At FenCon last month, one of the more interesting panels I attended was about cover art. I’ve been lucky in the covers for my books, but I’ve done my share of mocking the covers that aren’t so great, as well as the cover trends that get out of control. In fact, my Halloween costume a couple of years ago was a Generic Urban Fantasy Book Cover. A group of artists who have worked on book covers discussed some of the trends in science fiction and fantasy book covers, as well as where book covers may be going in the age of e-books.
David Lee Anderson said when he entered the business in the early 80s, most cover art was representative, depicting scenes and characters from the books in a realistic way. “This was what science fiction people expected.”
Starting in the late 1990s, the trend shifted to vague representation. John Picacio said these covers are more enigmatic, giving a sense of the spirit of the book rather than literally representing anything from the book. Brad Foster said the more symbolic art is often easier for the artist because it may take going through the entire manuscript to get all the details right in a representative scene.
One of the trends that concerned the artists was the decline in the use of original cover art. Publishers are using more stock photography and then customizing those images with Photoshop instead of hiring artists to create cover paintings. A simple, iconic image on the cover is popular today, such as the covers of the Twilight books.
With e-books, the cover art becomes less important. People browsing in bookstores may be drawn by covers, but people shopping for e-books are usually looking for something specific and search by author or title. The covers may show up in thumbnails in the e-bookstore but may not appear on the book itself. Some of the e-readers don’t show colors on the screen, so readers don’t have the same experience of the cover setting the mood. Some e-books don’t automatically show the cover at all at the beginning of the book. Artists have to take this into consideration when designing covers, keeping in mind that many readers will only see the cover in a small form or in black and white.
Where will art — and artists — go in the future? Art doesn’t seem to be leaving the book world, but it may become a luxury. Some specialty publishers are doing limited collectors’ editions of books with additional art, with paintings on the covers and illustrations inside the books. These are popular for reprints of classic works, but some current books are getting an initial limited release in this format before the standard edition becomes available. Readers who put a premium on artwork as part of the reading experience are willing to pay extra for these special editions.
Next I’m heading to Denver to MileHiCon, where I’ll get to meet one of my personal writing heroes.