Cover Art: The Good and the Good-Bad

There’s a round robin discussion going on about cover art and book covers. I’ll include links to the different blogs at the bottom, but much of the discussion is about what works vs. aesthetics. The short version is that fine art doesn’t always sell books.

I am NOT a cover designer or artist, as a quick glance at my short-story covers shows. They break almost all the rules-of-thumb for sci-fi covers, the font is too small, and they are probably not helping sales. However, I also work with Saul Bottcher of IndieBookLauncher, who does know covers, and the two of us have come up with some pretty decent designs, and one that is a great image but doesn’t help the book. Here’s some samples and comments, so you can see what goes into coming up with the picture on the front of the book.



Saul and I batted around a couple of options, and settled on something that gives a sense of the book without showing anything from the book. You have a  map of part of Singing Pines, depicting the Zhangki River, that is from the official Imperial document giving Rada Ni Drako the title of Daimyo of Singing Pines. Thus the talon-written text and her sigil. But there’s also the electronic version of the map, to show that this is NOT a fantasy novel. The blue-green background comes from House Ni Drako’s colors. Saul made up the Azdhag script, based on the description I gave him. (See the post on Talons for more info.)



This is a lovely flop. As a cover, it’s great: eye-catching, unusual, the colors work, you can read the title and author name easily. Again, Saul and I and another artist batted ideas back and forth, focusing on the theme of corruption and healing. One idea that proved too complicated was having Brksa cowering in a half-cave, with exposed roots leading up to the part-rotten tree. Yeah, imagine that as a thumbnail. You can see the problem. So we kept the tree, with the red of wires and electronics to show the corruption and injustice that Rada tries to help heal. But the cover as a sic-fi cover is a flop and I could not figure out why for several months. Then it hit me: this is a fantasy cover when seen in thumbnail. The tree is almost identical in outline to the image that symbolizes Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings movies. Look at the image again, make the background black and remove some of the inner branches. Bingo, miscommunication with a potential reader because the cover signals “fantasy”. It’s a purely accidental coincidence, but the damage is done. Great cover, just not for this book.



This screams sci-fi. The book’s themes are genetic engineering, survival, and recovery from a disaster. It is almost pure “hard” sic-fi, so Saul and I wanted a different cover. He looked at lots and lots of space-opera covers, TEOTWAWKI covers, and alien-encounter covers, and found the commonalities. Then we went a different direction. His original design had the DNA alternating with GATC in vertical lines, a more Asian dragon central figure, and a larger sun. After batting drafts back and forth, he presented one with a mottled background and paler dragon head. Alas, I burst out laughing because it looked almost exactly like the biology textbook electron microscope illustrations of reproduction. No, not workable. The solid background returned, and you see the final result. It has elements from the other types of books, but isn’t like them entirely.



OK, for this one we had a very different challenge. This is a series cover, and Saul and I wanted to set a series look. We needed to blend alt-history with high-tech, enough to signal that the book has elements of each. (This is the problem with cross genre books: trying to blend the “signals” from different cover patterns.) Snowy the Killer Mule had to be in there; I wouldn’t compromise on that. But Saul and Anthony Perri came up with the other elements, and Saul designed the “Elizabeth” font. He also set it so that on each subsequent book, the “Elizabeth” becomes brighter, more polished. You see her hand with the Lander relic she’s dug up, along with a small set of prayer beads, in a quasi-medieval setting, looking toward the foothills of the Dividing Range. And each subsequent book has that same basic pattern: setting from the book, seen from Elizabeth’s perspective, with her hand in the picture.  The fourth cover will be a little different, because the idea I had in mind is far too complicated for a book cover and would turn into a muddy mess. “Battle-painting-by-the-yard” doesn’t translate well into cover art. After that? Hard to say, although I have a few ideas, and I’m sure Saul and Anthony will come up with better ones.

Links: IndieBookLauncher is on the sidebar.

On a Wing and a Whim: Dorothy Grant’s series of articles, starting HERE. Skim through her blog for more.

Cedar Sanderson’s article:

And an article with links to a discussion about covers and misconceptions about them:

The Book Designer blog hosts a monthly contest and critique of book covers. Here’s a sample, but he’s got archives as well:

Karen Meyers discussing how her covers come about:

Thomas Alexander of Thomas Alexander Books has an excellent, long, comment on this thread:  (H/T Thanks to Dorothy Grant for the precise link.)

15 thoughts on “Cover Art: The Good and the Good-Bad

    • It may be laughable, but it sells the book, which is what it needs to do. Cover art, with a few notable exceptions, is not fine art.

      • No it doesn’t. The blog posts do. So you people go through your life with that delusion and perpetuate this utter lack of artistry with e-book art.

        Even if covers were only marketing tools and not works of art, it still doesn’t mean you have to figuratively vomit all over a canvas.

      • Covers ARE marketing tools, not works of art. Just like a Colgate advertisement, they may or may not contain “artwork”, but they themselves are NOT art.

        That being said, while I don’t consider the Colplatski covers anything to write home about, individually, as a series they are great covers. They are not in my very biased and inexpert opinion art, much less great art. But from the other side of the room I can look at a computer screen and the picture jumps out at me, even from to far away to read the Title, just the basic color scheme screams, “Colplatski book,” and makes me look closer to see if it is one I have. That is branding, and an excellent job of it for an indie published book with little push, they basically branded themselves.

      • The color scheme screams “flat” and everything else screams “bad perspective” and I can scarcely tell it’s a Colplatski book from the thumbnail.

        To be fair, the textures themselves are well-done.

      • I’m a better artist than Fail is, for one.

        And Fail isn’t the only person bemoaning the glut of stock images and art for refrigerators. Ever visit Lousy Book Covers? Your blog’s very own Shadowdancer Duskstar has a few of her works there.

  1. I bought Hubris partly on the cover. I went looking for others by you based on liking the Elizabeth series (which do have bad covers, but I don’t care. The stories are great). I took one look at that art, started laughing, and when he turned around to look I couldn’t even speak… just pointed at it. He got that look on his face, “Is that?”

    Yes, it is… and perfect, based on the blurb. I haven’t started reading it yet.

    • Thanks. I had my doubts, but that’s why Saul is the designer.
      There was a draft that due to the color contrasts wasn’t, er, ah, wasn’t as subtle. And not the draft I mention in the post, either.

  2. Two of your covers stick in my mind (the style of the Colplatski covers does, but I couldn’t tell you anything specific about any particular one of them, except the newest which I just finished had a Marshall’s baton visible) one is your Justice and Juniors cover, which you claim is all wrong (and I agree, although it does stick out and draw attention) the other, and I the one I liked as a picture was A Double Edged Wish. How did that one work as a cover, did it signal what you wished it to?

    • The cover of A Double Edged Wish works very well, I believe. To me it says “something’s wrong: something’s broken,” and conveys a sense of danger and trouble. You have Rada’s signet ring (which if you enlarge, you can see her sigil) and Anna’s coral ring; the dagger (which could be seen as a nod to Luke 2:35, and to Rada’s rather violent response to certain events); and in the background, stowed rifles suggesting the Defenders’ armory, or perhaps that of the Austrian Army. The bits of detail from the book, combined with the overall design, give a sense of the book without giving away too much.

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