Shop Talk: Covers, Covers, Covers

First, if you have a chance, head over to the Creatively Green website today, where I’m (as my alter-ego) talking about choosing favorites with characters.

Before I start, let me just say this: I’ve been very, very fortunate with the covers for my books. I mean, when I saw the cover for Royal Street—first book, first cover, I adored it from the outset. I was totally obnoxious, printing it out and running around forcing people to look at it.
I had no idea how lucky I was until I met authors whose experiences hadn’t been what they’d hoped.
I decided to focus on covers today after talking to my oh-so-fabulous “virtual assistant,” Stephen, whose hard work helps me get everything done and stay marginally sane. He’s the one who goes out and digs up all those book covers for the Reader’s Choice listings each week, and he started asking some questions about covers.
So, some facts and thoughts about covers:
Authors, unless they’re self-published, rarely have final say on what their cover looks like.  I have a couple of author friends who’ve (privately) been very unhappy about their covers but it’s not our call. That’s usually in our contracts.
I was very fortunate with that first cover (Royal Street) because my editor and I chatted about the mood we were looking for as well as what I didn’t want (leather, tattoos, guns). On the second and third books, I actually didn’t see the covers until someone spotted them online and emailed me. But I loved them. (I mean, can you go wrong with a Cliff Nielsen cover, I ask you?) Had I hated them, would I have been able to change them? Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so I don’t know. My guess is, maybe, or maybe not. In the end, the publisher has invested the money in the book, the publisher knows what sells in different genres, and the publisher has the final call.
* Swear you’ve seen that cover before? Two words for you: “stock photography.” Unless you’re a big, best-selling author you’re probably not going to get custom photography done for your book cover. Publishers or authors should pay for exclusive use of stock images, but they don’t always—it’s pricey. Some will Photoshop a standard stock image to death to try and make it look different. There are also some male models who’ve made an industry out of doing images for romance covers (nothing new—remember Fabio?). The guys are hot, granted. But authors and small publishers buy the same images again and again and, well, if their artists are skilled they can doctor the image enough to make it look original. If they aren’t so skilled, you get virtually identical covers.
This wasn’t such a big problem until the last year or two, as more authors are self-publishing and are mining the same stock photography sites as the small publishers. Now, seems like every month, I see two or three covers that are using the identical photo, each trying to give it some sort of collage or filter treatment to make it look different. It really bothers me. It might not bother readers; I don’t know.
* There’s the “stick with what you know” phenomenon. It’s no accident that almost all urban fantasy novels feature some variation of kickass woman on the cover, and almost all paranormal romance covers feature some variation of half-naked, buff guy or couple on the cover. Most YA novels have one-word titles and single large images (often a young girl in an elegant dress) on the cover. For some reason unknown to me, this has become the industry norm and something marketers have decided is what the reader is attracted to. (Anyone have theories on why that is?)
One of the questions Stephen asked was how interested authors are in their covers. Oh, you wouldn’t believe how interested! We’ve spent months, if not years, of hard work bringing a book to life. So much of drawing a reader in depends on first impressions—which means a cover. Even if we don’t browse bookstore shelves as often, even on a site like Amazon the cover’s the first thing we look at. So as an author, I desperately want my books to convey the right mood, the perfect tone. If there’s a face, I want it to look somewhat like my character–I’ve heard horror stories of cover images where the haircolor or even ethnicity didn’t match the hero or heroine of the novel. It’s devastating to work so hard on a book and then be disappointed in the cover. And it happens more than you might think.
I have to say, too, that there are so many times I want to talk to an indie author and say pleeeeeeeeze pay for a professionally designed cover. I can look at a .jpg of a book cover and tell you with 90 percent accuracy whether or not it was professionally designed. A lot of times it’s something as simple as the kerning or placement of the type that gives them away. (Kerning is the amount of space between letters.)
So, let’s talk covers. What do you like in a cover? What are you tired of? Do you have questions you’d like to ask about covers? I’ll answer what I can!

35 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Covers, Covers, Covers

  1. I am so sick of the endless stream of shirtless men on covers. Don’t get me wrong, I do like a well-built man, but too many of the covers look the same. I doesn’t matter if the male character never removes his shirt in the book, he is shirtless on the cover. I know the artist won’t neccessarily read the book, but maybe the publisher could give them a few key descriptors, so they could do a better job. I find I am drawn more to books with covers that are different from what seems like 80% of the covers out there. I’m also tired of the “kick-ass chick” with her boobs hanging out of her outfit. Especially if you read the book and the character wears nothing like the cover outfit.
    Sorry to be such a grump today 🙂

    • LOL, I’m pretty much in agreement with you. When I talked to my editors about the PNR series (with that publisher I do have a lot of input into the covers), I said I really did not want what I call a “Fab Ab” cover. So all the covers have closeup face shots on them, but the publisher did get exclusive use of those images so you won’t see them anywhere else.

      I was initially unhappy with my Elysian Fields cover because of the excessive cleavage, which is SO not my heroine. But at least she’s not wearing leather and wielding a gun. She does wear tank tops a lot in the first two books, but the weather is cold and rainy through most of Elysian Fields so she better get ready for some chillbumps!

  2. I have been a fan of the Cliff Nielsen covers on the Sentinels books. The Royal Street cover being my favorite. Dan dos Santos is another artist who’s covers I enjoy. Another thing about covers I like is the stepback. You know how some books have a cover on the front, then you open the book to find a second cover?
    That’s a stepback. You can see some on Jennifer Estep and Jeaniene Frost books.

    “There are books by which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” — Charles Dickens

    • I actually like the River Road cover best, probably because of the swamp and the gators, which I do love. I also like the Dan Dos Santos covers–his covers for the Mercy Thompson series are just gorgeous. The White Trash Zombie series covers are fun, too.

  3. Oh, covers! I am definitely drawn to an intriguing cover treatment and I am usually in awe of how designers work. I don’t have the eye for putting it together, but I do know when I see something I like.

    I work with non fiction and we almost never use stock image (thankfully). Our team does a fantastic job in my opinion, but I actually have a form I have to provide with dets on the subject, tone, covers to use as ideas and covers to make sure we stand out from. I often wonder what steps go into putting together a cover for a fiction title, though. I’ve seen multiple changes on covers for titles and wonder what prompted it. The one that springs to mind right away was an early cover of a book with a character that had dark hair. The cover was changed and the hair was made blond for the finished copy. I can’t fathom why that would have been done considering the character is mentioned as having dark hair!

    I went to a signing once and the author talked about his revamped covers. He said in talking over one cover with his publisher he pointed out that a bullet on the cover was inappropriate because no one got shot. He was vetoed and the bullet stayed.

    • A good cover is really magical, isn’t it? It tells so much about the book inside. It’s interesting to hear how nonfiction covers work. A lot with fiction depends on the publisher. My PNR publisher actually has me fill out a form where I provide character descriptions and things about tone or mood, and even covers that have similar feels to what I’m looking for. So that is cool.

      It just amazes me when I hear stories like the bullet one.

  4. I think your covers look fantastic and can see why you like them so much. There really are some bad ones among both trad and indie published books. It makes me feel bad for those authors who don’t have control over it. For so many readers that is the first thing they consider before buying. There are some great cover designers out there, and though they can cost a lot, for those authors who have a choice it’s worth the price to use them. I know I was very pleased with mine.

    Also, it does help if you can find model pics that haven’t been overused. I’ve begun to pick the repeats out as well. It won’t necessarily stop me from reading a book, but it is a bit tiring.

    • Yes, I try not to hold it against the book when I see a copycat cover or that same model in that same pose (there were a half-dozen covers out last year, I swear, that had different shirtless guys in the same pose, with the back to the camera and some kind of weapon in one hand. With most of their heads cut off, the covers looked just alike.

  5. I will confess that the first couple of times I saw the cover of Royal Street I didn’t read the title and dismissed the book as I thought it was Fantasy instead of Urban Fantasy *blush*

    And yes: I do judge a book by its cover a lot. I have bought books just because of the cover and skipped books when I cringed at the cover.
    The bare chested men covers are among the last so I am happy the Penton covers are different.

    And yes: self publishing authors should let someone with skill make their cover. And hire someone to write their blurb for them as well. The combination of a horrid cover and a terrible blurb are enough to discourage me from ever trying a book.

    • LOL–Royal Street’s cover might have been stronger if the New Orleans elements in the background were more prominent. You kind of have to look through the mist to see it. I do like the “water spots” the artist put on there, so it looked like a photo/book left outside in Hurricane Katrina.

      I’m tired of the “fab ab” covers, too…although there was some thought that my Penton covers might have lost some readers because they weren’t immediately indentifiable as paranormal romance.

      Blurbs! That’s a whole subject for another day. They can be nightmares.

  6. I am obsessed with pretty covers. IT can make the difference between me wanting to own the book vs taking it out from the library. I take lots of books out from the library. But if I dislike the cover then I will not want to own the book.

    But if I love the cover then it will make me want it.

    I also dislike when covers for series are changed mid-series. Especially if they are not changed for the better.

    One example is Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade series. While the covers for the first book are okay (the original and the new cover), I still prefer the original. But for the second book, Wolfsbane. I was absolutely crazy over the arc cover. And the cover they ended up going with is one of my least favorite covers ever. I disliked it so much that I did not want to look at it on my shelf. But the arc cover was one of my favorite covers ever. And I would have done anything to own that book.

    • Interesting about the Nightshade cover change. I wonder why?

      Well, now that I think about it, here’s one guess. My ARC on Absolution, second in the Penton series, had a different cover. Turned out a) the publisher was not able to get exclusive rights to that image and didn’t want to have the same cover available to another book and b) no one quite thought the cover model had the right look (including me). So it was changed at the 11th hour, literally two or three weeks before release. So it might be that kind of situation with the Wolfsbane cover. Just a guess.

    • I don’t think so. They decided to completely redo all of the covers right before the 2nd book was released. They went in a different direction (changed the cover for the first book too). Such a shame.

  7. Hi Suzanne,

    Synchronicity! I wrote about cover design on my blog a few days ago. My first cover had literally nothing to do with the book. My initial reaction was dismay, but then I thought, well, it’ll sell. And it did, so I guess the publisher was right.

    I don’t like the trend of near naked men and women on covers either – fun once, not 10,000 times. My new covers are mainly head shots of women who at least marginally resemble the characters they portray. We’ll see what readers think.

    Happy Wednesday,


    • I love the cover you got for TWELVE NIGHTS, Carole–I downloaded the book last night, in fact! I loved the fab-ab covers for the first couple of years, but then it got ridiculous. I think we’re seeing a shift away from them a little.

  8. I do purchase books based on their covers at times. Your covers are gorgeous! I can’t stand all the chopped off heads on recent covers. Also with the stock photography, I will look at a book and think, didn’t I read this already? Then when I look at the author, I realize it is a completely different author. And I really dislike when the cover doesn’t even comes close to what the story is about.

    • I’m not a fan of chopped-off heads, either, although I understand why they do it–no danger of getting a cover model who looks nothing like the hero/heroine, plus who people find attractive is highly subjective. And I’m getting so leery of stock photography!

  9. You hit the jackpot w/your covers. Cliff Nielson is fantastic. I’ve found that most of the covers Tor puts out are beyond gorgeous. I received Firebrand the other day. Beautiful.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    • Thanks, Andrea–yes, I think almost all of Tor’s covers are great. I just got Firebrand in today’s mail, and it is gorgeous! Definitely made me want to read the book.

  10. I won’t buy a book just based on the cover but I’m more likely to pick up a book if the cover catches my eye. I’m not a big fan of half naked people on covers. And I have to agree that I’ve sometimes seen a cover with a stock photograph and thought that I’d already read it only to find out that it’s a new release.

  11. I love covers with pretty bold colors – they definitely catch my eye when perusing the shelves and make me read the summary in the back!

    What I dislike about covers is when the covers dramatically change within the series – I hate that! For example, that’s what happened to the Across the Universe series by Beth Revis and the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi. I liked the original cover for A Million Suns, but did like the revised cover for Shatter Me. It just sucks because I like to have my series look cohesive.

    Hopefully, yours won’t go through any dramatic changes!


    • Yes, I hate that too! I’m not sure why publishers do that (unless they change publishers)…Seems like Nicole Peeler’s Jane True novels were redone–reissued with new covers, so if you wanted a matched set you had to repurchase the earlier ones. Don’t hold me to that; I might be remembering wrong. I hated that Royal Street came out in trade paperback and River Road in hardcover, although the hardcover at least was the same dimensions as the TP. And it will be coming out in TP in…June, I think.

    • I actually didn’t think i’d like the cover for Shades of Earth. But the actual cover is sort of pretty. IT is different textures and some of it shines. I haven’t seen the first two books new covers, so don’t know how they are. But i did really like the original cover of A million suns (which i have).

      Also, for Shatter Me, I hate that they changed the covers. Don’t really care for the new covers. Although they aren’t bad. I just hate that they changed the covers after one book. Why? I will say that i was completely obsessed with the original Shatter Me cover (girl in white dress). IT is pretty. BUt after reading the book I didn’t feel like it went with the book.

  12. Cover book is really have an effect when reader by book and nowadays so many good cover then caused I fainted and hurry to buy the book whereas we don’t know or have not read the blurb but then we will disappoint because the story is really bad :(. And yes, sometimes the idea of the cover book founds same but still we will not bore to see and buy it and publisher or author must selective to choice the cover of their book

  13. My current peeve is the trend toward having covers where the model is cut off at the neck. I’ve been told that the theory is that if there’s no face visible the reader can imagine whatever they like, but they always make me think of that family photo that didn’t get included in the album because Uncle Harry always mis-aimed the camera and cut off someone’s head. Or, more practically, that the publisher didn’t pay for a photo that included a model release so they could show the face….

    I had a graphic demonstration of the value of a professional. I had a concept for a cover for a free read. I could have purchased the stock photos and put together something passable, but I ended up talking my concept over with a designer. She took the photos I had in mind using, shifted one to the left instead of centering it, and did some creative things with the type, and it made a huge difference in the final result. It was definitely a good investment.

    • It is amazing what a difference that profesional “eye” can make, even in arranging the same elements. I work with graphic designers on my day job, and I’m in awe of the magic they can create. I think this is one of the best investments an indie author can make.

  14. ‘…It’s devastating to work so hard on a book and then be disappointed in the cover.’

    I can’t even IMAGINE such a horror. First impressions are so important – the cover can make or break a book.

    Luckily, I had some say in my Eye of the Soul (Pool of Souls#1) cover. Can’t wait to reveal it to the world on March 18th!!

    You definitely were blessed with those three covers. They’re eye catching & full of intrigue / mood. Definitely books I would pick up just for the cover alone. Off to check them out in Goodreads…

    • Congratulations on your upcoming release, Terri! I’ve had a lot of say in my PNR series covers as well. The Tor series sure didn’t need my input–I was definitely blessed with great covers!

  15. While I’m more likely to pick up a book if it has an awesome cover when in a book store, 90% of the books I read are bought online and I would never buy a book if the blurb didn’t grab me. I pretty much buy based on reviews and name recognition. Now you’ll catch me caressing some of those books that have that soft velvety feel but if the story doesn’t call out to me, I certainly have no problem leaving them on the shelf.
    One thing I seriously hate is the new practice of cutting of the heads off of the models though I do understand why they do it.

  16. Lol, I am in the minority I see, I do love half naked muscled men on my bookcovers for romantic suspense, paranormal romance and Scottish Highlanders historical romances.

    I do dislike the copy cat covers, where they just make it a mirror image or something, especially when both books are published in the same month or two months apart.

    If I think the cover creepy, I will not pick up the book, even if I read raving reviews and now I will probably love the book myself. For instance, my best friend will never read your Penton series, as she thinks the eyes on the covers creepy. I admit, I had to get used to it too, and now I kind of like it.

    I do hate those covers, that have nothing to do with the book itself. The main characters look completely different, or would never dress like that. For instance, I read an historical romance once, where the (older) heroine was known for always wearing a black gown. The covermodel wore white …

  17. I like bright colors, people on the cover.

    Seem to see a lot of the same images used for different authors/books.

    If the a book gets re-released with a new cover, wish it would say that somewhere on the cover/blurb.

  18. Covers… what a great issue. I love creepy covers, but I am SO TIRED of covers featuring stunning girls in gorgeous dresses. Or black covers like that of Twilight (I live in Italy and the tendency of black cover with body detail is getting so damn annoying. Really.)

    I don’t usually buy a book based on a cover, but when I am browsing with no idea of what to buy I have to admit that an original cover, something that catches my eyes, definitely makes me pick up a book. But the cover has to say something about the book, otherwise is just misleading.And I really hate to see the same cover over and over again!

  19. Haha, I would have loved to see you ‘running and forcing people to look at it’! 😛

    Cliff Nielsen’s covers are just magical! Not only are they beautiful, they inspire me too. Makes me hope that one day I can be a good artist as he is. Tor books has some really good covers and I enjoy reading about the ‘behind the covers’ posts they do.

    A cover won’t necessarily put me off buying a book but it certainly helps if it’s well done. It doesn’t even have to be pretty as long it’s not sloppy like having badly cropped pictures, bad typography or just generally looking really weird.

    I’m tired of the girl in pretty dresses and headless bare chested men on covers. I won’t mind if it’s actually related to the story but more often not…and yes! Some indie covers really makes me weep!