She really appreciates all the support and sympathy she has received here. It has meant a great deal to her.

    Reply
  17. In a discussion of cover art on another board, someone knowledgeable pointed out that the bodice-ripper covers were originally designed to catch the attention of the truck drivers who delivered books to grocery and drug stores and shelved them there, so that they would put them in front.
    Considering how many writers and readers have been fulminating against bodice-ripping covers for so long, why DO publishers still go for them?
    On a sadder note, I have been asked to post the following:
    AgTigress’s father died last night, not unexpectedly as he had been very ill. At the moment she’s on a dial-up connection that is extremely frustrating, so she asked me to let you know. Once she’s got better access, I’m sure she’ll be back in touch–though of course she won’t be free to play online for a while.
    She really appreciates all the support and sympathy she has received here. It has meant a great deal to her.

    Reply
  18. In a discussion of cover art on another board, someone knowledgeable pointed out that the bodice-ripper covers were originally designed to catch the attention of the truck drivers who delivered books to grocery and drug stores and shelved them there, so that they would put them in front.
    Considering how many writers and readers have been fulminating against bodice-ripping covers for so long, why DO publishers still go for them?
    On a sadder note, I have been asked to post the following:
    AgTigress’s father died last night, not unexpectedly as he had been very ill. At the moment she’s on a dial-up connection that is extremely frustrating, so she asked me to let you know. Once she’s got better access, I’m sure she’ll be back in touch–though of course she won’t be free to play online for a while.
    She really appreciates all the support and sympathy she has received here. It has meant a great deal to her.

    Reply
  19. Thanks for letting us know, Tal.
    AgTigress, I’m so very sorry to hear the sad news. Thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family. We’ll look forward to hearing from you whenever you’re able to come back.
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  20. Thanks for letting us know, Tal.
    AgTigress, I’m so very sorry to hear the sad news. Thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family. We’ll look forward to hearing from you whenever you’re able to come back.
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  21. Thanks for letting us know, Tal.
    AgTigress, I’m so very sorry to hear the sad news. Thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family. We’ll look forward to hearing from you whenever you’re able to come back.
    Susan Sarah

    Reply
  22. Susan/Miranda —
    Wow! what a great post. I learned so much… like I have no power as a writer. Who would have thunk? But it’s always good to know what one does and does not have.
    Do want to know one more thing. Well… two. What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seek to avoid?
    Thanks, as always
    –the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  23. Susan/Miranda —
    Wow! what a great post. I learned so much… like I have no power as a writer. Who would have thunk? But it’s always good to know what one does and does not have.
    Do want to know one more thing. Well… two. What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seek to avoid?
    Thanks, as always
    –the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  24. Susan/Miranda —
    Wow! what a great post. I learned so much… like I have no power as a writer. Who would have thunk? But it’s always good to know what one does and does not have.
    Do want to know one more thing. Well… two. What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seek to avoid?
    Thanks, as always
    –the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  25. Nina P wrote: “What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seeks to avoid?”
    Nina, I believe Mary Jo will be answering this in her post this very week. She’s the Wench with the most hardcover experience, and the best one by far to answer this — but I promise to chime in a bit afterwards with the reasons why DUCHESS was trade, and not hardcover.
    Thanks for the excellent question!

    Reply
  26. Nina P wrote: “What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seeks to avoid?”
    Nina, I believe Mary Jo will be answering this in her post this very week. She’s the Wench with the most hardcover experience, and the best one by far to answer this — but I promise to chime in a bit afterwards with the reasons why DUCHESS was trade, and not hardcover.
    Thanks for the excellent question!

    Reply
  27. Nina P wrote: “What is the deciding factor on whether or not a book appears in hardback? Is hardback something an author pushes for or seeks to avoid?”
    Nina, I believe Mary Jo will be answering this in her post this very week. She’s the Wench with the most hardcover experience, and the best one by far to answer this — but I promise to chime in a bit afterwards with the reasons why DUCHESS was trade, and not hardcover.
    Thanks for the excellent question!

    Reply
  28. Lynda, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been hunting for this on-line! This was a long time ago — at least ten years, I’d guess — on one of Christina’s first books. It was a medieval, with the the heroine in a long white dress, half-reclining in the hero’s arms across the bottom of the cover. She had one arm on the grass beside her, one arm resting against his chest, and another (!) around his neck. Clearly this was the artist “trying out” different poses, but how it got all the way to the bookstore is astounding! It was the talk of the romance world at the time, and it probably didn’t hurt sales either. But it looks like the book has received a new cover in subsequent reissues, so alas, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.
    It’s a very weird business. 🙂

    Reply
  29. Lynda, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been hunting for this on-line! This was a long time ago — at least ten years, I’d guess — on one of Christina’s first books. It was a medieval, with the the heroine in a long white dress, half-reclining in the hero’s arms across the bottom of the cover. She had one arm on the grass beside her, one arm resting against his chest, and another (!) around his neck. Clearly this was the artist “trying out” different poses, but how it got all the way to the bookstore is astounding! It was the talk of the romance world at the time, and it probably didn’t hurt sales either. But it looks like the book has received a new cover in subsequent reissues, so alas, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.
    It’s a very weird business. 🙂

    Reply
  30. Lynda, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been hunting for this on-line! This was a long time ago — at least ten years, I’d guess — on one of Christina’s first books. It was a medieval, with the the heroine in a long white dress, half-reclining in the hero’s arms across the bottom of the cover. She had one arm on the grass beside her, one arm resting against his chest, and another (!) around his neck. Clearly this was the artist “trying out” different poses, but how it got all the way to the bookstore is astounding! It was the talk of the romance world at the time, and it probably didn’t hurt sales either. But it looks like the book has received a new cover in subsequent reissues, so alas, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.
    It’s a very weird business. 🙂

    Reply

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