Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing?  Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!”  Yeah, me too.  And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.

First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period.  Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case.  Shall I tell you a secret?  Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.

I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference.  My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like.  She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did.  She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.

What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it.  So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due.  I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did.  And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering.  So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way.  And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.

This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book.  Nope.  Sorry.  Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.

I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract.  But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind.  I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME.   Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive.  And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer.  I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home.  They have been designing covers for years.  That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.

Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.”  They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new.  Who can say?  As an author I certainly can’t.  And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.

Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.

15 Responses to “They’ve Got Authors Covered – Design Departments Not Writers Create Book Covers”

  1. Love this post, Sophie. Writing is a learning curve, that’s for sure.

    I really appreciate you sharing your perspectives for us authors-in-training.

  2. I get what you’re saying, Sophie, but this is still a pet peeve I have. I feel confident that there is no reason why design/marketing departments can’t come up with a cover that both sells the book AND portrays the story accurately.

    If I was to choose a book with a cover showing a Tudor dress because I really want to ready something from that time period, I am going to be truly peeved if I find it is from an era I may not be interested in. You would have sold one book, but it might be detrimental to selling the next.

    Would you want to open a box of chocolate chip cookies only to find boring crackers?

    • I am not sure you DO get what I am saying. I am NOT defending any particular type of cover and, as I said in the post, I am not certain why covers end up as they do. But I am certain that folks who blame authors for “bad” covers are pointing fingers at the wrong person.

      I wrote this post because for a very long time I had no idea that authors neither select their covers nor, except in the case of enormous sellers with significant clout, do they have veto power over them. When I discovered those facts, as I began to research the industry in preparation for trying to break in, I was amazed and I thought “I wish I’d known that as a reader.” So I thought it might interest other readers.

      I personally don’t buy books based (though I may pick them up and look at them) based on a cover alone. I always read the “back cover blurb,” endorsements if there are any, and possibly the opening pages.

      • As an illustrator, graphic designer and author, I don’t blame bad covers on authors. I put the blame squarely on the designers and the marketing department. But usually, as the hired designer/wrist, you have to do what your boss tells you, even if it sucks. I agree with Deb that it’s silly and counterproductive to try to make a medieval historical novel look like a Tudor period piece. I’ve run across this bait-and-switch tactic in bookstores before, and it’s always pissed me off.

        But this is nothing new– bad design has been going on forever (and I’m sure it won’t stop). That’s the nature of the game. It’s not as if book covers in the ’60s and ’70s were particularly accurate either.

        • You are 100% right about those earlier covers. Some of them are laughable. And I certainly agree that designers have to take direction from the folks paying the bills. I suspect neither the design process nor the accuracy of covers has changed, but I think the “hard core” historical fiction readers are perhaps a little more critical/demanding than they used to be.

          One of the reasons I wrote the post was, hopefully, to remind readers that a book can be highly accurate and very readable without having a historical accurate cover. More than that what is BETWEEN the covers is FAR more important, imo, than what is one them.

          • I honestly prefer the cheesy illustrated covers of the ’70s (usually with artwork by Tom Hall or Sanjulian) than the photo of headless-woman-in-bad-costume that often passes for cover art today. Maybe the illos weren’t particularly accurate, but at least they were more interesting– and often had more artistic merit.

            You really lucked out on your cover though. You got a good illustration AND design, with bonus points that it actually looks medieval!

          • I do consider myself fortunate. My understanding is that the artist for my cover is well known (particularly in romance but also in historical fiction) and I love how the color pops. I wanted both my sisters on there (with their heads) and also for them to be walking in a flower filled field. So I feel very lucky.

            By the way I love the art at both your links. Those are certainly not the cheesy covers of the past. I was thinking about covers like these http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2010/02/tackiness-extraordinaire.html

    • Consider though, that you may not be the typical book buyer.

  3. Just gotta say… It bugs me when covers don’t reflect the contents. 🙁

    • Agreed.

      But since it is in BOTH the publisher’s and the author’s interest for the cover to attract the right reader I think most covers DO telegraph their genre pretty well (if they don’t then the book stuck with a mis-matched cover is likely not going to sell well).

      I think the problem in my genre, historical fiction, is that many writers (myself included) and diehard fans want meticulous attention to historical detail, while the a good number of readers/purchasers cannot tell the difference between a Spanish farthingale and a French one. Clearly a cover with someone in historical dress is going to be historical fiction. The sad thing is, for example, when a headpiece or shoe is wrong on a photographic cover an author—who, remember, had no hand in selecting the model’s wardrobe – can get raked over the coals

  4. Interesting post! I’ve gone the opposite way – as a reader, I’ve never assumed the cover depicts anything to do with the book – it’s just a pretty picture (and I had a vague understanding it was a pretty picture meant to draw me in/sell me something). Now, as a writer, I’ve been thinking about what I’d want in a book cover for my book and I really want something that speaks to the content of the book/want the cover to match the insides. Isn’t that weird – as a consumer I don’t mind the “false advertising” of a mismatched cover but as the author (who, as you say, wants to SELL books) I want cover/content alignment, even at the cost of sales? I really admire the people whose job it is to think about these things!

  5. Interesting blog today from agent Kristin Nelson on how many different things “cover consultation” can mean and reinforcing the point that “for the newer writers out there, an author does not get approval over covers unless he/she is at a very high level as an author.”


  6. I’ve just published a book (historical fiction); The Restorer and was so baffled by the chosen cover that I can’t quite understand if I love it or hate it. This cover business is very upsetting for any author.
    Daniela Murphy Corella

  7. I know they say, never judge a book by it’s cover. But, I admit, I’m superficial. If I don’t know the aothur, the cover could make or break the deal (if I don’t fall in love with the blurb). Usually, the simpler the cover, the better it seems to work for me. Like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Acheron. For some reason, I found that cover just plain cool.Oh, and a cover pet peeve of mine when the model on the cover looks nothing like the hero/heroine described in the book. I’m one of those who will flip back to look at the cover when I read, especially when the cover has a yummy beefcake on it.

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