They’ve Got Authors Covered – Design Departments Not Writers Create Book Covers

Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing?  Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!”  Yeah, me too.  And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.

First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period.  Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case.  Shall I tell you a secret?  Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.

I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference.  My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like.  She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did.  She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.

What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it.  So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due.  I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did.  And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering.  So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way.  And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.

This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book.  Nope.  Sorry.  Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.

I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract.  But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind.  I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME.   Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive.  And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer.  I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home.  They have been designing covers for years.  That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.

Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.”  They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new.  Who can say?  As an author I certainly can’t.  And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.

Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.

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