Art is comprised of many types of activities that are based in aesthetics, but because of the broad scope involved in both the activities and the aesthetics, what makes art “good” or “bad” is elusive to define. Dictionary.com says art is “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.” Creative writing is only one of many kinds of art, but perhaps nowhere is the “art” of creative writing more obvious than on a book’s cover.
In spite of the popular proverb advising otherwise, publications is one industry in which we must judge a book by its cover. Therefore, it is also important to remember that other proverb about beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
Here is the third and final part of my series on writing rules. This time I want to explore the differences between rules and tools when it comes to notions about right and wrong ways to do cover art, and I want to throw out the reminder that art of any kind is an elusive, ever-evolving, circumstantial, highly individualized aesthetic.
If you missed the first two parts of this series and wish to catch up, you can find the article on using grammar as tools rather than rules here. And the second article on embracing tropes, rather than snubbing them, can be found here.
COVER ART AS A TOOL
I think every reader, writer, and publisher agrees that the cover of a book is the first impression. What we tend to disagree on is what defines a “good” impression.
I’m an artist, as well as a writer. My college education started as an art major because I wanted to illustrate novels. I later discovered I was more passionate about languages than visuals and switched to English studies. But I never lost my desire to illustrate. So when it came time to decide on the cover for my first novel, I had some pretty definite ideas in mind. But, since I was new to publishing, I was also afraid I’d do something wrong, so I started looking up advice.
I won’t say it was a mistake; I did learn a few things I’ve found useful. But I will caution that it’s easy to lose your own vision with so many other opinions insisting that there is a right and wrong way to do book covers. Here are three of the most frequent “rules” I found, and why I’ve decided to convert them to “tools”, instead.
1. Rule: The cover art must be relative to the text.
Tool: The author MUST be involved in the cover art process to keep the subject matter relevant to the text.
You would think this goes without saying, but all too often the publisher picks the cover art for the book, rather than allowing the author to have any say in the matter. Often, the artist has no idea what he is illustrating, or has a limited description of what to go on, so the end result is way off. The best example I can think of in my own book collection is the 1994 cover of Starless Night.
This is one of many books written by R.A. Salvatore for the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has many publications which give physical descriptions of their dark elves, including this one. According to the text, the main character, Drizzt, is supposed to be a male dark elf with “anvil black” or “ink black” skin. Now, call me crazy, but I interpret that to be a fictional, deep, dark black that doesn’t look like anything like a dark-skinned human. Also, he is seventy-five years old, but that is young by elven standards, considering they can live to be about two hundred. Again, this is information can be found in multiple publications, including this one. There is no mention of this character wearing a skullcap anywhere in the text, but for years various artists have put him in a skullcap. I have no idea why.
My friend, who is a professional painter and comic artist, used to bemoan this cover with me because both of us wondered why in the world the artist would paint Drizzt to look like an old, Caucasian, human woman with pointed ears when his physical description is so obvious and so plentiful throughout this text and others. Answer: the artist was assigned by the publisher, not the author.
If an author has any control over his/her own cover art, the author needs to work closely with the artist to give the details necessary to keep the cover art relevant. If such details are not possible to convey, then a change of subject matter might be necessary. In this case, the subterranean city of Menzoberranzan probably would have been a much better cover choice than the characters. Or perhaps something even more simple like Drizzt’s trademark scimitar could have been shown bloodied and crossed with Entreri’s vampiric dagger, so that the symbolism of the plot conflict is represented. The cover art’s job is not only to catch the reader’s attention, but to offer a promise of what’s in store in the text. This cover was so disconnected from the book that it was just … weird.
Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief after seeing the updated Todd Lockwood version. It ties together the title and the setting of the underground caverns and delivers a promise to readers that we will get to see Drizzt dual against his rival Artemis Entreri. The new cover now offers a relevant glimpse into exactly what the text delivers.
2. Rule: Don’t put characters on the cover.
Tool: Whatever you put on the cover will attract some readers while repelling others.
Obviously, the above example is part of the reason why this second rule exists. Without author input, it’s very easy for artists to get character details wrong.
But another reason is because people have different ideas about what’s attractive. And by playing up to one consumer’s preferences, you could end up alienating another. However, this is a fact of literature and life in general, so I think it’s an unhealthy approach to cover design. By writing fantasy, you might alienate readers who prefer realism. By choosing to be a writer, you’re probably not pursuing a career in paleontology. Not to say that you can’t dig up dinosaurs and also write about them, but generally choosing one thing over another is how life works. We have to accept that we can’t do everything and please everyone.
If Drizzt had been pictured as a bare-chested dark elf with ripply muscles, that might backfire with people who find ripply muscles disgusting, rather than attractive. If he had been drawn as an anime figure, the book would attract anime fans, but people who hate anime might refuse to take it seriously. If he had been presented as an evil-looking, gaunt monstrosity, that would attract horror fans, but scare away readers who don’t like horror. How a character is depicted can arouse many different emotions. The art that invites one kind of reader to take a closer look WILL repel another. But this is true whether it’s a character’s face and body represented, or whether it’s a landscape, object, or symbol.
Taking the generic route in cover art to try to please everyone might work for some stories, but cover art and creative literature never have been a one-size-fits-all trade. In the past, and even in current markets, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and YA genres have successfully used imaginative or attractive characters as the book’s first impression, particularly in character-centered plots. This is true in spite of mishaps like in the case above, because most character cover art turns out fine, regardless of whether talking about stick figures on juvenile and YA covers, or Renaissance-like portraits on historical novels.
My genre is dark fantasy. I chose to include my characters on the cover because the plot is character-centric. And just like real people, my characters are who they are; their physical appearances are not up for generic redefining. I chose to sketch with pencil and then colour with digital paint, rather than doing a realistic or photographic representation, because I like the way the hand-drawn look adds a bit of surrealism and comic quality to fantasy art. Since I did the cover art myself, I know for certain the details match the text. The images are relevant to the two main characters, a human and an elf, and the question of which one really is the changeling. (All of my titles are double entendre between these two characters.) The stone circle is the Gate of Min, which is a very prominent symbol throughout the Elf Gate series. If some readers turn away from my novels because they don’t find the character covers appealing, I figure they probably wouldn’t enjoy reading the content anyway. So it works out better for both of us if I focus on marketing to readers who might enjoy what I’ve created, rather than trying to trick people who ordinarily might not enjoy this kind of story into reading it.
I think, rather than saying, “Don’t ever use characters on your cover art”, it’s more important to say, “Know your target audience.” Authors should browse their intended genres to be familiar with the various ways in which covers can be done. Character covers are still a viable option in many genres. If you use your characters to invite readers into your story, just know there will always be someone who does not find them attractive. But there are probably just as many readers who aren’t attracted to books with generic, faceless covers, too. I personally would have no interest in a book with nothing but a smoking gun on the cover. Meh … guns. You’re going to have to try harder than that to convince me that’s a story worth my time.
3. Rule: Don’t use complex cover designs.
Tool: Balance practicality with craftsmanship when it comes to design.
When I started designing my first cover, I started by asking myself what I liked about the cover art in my own collection. I tend to like seeing complexity in characters, landscapes, monsters, and action scenes. But it wasn’t long before I found dozens of articles condemning complex design elements.
In addition to the “don’t do characters” rule, there were others. Don’t do landscapes; they’re too busy. Don’t do details; they won’t be seen. Don’t do multiple design elements; they’re confusing. Simplify, simplify, simplify!
What? When did all these rules come into play? And why didn’t anyone tell me I’m not supposed to like them? I can understand marketing needing to be practical, but, seriously, who writes these rules? Is a brown-paper cover with the title and author’s name simple enough? (snort) The Beatles got away with using a solid white, blank cover for their White Album, but can you imagine the entire market flooded with that kind of simplification? The reason that album cover worked was because it was different, not because having a blank cover works every time.
Personally, I love lingering over detailed covers on books, admiring the tiny little clues that help tell the story within. Maybe it’s because I still value hardbound books as much as digital, but I would much rather have a masterpiece on my shelf than a few border lines, a background color, and a silhouette. All books are not digital yet, and even if it comes to that I hope the ART in cover art never gets lost in the marketing formulas. If the art is what draws me to the book in the first place, why shouldn’t I be allowed to wallow in its luxury? It makes sense for the book’s wrapper to match the creativity within the pages, rather than being just a brown-paper cover.
I managed to find one article from The Book Smugglers blog that takes a more open-ended view of the discussion on cover designs in fantasy books. What makes a favourite book cover stand out in our memories? Sometimes it’s the unusual simplicity of the thing. But other times it’s the emotion or action sparking the thought of “What’s that all about?” Sometimes it’s the sheer genius of the play on themes. In the end, book cover art is like any other kind of art, and people are going to have differing opinions about what’s “good” and “bad”.
So, I came away from my quest for the perfect cover design having learned two things. 1) Simple covers show up better in thumbnails and become trademarks, but once you’ve seen them you never go back for a second look. 2) Art will always have its critics, whether it’s written or visual. You, the creator, cannot please everyone; so you need to figure out why you’re creating your art in the first place. Is selling the book the cover’s only purpose? Or is the cover part of the story … part of the craftsmanship that the reader is paying for?
I think finding some kind of balance between the simplistic marketing formulas and the deeper, intrinsic value works best for me. Because we live in a digital age, I would agree that being able to see the title and main design clearly in the thumbnail is important, but I will still relish characters and scenery more than solid colors and straight lines. I would agree that limiting the design to one or two elements would be less cluttered and confusing; this is true of any art. But I don’t think it’s necessary to sacrifice details within those elements of overall design.
I want to have covers that readers come back to as they put the pieces of the story together so that the package and the content make one unified, whole product. Not everyone will feel that way, but that’s okay. That’s the nature of the beast when it come to creative works of any kind.
The point of this series is to remind authors, particularly new authors looking for advice and veteran authors who are giving it, that people are diverse. Creativity is diverse … even in literary circles … even in business. And while rules on cover design, tropes, and grammar generally have some seed of wisdom in them for one set of circumstances, they should not be applied across the board with absolute, inflexible authority.
Tools are better than rules because they give us a common foundation about what’s important, but they are open-ended enough that they don’t burden or confine the creative process.
Each writer is an artist painting words according to his or her own vision. And she does that by first following her own preferences, which may be different from others. This is okay. When it comes to art and literature, there is room in this world for diversity. This way there is something for everyone, rather than one particular set of preferences flooding the market with no other options. There really is no such thing as a Writer’s Code that every writer must follow. Or, in the words of Captain Hector Barbosa from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: “… the Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”