Friday, November 30, 2012


Pippa’s fascinating post about the evolution of her new cover for Bones of the Sea had me fantasizing about the day when I would have to talk to artists about a cover for my own novel(s).  

For months, sometimes for years, we authors are constrained to put our concepts into words, describing vast galaxies, gleaming starships, slavering aliens (or maybe mouth-watering aliens) and exotic landscapes with nothing but lively verbs and bright adjectives.  How exciting to have an artist put those concepts into actual pictures on the page (or better yet, images on a screen—squeeee!).

For all authors, the choice of a cover is fraught with angst and seems a matter of commercial life and death.  Does it convey the right points about the plot and characters?  Does it project just the right emotional tone?  Will it attract the audience we want?  Will it stand out from others on a shelf—either actual or virtual?

But for science fiction romance authors, the choice of a cover is even more difficult.  Do we opt more heavily for planets and spaceships, hoping to scoop up the SF crowd?  Or do we boldly go for the romance audience, with a couple on the cover?  Should the woman be in front, or the man?  Should they be fully clothed or partially undressed, naked torsos or filmy ecstatic expressions?  Stars or weapons?  Landscapes or closeups?  So many decisions—and so much that could go wrong!

But, okay, let’s say for the sake of argument that this is my book we're talking about and I and my publisher/editor/cover artist/second cousin twice removed and his best friend all decide that I want to attract a primarily romance audience and secondarily an SF audience for UNCHAINED MEMORY.  We agree, after much discussion, that a couple should appear on the cover.  (That’s as far as I’m willing to speculate right now, folks.  I have another point to make.)

Great!  Now, what do Asia and Ethan, the heroine and hero of my novel, look like?  Here, I think, is where it all breaks down.  I can describe my people in the book with passages like this:

“Ethan Roberts was the deluxe edition—his dark blond hair a little too long to be fashionable, his deep-set gray-blue eyes examining me with what seemed like X-ray vision, his strong jaw skimmed by the barest shading of beard, highlighting the cleft in his chin.”


“He looked up to see a woman charge into the waiting room, her high cheekbones flaming with color, her amber eyes snapping with fire.  She was so furious she seemed on the verge of tears.  She was so beautiful he forgot to breathe.”

I can even say I wrote the characters with certain physical models in mind.  In Ethan’s case, it was Viggo Mortensen.  For Asia, I wavered back and forth between Shania Twain and Ashley Judd.  I started with those models, but eventually, as I wrote, the characters became themselves, someone unique and never before seen in the world.

The problem is, everyone who reads the book will visualize those characters differently.  So when the cover artist gives me her version of Ethan and Asia, based on what I’ve told her, or maybe even on what she’s read, it can’t possibly be what I’ve envisioned.  Her Ethan and Asia may be better; they may be worse.  But they will most certainly be different.

I don’t mind.  I find the envisioning of characters a fascinating process.  The “rule” in romance writing has traditionally been that your hero and heroine must be clearly described—eye color, hair color, height, weight, etc.  Some contest judges get a little OCD about this.  They want to know what these people look like.  But beyond a few particulars, I can’t tell you that.  You will come up with that picture on your own, no matter what I say.  I can tell you that Ethan has broad shoulders and narrow hips, but if you like guys big and beefy, and I’ve written him as a sexy character, you’ll fit him into your mold, and so will your girlfriend, who likes ’em lean and long.

Each writer has her own process for discovering the attributes of their characters.  Some are very visual and plaster photos of their physical models around their desks while they work.  Some work up complete background files on each character, with bios and backstories.  Some have music or other things associated with them.  I just sketch out a backstory (which I can change or add to as I go along) before I start the book, and I usually look for a physical model.
In my current WIP, Sam, the pirate captain who becomes a faithful agent of Rescue, friend of tracker Gabriel (from Trouble in Mind) and lover of Rayna/Dozen from the first two books, is based on David Boreanaz, of BONES and ANGEL fame.  Rayna herself is based on an African-American woman I saw in a picture once on a wall in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service training center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  She was a rock climber—young, vibrant, tiny and very beautiful.  I have no idea who she is, but I can still see her smile.  I took one look at the picture and knew it was Dozen.  

But then, I’m the writer, and I created Dozen.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many romance covers feature headless torsos or couples turned so you can’t really see their faces.  Those leave room for the reader to impose her own vision of the characters on the story as she reads.  Let's just call them “interactive” covers—and not feel so bad about them.

Cheers, Donna


  1. When I've posted about covers before, I've had so many mixed responses to them. Some people prefer not to have the head shots so that they can imagine the characters themselves. Some have even told me who they would cast as my characters, and often it isn't somebody I know let alone would have imagined. Some are apparently offended by the naked torsos and/or couples on sfr titles. And are stars and planets 'type-cast' as far as SF titles go?
    With small press publishers there's normally a tight cost limit. Most have to use stock images, which often leads to popular images being used over and over again. I have a mock cover for Keir's sequel, but I've seen the guy on it used at least three times on covers in the past year so I wouldn't use it myself now. Thanks to a dear friend I'm lucky enough to have a unique and story-based piece of artwork that could be used for Keir when the rights revert back to me, but that's a rarity for so many people. But I have to say, even when limited to stock images, working with a cover designer for the cover for your own book is such a thrill!

  2. Covers - the bane of my life. Over 20 publications and I actively like only a few of them. Some I really loathe. Mostly that's because the models are nowhere near what I imagined. YET, I don't have people in mind when I write. Only when people ask who I envisage as my hero, heroine, do I go looking for a picture that might fit. I don't even have an image in mind when I read someone else's story unless - sadly - its the one I saw on the cover. I do think cover artists could be a bit more cooperative with the author but sadly the reverse is happening. Authors are having less and less input with some publishers. All they care about is whether the cover will sell the book. Whether the author likes it is irrelevant. And covers sell - can't deny it.

  3. I've been lucky so far - in both cases my publisher has allowed me to send images as well as the cover art form. Keir was nothing like I asked for or expected, but it's had so many compliments I can't deny it's a good cover. Gethyon I was lucky to be able to chat directly to the artist, but we had to hope our boss would sign it off. This is one of the things I love about self-publishing - being able to decide the cover myself with a good designer. It costs of course, but a great cover and a great editor are worth the money.

  4. I do think that, for better or worse,MOST covers are "typecast". SF and SFR get stars and planets; paranormals get naked guy torsos; historicals get women in flowing gowns; contemporaries, for some reason, get landscapes! It's all about the symbolism, even though the PARTICULAR SFR may not have anything to do with space, that paranormal hero's torso is the only thing human about him, the historical lady spends more time OUT of her gown than in it and there's more conflict in that peaceful village than in downtown Chicago!

    In the end, of course, as you say, Barbara, we may not have much to say about it. I'm no artist and I'm surely no sales expert, so I'm likely to defer to those who have some expertise in those matters. But I DO know what Ethan looks like--so don't try to pawn some pale 20-year-old stick-boy off on me. :)

  5. Probably everyone's heard me say this before, but my experience was more like Pippa's. My editor and the designers who worked on my cover took my input very seriously. The concept they came up with was spot on. Having heard the horror stories before going into that process, I feel very lucky!

    I agree that readers are always going to paint their own picture, and it may be very different from the author's. Personally I prefer covers without faces for that reason. I have read books and then seen an actor cast in the film version and thought "no way he/she looks like that." And it does alter the way I envision the character. Although that can be jarring, in my own experience it's a small point. If the book is fabulous, it's the nonphysical aspects of the characters that stick with me over time.

  6. Another factor to consider--regardless of genre, actually--is how the covers look online. There's been a trend toward covers that clearly convey the title and author name even at thumbnail size. More simplistic covers with bold fonts tend to stand out better when readers are browsing through pages and pages of thumbnail images.

    Covers with too much detail or fancy fonts tend to look cluttered and unreadable at small sizes. So there's a trade off--does one have a cover that represents the story or one that pops out and withstands the rigors of browsing? I'm guessing a good cover designer can do both, but they (experienced cover designers) seem few and far between. At least, in terms of what authors and publishers can afford.

    >Some are apparently offended by the naked torsos and/or couples on sfr titles.

    @ Pippa Did they mean naked couples or couples in general?

    >which often leads to popular images being used over and over again.

    I wonder...are the stock images just that low in number or is everyone just going to the same first two pages when searching for images?

    >And are stars and planets 'type-cast' as far as SF titles go?

    If they are, it's partly because cover designers are limited by the stock images they use. Illustrators--paint, digital, etc.--would be able to envision a wider variety of backgrounds and settings. Naturally, their work costs a pretty penny.

    Many times it's strictly a marketing decision. I've heard of SF titles having spaceships on the cover even though there isn't a spaceship anywhere in the story. That is so nuts and yet those covers probably did help increase sales.

    If space opera continues to dominate SFR, then we'll probably keep seeing more of the same type of covers.

    >Authors are having less and less input with some publishers.

    Do you mean print or digital? I bet some of the big epublishers have become more like their print counterparts in this respect.

    On the one hand, cover designers in general would be more familiar with available stock images and what would work for the books. So unless an author has direct experience in cover design I can understand why publishers would maintain that boundary.

    On the other hand, if authors can be strategic, specific, and realistic when providing ideas for the cover, then that might increase the chances of having input.

    >All they care about is whether the cover will sell the book.

    Even so, it seems that there is some disagreement among publishers about what works best for covers because if there weren't then every book would have a man titty or naked couple embracing (or both, ha ha!), regardless of content, heat level, or subgenre. But they don't. Which is good because readers like variety.

    And if input is really important to an author, she has a choice of seeking out like-minded publishers.

  7. Heather, they were offended by the nakedness.

  8. Ah, okay. Because for a second there, I was like, what?!


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