On Book Cover Design

One of the reasons I self-publish is for greater control.

Nowhere is this more significant than in cover design. Traditionally-published authors, even the very popular ones, have little if any control over the cover art for their books. A process of Chinese whispers between the editorial, marketing and production departments leads to a poorly-briefed artist producing a cover that often has little to do with the content of the book.

Classic example: Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden doesn't wear a hat, but the cover artist was told early on that he did, and painted him with one. (It's now become a standing joke, which Butcher has referenced in the books, and the character on the cover art continues to have the hat, while the character in the text doesn't.)

The other thing that the commercial publishing process produces is covers that are much the same as each other. You can generally spot the genre of a book from across the room. Romance: muscular guy with no shirt. Urban fantasy: shapely tattooed girl in clothing that shows a lot of skin. Dark fantasy: mysterious hooded figure. Because traditional publishing treats books as interchangeable commodities, they end up packaging them the same way.

And then there are the covers that are not just cliched, but outright objectionable. Jim C. Hines has been drawing attention to these by attempting to reproduce some of the poses that women are put in on urban fantasy covers, with hilarious results. He and several other authors recently did this cover pose (warning: more pale male flesh than you probably wanted to see) to point up the sexism of some fantasy and SF covers. His point in all of this is that women are often portrayed exploitatively and in ways that, while purportedly showing their power (they're posing with weapons!), really don't. And often, these are the covers of books by women.

All of which was in my mind when I commissioned the cover of Realmgolds.

All too often, you can tell an indie book by its cover because the cover is really bad. I wanted to commission a cover that you could tell was an indie book, not based on lack of quality, but because no major publishing house would ever commission this cover. They wouldn't have the imagination.

I found an artist who had done a cover for someone I know on Google+, and sent him detailed art direction. Here are extracts:

The cover shows the two main characters, Victory on the viewer’s left and Determined on the right, sitting talking at a table. They are equals in terms of their rank, but Determined is younger, less confident and less competent. Both are of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance... Definitely not Northern European. No whitewashing.

VICTORY is in her early to mid thirties. She is a small woman, but has such a dominant personality that people usually don’t notice this....

She isn’t beautiful. That’s very important. She’s not unpleasant to look at, but she’s not conventionally attractive. Kind of nerdy, if you can imagine a nerd girl who is extremely confident.

DETERMINED is a bookish young man of about 25, who really wanted to be a historian... he has a slightly scruffy, academic look to him...

Even with this brief, I had to say things like, "She's too pretty. Make her nose bigger." But I got what I wanted:

My artist, Chris Howard, did an amazing job, and I'm very happy with the cover. Much more so than I would have been had I not been able to brief him and engage in back-and-forth with him.

The book is with the editor right now, and I'm still planning for publication in March. Stay tuned!

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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