One More Look at Science Fiction Book Jackets

By Neal Comment


The conversation sparked by my post about science fiction book covers took a few more turns across the blogosphere. Tor art director Irene Gallo offered a thoughtful perspective on reconciling her personal aesthetics with marketplace realities, describing her job as “[getting] books past book buyers.” (As she puts it, “If the books don’t make it into the stores in the first place, readers can’t buy them in the second place.”) On the other hand, she reflects, “the breadth of what is recognized as sf/f art today is so much more varied and vibrant than fifteen/twenty years ago,” as the three Tor covers above demonstrate.

“Cover art is explicitly commercial art,” John Scalzi elaborated. ” It’s designed first to convince shopkeepers that this book will move, and second to convince readers in a glance what the book is about and that it’s worth their time.” And if you’re writing a series, he adds, there’s a ‘third dimension” of visual consistency to respect as well.

Lou Anders, editorial director at the science fiction imprint Pyr, followed up on comments by Orbit‘s Tim Holman about trying to achieve a balance between enabling one’s books to stand out and making sure they fit in with the rest of the section. As Anders sees it, trying to reach out to non-SF readers can backfire “when you shoot so far afield for that cross-over audience that you go too far and lose the home team. Or produce something generic and bland that fails to represent the book at all.” Echoing Gallo’s comments, Anders observes that science fiction and fantasy is a vastly diverse genre, with room for a multitude of different cover styles. Holman pops up in Anders’s comments section to agree in principle, but not necessarily in practice:

“if a publisher takes a book-/series-/author-led approach to packaging, it should indeed result in lots of different cover styles,” Holman writes. “The problem, in my opinion, is that we’re not seeing enough of these on the SFF shelves, because too often there seems to be little sign of the kind of individually tailored, visually exciting packaging we’re talking about. What we’re seeing on the shelves is rather too many dodgy paintings showing randomly chosen scenes from the book with little or no design to speak of.”

But the two get along fabulously otherwise, and it looks like Anders will be reading one of Holman’s new frontlist titles soon. The two of them realize that publishing, especially when it comes to genre, can be a complementary enterprise rather than competitive:

“I am grateful for every quality SF&F work published, no matter who publishes it,” Anders reflects, “and I will always publicly and loudly applaud it when I see it, because every quality work retains and supports the existing readership, while containing within it the potential to grow that readership by attracting new eyeballs.”