Cover Art

A short essay on the Solaris website explains their approach to genre cover art:

As I see it, there are currently two schools of thought – to package your SF/F novel to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, in the hope of enticing readers from other areas of the bookstore to pick it up on a whim; or to package your SF/F novel to appeal to the perceived core readership of the genre, or indeed, fans of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, people who want a book with a spaceship or a wizard on the front of it.
In setting up the Solaris imprint for BL Publishing, though, Publisher Marc Gascoigne and I decided – for better or for worse – to place ourselves directly in that second camp. The reasons for this were two-fold. Firstly, our existing imprint, the Black Library, had been successfully publishing SF/F novels for eight years – novels that tie-in to the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fantasy worlds of Games Workshop. Experience had shown us that we already knew, as a business, how to package books for a niche audience – our recent range of Horus Heresy tie-in novels have sold over three hundred thousand copies combined since last April. Secondly, we believed we could see a gap emerging in the market, and we wanted to fill it.

Many genre imprints in both the UK and the US were taking the other route, packaging novels to appeal to a wider audience, focusing on getting front-of-store promotions and aiming for the bestseller lists. Sales expectations for genre novels seemed to be getting higher and higher. On the other end of the scale, a proliferation of small presses seemed to be flourishing, publishing limited run books for a small collector’s market. Essentially, at the heart of the genre, the midlist was disappearing. The result of this was that the core SF/F readership was not being as well served as it had been in the past; people who went into a high street bookshop to browse the SF/F section were not necessarily seeing those aforementioned books with wizards and spaceships on the front.

There’s smart commentary from Ariel and Lou Anders, who has a quote form John Picacio:

“The field must visually celebrate itself, rather than run away from itself. Couldn’t agree with you [George] more. And I realize the context in which you’re saying this, regarding the midlist specifically. When sf/fantasy publishing shows an insecurity about its visual strengths, that insecurity rubs off negatively not only on our audiences, but in the broader media, and we push ourselves backwards every time we do that.

15 thoughts on “Cover Art

  1. people who went into a high street bookshop to browse the SF/F section were not necessarily seeing those aforementioned books with wizards and spaceships on the front.

    I think someone’s been going into different bookstores than I’ve been to lately. And just to be clear, the bookstores I’ve been to lately include The Strand, the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, and the Shakespeare & Co. on Broadway. In each of those stores I found the SF/F shelves stocked almost exclusively with spaceship and wizard books, and I passed them over not because of insecurity, but because their covers are ugly and amateurish, and because I’ve learned that those qualities are generally reflected in the books’ contents.

    If there is a midlist in SF, people who are looking for more than media tie-ins but aren’t interested in M. John Harrison or Geoff Ryman, wouldn’t a smarter approach towards appealing to them be a midpoint between the two approaches to cover design listed above? For that matter, I think covers like that already exist – see Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, and many others.

  2. Yeah, I’m not too sure what a “high street bookshop” is, but all the regular used, indie and chain book stores I go into have the usual spaceship razzle and dragon and young-man-in-chaimail dazzle. Actually, because of the cover for “Spaceman Blues” by Brian Slatterly cover that I saw on the Stainless Steel Droppings blog, I automatically went looking for it the general fiction section even though I knew it was SF. It suck out very endearingly in the SF section. And it’s published by Tor! Heh.

  3. It really does depend on the book, simple as that sounds. Bantam Spectra does a good job of this, with covers that appeal to both groups and covers that only appeal to genre fans. On my City of Saints & Madmen, a genre cover would’ve deep-sixed it with a good percentage of people who might enjoy it. I credit its excellent US sales, despite being a reprint, on the cover, which acted as a plus entry-wise to random and mainstream readers, while not turning off genre readers.


  4. As I said when I commented on the story, I think the “core audience” (i.e. us) tend to not be swayed by covers. I can’t remember the last time I walked into a bookshop and was a) anxious about whether to buy SFF and b) based my purchasing decision on whether or not there was a spaceship or a dragon on the front.

    Yes, there have been some attempts to flog SFF to the SFF-phobic by putting different covers on but these editions are so vanishingly rare I really do wonder what the hell Solaris are talking about.

  5. See, I thought George Mann had a point. Look at Gollancz — nary a dragon or spaceship in sight, unless you’re Al Reynolds. (Just compare the UK and US covers for Gradisil.) Most of Orbit’s sf is going abstract, too — see the covers for recent Charles Stross, Tricia Sullivan, Iain Banks and Allen Steele novels. Tor/Macmillan have some sf imagery, but (significantly) a bunch of it is re-using American artwork; see the covers for Old Man’s War and Rainbows End, among others. I don’t know that I buy the idea that these “non-traditional” covers are attempting to entice some mythical wider readership, but I certainly think most of Solaris’ covers are aimed at a specific audience that isn’t otherwise being so directly targeted.

  6. It’s far from scientific, but I’ve had enough feedback from readers along the lines of “I’d never picked up an SF book before (or hadn’t read one for years) but I liked the look of Revelation Space, Chasm City etc” to suggest that putting a spaceship on the cover is not an automatic turn-off for book buyers outside the mainstream SF readership. However the shininess of the covers has also been a factor, aside from the pictorial content.

    The thinking now, though, is that the covers of my books no longer have quite the stand-out factor that they did five or six years ago, and it may be time to come up with a new design. Whether this will include spaceships or not, I don’t know. However, the inescapable fact of the matter is that there are spaceships in my books…

  7. Are our SF covers going more abstract? Quite possibly. Are they doing this in order to reach the ‘wider readership’? Well if they are it isn’t going to work as, 99 times out of 100, the books, whatever their cover, are still going to be stocked in the SF section. Are they, instead, merely reflecting a wider trend away from strictly illustrative covers that the rest of the industry has been following of late? Much more likely. I have no illusions about our ability to transform the way that SF books are seen. What I am hoping is that we can alert one-time readers, and occasional readers and regular readers to the fact that SF is not stuck in some sort of time warp. I’m coming to think that the only jobs a genre cover has to (and can) do are to alert the reader to whether it is SF/fantasy/other (that other still retaining elements of the fantastic because, remember, it’s in a genre section) and try and convey some sense of the books quality by, itself, being a high quality design (not necessarily incorporating a high quality traditional illustration).

    And in the end covers demand to be treated individually rather than as part of an overall design and marketing ethos in any case. For example I’m not entirely sure how the (utterly gorgeous) cover for SPLINTER fits into the genre covers for genre books Solaris ethos as demonstrated by the (equally gorgeous but much more traditional) cover for THE SUMMONER.

    And even within the range of titles that do conform to Solaris’ ethos there are more and less sucessful covers. BITTERWOOD, for example, ticks all the Solaris boxes (traditional illustrations, clear genre elements, dragon! even) but is, to my mind (and apologies to all involved), a less successful cover.

    (Oh and by the way I think fantasy fans are perhaps less willing to experiment with their covers than SF fans)

    Is this a horses for courses argument? Yep I guess it is. But its also an argument for thoroughbreds.

    I think to assume that the traditional fantasy and SF readership are in some way not being catered for within the current movement towards some covers being more ‘designed’ or more ‘abstract’ is danger of assuming that said readers aren’t aware of and comfortable with how design moves on. SF and fantasy fans don’t dress like they did in 1985, the music they listen to isn’t packaged as it was in 1985, the cars they drive don’t look like they did in 1985 (I could go on), so why should their books?

    And I’m also suspicious that this move towards design and abstraction is something new, something that is leaving the more traditional fans, floundering in its sleek wake. Take a look at SF and Fantasy covers from the late 60s and early 70s and there is plenty of abstraction, modish design and garish colour. Just like there was in every other area of design of the period.

  8. SF and fantasy fans don’t dress like they did in 1985

    Well the T-shirts have been washed a couple of times since then, and had to stretch a little….

    Seriously, though, I just glanced at a few older books on my shelves. The Unwin Hyman editions of about 87-89 including works like M John Harrison’s The ice Monkey, Geoff Ryman’s The Child garden, Gwyneth jones’ Kairos, and Garry Kilworth’s Songbirds Of pain all ahve matching, stylish, abstract artwork by the likes of Jim Burns and Ian Miller. They didnt look like SF/F books, they didnt look like other books by those authors necessarily, and lots of other Unwin Hyman books looked very different too. The message was clearly ‘this book is like that book, not like those’

  9. Oh yes, I’m glad that someone pointed out that the ever elusive ‘wider readership’ does not browse in the SF/F. That goes even more so in Canada where the chained book store now shelves them separately, instead of mixing both genres together (in alphabetical order); as a fantasy fan I don’t even have to rifle through the space ships to find my Guy Gavriel Kay. :)

    (I think I’m going to have to form my own group of fantasy readers. With very very few exceptions I never, ever recognise the descriptions of fantasy fans I come across on-line. I’m in the wrong neighbourhood.)

  10. Simon:

    (Oh and by the way I think fantasy fans are perhaps less willing to experiment with their covers than SF fans)

    This strikes me as true. But then, as someone who is primarily a science fiction fan, and one who prefers most Gollancz covers to most Solaris covers to boot, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    Also, to your last point and Kev’s point, I think something can be cyclic without being brand new. It certainly feels to me like UK covers had moved away from the Solaris approach over the past few years.

  11. It certainly feels to me like UK covers had moved away from the Solaris approach over the past few years.

    For sure. To our mind, maybe too far… which resulted in a gap, into which we jumped wholeheartedly, with resultant sales far in excess of our expectations for the launch period of the imprint.

    And of course, we’re not saying it has to be all our One True Way. As the lovely Simon pointed out, Splinter certainly gives the lie to any fundamentalism hereabouts. As we grow over the next few years and produce more than the few titles we’ve so far published, the strategies for selling them will be sure to vary with the books.

  12. (Oh and by the way I think fantasy fans are perhaps less willing to experiment with their covers than SF fans)

    I’d have to disagree with that statement; there have been quite a few successful non-traditional covers given to fantasy works lately.

    Look at the excellent covers for Joe Abercrombie’s series, for the Canadian editions of Scott Bakker’s trilogy, for Vandermeer’s Shriek, Mieville’s Bas Lag novels, the new Steven Erikson covers, Scott Lynch’s covers, Hal Duncan’s Ink etc.

    In Canada, at least, there does not seem to be much distinction in the covers of new SF/F works, nor in the reception of such ‘non-traditional’ covers.

    Personally speaking, I tend to prefer the more abstract covers, particularly when they are paired with creative finishes (e.g. mixed matte/shiny elements, texturing)… they generally seem to be of a greater quality than the standard illustrative fare.

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