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On Artwork

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.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

21 replies on “On Artwork”

First of all, let me say that the cover is pretty damn cool. My first instinct, when I saw the cover, was to think that they got Brynd wrong. But then I realized it couldn’t be Brynd, and thought, Randur? (takes a while for things to click into place for me, sometimes). But the cover is cool. Not only does it give us a different perspective of Villjamur, but it focuses the reader’s attention on one character. A chance is being taken, and I hope it pans out (and doesn’t initially confuse readers, as it did me). I for one like the realism that cover art is taking on nowadays, and in my opinion, it’ll only increase the closer we get to HBO’s AGoT’s.

That being said, I can speak not only as a fan but also as a bookseller. The average customer scans the shelves, even if he’s seen something he know’s he’ll buy. That’s the way it works in SA, at least. They’re searching for two things – the next title in a series (or the next book by that same author) or something that grabs their attention. And that means face-out on the shelf. Too many times a lone title (like The Steel Remains, hasn’t sold one bloody copy in my store! :-() doesn’t sell, and the face-out titles sell (and get damaged, paged-through, etc). So having a great cover is only half of it – a title may be incredible, but if it’s alone on the shelf, it’s probably going to stay there until it’s SOR call comes through. That’s they way it works here, unfortunately.

I do agree with the comments that the original hard cover art is better – the POV of the garudas, remember, Mark? 😉 But just because I think it’s better, doesn’t mean hundreds of thousands of other browsers will agree. Everyone judges a cover by their own particular standards, and understanding that shouldn’t make any publisher afraid to experiment. The fact that Nights has now got a new cover means that the publishers have faith in the book, knowing a) that it’s strong enough to reach a completely new audience and be taken in, and b) that it’s the kind of book that can enjoy different covers; it’s the flavour of the work, after all – a bit of everything, mixed into one. That’s the essense of Villjamur, when you come right down to it. 🙂

So I’m happy with the cover – not a-paused, as with the original artwork, but I’ll still be proud to have it on the shelf. 🙂

If you put the hardback version up against this version then I would say most people would like the Hardback version the best.So why change the covers unless the book wasnt selling as would have been liked.The cover from a distance is just a silhouette nothing more to the eye. the pose is very very poor and surprising that such a piece of art is used at all.Is the guy poiting his thumb down? is that portentious.Dont be too sure about online fans being that much different from your avergae fan in street. most people like a good piece of artwork no matter how well versed they are in fantasy art.The HB version was intruiging.. drew you in.this cover if it is going to be a single figure , just lays there telling me nothing. im sure lots of work went into it and I am in no way condeming the artist but surely if your going to have a male model bandy legged thumbs down character on cover then your asking for trouble.

Hi Dave – thanks for your comments from the front line. It’s always a reality check, isn’t it? Glad you don’t hate this one though!

Thanks, Christa! Yeah, you pesky illustrators…

Hi Patricia, thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, the fans online and the casual readers are very different creatures entirely – especially in the way they buy books.

The hardback did well online, but it was on the advice of major bookchain buyers that publishers make these types of decisions for the mass market. They deal with casual customers who are the VAST (I cannot stress this difference enough) majority of book buyers. That may well change in the future, but publishers don’t just sit in a room and work out how to annoy online fans. They’re making massive commercial decisions, based on years of experience in selling books. They need to reach the casual audience. If I could show you all sales figures, you’d be totally shocked. Central figures sell books.

And to be honest, I’d rather sell books and have a career, than have a pretty cover and no career…

Well said. I love the online community, being an sf reader as well as writer, but people who are focused on the online sf community often forget how many people are not.

Kate – Yeah, the minority does make a very loud noise, so it’s an easy fact to forget! 🙂

Gav – To do your best to influence things, in whatever way that might be. No one review can make or break a book. But a movement online can help sway things, to get people talking by word of mouth etc. To be honest, the more people reading online reviews, the more the situation will change. But slowly…

I’ve never bought a book on cover design alone, but I’ve actively avoided books because of bad covers.

That’s unless they’re bad a in a gloriously retro 60s/70s SF way, as my bookshelves attest.

I’d mutter something about the preponderance of crappy covers that aped the Da Vinci Code’s equally banal cover shortly after it outsold everything ever – only it seems people will buy stuff based on them looking the same. People are weird.

I’m a stat fan (and scientist) so ideally would like to see dome figures that back this “guy on the cover” claim. They must exist or publishers would be wasting time and effort.

Your point on being similar to other books strikes me as odd. George RR Martin’s “A song of ice and fire” series and Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of time” series, in the uk at least (I’ve seen the god-awful fantasy art covers) all have emblems on the front. These seem to do pretty well and seem like good books to grab a comparison off for your series. They have the benefit of building a reputation already but the sales by cover similarity argument still stands.

I don’t know what the original “Twilight” covers were but the most common ones are the ones with chess pieces etc on them.

I’m not for or against the covers. (although I actually think it makes sense to change from hardback to softccover (you may even get collectors buying both). I’m just pointing out that the article arguments for the “model cover” can also be applied to the “non-model” covers too.

I think an excellent compromise are seen in R.Scott Bakkers “prince of nothing” series which probably keeps everyone happy and still manages to maintain its own identity.

It’s the conversation around such a cover that make things interesting 🙂
Well, I admit that I am not a fan of this cover, I would also prefer if covers would not be focused too much on characters. I honestly say that to have one central figure on your novel is a unfair towards the other important ones and the figure of the paperback cover doesn’t match my image of Randur, this one looks too much as a rogue, when the character is more dandy. But that is because I already read your novel.
I know that publishing is a business and the reasons behind covers are mainly marketing ones. I do not have a problem with that, after all if the books don’t sell the publishing houses will cease their existence. I also know that they reach towards new readers and not to those familiar to the genre. Still, I personally when I enter into a book shop I would most probably be attracted by the cover artworks that appeal to me, despite their genre, author or publishing house. After all this is the first impact I have with an unkown book or author and after this impact I pick the book and start reading its back cover or through its pages. That is my personal perspective. And that’s why I prefer the cover artwork for the hardcover edition.
But despite the artwork featured on the cover I really hope that people will pick your novel up, because the real treasure its between the covers. The artwork is just a bonus (when it’s good).

Honestly, if I saw this cover in-store, I would pobably not even read the blurb. I have to agree with Patricia that the pose is terrible.

Now, I’m obvioiusly an “online” reader. But I wasn’t always. When I was a child, I used to go to the store with my mother and scan the shelves. I never bought on cover, but if the cover was bad, I did not pick up the book to read the blurb. Single-character-against-a-backdrop covers were did not make the grade.

Now, I’m one of those peopl going to the store with a list of recommendtions or web-researched choices, but I still scan the shelves in case something good pops up.

I know I can’t compete with research from booksellers and publishers, but I thought I give mytwo cents anyway.

*looks at his nice, shiny The Original of Laura cover*

Hrmm…I think it’s funny how I fit into a typecast as well, since the covers I prefer the most tend to be the covers that tend to be produced for the more-acclaimed, better-selling (well, not always exclusive terms, I suppose) “literary” novels, since that’s what I generally read for most of my life until a dozen years ago or so. Mostly-blank covers or the use of famous illustrations on “classics” – those are probably marketed toward people like myself, so I guess I can understand the market dynamics behind this.

If only more “fantasy” novels could have more covers like the “literary” ones – how’s that for a left-field comment here? 😉

Hi Neil, Well for all sorts of reasons, publishers avoid giving unit numbers… best thing I could suggest is maybe clicking on Amazon UK Fantasy bestsellers?

Mihai – thanks for that! Glad to see you’re open minded on the issue.

Atsiko – your two cents are welcome! Shame you don’t like the pose. But yeah, everyone is caught by a certain cover, even if it isn’t a character… 🙂

Hey Larry. Wow, even you get tempted by covers…? 🙂 I think Gollancz have tried some really interesting styles – mainstream-packaed, uber-design-chic covers. I’m not sure how well they’ve done with them, but I always admired them.

Well, I’m not swayed so much by them that I won’t buy books just because of the cover, but yeah, there are times that I’ll purchase other editions that look less garish if they aren’t too expensive.

I like this cover and it does make a clear statement to readers who don’t live online. I love the hardback cover, it’s exceptionally beautiful but it doesn’t scream associative purchase.
The psychology behind the change is sound. People who love the genre and will shell out for a hard back will be more likely to be part of the core fanship online and know what the book is about. People who wander in and think “well i quite liked …” or the the gift buying equivalent of “all his/her books look like…” will pick things up because of clear associative tactics. The new cover taps into that well and is thankfully also a very attractive take on the hooded figure principal.

So far I followed the discussion without commenting.
I prefer the hardback cover.
But I belong to the group of people who buy 98% of their books online. The reason for that is:
I live in Germany and I read books in English. You don’t get many fantasy books in English in German book stores.
Therefore I don’t need an eye catcher.
I understand the reasons for different covers and as long as the majority of people buy their books in book stores you need different covers.
But there are two other things which really bother me:
– Different titles for the same book in UK and US
– The use of same cover for different books of a series in different countries. Sound confusing.
One example: The cover of THE OTHER LANDS by David Anthony Durham US edition is also used for the German edition of ACACIA: War with the Mein (in German: ACACIA: Macht und Verrat) by David Anthony Durham.

Fortunately I buy books because of the content and not why I like/dislike th cover.

All I’ve got left to say is this: Nights is an awesome novel, for many reasons, and one of the important ones is that it is able to generate such a discussion. If you hadn’t arrived before, Mark, you damn well have now. 🙂 Congrats!

hagelrat – thanks for the sense there, and hurrah for liking the cover! 🙂

edifanob – if only there were more fans who could do their research into finding out what books are good or not. Still, the genre is blessed that it has an active community who discuss quality, and are less likely to be led by cover choice.

Dave – Thanks! And well I don’t know about arriving, but it’s nice to cause a stir here and there. 🙂

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