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CMAP #6: Why did you pick such an awful cover for your new book?

(I'm going to try and keep this one brief ...)

Many readers hold the charming misconception that authors not only write their books, but are responsible for the size, shape, texture, flavour, and appearance of the finished physical object.

(We're talking physical books here, not ebooks. That's yet another opportunity for discourse that I'm going to eschew for now.)

Here's the reality: as an author, I am required — per contract — to supply the publisher with a manuscript of approximately the correct length, on roughly the correct subject matter, that is substantially free from factual errors and libelous or criminal statements. I'm also required to participate in the editorial process. And I can suggest a title. That's all.

The title of the published book will usually conform to the author's suggestion, except when it doesn't. Reasons why the publisher might change it include: the author's idea of a title is going to repel readers, the editor has a better idea, or the publisher's list contains another book with a too-similar title and confusion will arise.

For example: my novel "Singularity Sky" was originally titled "Festival of Fools", but right after my editor at Ace acquired the North American rights one of their other editors published "Ship of Fools" by Richard Paul Russo. It was felt that two "... of Fools" titles on the front list at the same time would be a Bad Thing, so we haggled over a new title (and my editor wanted the S-word in it "because the Singularity is hot right now").

For another example: my short story collection "Wireless" was originally titled "Palimpsest" (after the novella it contains), but Catherynne Valente's novel "Palimpsest" came out right after I submitted the manuscript: although it was with a different publisher, we were, again, worried about the potential for confusion.

The confusion doesn't emerge between authors and their readers, but among the overworked staff at bookshops and wholesalers, or between the marketing department of publishers and the acquisitions managers at the big book chains. Every editor's nightmare is that their hot new novel is, through a namespace conflict, going to be confused with yesterday's tired midlist title by the buyer at Barnes and Noble or Borders, who will in consequence order only half as many copies. It may or may not be a nightmare with reality lurking behind it, but who wants to take that risk?

The author's name on the published book is probably safe. At least, there's a clause in my contracts that says they're supposed to attribute authorship to me, myself, and I, unless otherwise mutually agreed. It sometimes happens that authors who are in a spiral of diminishing bookstore orders are asked to start up a pseudonym (presumably to defeat the evil moustachio-twirling opera-cloak-wearing inventory computers who are persistently short-ordering their stock, and who can be confounded by the sudden appearance of a middle initial). But this is a big step, and it doesn't happen without heart-felt discussions between the author and their editor and/or agent.

(Full disclosure prompts me to reveal: my Merchant Princes books were nearly sold under a pseudonym, because of the degree to which they diverged from my other fiction. What finally stopped us going that way were the points that (a) I didn't need a new identity at that time, and (b) if either fiction track suddenly took off, selling lots of books, having them under different names would prevent follow-on sales going to the other.)

The book cover is not the author's job. In fact, the major imprints all have in-house book design departments with art directors to commission paintings, external contracts with professional photographers to commission back-flap author photos, and so on.

The job of the cover is to make a shopper pick the product up. Retail psychology studies indicate that shoppers are more likely to buy a product if they physically handle it, and this is as true in bookstores as it is in grocery or electronics stores. The cover design will therefore ideally be distinctive (to stand out from the crowd), colourful (to contrast with the crowd), and aesthetically appealing (ditto). Unfortunately these are all culturally variable and highly subjective. Fashion in book design is radically different between the USA and the UK, for example; the US market in SF at least is increasingly driven by saturated hues, while in the UK for a while the trend has been towards grainy monochrome, with one publisher going so far as to reissue an entire list of books with black and white covers.

There are exceptions, of course. Small presses involve the authors much more closely; I worked closely with the editor, publisher, and artist on refining a series of roughs to pick a final design for the Golden Gryphon editions of the first two Laundry novels, and although the book design was 100% Golden Gryphon house style, the cover artwork was a consensus decision. But if you're with a major publishing house, the first you will hear about your new cover is probably an email with a JPEG attachment saying, "hi, Charlie! Here's your new cover! All of us here at hte office think this is great! What do you think?"

(If you think this is just slightly passive-agressive, you would not be wrong. It is a well-understood constant of the publishing world that authors frequently hate their book covers so much that they feel compelled to bring Western Civilization to a crashing halt until they can get a minor detail — the heroine's hair colour, for example — changed. Ways of coping with this common problem have therefore been developed.)

NB: In a spirit of full disclosure, I have occasionally thrown my toys out of the pram over cover art. The worst three:

1) The US cover of "Halting State". Not the one you've seen on sale; the one I kicked up a fuss over was an earlier draft. Same design, but the police badge on the front cover was a Scotland Yard one, and it had the London Eye in the background. (Way to go for a Scottish crime/thriller, sort of like an LAPD police car parked in Time Square.) A fix was procured in the nick of time. (Lothian and Borders Police logo, and the Walter Scott Monument.)

2) The US cover of "Saturn's Children". I'd already played my "author objects to cover" card the previous year, and was overruled. I'm still conflicted about this cover. On the plus side, it's undeniably striking (and highly likely to get men of a certain age to pick it up). On the minus side, I've had mail from readers who bought a British copy, imported at great expense, because they were afraid of their partner's likely response.

3) The Czech cover of "The Family Trade". I'm told half the bookstores in Prague misfiled it under "romance". (As I mentioned earlier, authors going ballistic over their book covers is understood. When their agent joins in, publishers take it more seriously. We got the subsequent covers changed.)

The author's photograph on the dust jacket ... I have a lot more respect for the modelling profession after being on the receiving end of a five-hour photoshoot around the arse-end of a decaying naval warehouse in Boston in mid-February (for the cyberpunkish ambiance, according to the photographer). I've heard apocryphal stories of the Bad Old Days when unscrupulous publishers would substitute a photo of someone more attractive if they felt like it, but I don't know anyone that's actually happened to. I will note that it's a lot tougher for women; men in DJ photos are allowed to look middle-aged and slightly unkempt, but given what the purpose of a book's DJ is, you can figure out the sexist syllogism for yourself.

The blurb on the back cover/inside front flap ... they're usually written by someone in marketing, although I know at least one major publisher where the commissioning editor writes his own blurbs and runs them past the author for comment. The goal of the blurb is to convert the person handling the book from a handler to a purchaser; nothing more or less. It does not need to reflect the content of the book accurately, although most authors get awfully itchy and irritable in the presence of actively misleading blurbs. It shouldn't spoiler the contents if there's an element of surprise: this is one good reason for publishers to show marketing-written blurbs to authors before running with them. But that's all. The blurb is an advertisement, not a plot synopsis.

The review quotes on the back cover/inside the front matter ... obviously, good reviews are gold dust. But you don't need good lemons to make lemonade. If Kirkus Reviews say of a hardback "this was an exercise in meretricious misogyny, stunning in the depths of it's depravity", do not be surprised if you subsequently see a back-cover quote like this: "Stunning — Kirkus". (In general, the longer the quote, the more likely it is to accurately reflect the review. But see above about the purpose of a book cover.)

The author's biography on the inside back flap is entirely their own fault, but I will note that publishers are under no obligation to print one. Nor are they going to put much effort into updating a bio they've used on previous books, so don't be surprised if bios are a few years out of date. Or decades. Or full of lies. Whatever.

Anyway, as should be obvious by now, authors have little to no control over what goes on the cover of their books, because book covers are marketing tools. And if you're of a nasty disposition and want to needle an author at a public event? Here's your pin.



Re blurbs, sometimes they can be factually inaccurate but correctly capture the spirit of the novel. The blurb on the UK paperback of Mick Farren's The Song of Phaid the Gambler mentioned things like LAX airport and the CIA, completely irrelevant to the story which is set in the far future, long after our times have been forgotten. But the blurb made me buy the book, and it captured the feel of it perfectly.


I brought the US version of Saturn's Children back to the UK and read it on the train into Waterloo each morning. It certainly made some people get their necks into that strange position that's required in order to see across the carriage and have a real long hard look at what someone's reading. Bless 'em.


Re review quotes taken out of context, there is in theory at least a measure of protection on this side of the Atlantic in the EU's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which has a section aimed at marketers playing fast and loose with reviews. There's an explanatory piece about it in The Independent, at - this looks at theatre producers pulling this sort of stunt, and has some fun examples of the genre. (Warning: it is accompanied by a truly alarming photograph so don't view if you're not confident of making your sanity roll).

I remember advice on this being circulated back when I was the Marketing Director of a major UK publisher - obviously this doesn't guarantee compliance, but it is something that marketers and editors should be aware of.


That's new to me, George.

On the other hand? A bad review -- if it's bad enough -- can make for good dust jacket copy anyway.

The classic example being the Irish Times review of Iain Banks' first novel, "The Wasp Factory":

"It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the authors imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at it."


I usually find that the cover art is a pretty good determinator for genre, if nothing else. Hard SF gets abstract spaceships (Alastair Reynolds), military/heroic SF will usually have an explosion and a three-quarters portrait of the hero/heroine (Elizabeth Moon), extruded fantasy product will have a horse and a sword (David Eddings). Anything with pretensions to literature gets a symbolic abstract cover (Jess Noon). And so on. Any actual relation between the cover art and the contents is purely accidental.

Some artists are really good, and don't just produce good art but actually read the books (C.J. Cherryh); but I suspect that Michael Whelan is now so infeasibly rich that mere mortals cannot hope to aspire to one of his covers.

Some covers are just plain awful. Baen is notorious for this (Bujold). But then I can recognise these on-sight as being Baen books, so know to disregard the covers. I suppose that's a success.

I notice that your covers tend to be fairly generic or abstract, which is a typical sign that they can't quite pin down your genre. I will admit to being rather fond of this cover of The Atrocity Archives.


So... are you allowed to tell us what your pseudonym would have been?


Sure: it would have been "Charles Davidson". (My father's name is David; and it's a 'nym I've used before for a couple of projects in the late 80s/early 90s.)


Ignoring the cheese factor, couldn't the Saturn's Children cover have been done by an illustrator capable of handling the basics of figure drawing? Or are her various body parts floating/stretching in zero-G or something?


"Retail psychology studies indicate that shoppers are more likely to buy a product if they physically handle it, and this is as true in bookstores as it is in grocery or electronics stores"

Whilst I don't doubt the logic for a second, I'm curious how this is determined empirically. After all, in a physical book store all books finally purchased have, necessarily, been handled by the purchaser (I'm not convinced the translation from other retails areas to books is a gimme, either).

I guess you would have to compare the number of books handled and then put back against...erm, something. But then that tells you more about the quality of the blurb. Hmmm.

The late Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series was particularly well known for its awful covers. I notice the reprints are in a plain binding with just the WoT symbol and the title - possibly at this point they're not expecting to sell to people who haven't already heard of the book.


The book cover is a big deal for reading on the train, that's why I cannot read my copies of I,Claudius, Ada or Flashman while commuting. And why I would hesitate over reading Saturn's Children there when I get to it. On the other hand, it is perfectly OK to have a bloody axe or a giant puss-filled monster on the cover; that doesn't frighten the kids and there aren't any horses around usually. (It also does not make complete strangers think I am a pervert; they have to meet me for that.)

Dave@5: For some of her covers, Cherryh was fortunate enough to have her brother do the artwork; so hopefully, she got his full attention on the books' actual contents.


I find it kind of sad that people are squeamish about being seen in proximity to any depiction of sex in public ... but think nothing about brutal violence, murder, and torture.

(This is not a comment on you, personally, but on our general perceptions of the society we live in.)


Probably for the best that you avoided the pseudonym, you would have needed a disambiguation page if you'd gone with that name. I can already imagine the heated arguments about which one was more notable, and hence should be the default - award-winning midlist author vs award-winning midlist politician.

I had wondered before why "Singularity Sky" had a title that didn't really have anything to do with the contents. The explanation is vaguely depressing. At least the marketing insanity stays out of the story.

It occurs to me that the design of book jackets is a fairly crude form of arms race. Each publisher is trying to be more noticable than the next guy. When the shelf is full of brightly coloured books, black ones stand out more; when they're all black, bright ones do. There's probably a cycle here.


I've always felt that the quoting of the Irish Times' review of the Wasp Factory was the last throw of the "Banned in Eire!" trope.

Does Ireland still have formal book censorship or has EU/ECHR membership got rid of it?


@Bill Seitz - and the main toon of the book is a what ;D ?

Always intrigued by the way a certain style of book (as alluded to in prior post's) seem's to be derived from either the work or the story itself - guess its a clever marketing gimmick.

Certainly whenever I visualise a Sir T of P book all I see is Paul Kidby's art - they are bound together now.


I love the cover of the US Saturn's Children and I like to think that Heinlein would have approved too. What with him being a dirty perv :)


PrivateIron@5: I didn't know that. I do know that Janny Wurts paints her own covers, though; that's kind of an extreme way of doing it... but that must be really awkward for the editors, as the author is likely to have very different ideas as to what makes a good cover than the editors. Given what Charlie said about the purpose of the cover, that probably leads to a fair bit of friction.


Re: US v UK book covers. I rather liked the british Merchant Princes paperbacks (quite stylish, I thought) but having seen the american equivalents on-line, those are not books I would have picked up on a whim in a book shop. Far too 'fantasy' for my personal taste, but I suppose that was the marketing goal.

Conversely, I thought the UK edition of Saturn's Children (I bought the paperback) was dreadfully dull and would have preferred something like the US edition.

It's a good thing that I've learned empirically that there will be an entertaining story between the covers of a Stross book, regardless of the external artwork!


I'd love to find out where cover designers draw the line on eye-catching sex 'n' violence, since there's certainly a point beyond which you start driving readers away. I remember when my sister decided she really wanted her own copy of I, ROBOT, but the current paperback featured a robot with the classic SF damsel-in-distress hanging off one leg. (Not to mention the awful, movie tie-in editions.) She described it as "robot porn" and just couldn't bring herself to buy it.

Similarly, I've passed over SATURN'S CHILDREN few times when trying to decide which of your books to buy next, since I feel like less of a tool handing ATROCITY ARCHIVES to the cashier than something with a CG sex-kitten on the cover.

Sadly, I imagine that for every one person they drive off with prominent mammaries they pick up another ten. I still wonder how these decisions get made, though.


This particular CMAP reminds me of an entertaining book by John Sutherland called "How to read a Novel", which talks about all of these different things and goes into some of the history of the Novel, printing etc.


Of course, I immediately looked up SATURN'S CHILDREN on Amazon. Not only is the cover there in full color, there's a helpful arrow inviting me to look inside.

Who could resist?


@12, the Saturn's Children cover looks like porn, and porn habits are associated with loserdom, and lacking the social awareness to keep porn habits private is associated with a stunning degree of social ineptitude, hence the embarassing nature of the cover. It's not prudishness, it's a status thing. The same people would not be embarrassed to be seen with an actual flesh and blood girl who looked like a non-cartoonish version of the cover girl.

As for the CMAP6 cover, I don't see what's so bad about it. It's a little cheesy, but no worse than a lot of genre books. I like the cover of Accelerando, Halting State (nationality confusion be damned) and the other less "fantasy" looking covers better, but I'm not going to bitch about it.


Here's a stunningly inappropriate blurb I spotted once - I've redacted the book title, author and character name just for fun:

The fantabulous secret weapon in the cold war between the worlds. Back Cover: Tomorrow's answer to the anti-missile-missile. An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton and attacked the mighty mechanical men with a strange, overpowering blast of highly explosive Sex Appeal. A cenTERRIFICal tale of two planets by the mastermind of Inside Front Page: A HEAVENLY BODY She was the sun, the moon and the stars. Wherever pretty rocketed, her radiation waves could be felt for lightyears. The fun and games' rooms at Las Vega, Venus, had never seen anything like this minx from Mars. was having the time of her celestial life--until one of her male satellites discovered that spelled anybody's orbit.


I learnt all this first hand as the son of a category romance author for Harlequin Mills and Boon. The number of times I've seen perfectly good, funny, original manuscripts go in and titles like "The Millionaire Doctor's Bride's Baby Bargain" or something like that come out...

The best screw up I saw was back in the days before email - Mum used to get covers delivered in the mail from England, and we were in Australia, so they'd usually take a few weeks to arrive. Mum had written a great romance, heavily researched, set in the Antarctic. Love affairs between doctors on ice breaker ships, penguins, walrus attacks - all the good stuff. Cover arrives - beautifully hand painted, best looking cover she'd ever had.. Only downside? Polar bears.

They were very nice polar bears, beautifully painted, but, as you may be aware, there are no polar bears in the Antarctic. Phone calls were made, but it was too late. In the time it had taken to ship out, the book had already gone off to the printers

Ah well, such is life. The book still sold stupidly well.


On the US cover of Saturn's Children, Freya looks like a sexbot designed by someone who was working really hard to please his target audience (of customers for sexbots) but who wasn't quite able to get the final product out of the uncanny valley. And possibly the designer took part of his inspiration from the Whelan cover of Friday.

So given the story, I thought it was pretty darn appropriate.

(If I wrote a story with a human protagonist and got that cover, I'd be pretty upset)


That authors have next to zero control over the cover art shouldn't have come as a surprise, I suppose. But why are some covers so awful, especially when an artist is commissioned create it?

I'm with the camp that did not like the US SC cover. Nothing to do with sex, it was just poorly executed. I have the hardback of Heinlein's "To Sail Beyond the Sunset" with the Vallejo art, which I like, but my younger children were somewhat distressed to see on the bedside table. One has to wonder if it wouldn't have been better/cheaper for your US publisher to commission/license a Sorayama for the SC cover.

Despite this, I have to wonder how much of the hardback edition is influenced by the cover art? Paperbacks are different, although I would think that your previous discussion about length is more important than cover art, although every component helps.

Today I find very little cover artwork interesting. Foss, Pennington and Jones seemed so much better than the current artists.


"Retail psychology studies indicate that shoppers are more likely to buy a product if they physically handle it..."

Actually, common sense indicates that shoppers (unless they have robotic actuators or can levitate items) are physically unable to buy a product unless they have handled it.

Isn't psychology marvellous? 8-)


I do notice that when it come to random browsing in the book store (not that there's many of them left), I do tend to go for the more abstract or subdued covers. (I picked up the Cassini Division purely on the basis of the cover, then became a fan of all the rest of Ken's work) I think, had I not known the name, I might have given the US version of Saturn's Children a miss.

For what it's worth, I do like a slightly matt finish on a cover, makes it look more classy (in my head).

(Ps, @david.given I am interested in this Jess Noon of which you speak ;)


I'm reminded of the contrast between us and european covers for the recent game Settlers 7.


I agree on the poorly executed cover art, although I don't think Charlie got screwed on SC as much as some authors have (naming no names).

Makes me hope that, every once in a while, some artist loses a job over a cover. It would be nice to think that, if the cover art's awful and design bad, in a vaguely just world, the marketing people would get hammered for unexpectedly poor sales, not the author. Probably wishful thinking, but it would be good business practice for the marketeers to have skin in the game as well.


"On the plus side, it's undeniably striking (and highly likely to get men of a certain age to pick it up). On the minus side, I've had mail from readers who bought a British copy, imported at great expense, because they were afraid of their partner's likely response".

Although I live in England, I ordered the US hardback from Amazon precisely so I could possess her! (Yes, I admit it - I am a man of a certain age. I.e. between 10 and 110).

Not only is she striking, she seems (to me anyway) remarkably fascinating. Did the artist give her impossibly regular features as well as her inhumanly exaggerated proportions?

It didn't bother my wife in the slightest - possibly because she knows I never get off with sex robots from hundreds of years in the future. (Alas and dammit).


Book covers are pretty important -- I started reading SM Stirling because of the cover of "Island in the Sea of Time". There was a picture of a man in primitive clothes on the deck of a modern sailing ship and I wanted to know why. :)

Titles can do that too - I think I picked up "Singularity Sky" because it had the word singularity in it and I was big into that at the time. Though "Festival of Fools" might have attracted me too.

I can understand why publishers would want to change titles, or retitle books between the US and UK. Richard K. Morgan's "Black Man" was retitled "Thirteen" in the US probably because of different racial connotations. Confusingly, my library ordered both books thinking they were different.


I notice that you have you image on the front of at least one imprint of Halting State.

And Charlie, do you have a walk on role in the pub at the beginning of Cosmanaut Keep?

I'm look forward to the latest efforts, keep up the good work



For the Saturn's Children re-issue cover: Calculon kissing a partially veiled Crushinator on a wind swept beach with an Irish castle in the background.


Cover design hell: one edition of a technical magazine I was involved with was devoted to Africa. The cover motif was an image of the African continent made up of a mosaic of faces.

A day or so before deadline, it was noticed that all the faces were either white or Chinese, without exception. fail.



"giant puss-filled monster" you mean like this?


One hopes that Our Gracious Host is going to publish this series, with selected additions from commentary. Given how much I'm enjoying and valuing the exposition, I would very much like future such to be encouraged with large stacks of grubby tenners as well the delight and praise of his groupies :).


Hands down, worst book cover I've ever seen, as it related to the content therein:

Agent of Byzantium by Harry Turtledove.

That's the original cover, from when I bought the book back in the late 80's. A very sharp looking rifle strapped to his back, and an obviously electronic device in his hand.

The gddmn book is set in the 14th century. And gunpowder makes a very limited appearance in the book, out on the edge of technology.

Major differences between our world, and the book.


Ah, Friday!

Forget moon bases and flying cars, when do we get the superskin jumpsuit, as modeled on my favourite Heinlein cover?


So, I recently licked the second edition paperback copy of Singularity Sky and while I preferred the taste to the early Heinlein Hardcovers, I felt that it could be improved by adding a more vanilla note. Please insist on it in future publishing contracts ;)

Now, let's talk about the kerning of the ffi ligature in future novels...


The german edition of Halting State looks like a the next Grand Theft Auto. There is even a star that looks exactly like the star in the Rockstar games logo. I assume the publisher believes all gamers have the same taste and a book that looks like a bestselling video game series is a smart move.

I'm afraid not many readers, who bought the book based on the expectations the cover suggests, will enjoy it.

The title "du bist tot" or "you are dead" doesn't help much.


<sarcasm> Russ, they don't need any empirical (or, more properly, epidemiological) evidence. The ether continues to exist! </sarcasm>

I'm afraid you've just hit on one of the critical errors in book-marketing theory. Every single one of the numerically based, scientifically flawed studies that has been done that concludes "ya gotta touch it before you'll consider buying it" has been done on consumable items, like cereal. The publishing industry has never confirmed whether reading material — a nonconsumable item — is part of the same population; or, for that matter, that the study population corresponds to the bookstore population that is influenced by cover and not by author name; and so on.

Then, too, there's an unstated assumption in Our Gracious Host's description of the publishing industry's cover meme: That the end consumer is actually the person who is the target of the cover designs. Last summer's racial CoverFail over Liar is merely an obvious example. Further investigation demonstrated to my satisfaction — and I have pretty high standards in this regard — that the particular cover meme espoused by Bloomsbury USA's marketing dorks was in response to specific comments made by the head chainstore buyer for one of the top three US bookstore chains*... and a cursory examination of the "featured books" tables at that chain even today only confirms it. In short, that particular element of CoverFail is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another, somewhat older, example is the US trade nonfiction meme that "green covers don't sell." Well, why not? Where does that meme come from? It's a leftover from 1960s ink chemistry, bookstore design and palettes, and old fluorescent lighting, which together combined to make a green cover printed from nondigital plates wash out into mud in too many stores. Given that no store or trade book falls fits all of these criteria today... draw your own conclusion.

All of that said, I think Our Gracious Host's description of his role in the cover is both correct and admirably succinct, and I don't think that he's trying to pretend that it reflects the reality of the substance of cover design — only the reality of the process of cover design.

  • Which, I should add, were offhand comments air, or perhaps gaseous emissions from an orifice of another nature, and were not backed up by verifiable sales figures. In this particular instance, I suspect it was blindness more than conscious racism at issue... or, at least, I hope so.

The title of the published book will usually conform to the author's suggestion, except when it doesn't. Reasons why the publisher might change it include: the author's idea of a title is going to repel readers, the editor has a better idea

Like "Bimbos of the Death Sun".


haven't read the earlier comments, sorry if this is repeating something said earlier.

I was initially put off by the cover for Saturn's Children, but after reading it, I think it fits for a book whose story centers around a sexy sex-bot who has lots of bot-sex.


"Retail psychology studies indicate that shoppers are more likely to buy a product if they physically handle it, and this is as true in bookstores as it is in grocery or electronics stores."

It's true. I'm working in a bookstore in Germany and I see this behavior every day. If you want someone to buy a book you have hand it over to him so he can touch it. The customer will open the book in the middle and touch the paper. You would expect him to open the book at the first page but no one does. Its a bit stupid because there is no real reason to open the book in the middle but it happens every time. The next minute you will tell the customer how great the book is. This is actually a waist of time, because no one listens. They are to busy switching the book from one hand to the other feeling its weight, touching it. And now comes the trick: You tell your customer to hand the book back to you. If they hesitate they have lost and are going to buy it. I assume it is against human nature to give things back if someone demands it.

This is one of the funny things about books and a mayor problem in the current discussion about how much people are willing to pay for an ebook. A big part of the worth people see in a book is generated through the physical object and not the content. It is really easy to get people to pay twice as much money for a book if it is twice as heavy. Or if the publisher uses high quality materials like good paper that feels very smooth to the touch while reading the book. People enjoy owning a high quality product that looks good in the living room.

Telling the people that producing an ebook isn't much cheaper than producing an ordinary book isn't going to work. Simply because we are not used to pay only for the content. If we are lucky people keep buying printed books until this view has changed in a way that can support the publishing industry. If not we are screwed like the music industry.


Actually, Ben, your reactions are the reasons why at least some bystanders think the U.S. Saturn's Children cover was ill-advised --- the cover design is supposed to appeal to people who just picked the thing up off a shelf, who haven't read the book, don't know much of anything about it, and aren't likely to want to find out more without further inducement. Something that's initially off-putting, and only makes sense after you know more, doesn't seem like the right tool for this job.

To put it another way, what's a more likely reaction to that cover from the target audience --- potential customers who don't know much about the book or Charles Stross? Is it "I wonder if they had a really clever reason for putting this cheesy cover on this book. Perhaps I should investigate further."? Or: "Yuck. Ptui. [[puts back on shelf]]"?


I'm easily manipulated - pixel-art orcs and a quote from John Carmack (regardless of what the quote actually said) were enough to make Halting State irresistible. I think that's the only time I've ever bought a book based largely on the cover, and not on either recommendations or previous work from the author.


Sometimes books are also retitled when reprinted, because of words or phrases that no longer make sense, or are no longer acceptable. Case in point, Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" (visit the link and you'll see why immediately:


The US cover for "Saturn's Children" grew on me as I read it, just for the camp value going along with the humor of the book. The thing that bothers me about it now is the 'Freya' necklace which is rather passé. It's still better than the recycled Royo cover for "Islands in the Net", besides being a dreadful painting, the novel clearly says that the female lead is blonde.

Then there are all those 70s-80s British SF paperbacks with paintings of neato spaceships (Foss and others) that have nothing to do with the books they are on.

I admit the 'S' word drew my attention to "Singularity Sky". Bought it, loved it, went straight into MacLeod's "Engines of Light" trio, followed soon after by 'Iron Sunrise" and "Accelerando" when the US mmpb came out. I was a little late getting into Stross & MacLeod.


I admit that I waited for an ebook edition of Saturn's Children. It wasn't anything like "fear of sex" or the like, but rather, if I had bought that, my non-SF reading wife would have mocked me for months. It looks like a certain sort of book that I wouldn't normally read.

Another video game example, Heavy Rain, Europe and US.


On bad reviews for blurbs, I liked Pratchett's "A complete amateur ... doesn't even write in chapters". Such a trivial complaint seems like praising with faint damnation.


Re: Models

There was a professional model on my high school cross country team. She was absent from school fairly regularly doing photo shoots in Europe so was presumably quite good at it.

One fine sunny day we were to take a group photo of all the Seniors on the team for the yearbook. We all wandered out onto a grassy hill. She picked a spot to stand, put her hands on her hips and whipped her head around to artfully arrange her mane of nearly waist length hair. We shuffled in around and tried to smile or whatever. Some months later the book came out. It turns out she was standing in the one spot of sunlight on the hill, her pose and hair flip has her occupying about twice as much space as any of the dozen boys around her. It is clearly a photograph of the model with some other people as a backdrop.


Hi Charles! I appologise now for emailing you re the blurb on the back of one of your books.

Suffice to say that I am now converted and it doesn't matter it is on the back of your books - I'll be buying it anyways. :)


On the back of my copy of The Wasp Factory, one of the reviews is simply

"Rubbish" - The Times

Covers ARE important; picked up my first Stephenson, Cryptonomicon it was, due to a combination of the title and the nice gold cover.


Recently there has also been some cover uproar in the US where books with black protagonists had white girls on the covers:


A good point from charlie on comment 12. I, being American, am well aware of our strange puritan issues with sex(ie. no topless women on television, while at the same time offering young teens up as sexual objects- Brittney Spears) while at the same time having no qualms about extreme violence. I think the top 2 shows in America involve gruesome homicide and graphic autopsies. A question posed to those across the pond. Having been to France and seen nakedness even on commercials, but never being to the UK, I was wondering if this phenomenon is only as blatant in America or is common there as well? Oh, and on a side note my girlfriend gave me a hard time about SC until she saw it was by Mr. Stross, whom she had already read


I am so happy that my only published articles were under a pseudonym. The editor never told me how long he wanted them. So, I sent him roughs and asked for the final length and comments on alterations. He just hacked them up and published them. Then he complained about the content in one being offensive to one of their advertisers. Anyone who knows I wrote them has had to suffer rants on this subject - I can do polish and jokes. Contracts, what an interesting idea.

I kept finding a romance novel called "Moonlight" in the Science Fiction section of a library.


I buy almost everything online.


SFBC used a different cover for Saturn's Children.


I liked the US SC cover, and was disappointed in the UK version that I bought. Admittedly, it's a little lurid and perhaps embarrassing, but it's much more relevant than a boring spaceship and pic of Saturn (which is also lurid and embarrassing anyway).


Hehe, about a third of the way into this I thought "I wonder if he's just writing this to get a chance to distance himself from the Saturn's Children cover?" and sure enough! Haven't felt that silly about the cover on a book I was reading since Heinlein's Friday. Thanks again for showing us the sausage works -- I await more!


The more garish the cover, the better the book :D


I loved Saturn's Children, the story; the cover, not so much. It's a good day when a NEW Charles Stross novel arrives in the mail. As an elementary school teacher in South Korea, as well as a tutor who works out of his office-tel, my desks and shelves, and windowsills and such are always covered in paperbacks and the odd hardcover. The more loose books lying around, the more comfortable I feel. I like being surrounded by good reads. I rarely give the covers a second thought. It's a sf novel, right!? It's supposed to look ess-effy. However, on several occasions, I found myself hiding Saturn's Children, the paperback, from my co-teachers, students, and, more importantly, the parents of my students. The book simply comes across as sf porn. That said, it was good to know that the author disapproves of the cover. PS I got loads of porn on my Mac, thank you very much.


According to Wikipedia, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was originally titled "Catch-18", but Leon Uris's Mila 18 had just been published.

They considered "Catch-11", but then Ocean's Eleven came out in the theaters. "Catch-17" was too similar to Stalag 17, and the publisher rejected "Catch-14" as not funny enough.


"The job of the cover is to make a shopper pick the product up."

I think I read in a Scalzi post where he quoted that the role of cover art was to get the book distributor to buy large amounts of the book.

One reason that an author's covers have the same look for as long as they sell consistently.

I always pick up a book with a Darrell Sweet cover.


"An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton..."

Wait, that's not...oh my God it totally is, isn't it.

Is there a term for laughing uncontrollably while one's head is buried in his hands from despair?


@ 25 Foss? Chris Foss? Random, irrelevant, impossible space structures that NEVER have any connection with whatever story is inside?



Foss? Perhaps not so much now, but when I was a kid in the 1970s, his covers drew me in completely. I suspect that they might be an unacknowledged influence on a number of the current crop of hi-tech architects as well.


I've been fiddling around with CGI for a few years now.

The US cover of Saturn's Children looks cheap. It puts me in mind of the dirt-cheap CGI porn which uses free CGI models, though it's not quite so clumsy.

And it's not one of the standard out-of-the-box faces, which you're stuck with if you don't spend money.

Also, it's hard to tell the difference between that sort of CGI and an expensive attempt to picture a human-seeming female who is a sex-bot. If you're not on the inside, so to speak, you're not going to recognise a standard face.

Now, one reason why CGI models for programs such as Poser are cheap is that the market is larger. Charlie's publisher wants something unique (though back in the 70s and 80s covers did sometimes get used more widely). This doesn't stop photographers from selling images of Tower Bridge, or red London buses. I tend to see CGI as being more like photography, finding a pleasing arrangement of something real, rather than painting.

Incidentally, skin-tight clothes are pretty easy in CGI. You can just paint them on (there is, incidentally, porn that centres on movies of models getting a body-paint job that looks like clothing). It helps that the cheap models default to Barbie-style genitals.

(I say "just paint them on": it isn't quite that simple, and there's a cost-time tradeoff for special software to do the job. At heart, it's the same problem as a flat map of a spherical world.)

My own view is that the US cover of SC fails to communicate the basic idea--a human-looking protagonist alone in a world of machines. There's no sense of time or place, not even the cheap trick of a robot detaching a hand, revealing her mechanical insides.

Reading the book, Freya becomes rather frightening. There's the fantasy of the totally loyal woman, as a sex-machine, but she is a real person.

You can't really put that in the picture. It comes across to me as a cheap CGI image of a woman as a temptress sex-machine.

I can be tempted (though I know there's not much chance of a queue forming), but it's not something to build a life on.


I've been crazily lucky to have been allowed input on every single one of my covers (five over three different books), working closely with the designers - Joey Hifi on four, John Picacio on one - talking ideas and sending them references for elements I wanted included or ideas for what the characters looked like down to what kind of boots they'd be wearing.

And they were both very tolerant of my suggestions and both were gracious enough to tweak very minor details I couldn't live with, but no-one else would have even noticed.

But here's the interesting thing. Every single time, I went into the process with a very specific idea of what I wanted, and every single time the illustrator came up with something completely different and way cooler than I could have imagined.

I know that's luck, in having a publisher open to letting me have a say, and in choosing fantastically brilliant people for the job.


Generally I find I prefer UK covers to US. Cory Doctorow's Makers cover for eg. Although the US cover for Kraken with its hint of typographic menace over the UK's actual tentacles, is brilliant.


Funnily enough I was reading these comments trying to think of a recent book for which the cover was ideal and your Moxyland sprang to mind. Clearly, it had been designed by someone already familiar with the manuscript. Interesting to hear that it had lots of author input. Do you give your artists copies to read / relevant exerpts or just give general ideas?


When I see or read about the US cover for Saturn's Children, I can't help thinking that any little bit of controversy can't be a horrible thing for a book's marketing. It would seem that even people predetermined to be uninterested in the novel have been curious enough to at least have a look.

Personally, I don't mind the cover, but I do think that it performs a disservice to the writing, which I believe handles the character and story with deft creativity and intelligence. I would have loved a cover that shows Freya in the museum, contemplating the bones of her lost love.

It would seem that of the covers for the book that I have seen, they all missed opportunity.


My experience with SC probably doesn't count, because I was already well familiar with Our Gracious Host's work when it came out, but I also ordered the US version, just for the so-bad-it's-funny value. And I read it in public. As a female, I must say it made for some pretty weird looks. Yes, sometimes I'm childish.


Thanks Laurence, if you're interested, you can read more about how the Angry Robot covers came about here (Moxyland) and here (Zoo City, but also part of an interesting article covering covers in general and recent race fails).


Coincindentally, two cartoons have appeared this week that illustrate book choice by librarians:


It's funny but I twittered about this a few days ago - talk about synchronicity. The cover in question was for The Mercahnt's War, Books 1, 2 and 3 were lovely. Book 4 looks like a cheap gameboy cover. "Oh dear. This is a brilliant book but you'd never know by the cover. I really don't like American book covers."

Just as well we don't judge a book by its cover, oh no wait a minute..


FAO Roy (assuming this is still of interest to him): Literary censorship in Ireland was pretty much dismantled after a change in the law in 1967 (well before joining the EEC) that meant that banning orders would lapse after a decade - immediately taking hundreds of titles (by the likes of Salinger, Orwell, Sartre, etc.) off the banned list.

I wouldn't exaggerate the extent to which banned books were interdicted by the authorities. Edna O'Brien's 'The Country Girls' was banned after its publication; at a public debate on the banning, those who had actually read O'Brien's novel were asked to raise their hands. Over two-thirds of the (largish, I think) audience did so.

OTOH, my father once tried to buy a copy of Catch-22 in a bookshop in 1960s Cork; the lad behind the counter refused to sell it to him.

These days, it would only be violent pornography of an extreme sort that would get banned. As for the Irish Times review quoted above, that's a relic of the days in the dim and distant past when the Irish Times literary columns were interesting to read. . .


@RAB "An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton..."

Wait, that's not...oh my God it totally is, isn't it.


Yes that's it. Poor Poddy is being described as Mata Hari...


@40 Narain As a book cover designer, I thought I'd chime in. Actually I'm the guy who did the German cover for Halting State.

First, on our modus operandi: we are not in-house but an external design agency. Normally the editors approach us with their ideas, we design the covers according to those specifications. If we have an idea of our own that we really like, we pitch it, too, of course. Then a few get chosen as potential final candidates and then the marketing people have their shot at it, so the designers often have much, much less influence on what a cover looks like than you might think... the Halting State cover was actually one of the super rare occasions were a designer's idea went through rather unchanged.

The reactions to the cover (the book is not even out yet) are quite interesting. Either people love it, thinking it's hilarious while others think it's a cheap marketing ploy. I actually intended it to be quite tongue-in-cheek. The star, btw, is not a homage to Rockstar but rather a Chinese flag, rotated so it looks kind of like a one-eyed smiley face (a super subtle nod to the smiling "all-seeing-eye" icon in ILLUMINATUS!, a book which had quite the impact on the early german hacker-scene.) Oh and btw Charlie's on this cover, too (I just recently tweaked the portrait so it looks more like him than the thumbnail image).

Among the other candidates was a super simple cover, with an actual excerpt from the book, all styled like an old INFOCOM adventure, followed by the line "you are dead Would you like to restart, restore or quit", creating a fake-spoiler... I would have loved to use that one, being a gamer for over 23 years and being immediately reminded of text adventures by Halting State's writing style, but it was deemed "too witty".

Personally I would have also liked to adapt the pixelart UK Cover, but that option was discarded before we even got briefed on the job.

Anyway, as has been said: it's supposed to get people to pick up the book, if they read the back copy, they should get a fair idea of what it is about, so I doubt it will be bought by people who think it's a GTA Novelisation... ;-)


Interesting links, thanks. Sounds like you have a good understanding with the other people involved and a process that produces results! All the stranger then, given the demonstrable success of such an approach that the situation Charlie describes is and will continue to be prevalent.

@79: I noticed Charlie on the cover - I say more authors should try and sneak into their covers! Lets hope he makes a pixelated return for rule 34.


As Charlie mentioned earlier, I think the cover retains a certain appeal for a certain audience. The question becomes are you going to lose so many people looking for "serious" SF (who probably are already have at least heard about Charlie Stross, and made up their mind in advance) that it outweighs the people you'll get who were perusing the SF/FA aisle admiring all the covers with goth chicks in tight leather pants and corsets, brandishing guns/knives?


I do have to say that Moxyland was the first book ever I bought because of an authors-quote on the cover (the one by our gracious host, of course).

Also, I probably would have bought Halting State due to the quotes had I not read anything by Stross before. The way it turned out, I just went "hehe cool, John Carmack!"


What I find particularly comic about the title changes is that there already were books called "Ship of Fools" and "Palimpsest". That, of course, wouldn't cause any confusion at all!

Mmmm "Space/cruise ship of fools" coming soon to a list near you?


No, you're first instinct was right. The cover of SATURN'S CHILDREN is outright horrible. Was a Christmas gift. The entire room sat in stunned silence. Recipient was wildly embarrassed.


Put me in the camp of those who think your cover is hilarious, and I would have loved the INFOCOM-style cover too.

My problem with the US cover of Saturn's Children is that it's not funny enough. As was pointed out upthread, as a joke it's too subtle for marketing purposes. If the US publishers wanted to go funny, they needed to go for a visual joke that can be picked up in only a second or two, and even from a dozen feet away. Drawing Freya in a blatant manga style in a pose or situation that suggested that she was being made love to by a spaceship � with the implication that it was only symbolic � would have done the job nicely, I think.


Ew, those � should have been em-dashes. Don't know what happened there.


Don't get fancy and use smart quotes or typographical characters here; it confuses the hell out of Movable Type.

(Also note that there are probably character set translations going on. The web runs on HTML entities, the server is running Debian (which may be trad ASCII for all I know), my web browser runs OS/X (UTF-8), and Cthulhu only knows what character set various versions of Windows are using. If you type something that looks like an em-dash on your PC it may get translated a couple of times before it gets stashed in the MySQL database ... or not.)


I think that the U.S. cover for Saturn's Children was part of a clever marketing ploy by the publisher to get people buy it in hardcover rather than paperback. Those who read it in public but are embarrassed by the cover buy the hardcover so they can remove the dust jacket. I know that's what I did.


Our Gracious Host said:

... Cthulhu only knows what character set various versions of Windows are using.
No. I'm afraid that differing character sets is something that frightens even the old ones. My first thesis was required to be done on the university IBM timeshare system — and thus, it was coded in EBCDIC. And it could be WordPerfect 4.2's alternate-character support system, which (despite its comprehensiveness in those pre-ISO-character-set days) was not supported by anything else (that's what my second thesis was required to be in).

At least it wasn't WordStar!


That's interesting that "Singularity Sky" was renamed because of "Ship of Fools", which itself ended up as "Unto Leviathan" in the UK.


Oddly, the marketing depts don't seem to do any actual market research on covers, depending instead on raw sales and making a guess how much of the sales response is cover and how much is something else. Even now, with publishers all having websites and various activities there for readers to take part in, I haven't seen (could've missed it) an intelligently designed questionnaire about what readers want in terms of cover designs.

About a year ago, I ran a poll in one of my blogs ( if) to see what that group thought about cover art. It was short--nothing like as complete as I'd do if I were in marketing. I included most wanted and least wanted type of image (one character, action scene, setting scene, symbolic image such as a sword), dominant and secondary color (asked for both most liked and most hated colors), and one or two other things I've forgotten. Then shipped the results off to my editor with a "This is kind of interesting--how does it compare to your data?" note.

The proposed color of my cover changed, and I suspect the poll results had something to do with it.

Even uninspired covers can sell books if they attract the right audience for that book--but the wrong covers can definitely hurt sales. I've had two that created sudden sales dips, though the books later (too much later for my balance sheet!) went on to have good long-term sales.

And yes, the difference between my recent UK covers and the US covers (and even between the recent and earlier UK covers, which I thought beautiful) is really, really striking. I'm not a fan of monochrome, but it sure seems to work there.


You're absolutely right, except for one point -- covers at Ace (for one, and possibly other imprints) get tested against the highly subjective eyeballs of the buyers at B&N and Borders.

I've had a book cover changed after feedback on the ARC from the big chain buyers.

Given the way modern short-run printing costs break down, it ought to be possible for a publisher to do A/B testing on cover designs -- take a hardcover with a projected 6000 copy run and do two dust jackets at 3000 each, see which comes back more frequently in the returns, and pick the other design for the paperback. (The only downside I can see might be confusion and pushback from the stores, but it ought to be possible to negotiate with them -- the goal would be to increase overall sales, after all.)


My first reaction to this was: I already knew most of it. Go me. :D

My second reaction was: BUT THAT'S SO STUPID!

I'd already played my "author objects to cover" card the previous year, and was overruled.

See, this kind of factoid confirmed by a published author gives me hives.

I can live with other people doing the design, but for crying out loud, why is it so difficult to read a plot synopsis before designing a cover, or better yet, emailing an author for suggestions?

Furthermore, why should anyone care whether one buyer for Barnes & Noble likes a title or not? That tells me publishers are far too dependent on the whims of physical retailers.


Furthermore, why should anyone care whether one buyer for Barnes & Noble likes a title or not?

Because it's not just any buyer for B&N -- it's the manager in charge of acquiring SF for the entire chain. If they take against a book on the basis of the cover, the book's sales will slump 30%. And the sales of the subsequent book will be lower, too, because the author's sales track record is showing a downward curve.


If the confusion of duplicate titles is to be avoided, why then is one of your books titled "The Merchants' War", while there is already a book with that exact title by Frederik Pohl? (ISBN 0-312-90240-9 for the copy I have in hand; I note that Amazon places the apostrophe in the wrong place but the cover shows it as I have it)


Probably because Pohl's book is twenty years out of print. You'll note that in both cases Charlie cited the conflicting books were published within months of each other.



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