Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Another day, another Abercrombie & Fitch model in a cloak. At least this time the character represented, Randur, is a self-described playboy and pretty to boot. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the meeting where it was decided that the best way to sell novels was to make every cover look the same, just featuring a slightly different pose for menacing fellow that they hope potential readers will project on themselves. White certainly better than the cover for Newton’s upcoming novel, City of Ruin, this new cover is missing all of the Hardcover’s atmosphere that perfectly captured the tone of the novel. Seperated from the content, I do quite like the yellow/green colour pallette used, though it’s an odd choice for a bleak Dying Earth-style setting.

Aww, well. At least I know the book between the pages rocks.

  • Joe Sherry November 16, 2009 at 9:24 am

    “I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the meeting where it was decided that the best way to sell novels was to make every cover look the same, just featuring a slightly different pose for menacing fellow that they hope potential readers will project on themselves.”

    Aidan – to an extent, I think that’s *exactly* how they sell novels. Look at the paranormal romance end of urban fantasy. Think about all those Big Fat Fantasy covers of the 80’s and 90’s. Think about the exaggerated pulp covers of “back in the day”. Or the Fabio covers of romance.

    Or, or…

    Different publishers have different aesthetics and different ideas about how to reach the audience, but it’s a calculated marketing decision. It’s about reaching the audience who doesn’t already know about the product. I buy based on author / editor name, mostly. They’re not trying to get me. They’re trying to get the person who likes a particular kind of book but may not know MCN’s name. “This” is like “that” kind of book, so buy it.

    And stuff.

  • Simon Spanton November 16, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Interesting one this. As clear a visual shorthand for the voyage from Melville like ‘city’ based fantasy package to Weeks like ‘commercial’ heroic fantasy package as you could wish for.

    It’s a seductive argument but there is a danger in identikit.

  • Shawn November 16, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Joe is right.

    And it is annoying. Who wants the same looking book sitting on their bookshelf, honestly? haha

    At least this cover is better than most of them.

  • Simon Spanton November 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

    ‘who wants the same looking book sitting on their bookshelf’? I don’t know but there’s quite a lot of him/her out there.

  • aidan November 16, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Joe, this is certainly true. I just wish more publishers would think of themselves as definers of the genre, rather than shackled by the successes of others. Trend setters rather than trend followers.

    Simon, one of the things I appreciate about Gollancz’s approach to publishing is that they (for the most part) stay away from this approach that so many other publishers are falling in with. In particular, I really enjoy the Paperback cover for The Steel Remains and the upcoming cover for The Dark Commands (though I’ll never forgive you guys for making Morgan change the name…).

    The Rats & the Ruling Sea, The Cardinal’s Blades and Gardens of the Sun all feature nice covers that don’t suffer from menacing man-syndrome. If covers like this sell so well and appeal to the masses, why doesn’t Gollancz publish more of them?

  • Simon Spanton November 16, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Hey! I didn’t make Richard change the title! I loved the original title. He made us change it. Turned out it was hot where the book was happening so the only cold was one that was making Ringil sniff and dribble snot and that didn’t seem too much of an imperative for a fantasy novel . . . :-) But thank you for the positives on the covers.

    Types of covers are all very well but each and every cover has to fit the book its on. Fact remains though that Brent Weeks and Trudi Canavan before him sold sh*tloads of books with a cloaked person on the front. Having a cloaked person on the front of The Name of The Wind didn’t hurt it none neither. Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (maybe that’s where you’ve seen the snow from Mark’s cover before) sold really well as well but had no cloak . . .

    The covers for Rats Cardinals and Gardens all rock but none of the books are really like for like in terms of subject matter (Gardens particularly) so its really difficult to make any meaningful comparison between the sales of those books let alone those books and the ones we’re talking about above (also its very early days).

    Covers work for the reader who’s new to that series when they convey excitement and, crucially, atmosphere (which often means ‘mist’) but generally the readership seem to like to know what they might be getting hence familiar covers.

    A cover that tries to do something different will stand out (and if the book is trying to do something different that’s even more appropriate) but risks bouncing readers off.

    I point you to what happened between the trade edition of The Lies of Locke Lamora and the mass market: bold holographic foil, beautiful semi-abstracted urban landscape, flying birds, single colour weight: sold well. Gorgeous but much more conventionally delivered fantasy cityscape with brooding silhouetted figure (and mist): sold like crazy.

  • Reuben November 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

    I hate to admit it, but I’d be emberassed to read that book in public. I realize that I’m just one customer and maybe 32 year old men who’ve read sf&f their whole lives are not the demographic they’re going for. The guy on the cover is way too pretty and brooding. There is nothing appealing about it, it looks like its about pretty, brooding men who wave swords around. If he was ugly and killing a 6 legged beast then I would be more interested, or as Aidan said, if they stuck with the hardcover design I’d jump all over it. As it is, it does sound like an awesome book, so I probably will read it, but I can guarantee that I’m going to be squeamish at the register.

  • Mark Charan Newton November 17, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Oh, come now, he’s not especially pretty.

    Perhaps I think that because I mix in highfalutin circles. :)

  • aidan November 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Simon (and Mark, if you’re interested in getting your hands dirty), one thing that’s always bothered me about the argument you make regarding Scott Lynch and The Lies of Locke Lamora is that there doesn’t seem to be a metric you can use to measure whether those extra sales are directly related to cover art.

    Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a spike in sales expected when a novel hits paperback? They’re called ‘Mass Market’ paperback’s for a reason, no? Especially in the case of Lynch, a new author, isn’t it simply more likely that the increase in sales is from consumers greater willingness to part with $8 rather than $16. On top of that, the novel also had 12-18 extra months to build hype before the MMPB was released. How do you separate these factors from the new cover art?

    Rothfuss’s novel sold like crazy with the Gargoyle and Shirtless man, and yet they still changed the cover, even in Hardcover format. What’s the logic behind that?

    In the end, it seems to me that good cover art, no matter the trends, sells novels. Is it not better to accurately represent a novel, give it character and a life of its own, rather than follow the pack? I simply can’t comprehend how having so many novels on the shelves looking almost exactly the same is good for the industry. Oftentimes people too ingrained in the industry are jaded and blinded from what the buying public is really thinking. The goal is to be unique and stick out on a shelf full of books, no? How do these carbon-copy covers achieve that? It seems almost unanimous, when another of these ‘brooding and/or cloaked figure’ covers is revealed that everyone’s sick of them, but marketing/design departments keep on dipping back into that pot. Are we, the passionate, vocal minority not a decent metric of what people like?

    I’d love more light shed on the matter, as I always seem one step behind what’s going on with these publishing companies and I just can’t wrap my head around some of the decisions being made.

  • Simon Spanton November 18, 2009 at 2:34 am


    Well clearly you don’t make a like for like comparison when trying to judge these things after the event – you look at comparitive rates of sale. The decision to change a cover is a complex one based on feel, hunches and, crucially, retailer feedback. And its worth pointing out that we operate in a business that simply cannot afford to do market research for every product line (ie book) – remember shoe companies launch maybe twenty new shoes in a year, just at Gollancz we publish approaching 150 new books a year.

    So you take all these things into consideration. Or sometimes a really sucessful hardback cover that everyone has loved and that you’d love to use again simply doesn’t work (for anyone) when it gets shrunk down.

    No one WANTS to change a book’s cover when it comes into mass market – its expensive and time consuming.

    And PLEASE let’s drop this whole ‘the dead hand of marketing and design’ argument – its an insult to those people. No-one works in marketing or design or sales in publishing for any reason other than they love books and want as many other people as possible to love them too (ie buy them). Decisions about book covers are collegiate decisions taken by a group of people who want the best for that book. Sometimes they get those decisions wrong but no-one’s in the process because they are a cynical unit-sale driven souless marketing wonk (the pay in publishing simply isn’t good enough to attract people like this).

    So what is the buying public really thinking? Do any of us really know (see my point on market research)? Probably not. What we do know is that they think books with cloaked figures on the front are the sort of book they want to read. We know this because they’re buying them in large numbers (now of course the relationship between sales and the cloaked figures is sometimes coincidental – mostly the books are brought because they are good but the cloaked figure becomes a shorthand. Sometimes that cloaked figure will appear on a crap book but that that’s what packaging is all about and we all subconsciously and consciously make judgements about that.

    Do I wish that innovative and different covers, the sort of covers that play well to the ‘passionate and vocal minority’ sold more books? Yes of course I do (we’ve had our fair share of beautiful innovative packages for books that have failed dismally) but even if they did work I wonder how long they’d retain their sense of innovation and difference before being swamped by all the copycat covers?

    And ‘passionate and vocal minority’ is a clue all of its own. Passion comes from a total and dedicated immersion in a subject, a familiarity with every aspect of the genre. By definition most of the buying public simply don’t have that passion – they just want to read a good fantasy or SF book. SF and fantasy is blessed with having a core market of passionate and vocal fans who use the internet to find out about their favourite authors, who are passionate advocates for them and who defend the artistic ideal they see represented in those authors works with extraordinary zeal. We need those fans and we love them. And we are them. But, much as it may be uncomfortable to hear, our job as publishers is to make that core market an increasingly small part of the author’s readership – for an author to sell big numbers we have to get their book in the hands of those people who maybe buy just one or two genre books a year, not just the dedicated fans who buy maybe 20 books a year. And that, essentially, is where the cloaked figures come in.

    This is not an advocacy for identikit cloaked figure covers, simnply an honest admission of the fact that sometimes they’re needed and sometimes they work.

    I love the fact that the core genre readership feel a sense of ownership over their genre (publishers working in other areas would kill for that level of involvement) but the core readers, the passionate and vocal minority who this year are tired of cloaked figures on their books because they’ve been seeing them for four years now are not the only owners of these books – the casual reader who hasn’t been following the cover trends, who doesn’t know about the author – also owns the book and has the right to be sold to.

    Hopefully they too will then become part of a passionate and vocal slightly larger minority who are dedicated to innovation and newness and will help push the design agenda forward within genre publishing.

    Apologies in advance for any sense of snottiness or arsiness in the above but let’s remember no-one wants a cover on a book that doesn’t sell the book and if a book has a cover that doesn’t work then generally that cover (and in the wider sense that style of cover) won’t be around for long. In the worst case scenario the cover kills the book, in the best case scenario the book survives and gets a new cover look. Great covers work – sometimes they work by being innovative; not often enough for my or the designer’s, or the marketeer’s or the sales force’s liking (believe it or not we all like cool, new stuff, we all like to be different). Sometimes they work by being a great example of a package everyone’s familiar and comfortable with.

    Hope this helps. As ever I really appreciate the comments here.

  • Adam Roberts November 18, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Speaking as an author, what I really want from a cover is something simple, classic, black. None more black. Either that, or a semi-naked woman on all fours with a dog collar round her neck sniffing a glove. Either, really.

  • MD Lachlan November 18, 2009 at 5:33 am

    We should all remember that hooded figures are actually a progression from some of the covers of the past.
    I have in my hand a copy of The Incomplete Enchanter that shows a buxom woman, just about in a bikini, straddling a large snake.
    Now I like this book but, when I read it in a coffee shop, I’m shoving it inside a large copy of The Master and Margarita.

  • Neil Williamson November 18, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Folks – for me this has been a hugely valuable discussion about marketing realities. As an author, would you rather your book was a cool and unique artefact or more generic in design but with a higher likelihood of dependable sales? I know which I’d go for.

  • Julie Crisp November 18, 2009 at 7:00 am

    I’m the editor for this book so feel like I should probably add my thoughts. But actually Simon has covered it all perfectly! I’m sure most of you are aware that as SFF editors we’re fans of the genre first and foremost. But, of course, as publishers, we also have to consider the cold, hard facts concerning sales figures and market research. It’s what keeps books on the shelves.
    We all hate having to change covers, especially when we’ve invested so much time and enthusiasm in the original version. However, if we do change a cover this is predominantly down to retailer feedback we’ve received. We all want a book to sell, of course we do, it’s good for the author, it’s good for the book, and yes, it’s good for us – so we want as many people out there to pick it up and realize what a terrific read it is. If we could just do this through word of mouth and reviews then wonderful. But it doesn’t work like that. The top three reasons for buying an SFF book are: read the previous in the series, read other by author and saw in shop. Most readers will experiment with a new author because it reminds them of someone they’ve read previously and enjoyed. I’m guilty of it myself. They want that simple association – something that’s immediately comparative. And we would be remiss if we ignored that…
    As an aside, it’s not just SFF – you look at most genres and there’s a certain style of covers associated with a certain genre of book.
    Phew – do I get shouted at now?

  • Lou Anders November 18, 2009 at 8:17 am

    “Are we, the passionate, vocal minority not a decent metric of what people like?”

    A tangent, but that line made me smile. There was a great essay decades ago about Doctor Who in which Who fandom was described as “The Powerless Elite”. It was about Hollywood, specifically, but went on to explain why the makers of big franchises couldn’t take into account the hardcore supporters of same. It’s why it’s worth it to Hollywood to say, take out an option on a comic property about an English cockney named John Constantine, and then recast him as an LA surfer dude, thereby infuriating the core audience for same. But the core audience for the comic – not more than 100k and probably more like 25k to 30k at the time – is nothing like the millions of ticket buyers you need for a movie to be a hit. Similarly, Ron Moore described Battlestar Galactica as the perfect franchise because everyone had heard of it, but no on knew what it was… He loved its combination of name recognition and lack of any preconceptions (for the wider world, not for those of us who watched the original and were initially upset that Starbuck was a guy…).

  • Mark Chitty November 18, 2009 at 9:02 am

    I must admit that I think this new cover for Nights of Villjamur is nice and suited to the mass market release, but I do prefer the original hardback cover.

    As for the overall debate about covers, as long as the cover suits the subject of the novel I can’t see there being too many problems. What I can’t stand is a book that depicts a scene or character that is completely at odds with what is contained within.

    Tor UK are usually quite good with their covers (Neal Asher, Peter F Hamilton and Tony Ballantyne jump to mind), so I have confidence that this cover is the right one for the paperback release.

  • Robert Grant November 18, 2009 at 9:45 am

    I have to say that the new cover IMHO is a disappointment compared to the earlier (original?) one. I fully understand the need to make a cover compelling in order to aid sales but there is so much more in this book, and so many other options available, that what we have here – rightly or wrongly – smacks of laziness.

    We could have had Investigator Jeryd, or Garudas flying over the city, or the throng of poor crowding outside the gates with the Inquisition looking down on them, or the albino (Brynd?) or the cultists or, or , or…….the list goes on.

    Don’t get me wrong, everything I know about the publishing industry could be wrtten on the back of a postage stamp, and obviously I have no idea where the series is going and that must be a factor but still, a little more thought could have yielded something way more interesting than this.

  • On Artwork November 18, 2009 at 11:05 am

    […] biggest discussion has been over at A Dribble Of Ink, with all sorts of merriment in the comments section from not only my editor, Julie Crisp, but […]

  • Stefan November 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Well I think it looks great. The guy in the book is a barely-disguised Russell Brand, the rakish Brit actor/comedian guy, and that’s him to a T. And hey guys, at least it’s not another single figure girl-in-leather-trousers-with-sword cover!

  • Lauren P. November 18, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    What a great discussion! good hornet’s nest.

    @ Simon “let’s drop this whole ‘the dead hand of marketing and design’ argument ”

    THANK YOU for saying that. there is a feeling on the reader side that marketing and sales departments are evil. in fact, everyone has their own opinion of what will make a book sell, and they are all sure that they are right. Everyone wants the book to be a best-seller! And yes, I too have had a few design-forward covers flop terribly, and there’s no way of telling if that was the book or the cover.

    The problem is exactly that you can’t quantify in any way what effect a cover has on a book. There’s a joke in cover design that when a book sells its because of the great book, not anything to do with the cover, but when a book bombs, it’s always the cover’s fault. Cover design is a very delicate balance of pushing the design envelope and yet still catching the genre visual cues that will attract the fans of the genre. As vocal as the design connoisseurs are (present blog included) you really are the minority of fans. Most fans want covers that look exactly like the other books they like so they can easily find them. Just like music, just like movies, just like any popular entertainment.

    @ Neil – that is exactly our biggest challenge as designers – do you want to have a gorgeous, design-smart cover, or do you want to sell a bajillion copies… we are constantly trying to walk the line that straddles both…but its like walking a line in a dark hallway, with a blindfold, with your ankles chained together, maybe after having a few shots of tequila.

    pretty much it comes down to the author and the book. we most often get to do the risk-taking covers on books that can’t be easily categorized and no one expects to sell a lot of copies. its the books that people think “Oh! This is going to be the next (insert bestseller here)” that the covers tend towards copycat.

  • gav ( November 18, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    So we write reviews why? If they don’t really sell books?

  • Arachn November 18, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Well gav, for what its worth, I just bought a copy of the Red Wolf Conspiracy thanks to this blog, and I’m fairly certain I would have skipped it otherwise.

  • aidan November 18, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    First, my apologies for not being able to wade back into the debate sooner. Work life got in the way!

    Second, thanks to everyone for all the insights into the process. I may not agree with it all (which I’ll get to in a moment), but I appreciate the honest, professional responses from industry folk. It’s nice to be involved in an industry that’s not bogged down by politics, self preservation and finger pointing.

    First, let me apologize to Simon, and anyone else who might have been offended when I said ‘Oftentimes people too ingrained in the industry are jaded and blinded from what the buying public is really thinking.’.

    I fully understand and appreciate that most (because there’s got to be a few duds out there) of the people working in the publishing industry are there because they are passionate about books (and genre books, in this case). I didn’t mean to imply that I felt that the people behind these novels were being lazy, disingenuous or self-defeating. I know you all work hard and care about your work and the authors you represent.

    Rather, what I meant to imply was that professionals in the publishing field are just like those in any other profession: real people who make real errors in judgement and don’t always go forth with the right decisions or tackle their job with 110% committment every day of every week of every month. I’m sure this is something we all agree on. Simon, you mention that books cover are ‘collegiate decisions taken by a group of people’, and I think this is one of the base issues I have a problem with. Too many cooks in the kitchen is, more often than not, harmful to the final product. Too many agendas and too many opinions. The result of this can be seen in covers like Orbit’s Hardcover edition of Best Served Cold, which tried to please everyone, but ended up failing on every front. Several times throughout this discussion (and in the discussion that followed my posting the new Brent Weeks cover), it was mentioned that the books with the most freedom are the ones that aren’t expected to sell huge numbers, these also often seem to be the one that succeed most firmly on the cover art front. Somewhere along the chain of command, someone can flex the muscles of their position, make a bad decision and skew the marketing of a novel.

    For the sake of the argument, and based on statistics that you all assure me exist, I’ll concede the point that Character-based covers sell novels. I’ll also concede that when done well, they look very sharp:

    So, I suppose then, my concerns fall not on the subject of the covers, but rather the quality of them. Publishers and marketers care deeply about the novels, so how do we end up with covers like:

    And you can’t tell me with a straight face that anyone would choose THIS version of Old Man’s War over THIS one. I dare you.

    So many of these novels that feature a lone figure on the cover seem to be a mishmash of assets, the Charlton and Newton being the best examples, rather than a painting or a piece of art commissioned specifically for the novel itself. Charlton’s US cover, and Newton’s UK Hardcover cover took this route, and are undoubtedly better for it. Why can’t more covers be like Shadow’s Son, a great cover, features the figure that seems to sell and stands on it’s own as a piece of art? Pyr seems to have this down pat, and work with some of the biggest and best artists in the business (Stephan Martiniere, Komarck, Chris McGrath, John Picacio) and yet the larger publishing imprints, with assumedly more money to work with, pump out shit like Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper or Traitor’s Gate by Kate Elliot.

    How does a committee of people, from all levels of the company, agree that those covers were good enough to sell novels? Is it just a simple equation? Shitty art + familiar look > great art + something unique? Surely the companies behind those novels had the input of booksellers and marketing teams, just as surely as Orbit did when they absolutely butchered Best Served Cold‘s cover. If familiarity sells novels, why has Orbit now completely changed the look of Abercrombie’s novels not once but twice?

    Lou’s example of ‘The Powerless Elite’ is a frustratingly accurate description of the issue I’m facing, I suppose. As pointed out, I’m part of that minority, the same minority who have been more or less dismissed as being unimportant in the grand scheme of things for marketers and publishers. We’re going to buy books regardless, a lot of books and so we don’t need to be marketed towards, at least not heavily. What I have a harder time swallowing is the idea that because we’re passionate, the things we say, and the opinions we express are contrary to popular opinion. Naomi Novik’s novels have unusual covers, and the public buys them by the cartload. Greg Keyes has rather typical covers, and doesn’t move nearly as many copies as he should. Of course you want to identify the genre to the reader via the cover, but the wonderful thing about Fantasy is the sheer variety and imagination in the stories, why isn’t this more often reflected in the covers of the novels? There’s nothing to say you can’t do that while still retaining the brand of the author.

    A cover of a novel should tell me something about the story contained within. If a publisher is dead-set on using a cover that’s familiar, why not also go to lengths that assure that the cover also speaks to the reader, before they’ve even opened the first page? The UK cover of Best Served Cold promises swashbuckling adventure, the cover of Brasyl by Ian McDonald promises the thrust the reader into a world that’s all at once alien and recognizable, the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hits on notes of familiarity, playing off a famous cover, but also twists it in terrifying ways. For all I know, The Black Prism, Spellwright and Nights of Villjamur are all the same novel. They’re about a ‘badass’ Fantasy guy who’s probably going to beat someone up at some point, or throw magic from his hands.

    Thank you again to everyone who’s dropped by to shed some light on this process, and relieved a bit of my ignorance and frustration. It’s been a fascinating debate.

    Gav – I don’t review in an effort to sell more books. I review because I have an opinion and I love to create a forum for discussion. In the grand scheme of things, we bloggers really are just a small facet of the industry and are only of small (but growing) importance in selling novels.

  • Neil Williamson November 19, 2009 at 2:32 am


    “For all I know, The Black Prism, Spellwright and Nights of Villjamur are all the same novel. They’re about a ‘badass’ Fantasy guy who’s probably going to beat someone up at some point, or throw magic from his hands.”

    Well that’s the point entirely. I understand your frustrations, but from what people are saying here the thing about the generic artwork is that the majority of fantasy readers don’t necessarily *want* a new and unique experience with each novel or series they pick up. They largely want the same thing they read last time. As I see it, the challenge for publishers is to try and satisfy their demands and perhaps at the same time occasionally try and slip them something a bit different, a bit new, a bit unique under a similar cover.

    From what’s been said, this isn’t the case for *all* fantasy books of course, just the ones that are exactly what the general reader wants or close enough to their generic ideal that they can pass. Those books that are totally out of that locus (and are expected to sell in lower quantities anyway) are the ones that get the neat, innovative designs. Because they appeal to people in the know.

    The simple fact is that majority of readers do not share the same visual tastes as the vocal, impassioned minority. So, tough luck for us.

    I do agree with you that things can go wrong sometimes. There’s little excuse for really poorly executed artwork or a cover with misleading content (changing the colour of a character’s skin for example).

    @Gav What Aidan said. You’re not employed by publishers. If you think the purpose of reviewing books is to help sell them isn’t that a conflict of interest? Do you never give negative reviews, for example?

    @Lauren Actually I’d imagine the toughest crowd to convince of why you’ve put a generic cover on a novel (even though, look, you’ve gone for a sexy type face and a muted, moody palette) is the authors themselves.

    Yeah, everyone wants to be able to show their book proudly off as An Beautiful Artefact and not be embarrassed about the artwork, but when it comes down to the sales figures, you’d go with whatever got you more sales (and we’re talking not just more cash but the all important, career-continuance-defining retail figures), wouldn’t you?

  • Arachn November 19, 2009 at 3:04 am

    @ Aidan and Neil: I disagree. I think many reviewers hope their positive reviews will help sell the books they enjoyed – at least, I know I would. Of course, if by “helping selling books” gav meant “helping selling all the book I happen to review”… that’d be a quite different story.

  • Graeme Stevenson November 19, 2009 at 3:34 am

    So is there a general admission, then, that everyone here’s decision on whether to buy or not to buy fiction has been swayed by the quality and content of the cover?

    Discounting authors we know or are rumoured to touch our literary buttons, consider an unfamiliar title and author lifted cold from the shelves – how much of the blurb-reading, first-page-scanning and so forth is influenced by the imagery on the cover?

    And will I be ejected from this forum for mentioning an old adage about books and their covers?

  • BetweenTwoBooks November 19, 2009 at 4:10 am

    I may be going off-topic but I wanted to comment about reviewing & book sales. Let’s not underestimate the reviews!

    I’m running a very humble book blog with occasional reviews. I know a few exceptional people who don’t read, just devour books by the dozen every month. However, most people, just like myself, choose carefully what to read because they don’t have much time to waste with books they don’t enjoy. That’s where it becomes important to find people with similar tastes and to see what they like and dislike. Following a few particular blogs, one can more easily choose what to read next. I know a good number of people who do that. And around me, I see it being used more efficiently than word of mouth.

  • Simon Spanton November 19, 2009 at 9:23 am


    OK we’re getting close to ‘I like this artwork and you don’t’ territory which isn’t fruitful. But . . .

    While I agree with your take on some these covers I disagree on others (and there’s the rub) – a don’t like the cover for Warbreaker at all and while the artwork for The Shadow of the Wind is beautiful I don’t think its commercial enough (but then it doesn’t need to be because its for a collectors edition). I don’t much like the Atwood and the typography makes it look like The Handmaid Stale . . .

    And so on and so forth.

    And remember I said publishers sometimes get it wrong (not on purpose mind) and when they find out they genrally try to put it right – the US mmp cover for The Name of the Wind was very different from the trade edition. But I guarantee they didn’t send the trade edition out thinking ‘This cover’s crap! What are we doing? Ahh never mind, no-one will notice.’

    Also some of these covers are for the US market and the different aesthetic requirements of the UK and US market are well documented.

    But my original point remains – we have to try and make sure our covers appeal to the widest audience possible for that particular title (an audience with differing levels of discernment when it comes to niceties of genre tropes). All the various incidents of covers and sales records you site serve only to illustrate that this is a complicated and nuanced business where formulas will not always serve but the general principle remains – if you’re an author you better hope your publisher is trying to sell your book to the largest possible readership.

  • aidan November 19, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Neil – The problem with that is that Nights of Villjamur and Spellwright are very different sorts of Fantasy… and yet from the covers you’d never know it.

    Arachn – Obviously I love to find out that a book I loved sold a few more copies because of my reviews. But that’s not the reason I write reviews. I write them to collect and archive my thoughts, to inform my readers and help them make a decision, not act as an extension of the marketing department of whichever publisher put the novel out.

    Graeme – Yeah. I certainly have. It’s not always a subconcious thing. But sharp cover art can often determine whether I pick a novel up off a bookshelf or read a blog post about it. From there, it’s up to a whole lot of other factors to determine whether I end up reading it or not.

    Simon – Complicated and nuanced, indeed.

    Thanks for the input, Simon. I agree that getting into a battle of tastes is a rather slippery slope. Still, as an independant blogger, I have my tastes and the tastes of my readers to judge what the industry is doing. Taste is everything. You’re not going to publish a novel with a cover that you think is poor, no matter what market trends say. I’d assume that everybody involved in the cover design process makes choices based on personal taste every day. If you (or anyone) is ever able to provide me, either privately or publically, with some of this data that support the trends, I’d love to see it. As it is, the way I see it is that if a majority of the novels on shelves have a guy-with-a-sword-and-a-cloak, then of course the novels that sell well have a high chance of having a guy-with-a-sword-and-a-cloak.

    In the end, I suppose it’s an issue that people on either side of the fence will simply have to agree to disagree upon. We all use metrics too dissimilar to really find an even ground, most of the time.

  • Tom November 19, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I’d be curious to know how many members of the teams that work on cover designs have actually read the novel? I think NoV is a more mature, serious, nuanced novel in the vein of Abercrombie, Erickson, Mieville, etc. yet this cover tells me it’s no different than the run-of-the-mill ‘lo-brow’ swords and sorcery that dominates the shelves. Why imply one thing when the novel is really something else? And given the lo-brow opinion Fantasy holds by most non-genre fans, wouldn’t a cover more indicative of the contents offer a better chance of attracting a wider crossover audience?

  • gav ( November 19, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I’ll admit that my comment last night might have a appeared a bit surely but there was a serious thought under it and as not to distract from this discussion or change it’s flow I’ll have something up other the weekend.

    @Aiden You must hope that what you say has some sort of influence otherwise you wouldn’t be here ;) But no I don’t expect to be the voice of marketing but if I can get someone to read a book or an author to love then I’m over the bloody moon. And I definitely enjoy being part of a group of people that loves talking about and discovering new books and rediscovering old classics and uncovering older stuff then the more the merrier.

    @Neil – Arachn got exactly what I meant! I want people to read the books I love and not to buy the books I hate. I’m always up for being challenged but it’s rare that readers challenge bloggers and that sense of feedback needs to be nurtured more.

    Should bloggers engage with publishers? Should they find interesting things to blog about? Should they share what they are excited by and passionate about? Of course they should. Does it give us a conflict of interest? Only if you we, as a whole, go from being honest to being a tool. We don’t get paid, we don’t do it on the whole for free books, and we do it for free! There is little point in doing this if we don’t enjoy it.

    Are we critics? Yes! Are we passionate? Yes! Are we honest? Hopefully yes! Are we afraid of saying what we think? No, what would be the point in doing it? Really? No one is going to engage with us if we were and it’s those people that comment on your blog and talk to you about the books you’ve read that you blog for not the silent masses on the whole.

    Back to covers. You know what I think UK publishers have a short hand that pushes certain buttons in my head. There are so many other factors that go into me wanting a book but the cover is going to taint my expectations of the contents. I want them to be similar to others like them. I don’t want them to be horrible but I don’t want them to stand out so much that I think they are going to be hard work or hard to understand unless they genuinely need to be.

    The Night’s cover might be a miss-note as it’s about more than one man but a person is more engaging than a building. And it’s similar to lots of covers on the shelf so I know roughly were it fits in.

    You’ve probably all made much more sense than me though. Been fascinating to read. Thanks.

  • Nick November 19, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I’m a commissioning editor at a big US based publisher (non-fiction), but I’ve only just moved into books from academic journals so this conversation is pretty interesting for me. I most work on technical books so the cover is not that important, but I’m also amazed at the passion of this debate. Like Aidan I vastly prefer the original cover for NoV (which I haven’t read yet) but I never, ever choose a book because of the cover. I choose a book because of the buzz on blogs/forums, who it gets compared to and my experience of the author’s previous work. I buy books online primarily and the cover doesn’t matter to me.

    I’ve been fascinated to watch this debate grow on the blogs over the last year or so because it’s so far outside of my realm of interest.

    On the marketers in publishing companies, it’s great that the marketers at SFF publishers are there because they love the industry and the books. The marketers in a lot of the rest of the publishing industry seem to be there because they are too rubbish to get a job anywhere else.

  • Julie Crisp November 20, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Tom: I’d be curious to know how many members of the teams that work on cover designs have actually read the novel?

    Short answer? Everyone. I read it, the designer reads it and any freelance illustrator we commission reads it.

    I have no objection if people don’t like a cover. I don’t like some covers. It’s individual taste – it’s what keeps things interesting. I do find it a little frustrating though when it’s insinuated that editors and publishers just plonk a cover on the front of a book without much thought entering into the process. It’s a little like accusing a reviewer of not having read a book they’ve reviewed.

    We’re passionate about books. It’s why we got into the job in the first place. The books we buy are books we’ve fallen in love with. We spend months of our lives working on them, thinking about them, obsessing about whether the wording on the cover copy is correct, if the cover is appropriate, if a particular phrase could be used better. Yes – we are that pedantic! And that’s just the cover, don’t get me started on the editing! :-)

    The cover meetings are attended by sales, editorial, marketing, art and publicity and everyone has a view. The final version you see will probably be the end result of five or six different roughs before then. Then we have to show it to the author – always a nervous stage! If they like it, we’re happy.

    Then it comes to you guys… So – as readers you either like the cover or you hate it. Nothing at all we can do about that. But please be assured – there’s a LOT of work done on books and covers in general. This isn’t just a job to us.

  • aidan November 20, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Julia, I’m curious how much author opinion impacts the project. From the sounds of it, a lot of decisions have already been made and a lot of the work has already been poured into the project. If an author hates their cover, what happens then?

  • Mark Charan Newton November 20, 2009 at 11:18 am

    “I’m curious how much author opinion impacts the project. ”

    Perhaps I should intervene… :D

    Julie’s been great with this – I was asked at the very start about this new, character-centric direction, and was in agreement – I want to sell books, after all. We agreed on who was the best character to have on the cover too (Brynd is very much central to book two, so he stars on that one). I was shown the drafts, the poses of the character, and asked for my thoughts all the way through…

    But I know I’m one of the lucky ones!

  • Phil Downes November 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I’d like to add another dimension to this discussion, namely that of cost.

    A personal favourite set of covers were those created by Jim Burns for the first three volumes of the Voyager editions of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series. But what a disappointment it was to see the cover for the fourth volume – a ‘Chalice from the Palace’ or was it the Holy Grail?

    At the Glasgow Worldcon, I had the opportunity to tackle Jane Johnson of Harper Collins on this very subject and she told me that it was simply a matter of cost. Perhaps I am missing something here, but surely a best-selling author deserves to have his/her work wrapped in an artwork of a comparable quality?

    Another example that springs to mind is the aforementioned Naomi Novik (also signed to Harper Collins in the UK). Again, the first three covers were quality works from the hand of the excellent Dominic Harman, but the subsequent covers were, IMHO, totally inferior. Another cost issue, I suspect.

    So following on from Aidan’s point about the possibility of the author not liking the cover, does the author have any real choice if the publisher wants to save money on the cover art?

  • Elspeth Cooper November 20, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion, guys. I’m now terrified of what you’re all gonna say when my book comes out!

  • Tom November 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Julie, thanks for the insight. That’s good to know that even those working on the art side of things have read the book. I just can’t help but wonder that if all that time is spent, how is it that so many covers look so similar? I understand that this look signifies ‘fantasy novel’ with the idea that potential buyers will know what they’re getting but hasn’t the dark, mysterious stranger with a blade become almost a cliche of itself at this point? Let’s be honest, brighten up the cover and change the font and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this in the romance section.

    Mark- I suspect you might not be able to answer this question publicly here but I wonder which cover you prefer, HB or PB regardless of what your publisher thinks will sell. I think if everyone just fessed up and said, “look, this new cover art isn’t as good or as interesting but it will sell more books and that’s the goal”, I would totally respect that and I think this whole debate goes away. Mark, you hinted at that as much and I say yeah, you gotta do whatever you can to move more copies.

    I’m a former bookstore general manager and while I might read 3-4 fantasy novels a year, I by no means consider myself a huge genre reader. Maybe that’s why I found the HB cover much more visually interesting (reminded me a bit of Gormenghast) and as such, made me feel like the contents would be a cut above the usual genre tropes. Which they were- thanks Mark. Definitely looking forward to the next novel.

  • Mark Charan Newton November 20, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Tom – in all honesty, it’s difficult for me to say. Whilst the city artwork is really good and evocative, it also makes for a dark cover which when stood aside the paperback, simply isn’t as eye-catching. It lacks the colour, too. Plus I’ve been starting at the HC for a year now, and this is new and interesting. But I also see them as different products – the HC is for a totally different market to the paperback, and the difference in sales and readership is massive. Suffice to say, I think they’re both very much fit for purpose. And thanks! I’m convinced the second book is stronger, so really hope you enjoy it. (About to start on the line edits now, in fact…!)

  • […] Aiden and Neil Williamson had the sharpest responses: Gav – I don’t review in an effort to sell more books. I review because I have an opinion and I love to create a forum for discussion. In the grand scheme of things, we bloggers really are just a small facet of the industry and are only of small (but growing) importance in selling novels. […]

  • gav ( November 22, 2009 at 5:44 am

    After my chiding by Aidan and Neil regarding book reviews. I asked around and there is a post on my blog called:

    Reviews, what are they good for?’

    Please check it out.

  • eoin November 23, 2009 at 4:47 am

    Hmmm. This is one of those circular arguments that flare up again and again, isn’t it. Blogger: “Here’s another generic swordsman. Boring.”
    Publisher: “The customers love it. Yah boo sucks.”
    Blogger: “But I’m a customer. I’m really interested in this field and I buy loads of books.”
    Pulisher: “Ah, but there are many more customers who like this. We know, because all our books look this way and they are bought. QED.”
    Blogger: “Wait – surely that makes no sense.”
    Publisher: “Obviously, as an educated sort, I agree with you, clever blogger. But I require an income, so I bend to the market.”
    Blogger: “But if you only sell the same thing, won’t your market stagnate in the long term?”
    Publisher: “I’m not getting into arguments of taste. This is a business, craven young ne’er do well. Once, there was a book that looked different. It didn’t sell. So we’re sticking with Fabio.”
    Blogger: “Wait -”
    “On an aesthetic level, I personally would prefer to see more variety and indeed style on show on all book covers, not simply those bracketed in the fantasy genre.

    That said: Obviously sticking this sort of generic cover on a fantasy novel sells well within the built-in fantasy audience, just as a photo of a snow-swept landscape and elegant sans-serif text works for a certain type of literary novel. But in a publishing paradigm where every other headline screams about falling sales, it appears to be somewhat short sighted. The audience for these books is not a constant.

    Moreover, ‘crossover’ books, by which I mean the ones that attract new readers to the genre (and so in economic terms, among your most valuable customers), are rarely so generic. If anything, they borrow from the design tropes of more mainstream books, because as an earlier commenter mentions, oftentimes the descendants of Frazetta are just plain embarrassing and you don’t want to be seen with them.

    I think, also, it hurts authors more than anything else. When they become really successful, fantasy and SF books tend to get cover redesigns. Out goes Conan, caped or not, in comes something suggestive and vaguely symbolic. Blurbs from Publishers Weekly are replaced by acclaimed authors like Junot Diaz, crossovers like George RR Martin and if you’re Neil Gaiman, Norman Mailer. Basically, these authors get out of Dodge fairly quicksmart.

    Given the huge competition for not a whole load of readers, it seems to me that being the author of a fantasy book which looks almost identical to 80% of the other novels in the Fantasy/SF section is not going to do me any favours. I would suggest, respectfully, that Rothfuss (for example) made such a splash as a result of reviews and word of mouth, not because he had variously a shirtless redhead or a cloaked Figure of Mystery on the cover.

    (Speaking as a redhead, I can vouch for the fact that shirtlessness is not always desired).

    Okay, that was a bit of a ramble. Look, Mark Charan Newton’s book may be terrific – I don’t know, he’s new to me. He’ll probably get a certain amount of initial play because his book looks like it belongs in the Fantasy section of the bookshop. That’s brilliant and more power to him. But in a world filled with competition for every book buyer, where reviews, word of mouth and crossover hype is the difference between doing this for a living and writing the odd book here and there alongside a 9-5, I would rather my work be presented in as original and eye-catching a way as I would hope to have written it (if that makes any sense). He might get lucky and succeed despite that – it may be that the power of word of mouth propels him into real sales – but it’s an awful chance to take.

    Of course the cover isn’t everything, but it is important. You decide as much what you don’t want to read as what you do, based on it. This is not to say that heroic covers are a bad idea, but that many of them are tired, unimaginative and not visually gripping. Finally, the audience who buys books with cloaked figures do so because back in the dim past, people like Aidan said “This book, the one that happens to have a cloaked figure, is good. Buy it.” Ultimately, that’s where the power lies.

  • […] caveat. I like that they’ve strayed away from the figure-centric cover that’s been plaguing the other releases of Newton’s novels, and I like the typhography (especially with the cool […]

  • Best of 2009? Already? | Joe Abercrombie April 12, 2010 at 7:38 am

    […] other news, an interesting discussion about fantasy cover art over at A Dribble of Ink kicked off by responses to the latest Mass Market Cover for Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of […]