Wednesday, November 19, 2014


My first professional cover!
Before I jumped headfirst into the world of MG books, my life’s ambition was to draw comics. I was serious about it, too. I even went to grad school to pursue my masters in sequential art. At one point I worked as an intern in the Marvel Comics bullpen assisting editors. One morning, I was opening the Marvel office mail with my trusty X-acto knife, and without realizing, I accidentally sliced up a piece of original artwork, an illustration drawn by the #1 ranked artist in the industry at the time. The artwork was for the cover of an upcoming issue of X-Men, and thanks to me, it looked like Wolverine slashed it with his claws.
I was immediately overcome by a wide range of emotions.
While pondering the topic of covers for this entry, I thought back to that incident and I wondered what it must be like for an author, filled with the giddy anticipation of seeing their book cover for the very first time, opening a box of arcs (or an email file), only to be horrified by what they find inside. A disaster of a cover. It happens, and it's a nightmare most of us don't anticipate. Nobody wants to spend months or years of hard work carefully crafting a book only to have it represented on the shelf by an image that doesn't do it justice. Or an image that says the completely wrong things about the book’s content.
A cover's job is to attract eyes as it sits on a book store shelf, but it should also tell the reader something true and relevant about the story inside. People say not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest, that applies to just about everything except books. The reality is that a bad cover can hurt sales and a great cover can generate sales. And this holds especially true with Middle Grade books as children are weaned off of picture books where the pictures carry the primary narrative. Kids love a great cover, and great MG covers should be able to tell a story in and of itself. And why not? If someone can write a horror story on Twitter in 140 characters or less, then a picture which can paint a thousand words should be capable of doing the same. 

How involved is the writer in the cover design process? Going into my first book, I was clueless. I just knew that as an artist I wanted input. Ideally, an editor will ask an author questions early on to determine their vision, and at this point in the process it’s good to be as clear and descriptive as possible. What else can you do to make sure you get a cover you'll be proud of? If you’re an artistic person, you can share your vision in several ways. You can email photos of other covers that you think are particularly well done. You can also create a Pinterest page to capture the mood of your novel and share that with your editor and the design team. In my case, my editor was happy to look at some concept drawings I whipped up.

In the end, I loved the simple, in-your-face approach that the cover artist assigned to Frenzy took for the finished piece. It was the right choice. It says everything you need to know about the book in an eye-catching manner without giving too much away. 
Now, it could also be that none of your ideas are incorporated into the cover, and you should prepare yourself for that possibility. It really just depends on the vision your publisher and the marketing team have for your book. For The Murk, my suggestions to add a crane and to make the alligator’s eyes a glowing red made it into the finished design. 

Is there anything you can do if you’re vehemently opposed to your book’s cover art? Yes, there are steps you can take. If you’re truly not happy with the cover, first ask yourself why that is. Is it because the direction the art team took wasn't exactly what you envisioned or is it because you honestly feel the cover looks bad or misrepresents your story? If the former is true, you should know that it’s not the publisher’s job to give you exactly what you want. It’s their job to sell the book and sell as many copies as possible. The publisher has a lot at stake, too. They’re investing their time, energy and money, and the last thing they want is to let that investment go to waste because of a poorly executed cover. The cover is just as important to your publisher as it is to you. Show the cover to a few trustworthy bibliophiles and artistic friends. Show your agent. Get opinions. But if you still feel as though the cover is entirely wrong for your book then you should talk to your editor, preferably through your agent, if you have one. Keep in mind, it’s not enough to say, “I hate this cover.” You should be able to offer a list of suggestions to fix the problem. You may find that your publisher is open to implementing some of them. Just know that unless your contract says otherwise, in the end, your publisher has the final say. 

I'd love to hear other cover stories. What kind of reaction did you have upon seeing your book covers? What kind of input did you have in the process? What do you like the most about your cover art? What do you like the least? Is there anything that surprised you about the process? If you're still waiting to see your first cover, what kind of experience and results are you hoping for? 


  1. I'm not at this stage yet, but I'm glad at my publisher I will have some input on GABRIEL on this point.

    I think this can be particularly problematic for those of us who write animal fantasy as I do that's not for preschoolers, but also isn't about creature on creature warfare, either.

    You definitely want to be sure that the cover matches the content within, and as touched on in the post above, sometimes the most catching image doesn't always fit the tone of your story, and this is why I feel one of my missions at "Talking Animal Addicts" is to better define the VARIETY in the genre, there's nothing wrong with clan-based warfare, all I'm saying is that's not all there is.

    Even though most people (on average, and many of my first beta-readers for Gabriel were in this camp, half admitting as such) think animal stories begins and ends with "Redwall" and "Charlotte's Web."

    But if my novel "Gabriel" had a cover based on that logic, it would mislead potential readers about what the story is, yeah it's an animal story, but it's not about clan-based warfare or light commentary on farm life.

    But it is a story about friendship, and of course Wilbur's friendship with Charlotte was key to saving his life.

    Gabriel is in part a story about friendship. But how Gabriel goes through it is significantly different and unique to him.

    It can just as annoying to have a misleading cover (even when well executed) as having a cover lacking in overall quality. As I mentioned in previous comments to Chris Eboch's post on cover design, there are times using an nonstandard approach to a cover makes sense.

    I personally love seeing characters portrayed on the cover, but Michael Hoeye's "Hermux Tantamoq" series took a different and used covers that used more subtle covers without characters depicted.

    This works to show the SOPHISTICATION of the books and gets older readers who might be turned off by covers looking too "cutesy."

    The final cover for "Frenzy" may have a squirrel on the cover, but you would NOT confuse this book with say "Those Darn Squirrels"

    I may not be an illustrator (Yet...) but that doesn't mean I'm not visual and it's my opinion that authors need some creative input.

    Frankly, I have an easier time visualizing my story than describing it in concise bursts, but that's me.

    I've heard too many horror stories of authors who had covers the misrepresented their characters portrayed on the cover, and while not ALL of these issues are about whitewashing or racial stereotyping, they are sadly among the most common.

    That said, YES it's KEY to be ready to discuss why a proposed cover isn't working, and of course do so in a constructive, tactful way.

    1. Taurean, I think you made so many great points with your thoughtful comment. I checked out Hoeye's covers, and I like how the cover artist for No Time Like Show Time told the reader it's a book about anthropomorphic characters in a successfully subtle way through the use of off-center silhouettes. It was a nice design decision.
      I think with this kind of subject matter, animal fantasy for middle-grade, sophistication of cover concept is key to reaching the right audience. My hope is that when the time comes, you find yourself teamed with an artist who considers your vision because you clearly have a passion for your genre.

  2. Excellent post, Robert. I love your concept drawings for your cover.

    1. Thanks, Matthew! They were a lot of fun to work on.

  3. Your next horror novel should be called The Slicing, Robert. The thought of you massacring the great artist's cover art sent shivers down my spine!

    1. Ha! Good idea, Michael. It was one of those moments where time stops and the room starts spinning. My kingdom for a bottle of hydrochloric acid!

  4. I absolutely LOVE the covers created for my MG books, THE EIGHTH DAY and THE INQUISITOR'S MARK. They are eye-catching to the MG audience and concisely convey the concept of each story. (Still, I keep having to explain to my mother why neither one precisely illustrates a scene in the book. She just doesn't get it ...)

    I also LOVED the hardcover version of my last YA book. I understand why the publisher changed it for the paperback, and I get why the new one appeals to readers. Luckily, I like new version almost as much as the original.

    I did have trouble accepting the cover of my first published book (YA historical) because the girl in the picture was wearing the costume of a circus trapeze artist, and my MC was a modest Spiritualist girl of the 1850s. I had little say in the matter, however, and as it turned out, readers loved the cover and didn't care that my MC wouldn't have been caught dead in that dress!

    1. Dianne, I love your MG covers too. The Eighth Day is one of my favorites of the year. And the cover to Caged Graves is amazing and creepy in the best possible way. AND I think the cover for We Hear the Dead is eye catching, although I see your point about the odd choice of a trapeze artist.
      Your mom sounds like a lot like mine. Imagine if our parents were in charge of designing our covers? How trippy would that be?
      I appreciate your feedback.

  5. Robert, I love that you have so many talents! I think your artwork is amazing! I have a painting degree, but as soon as I started writing again, I dropped the brush. Someday I hope to pick it up again!

    1. Thanks, Hilary! Right back at you!
      It was the same way with me, once I found my passion for writing MG I lost some enthusiasm for my art. To keep from getting rusty, I recently offered to do free drawings for authors on Twitter. The drawings had to be characters from their books. The response was overwhelming. I think I bit off more than I can chew. Ha!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!