It’s something I never used to think about – either I liked a book’s cover, or I didn’t. I guess I assumed the book’s publisher gave the artist a copy of the book, they read it, then created the image they thought would be best and the publisher slapped it on the front.
Boy was I naïve.
I remember the great fantasy covers and artists of the 1970’s – 1990’s and I realize now that I grew up in the golden age for such things. Names like Boris Vallejo, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, Todd Lockwood & James Ryman (to pluck my very favourites out of a strong field). These guys set the visual standard for my youth.
So, time comes for my books to get their covers and the first thing I discover – the artist hasn’t got time to read my book. And of course, he hasn’t – it would cost more than a publisher could afford to pay for an artist to spend several of his work days reading my book just to get the feel for what I want. This is the era of internet publishing. The artist needs to work.
Instead, what happens is, I send him my idea for what I want on the cover. Our artist, Jake of J Caleb Designs, who has done an excellent job with every cover, has a questionnaire on his website, to help his clients communicate what they want. Being contrary, I don’t do it that way – I put together a pdf with a written description of what I want, a stick figure outline of the picture I imagine, and several reference photos taken from around the web.
Then the artist digests my suggestions and puts together his first image. Just like working with an editor, we get drafts back, get to make suggestions and changes, and the artist incorporates those. It’s all very craftsman-like and professional. Our artist, Jake Caleb has been fantastic and professional with every cover and I think it shows in the finished product. Feedback on the covers has always been positive.
Thus we come to Book 4 and during the brainstorming for the cover idea, I made a really dumb move and my publisher didn’t pick up on it. I suggested that we “try to do something different” with this one – because when the thing is working, messing with it is the smart thing to do *roll eyes*. For three books, Prentice had been the central focus on the cover, but as readers know, he’s only one of two main characters in the story. I thought it might be time to put Duchess Amelia on the cover. I put together a pitch that looked like this. I showed some reference pictures to late medieval armor and dress, and the historical example of the cannons that inspired the concept of the Bronze Dragons and we sent it off.
What we got back looked like this.
Now let’s be very clear here – there’s nothing wrong with this picture. It’s a very good picture. For a typical high fantasy novel, it would be ideal – but that’s the problem. Rage of Lions is not typical high fantasy (in fact you could make a strong argument that it’s not high fantasy at all). It’s much closer to historical fantasy. And you can see it when you compare the other covers – they’re all gritty and harsh, not sweeping and epic. My editor Josh and I both saw this and thought – that’s not going to work.
I went back to PowerPoint and came up with another pitch, that looked like this. I sent it to the Josh my publisher, but he was still under the hypnotic sway of my dumb idea and he said my new pitch was too much like book 1. Could I do something different?
Back to PowerPoint a third time. I tried again to do something with Amelia, but was really struggling. Also, it’s a surprisingly difficult thing to communicate with words a specific image that exists only in your head. I know, I’m a writer, that’s supposed to be my bread and butter. When I write a book, I can describe, and you can imagine, and we can share the image, but we don’t have to come to an exact agreement. It’s not the same thing when you’re trying to get an artist to make for you what only exists in your imagination.
I sent off the third pitch and Josh passed it on to Jake. Jake came back immediately to say some version of “Nope – that ain’t going to work. What else do you got?” There’s an upper limit to the number of back and forths like this that we get in our contract before we’re starting to waste Jake’s time. Josh sent Jake my second pitch, the one that’s too like the book one cover, and Jake loved it immediately. He also politely pointed out my mistake, wanting to do different – the book covers we had already were part of our brand. They are already working for selling my books. So why mess with them? It doesn’t have to be formulaic (you know the way a million romance novels all have a bare-chested hero sweeping a woman off her feet), but messing with what has worked before is messing with the brand and the brand recognition.
I was wrong and Jake’s insight saved us, but that wasn’t the end, oh no, dear reader.
Because my second pitch was “on brand”, being in essence a reversal of book one’s cover, so that now it was Prentice on the high point, facing down the attacking bestial warrior, that was the one we went with. It was a structure that worked well. We were also capturing a specific point in the battle, so it was good to insert that Roar gunner crouching to the side – he’s in the scene in the book, he can be on the cover.
Jake sent us this. It’s fantastic, it’s evocative – it’s not Prentice.
I’m pretty sure that what happened was that because of all the faffing about we put Jake through, he reverted to a previous sample image I used to show him how I saw Sir Gant, for the book 2 cover. Prentice’s hair isn’t red and his beard is not so full (ignore the cover of Lions of the Reach – he hasn’t had a chance to shave there). Also, we didn’t mention it, but Prentice wields the partisan, a long-bladed spear, not a sword. With those minor changes requested, we asked Jake to go ahead and do a final draft.
Except, for reasons I don’t know, Jake changed the gunner figure. Again, not a bad thing, not a bad image, but not Lions. The Roar are based on the matchlock gunners of the 1500’s – this guy looks like he just stepped out of the American west. A couple of other tiny issues needed tweaking too, but finally, we got the cover of Book 4.
So, next time you see a book and think it has a great cover, take a moment to appreciate the artist’s hard work, talent and patience in dealing with authors and publishers. And, if you see a cover you don’t like, remember it was almost certainly not the artist’s fault, certainly not if they were working with an author like me.
In the meantime, if you like, take a moment to check out Jake’s other fantastic work at jcalebdesign.com.