>Getting Under the Covers with Anton Strout – Guest Blog

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I am not quite sure the Paperback Dolls were sober when they invited me to post regularly here, but I’m thankful they did, although I definitely think of myself as a Paperback Action Figure more than a Doll.

Today I thought I’d punch my keyboard about one of the big topics I see discussed/flamed about out there, that of book covers. The Dolls wanted me to, and as one always willing to do the bidding of the PBD’s, I am happy to oblige.

First of all, as an urban fantasy author, I’m very lucky. I have matching covers for my series. See?


Let’s quickly examine my covers. They’re very consistent, aren’t they, even down to the bits of electricity crackling along Simon’s hands to indicate he has a power of some kind. They’ve got my name in a Dean Koontz-y kind of font. The DEAD part is all bold, with a little grid pattern to it when you look up close. The second word or two in the titles are thinner, a different pattern laid over them. Books 2,3, and 4 all have “A Simon Canderous Novel” on them, and the Charlaine Harris quote working its magic along the top there… that’s called branding, folks!

Yet as the author, I fuss over the tiny details. For instance, at some point Simon went from an Angel knee- length black leather coat on the covers to a floor length black coat with a popped collar and stitched in Celtic knot work running up and down the lapels. That look is not indicative of a stylistic choice occurring in the books, but suddenly, right there on Dead Matter, there it is. What else bothers me? Oh! When we finally see the retractable bat Simon carries, it looks more like a steel police baton instead of the Back to the Future 2 type of collapsible baseball bat Griff Tanner uses. Small things, but they drive me a little crazy. Don’t get me wrong… my covers look great and I’m happy to have them, but a lot goes into producing covers, and a lot more has the potential to go wrong in the creation of them.

When readers see constant changes in a series or covers that don’t indicate the contents of the book well enough, they tend to get confused, but coming from the inside world of publishing, I think we should all relax and just be happy books have covers at all. Here’s a bit of insight I think will help next time you judge a book by its cover.

As the maxim itself goes, no, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, metaphorically speaking. That said, in the literal sense, we judge books by their covers… all the damn time. They’re there for that, trying to be eye catching… it’s the first impression you get before opening the book and checking out its actual content. Are covers super indicative of the actual content of a book? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The fact is it’s not easy to encapsulate 75,000-500,000 words in one image.

Let’s take a quick look at the publication process itself. I work on the paperback side of things in my day job at one of the Big Six in New York. I go to meetings where I see new covers all the time, roughly 120-200 titles a month… and that’s just on the paperback side.

Think about that a moment and let it sink in. Up to 200 new pieces of unique art being generated every month, hoping to capture some essence of the book they will be representing. On the practical side, the hired artists don’t have the time to read through the books looking for all the details, that’s for sure. They’re going off of input from editors, sales people, sometimes even the authors… although I can tell you I don’t get much say in my cover design, except being asked early on if there’s anything notably iconic within the story they might be able to work with. Some authors hit a level where they get the right to cover consult, but someone like me? I smile and simply say, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” Covers are hard work.

I know you look at certain covers and go, “What the hell were they thinking?” I know I have, but given the volume and unique art on each and every one of them, odds are there are bound to be misfires on occasion, right?

“Unique art, Strout?” you ask. “What the hell’s so unique? All those girls on the urban fantasy covers are in tight leather pants, bare midriffs, and have tattoos! They’re all the same!” Fair point, but let’s face it… covers are meant to say, “Hey! Did you like that last book about the girl in the tight leather pants fighting werewolves? Then look at this one!” It’s not reinventing the wheel each and every time. Cover design is not ‘art’ in the pure sense, its indicative art, indicating the type of book more than being fully realistic to the book’s content. If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll get your hero or heroine’s hair color right… but we’ve seen missteps out there where even the skin color of the characters has been wrong.

There is also a general confusion that sometimes occurs when book covers change. There are a variety of reasons things like this happen.

For instance… maybe a book came out in hardcover and didn’t sell. The editor knows it’s a good book, that’s why they bought it in the first place! The readers who actually picked it up loved it, but for some reason it didn’t capture much of an audience. A lot of time the package of the book isn’t right the first time around. Who knows why? It just didn’t quite capture the content of the book well enough or, worse, was just a bad design. It happens. Again, we’re talking about business deadlines for artwork and hundreds of new books a month all reliant on one art department. So the cover concept is revisited, rethought out, and a new package is created, hopefully more in keeping with the content and/or at least something more pleasing to the eye.

Lastly, let’s take a look at a long running series, the much beloved Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter one by Laurell K. Hamilton.

Reading from top left to bottom right, you will see the changes in cover design over the years. (I know these aren’t in series order, but more in design order, so erase your angry emails now). The first books have almost a pulpy noir detective novel feel and most definitely would be on the shelf in the fantasy section of a bookstore. Once we move into the St. Louis Arch ones, however, they’re already morphing, starting to look a bit more mystery.

Around the time of Obsidian Butterfly, the books became a bit more… steamy. Some readers might say the steam control valve snapped right off, but that’s a post for another day. That’s when you see the shift to the more romance looking covers. A mix of photography, naked flesh, shadows and tattoos. Suddenly the shelves were littered with copy cats, remember? It’s no surprise, then, that we see a transition to what I like to call the SAW movie poster covers—rusted, bloody instruments of some kind. A long running series needs to keep its look current, so change is not only expected but inevitable.

Coming full circle back to my earlier concern and worry about the accuracy of my own covers for the Simon Canderous series, do the latest Hamilton ones have a lot to do with the books contents? No, but they create a certain dark look, a creepy mood, and that’s really what the cover is trying to do. Set a tone.

Bonus points if covers also catch something more specific to the book, but to me design and mood are truly king and queen here. Think of actual book content as the court jester 😛

Fantasy author Anton Strout was born in the Berkshire Hills mere miles from writing heavyweights Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and currently lives in the haunted corn maze that is New Jersey (where nothing paranormal ever really happens, he assures you).

He is the co-creator of the faux folk musical Sneezin’ Jeff & Blue Raccoon: The Loose Gravel Tour (winner of the Best Storytelling Award at the First Annual New York International Fringe Festival).

In his scant spare time, he is a writer, a sometimes actor, sometimes musician, occasional RPGer, and the worlds most casual and controller smashing video gamer. He currently works in the exciting world of publishing and yes, it is as glamorous as it sounds.http://www.antonstrout.com/

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