Just For Fun: Covers/Cover Art




     The first thing anyone sees of one of my books (well, except for my beta-readers!) is the cover. The cover is the living embodiment of "first impressions", and it's proven that a bad cover can be death to a book's sales. I've been fortunate in my covers, so far, and hopefully I will continue to be.


How the Covers are Made

     Different publishers approach this in different ways. Some publishers have historically directed the art completely separate from the author – the author never knows anything about the cover until he sees the flats. This of course can easily lead to covers that have little-to-nothing to do with the book in question.


For self-published authors, there's usually direct control – the author chooses the artist (or, perhaps, picks an image they've located on the Web that's appropriate), tells them what they want for the cover, and the artist produces. The downsides of this approach are that (A) many authors have terrible judgment as to what will make a good cover – after all, most of them aren't artists or related visual arts people, and have a too-close personal connection to the work; and (B)most self-published authors can't afford a top-notch cover artist like Bob Eggleton, Todd Lockwood, Kurt Miller, etc.; that's in the four-figures range, more than many self-published books will ever make. There are of course some extremely good artists available for much less, but it is a crapshoot in many ways.


There are two very important points to remember about cover art: the first is that, as shown above, in traditional publishing the author has zero-to-little control over what goes on the cover. The cover (and in fact everything except the words of the actual novel and the dedications) is the province of the publisher. Second, the purpose of a cover is NOT to illustrate the book. It is to *SELL* the book. This generally means that it must (A) catch the eye, and (B) give the appropriate *impression* of the book. You want the cover to convince someone to reach out and pick it off a shelf (or click it on their screen) to get a closer look at it. As soon as the book's picked up, the chances the book will be bought go up TREMENDOUSLY. If the cover doesn't grab the eye, the chances of people noticing it, and picking it up, drop, even if the painting is absolutely lovely.


In my case, Baen Books has generally given me contact with the artist, so I can provide input, answers to questions, and so on, but I have no authority for what goes on them. I can make suggestions, but there's no guarantee they'll be taken. This does, however, at least make me feel involved in the book's visual development as well as its writing, which is good.


Following, I discuss all of my covers to date – what I remember about the process, how I felt about the result, and so on. Overall, I've been very lucky with my covers, and I want to emphasize that I have NEVER gotten a cover which was actually bad. There have been some I wished were different, but that wasn't, and isn't, my call to make.


Cover: Digital Knight

     This was of course my first published novel. I was actually asked what artist I might like, and I chose Gary Ruddell, based on his work on various books going back years (he's probably best known for his work on Hyperion and the Thieves' World books; I don't, alas, see a website dedicated to his cover art). I had a couple of conversations with Gary on possible image ideas, and he started doing some concept work.


     Jim Baen then asked if Gary could put a blonde (woman, natch) on the cover.


     Unfortunately, there really isn't a blonde anywhere in the book, at least of note. A couple fairly minor characters, but the most major female characters are all darker haired.


     However, when the man who runs the company makes a suggestion, you do what you can with it.


     The result is here. The cover doesn't of course connect to any particular event in Digital Knight, though I can through some mental gyrations come up with a possible offscreen event that would make it work – if Verne's archivist Meta had chosen to dye her hair blonde, and was present during the invasion of his home in the section "Viewed in a Harsh Light", that could easily be one of the OSR's monsters facing Meta in the library.


     But accurate or not, what it DOES do is make a striking image that evokes the essence of the book – the collision of a normal, modern world with the monstrous and supernatural. That, alone, makes it a successful cover.


     Despite its not according with anything in the book directly, I'm still quite fond of this cover. It's dynamic, it's pretty, and of course it was my first-ever book cover.


Cover: Mountain Magic

     Mountain Magic, as an anthology, had a particular problem to deal with. It was 2/3 reprinted material, 1/3 brand new, and three different authors (well, four, but two of those were for the same story). What to do for the cover?


     Eventually, Jim decided that he wanted to honor the oldest of the stories, the Hogben stories by Kuttner, and asked for a retro-feeling cover that captured the era of the pulps in which the stories were first printed.


     Viewed in that light, the Mountain Magic cover (also by Gary) is an excellent cover, capturing much of the essence of the Hogben stories in the combined backwoods and Weird Stuff. It also represents the general concept of the backwoods strangeness reasonably well. So, as a cover, it's pretty good.


     As a cover associated with our short novel Diamonds Are Forever, however, it doesn't work directly. But truth be told, my main gripe really is that I wrote a specific scene in there which was a deliberate cover scene that played directly to the Baen Cover Reputation while being absolutely, 100% accurate to the book: the main heroine, Jodi, confronts a hideous centipede-dragonlike monster in an exotic underground setting clad in nothing but her underwear – and she has a very, very good reason for this.


     So I was, admittedly, somewhat disappointed that Jim didn't take the bait and run with it. If I'm forced to choose, I suppose this is my least favorite cover, mainly because it doesn't actually "connect" to the story that Eric and I wrote. But as a cover it's perfectly good, and quite eye-catching.


Cover: Boundary

     Boundary, the first novel in the hard-SF trilogy authored by Eric Flint and myself, combines paleontology and realistic space travel in an unusal fashion, and because of that, I think, there was more back-and-forth on the cover on this one than any other of my books. Kurt Miller, an excellent artist, was selected by Baen to do the cover, and ended up corresponding with me several times. Kurt produced quite a number of beautiful preliminary sketches, which ranged from a lovely picture of Helen and A.J. in a lab aboard Nike while Mars looms in the background, to a spacesuited figure with a T-Rex reflected in the faceplate, to a more abstract cover with a T-Rex surrounded by falling meteors and the Earth-Moon system across from Mars.


     (I don't have the rights to display those images or I would; they're beautiful)


     Ultimately, the cover selected was from another of the initial concepts, with a strange alien spaceship threatened by a Rex and two raptors as a great meteoroid plunges down in the background. I loved the concept; while that precise scene is of course never shown in the book, the essence – the crossing of our ancient past with the present and the alien – worked very well for me.


     There have been a few people who liked to make fun of the cover, of course, because if one squints (and wants to find something silly to see) it can appear that the flaming tail of the meteoroid is actually fire coming from, er, the Rex' nether regions. I don't actually see that – the angle's not right – but that hasn't stopped "Flame-farting dinosaur" from becoming a minor meme.


     Nonetheless, I was, and am, very happy with the cover, and feel it accomplished exactly what it needed to.


Cover: Threshold

     The second of the three Boundary novels was given a cover by none other than the legendary Bob Eggleton, one of the most well-known names in SF/F artistry, and he lived up to his reputation. Bob exchanged several emails with me to adjust the concept and get it right; he also indicated he was enjoying the story itself very much, which I found gratifying indeed.


     Threshold's coveris done in a style that hearkens back to some of the Golden-Age, while using modern sensibilities, showing a spacesuited figure on EVA with the Munin in the foreground, Odin and part of Europa in the middle ground, and Jupiter looming in the back – a wonderful composite that might not precisely be a scene from the book, but is one that could happen and showcases the exotic location –- and even the mass-beam vessel Odin – to perfection.


Cover: Portal

     Bob Eggleton returned – with great enthusiasm – to paint the cover of the final volume of the Boundary trilogy. Already familiar with the universe and the way the second volume had ended, Bob had a clear idea of what he intended to do pretty much from the beginning… and argued for a full wraparound cover, because he wanted to do a huge painting for this one. Toni agreed.


     The result  (which this is only a portion of) is an awe-inspiring panorama of the Europan surface, the wreck of the Nebula Storm projecting like an alien claw into the black sky, with small figures of the refugees visible and the threatening, spectacular presence of mighty Jupiter looming above them all. It's a scene straight from the book and one that brings the images in my head to life very well, especially the strange alien orange-metallic hull of Nebula Storm and the chill, varicolored ice of Europa. Definitely one of my favorites.


     Bob also convinced Toni to let him do a B&W interior illo, this one for the attack on the submerged Zarathustra by the giant orekath (underwater Europan predator).


Cover: Grand Central Arena

     For my second solo novel, Stephen Hickman was selected as the cover artist. Stephen and I spoke on the phone, and exchanged a few emails. The resulting cover is a powerful, dynamic and bright scene of one of the most compelling portions of the book – the confrontation between Amas-Garao, sorcerer-like "Shadeweaver", and Ariane Austin, Captain of the Holy Grail.


     Multiple people have mentioned various aspects of the scene that are "off" (I've had more mail on this cover than most), and I want to make clear that (A) obvious choices/liberties were taken for presentation, and (B) certain details were incorrect because I failed to make them clear. Most obviously, Ariane's armor in the Arena is not supposed to be bulky at all, but more like a flak jacket, and she actually refused to wear her helmet, but the way in which we were discussing it, I managed to give Stephen the exact opposite impression. So that's my mistake, not his.


     What this cover accomplishes very well is the juxtaposition of the brilliant color and dramatic setting of the Golden Age with an element of the mysterious, in direct conflict, the human versus the incomprehensible, which is the spirit of the Arena in a nutshell.


     BUT that isn't the last of the story, because – alone thus far of my works – Grand Central Arena was translated into another language, Japanese to be precise, and with that re-issue came a new set of covers. I'm still not quite sure who the artist is; I've found two possible names and never gotten good confirmation on either one.


     Whoever he or she was, they did an absolutely brilliant job with no contact with me. Someone not only read the book, but must have read at least some of my notes and postings elsewhere, because they got a number of details right that even a reasonable reader might have missed.


     The Japanese cover for Grand Central Arena – or rather, coverS, because it was split into two separate books at publication – is unique because it is in fact a single painting with the heroes on one side and the opposition on the other, in brilliant manga-style illustrations that bring the characters to life. Oh, there are minor details I might quibble with – Ariane's hair's supposed to be dark blue, DuQuesne's beard is supposed to just be a single-point Van Dyke – but overall it's astoundingly well done and dynamic. As I often visualized Grand Central Arena in an anime style when I wrote it, it was particularly gratifying to see some of my imagination brougth to life in that fashion.


     At least at the moment I have not heard that the Japanese have picked up the sequel, which is a disappointment; I would have loved to see their interpretation of Wu.


Cover: Phoenix Rising

     Phoenix Rising is a very important novel to me, as it was the first novel to present my world of Zarathan to the greater public. I've spent over 35 years working on it since the concept for the world first came into my head, and the particular story of Kyri and her journey to seek justice for her family's losses is itself over 20 years old now.


     So I was, I think understandably, nervous about what kind of a cover I would get for Phoenix Rising.


     What I got was the cover that, at least at the moment, is my favorite of all.


     That's not an easy decision; I have, as I said, had good covers consistently.


     But Todd Lockwood's "Phoenix Rises!" is what perhaps is the Platonic Ideal of covers for an author: a cover that draws the eye, that captures the essence of the book – and that is, in fact, part of the book, a scene brought to perfect, blazing life on the cover. Anyone who has read Phoenix Rising knows the exact scene they're viewing there, with Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock suddenly against a seemingly unstoppable, unending horde of enemies.


     Kyri, especially, is properly done – armored in fanciful armor but stuff that could protect her rather than something cheesecakey, with her titanic flaming greatsword blazing over her head as she faces her enemies. Poor Tobimar is not quite as visible – but in a way, that's good, because the only way to see him well would have meant he had his back to the enemy, which would make him look stupid. I had wondered if Todd could even get Poplock, tiny as he is, on the cover, but I needn't have worried; the little Toad hops away in the foreground, close enough to see, far enough down that he might be overlooked at first, just as he is often in the book.


Cover: Spheres of Influence

     The last of my current covers is the one for Spheres of Influence, sequel to Grand Central Arena. This one, by Alan Pollack, uses tension, rather than action, as its focal point. Where the cover for Phoenix Rising is a scene of combat, of action caught frozen in mid-stroke, the cover for Spheres of Influence is a scene of action not yet realized but implicit, of tension about to be released.


Ariane is in the hands of her enemies (spoilers! So I won't say who), but her posture, her expression, and especially her eyes, say as clearly as if she has spoken to us: "Yes, you've caught me. But can you HOLD me?"


     It is in its way a brilliant cover, and also performs the vital task of drawing the eye as have the others. I'm very happy with it.


     Another thing that Spheres does is to extend the opportunity afforded by both the original and Japanese covers to Grand Central Arena – to compare the vision of other artists on their depiction of the same character. I have actually had the chance to have no fewer than five depictions of Ariane to enjoy: the original GCA cover, the Japanese cover, the images created for me by Mary Dell, and one image of Ariane as envisioned by Keith Morrison (more prominently featured as the person who produced the brilliant video sequences of the Holy Grail, and the still images of the various vessels of the Boundary series.)



End Note:

     To see a new cover for my work – the new "face" that my book will present to the world – is always a moment of joy and wonder to me. Perhaps, if I end up with fifty or a hundred books published, this feeling will diminish, but I don't think so. I can't produce that kind of art; I can see it in my head, know what I want it to look like, but I know that even if I have the talent somewhere, I don't have the time to bring it out.


     So what a cover artist does for me is bring a little bit of my own dreams to life.


     This is a thank you to all the artists I have had good fortune to have thus far, and – hopefully – the future. Thank you, Gary Ruddell, Kurt Miller, Bob Eggleton, Steve Hickman, Todd Lockwood, and Alan Pollack. Thanks for holding up a mirror to my dreams and letting me see them through the eyes of another.








  1. John Nielsen says:

    It is cool to get a view of this part of the publishing world! I like threshold’s cover the best.

  2. Xander Opal says:

    I quite enjoyed this bit of exposition on the covers of your works. After the first three, I think it may be the first time I’ve seen those covers, aside from a tiny, tiny thumbnail on an e-arc page.

    The commentary was also quite insightful.

  3. It’s easy to see the ‘fiery dinosaur fart’ if one has absolutely no sense of perspective. Which may explain a lot of the vitriol directed at Baen Books, now that I think about it . . .

Your comments or questions welcomed!