Friday, August 14, 2009

Of Liars and Cover Artists

Forgive me if somebody's already covered this particular subject this week, but I'm actually writing a week in advance, and as you're reading this, I'm in Chicago on a not-quite vacation.

A few weeks ago, I read an article on a book called Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The main character of the story is a young African American girl, but the cover prominently displayed a Caucasian girl. Though the book has not yet been released, previews of the cover raised the ire of many people online, and even drew criticism from the author. As a result of the hullabaloo, the publisher, Bloomsbury, is creating a new cover, both for the paper back versions and the hardback versions. The fact that new covers are being printed for the hardback book is particularly impressivve, since the original cover was already printed, and the printing of new covers will probably cost at least an extra $7000 for the publisher. (You can read an article on Liar and its new cover here.)

As someone who's both a writer and a cover artist, I found this to be particularly interesting, and not just because of the issues on race and publishing that have been raised. A lot of thought goes into the creation of books covers, or at least it should. I don't know how they do it in the big publishing houses, but in small press and e-press, authors are frequently asked for their input on the cover. They're handed a form to fill out, asking them to detail one to two ideas for the cover that will grace their work. A smart author will fill this form out with as much detail as possible, including things like eye and skin color for the characters. An even smarter author will realize that no matter how detailed they get, the cover they imagine is not likely going to be what ends up on the final book, as Justine Larbalestier found out with Liar.

As a cover artist, each job I get comes with a brief -- that is, a description of what the cover should look like. This brief comes from the publisher. Except in one instance, I've never had direct contact with the author. All information comes from the publisher, and all my questions go to the publisher. The one exception was when I designed a cover for the publisher's wife's book. She had something very particular in mind, and being married to the publisher does have it's advantages. In that case, working with the author turned out great, but for any other book cover I've worked on, I wouldn't want to have contact with the author. I only get a couple weeks at most to create a cover. I have to come up with the initial idea based on the brief, then do a rough draft, and if the publisher okay's that, a final. That's a lot of work to accomplish in a short amount of time, and a lot of e-mail going back and forth between me and the publisher. Adding a third person, the author, into the process would slow things down dramatically. This is, after all, the author's baby that I'm working on. As artist, I'm trying to bring to life his or her book in visual form. Since I don't get to read the book (there's no time with this schedule), chances are I'm not going to get things exactly right.

But I am going to get things right enough, and the publisher knows that. The publisher has a feel for the book, and a feel for my work. He knows what I'm capable of producing, and when he's not sure, he asks. The author doesn't know squat about me, usually. They don't know what programs I use, what resources I have. They don't know if I have a painterly art style, where I draw each detail from scratch in Photoshop, or if I prefer to create covers using stock photography (I prefer a 3D collage approach, actually). All they know is that they have this perfect image in their head of the hero and/or heroine on the cover, hair blowing in the wind, or brilliant blue eyes staring out the porthole of a space station. They know the back story, the reason why the characters smile just so, and how high a hand must be raised in hello or farewell. They know the plot, the setting, the theme of their master piece.

Authors are supposed to know that kind of detail... and put it into their books. Artists are supposed to create attractive, engaging, exciting book covers to lure people into buying the book and then discovering the magical details inside. Because while a picture might paint a thousand words, it's no substitute for the actual story itself. I'm good at what I do as an artist, but I can't recreate someone else's book on a cover, certainly not in two weeks time. What I can do is help sell it, and that's what I strive for every time I get a commission for a cover.

Bloomsbury put a Caucasian girl on the cover of a book about an African American girl. They were trying to "symbolically reflect the narrator's complex psychological makeup," they said. They wanted to get across the nuances and details inside the book. Bad idea, in my opinion. Their marketing department should have focused instead on selling the book, and let the author do her work. If Justine Larbalestier is any good at writing, she'll have a reader hooked within the first few paragraphs. All the cover has to do is get people to pick up that book and read those first few paragraphs. Oh, and it also has to not piss off a lot of people over issues of race and truth in advertising along the way.

Take it from someone working in the trenches of publishing. Keep it simple, Bloomsbury. Keep it simple.


As an aside, I did not even try to completely capture my own writing in the cover art of my own book, Future Perfect, though elements of various short stories are in there.

Future Perfect by Helen E. H. Madden, available from


  1. Hello, Helen,

    It's great to have the artist's perspective here. (Actually, our guest tomorrow is also a cover artist, and I'm looking forward to reading her take on our topic.)

    There's no way you could capture all the complexity of FUTURE PERFECT in a single cover. Personally, I liked the cover a great deal. Even better, though, is your recent cover for Jolie du Pre's SWING! anthology. Actually sounds a bit like Ashley's editor's notion... but I thought that it was different and effective.


  2. Hi Helen,

    Fascinating stuff - and a major faux pas from Bloomsbury. It's good to hear the big companies can still make stupid mistakes.

    And I'd like to second Lisabet's vote on your cover for JDP's Swing! It's stylish, subtle and very effective.



  3. Hey Helen,

    I really didn't know you did cover art, and certainly didn't know you'd done the cover for Swing! It's very nice.

    See the things we learn here? *G*
    Hope your vacation is going great.


  4. Helen,

    I loved reading your side of the cover art issue. I've had it both ways where I'm in contact with the artist or with no contact. I prefer to be in contact, but then I think I'm a fairly reasonable person and wouldn't expect the impossible. Okay, so maybe not always. LOL

    I do see why you prefer not to deal with us. We can be a pretty snooty bunch. I really do bow to the crazy people who do our covers. Most of them are completely amazing.

    Thank you for sharing your side of this one.


  5. I didn't know you did book covers. Where can I go to see the cover of swing?

    You're a busy lady.


  6. Garce,

    Check out the Swing cover here:



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