Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Honoring The Story

On the TV there’s this woman, see, and she’s floating around in a boat. She has the kind of face and hair you see on romance novel covers. She trails her hand in the water. She smiles wistfully, quietly bemused at some private thought or memory. Perhaps the anticipation of pleasure. She dips her hand and lifts an exotic red lily from the water and holds it to her face. She relaxes in a row boat, not an aluminum row boat with an old Sea Horse outboard engine like my Dad’s, no, a beautiful wooden boat of red varnished wood, a kind of life boat for a fantasy Viking ship. Now a virile young man is revealed in the boat. Giving him her lily and it’s Jungian suggestions of things to come, she leans against the man and they stretch out as in a bed and snuggle in the boat. Cut to the romantic music.

Ducolax Stool Softener. Really.

Most photographers make their money from stock agencies. When you see a TV commercial of a woman looking vaguely miserable and rubbing her head, that’s a stock video. When you see a young wistfully romantic couple snuggling in a fancy pants rowboat, that’s a stock video. When you see a middle aged man and a slightly younger, friskier woman, running down the beach hand in hand, looking youthfully, zestfully silly with love and the man stops and looks in the woman’s eyes. That’s a stock video. You can use that video to sell beach resorts, retirement communities, Ducolax Stool Softener I guess, men’s hair coloring or Viagra. If the Viagra logo comes up, it means some munchkin from Pfizer’s ad campaign department went into an office in LA or New York City and said “I need 30 seconds of a man who’s old enough to have an iffy stiffy and a hot looking woman, looking horny and ready to go for it but in a sort of non-threatening way. You know? If you have something that ends with it looking like he’s going to get a piece, that’s even better.” So the stock agency munchkin flips through a database of short clips of vaguely horny, zestfully romantic-in-a-childlike-way couples possibly arranged according to age, and pulls out a dozen which all end with the man looking like he's going to get some.

The point is generic art is all purpose, the way formula writing is all purpose. You crank it out and find out what to do with it later. This is what I noticed early on about romance novel and erotic romance novel covers, is that they’re largely generic. They don’t tell you what’s going on, they just tell you what kind of book it is.

The man/woman/man/man/woman/woman/hobbit/fairie/vampire/troll/ghost/werewolf/50 Foot Woman/space alien/barnyard animal embracing in any of the above combinations, is a stock cover suitable for whatever book comes along, irrespective of the content. They are designed for the most part to identify a genre formula, not a particular novel. The art director whips one out of the file and keeps the traffic moving along. These are designed for the bookstore stock manager, not for the reader.

As of this writing I've got one book out there, by Whisky Creek Press. The cover was by Jinger Heaston. What I really love about my book cover is, its evocative and honors the story. For writers in our genre, its all about the story, and a good cover honors the story.

The cover Jinger made for me is not generic. It has that pulp fiction quality of looking like its about something. Erotic science fiction about sex trafficking in artificial women and the man who tries to rescue one, or an erotic Kwaidan in feudal Japan may or may not be your cuppa tea. But what you see on the cover of my brave little book is really what you get inside and no bullshit. I love that. That is honoring the story, and the story is what we come here for.

The very best covers honor the story in a way that leads you in. Take this cover from the vampire novel “Twilight”:

The easy way out would have been to show teenagers in love, or vampire teenagers in love. But what you have in this image is a mystery. The title implies dark things that come out at night, fantasy lovers. But what you see are two pale, bloodless arms holding out an apple. So you wonder - what’s the deal with the apple? Temptation? A gift? It makes you want to read the book. That’s the sign of a good book cover. It is a visual poetry that draws you in.

Here’s another pair of covers I grew up loving as a kid:

There have been a lot of print books of Stoker’s novel “Dracula”, but this is the only book cover that scared the crap out of me when I was kid. That cover was worth a couple of weeks of bad dreams for me. What’s great about it is it honors the story. You’ll never see a movie Dracula that looks like this one, a kind of Mark Twain from Hell. But in the book, in Harker’s journal, that face is exactly how he describes Dracula, a big straight nose, a high forehead, swept back hair and a huge mustache. An old world Eastern European dictator. And what big teeth you have, grandpa.

The other cover is by the great Frank Frazetta. There are galleries on the web dedicated to his book covers for the old Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories. These were truly romance novels for young men, populated by wide hipped and big breasted women clad in little animal skin bikinis; women with fierce primitive desires who always needed rescuing every couple of minutes. They were the stuff of a young man’s midnight fantasies. If you zoom in on the image (click on it) those saber tooth's eyes are bugging out at you like junk yard dogs. A young man could lose himself between those wide, powerful thighs.

Compare these two covers of the Howard character “Conan”.

The one on the left is the one I grew up with by Frazetta, the other is the movie poster. The Frazetta Conan tells a story, it’s a snapshot with a sense of something happening before and after. It crackles with drama and energy. It honors the story. If you walk by it on a paperback rack you can't ignore it, and that's the name of the game. Not everybody is going to like that cover, but it gets your attention. The one on the right is generic, safe and romantic. A nice guy. I would say that the one on the left is for guys and the one on the right is for the ladies. The other distinguishing element of the Frazetta Conan is that this is a true portrait in the classic sense. His face depicts a sense of his personality, his barbarian savagery and a cruel joy in battle. Hell, even his horse has an attitude. His arms and shield are spread wide, defying death, daring any poor sonovabitch there to even think he's badder than Conan. Everything about him projects a go-to-hell carelessness about life and death. The other guy looks like he takes good care of his hair.

When I peruse the covers on other books on my publishers site I always find that the one Jinger Heaston did for me catches my eye. Red is a color that draws the eye, but also the images tell a story. The Chinese characters in the background. The machinery in the woman’s face, it all tells a story. The sword in the woman's hand. All these things honor the story.


  1. Ooh boy, if only I could get Frazetta to do my covers...

    I do think that you're a bit hard on romance cover artists, Garce. Sure, they use stock photos as a starting point. But most of them do try, I believe, to come up with covers that say something about the book inside. It's not just a throwaway effort--for one thing, many epublisher artists get paid by royalties the same way that the authors do. So if a book sells well (partly because it has a fabulous cover), the artist makes some bucks, too. (Okay, maybe some pennies. But you get my point, I hope.)

    I do like the cover of Mortal Engines. I think that if I had seen the cover before I read the stories, I would have been intrigued.


  2. Garce,

    I think you're right about the Dracula cover. The artist had clearly read the book and got the image spot on with Stoker's description.

    Mortal Engines is attractive and is also indicative of the contents.

    Some excellent covers there.



  3. The other guy looks like he takes good care of his hair.

    LMAO! You're so right. The original Conan cover was amazing, with so much detail.

    Like your Mortal Engines cover, it really does honor the story. Great post, Garce!

  4. I feel so cheap now. *sobs* Art hack. *sniff*

    While I agree that there is often a generic feel to many covers (even from major NY houses) these days, I don't think small press art departments take that conveyor belt approach to cover art.

    Every artist I've encountered does the best they can with the tools provided and the resources (including time) available.

    And, like Lisabet said, artists have a vested interest in the success of the books. If they're paid by royalties, as is my staff at Phaze Books, that interest is immediately fiscal. However, even if they're paid a flat fee (as I am at Torquere Press), bad art will result in fewer gigs.

    Goddess knows, I've produced some duds. And I've produced some award-winners. While I strive for the latter with every effort, most fall somewhere in between. With each cover, I try to teach myself a new PaintShop skill ... and hope that I continue to improve.

  5. Garceus,Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, I remember when I first joined a library and found these two authors and many others.
    Such food for the imagination, how they developed the muscles of my mind.
    I would be honoured if you would sign my monitor, you can even do it from the inside. LOL

  6. Hey Garce,

    I have to agree with the others. I've had several cover artists, Alessia being one of my faves, who have done amazing work for me using stock photos as a starting point. Budget allows for only so much, and many cover artists working with the small presses are blazing the way towards some outstanding covers using those and programs that can enhance or shift, morph and/or mutate the picture into just what the author is looking for. I have one cover for an erotic science fiction book that is done in shades of green, and is amazing. Yes, there are some that didn't quite work, but the artists I've got now put their hearts into them and I appreciate it tremendously.

    Great post!


  7. Lisabet!

    Wow, I got beat up a little on this generic thing. Of course i don't mean any of OUR artists! Just other peoples.

    Anyway, my point is a lot of covers can start out as all purpose and then if the artist is . . boy this is delicate . . if the artist is . . . what, serious? I dunno, if she's TRYING, okay, she can take the stock and steer it in a way to honor the story. This is of course easier to do with a novel, its much more difficult in the case of anthologies which are more generalized. Lisabet, you've got some good book covers and well deserved. Sorry.

    Spank me harder mama.


  8. Hi Ashley

    Isn't that a great cover? Its a little like if William Blake decided to do book covers.


  9. Hi Jenna!

    Frazetta is one of my all time favorites. Lisabet's right, I wish he'd do some covers for us.


  10. Alessia;

    "I feel so cheap now. *sobs* Art hack. *sniff*"

    Aw shit.

    I just hurt the feelings of one of the only people on earth who ever tries to publish my stuff.

    You see?? This is why I believe in several major overhauls of every draft of something I write. I knock something off in a hurry and its a mess.

    I didn;t know artists got royalties on booksales. It makes sense, but its news to me. I don't suppose Jinger's made lunch money on mine. I'm ignorant but I'm learning fast, be patient with me. I have so far to go.

    I didn't know you did the covers on the Coming Together anthologies, some of those covers are really good. Hell, I didn't know you did covers at all.

    Get in line behind Lisabet. She'll pass you the paddle when she's done with me.


  11. Hi Paul!

    I love those old pulps. Howard and Burroughs were nobody's idea of a great writers, but they were great story tellers. I read their stuff for fun, but also to try to figure out how they keep you turning the pages.


  12. Hi Jude!

    I know, I know. . . There are good artists out there, working on a dead line. They deserve more credit than they get. We all do. Alessia has done some good covers for you. See, that's experience. You're got a lot of stuff out there, I've still got the mentality, sometimes arrogant, of the beginner. That's why I regard myself as a brash apprentice writer. I'm still learning my trade from the masters of the craft. I'm not there yet. Some of you are. This blog in some ways keeps me from writing fiction as much as I did before, but the dialogue here is important for my education. I learn from all of you.

    Be patient with me.


  13. Hey Garce, don't I get a go with the paddle?

    Pout. I was so looking forward to a good paddling.

    Honestly Garce, check out my cover art gallery: You'll see some of Alessia's covers there. She's pretty darned amazing.

    The artists make a small percentage as do editors and proofers on a book. I've done a little of it, but it's not easy and it's definitely something you'd do for love, cause the pay sucks. LOL


  14. Hey Jude!

    I went to your link and looked at those covers. Some of them are really outstanding especially Yes Ma'am, and the Coming Together At Last which is really outstanding. I'm surprised at how good Alessia is.

    Wait. . . did that come out like ... what I mean is . . I always knew she WAS good . . . but . . . what I meant was . .. yeah she's good.

    Aw shit.

    Shut up Garce.

    Yes Ma'am.

  15. Great post. I chuckled out loud at times. I agree with you about that Dracula cover, it's effectively creepy.

    One romance cover I love is "The Celts" by Elona Malterre, isbn, 0770422438

    Very beautiful, elegant and striking, and it still draws me in. I'm a sucker for powerful, sexy sirens, though.

  16. Me too.

    That image of Dracula is very striking. I don;t know why he doesn;t appear in the movies that way.

    Thanks for reading my stuff Tara!


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