Well then, I see that there has been quite the reaction to the new mass market paperback artwork of Nights of Villjamur. Some people like it, some not so much. Some want to frame it above their bed and kiss it before they go to sleep each night, others wouldn’t deign to use it as toilet roll replacement.
The biggest discussion has been over at A Dribble Of Ink, with all sorts of merriment in the comments section from not only my editor, Julie Crisp, but Simon Spanton from Gollancz and Lou Anders from Pyr. Much of the debate centres around having a character-centric piece of artwork.
I thought I’d clear a few things up about cover art, which have been touched in those comments, but I felt needed airing full, and putting in context.
* There is an audience of readers who don’t spend much time online, on review sites or blogs or forums.
* In the bookstore-world reality, that audience spectacularly outweighs the number of online fans.
* Online fans are, therefore, a vocal minority. A core market of fans that are very passionate (and one that I personally belong to).
* As Simon Spanton says (in the comments): “… much as it may be uncomfortable to hear, our job as publishers is to make that core market an increasingly small part of the author’s readership – for an author to sell big numbers we have to get their book in the hands of those people who maybe buy just one or two genre books a year, not just the dedicated fans who buy maybe 20 books a year. And that, essentially, is where the cloaked figures come in.”
* As Julie Crisp says: “The top three reasons for buying an SFF book are: read the previous in the series, read other by author and saw in shop. Most readers will experiment with a new author because it reminds them of someone they’ve read previously and enjoyed. I’m guilty of it myself. They want that simple association – something that’s immediately comparative. And we would be remiss if we ignored that… As an aside, it’s not just SFF – you look at most genres and there’s a certain style of covers associated with a certain genre of book.”
* So. I am a new author. The majority of people, particularly the offline world, will not have heard of Nights of Villjamur. They might not read the lovely reviews. All they have to go on is this:
What the book looks like.
I don’t know stats off hand, but I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing to know this much: the majority of readers will pick up a book because it looks like something they liked before. Publishers understand this psychology, and have to sell a new author with that in mind. They wouldn’t pump thousands of pounds into book design and printing and marketing because they want a book to fail, would they? Exactly.
So you can dream of having the most daedal piece of artwork on the cover. You can dream of spectacularly fancy cover treatments and post-modern flourishes in the detail. But if your cover doesn’t look similar enough to something out there already, something to trigger all the signs of what genre it is, what kind of book it is, then there’s a very high chance that your book will disappear without a trace – because the casual reader probably won’t pick it up.
This is just how the world of books works. This isn’t an exact science, it’s a industry trying to sell an art. That’s why it’s so difficult. That’s why hardcore passionate readers online, who have a very different book-buying psychology, might not like the new cover art. It’s not to say you can’t try new things – I happen to think the new cover of Nights is different enough from much of the character-centric pack – but hey, publishers want to make money. They’re a business, they’re not a charity. If their books don’t succeed at all, then those imprints go bust. And then we’d have nothing to debate in those forums.