Cover Design and Authorial Control

This post is part of Cover Design Week. To see the other posts click the CDW tag below.

As mentioned in several previous posts, I took a hard, considered look at the publishing industry several times over the past two decades. I considered and tested both the intake process and the opportunities open to me, but found the gatekeeping pervasive and the timelines absurd. The idea of sending a manuscript to an agent or publisher who demanded an exclusive look, yet promised a vague response time measured in months, was untenable to me. In each case, after earning a few rejections and calculating the mathematical odds of success, I moved on to mediums that offered me more access, if not also more money for my storytelling efforts.

I want to stress that I have nothing but respect for writers who have endured and persevered against years of rejection, whether or not they achieved the level of success they desired. I don’t consider that a mistake. I consider it something I couldn’t do, in part because I’ve always been as interested in the process of storytelling as I have been in producing works authored solely by me. It hasn’t mattered whether I was writing screenplays, interactive scripts or novels, but I understand that many writers feel differently. What mattered to me was doing it and getting paid to do it so I could do it again. If what had mattered most was producing a book with my name on it, I readily concede that until recently I would have had no recourse but to appease the denizens of traditional publishing.

As also noted in previous posts, there is a direct correlation between my renewed interest in writing fiction and the fact that I no longer have to jump through publishing hoops in order to reach readers. Whether I can make any money writing fiction is the obvious question, but for now that concern stands apart from the authorial reality and opportunity defined by the internet as a distribution pipeline. Whatever new risks the internet presents (piracy, obscurity), the ability to reach readers without first appeasing intermediaries and gatekeepers feels like freedom.  

Cover Design as Symptom
I understand that everybody in the publishing industry is trying to make money. I don’t for a minute believe the hype that the publishing industry is committed to making good books or culturally important books, but I’d bet a pile of cash that nobody ever went into publishing determined to lose their shirt.

My reluctance to engage the publishing world on its own terms was not driven by a belief that publishing didn’t know it’s own business, it was driven by a conviction that publishing didn’t care about me, and wouldn’t care about me no matter how many hoops I jumped through. I didn’t even have the luxury of a conviction that my writing was undiscovered genius, or that the industry was biased against my authorial vision. Rather, I felt like that publishing was predominantly interested in filling holes in production slates, and I wasn’t interested in being hammered (or hammering myself) into a given slot. Particularly when the description of a slot, and the advice being offered from any quarter, seemed to vary wildly with each respondent.

Still, like most storytellers I had my publishing fantasies, and those fantasies often involved holding in my own hands a book that I’d written. I don’t know that I ever had a concrete vision of what my book would look like, but I did know that I wanted it to look cool. In fact, I can go so far as to say that the idea of my book having an ugly cover was a horrifying prospect to me.

The more I learned about publishing, however, the more I learned that most publishers tended to make many cover-design decisions themselves. And again, I understood why: if you’re putting up the money to manufacture a book, and the cover of the book is critical to that book’s reception, you’re going to want to control the design process.

Yet as an author — by which I mean a mother giving birth to a child — I could never get over the idea that I might be forced to accept what I thought of as a bad cover design. Even as I understood that the cover meant nothing compared to my words, somehow the cover was important, and tying myself to a process in which a cover I disliked could be nailed to my story without my approval made me extremely uncomfortable. Again, that’s not necessarily a smart or rational response in the face of the business realities underpinning the publishing industry (particularly in the past), but it is how I felt.

Cover Design as Science
In order to bolster the arguments in this post, I conducted searches for information on standard cover-design practices in the publishing industry. My memory was that only A-list writers had cover approval, and that in most other cases the publisher called the shots. It’s a measure of the explosion of the self-publishing movement that I couldn’t find a definitive link on the subject for all the self-publishing hits, but I did find a number of supporting articles and quotes. For example, there’s this, from a [now dead] post by Laura Resnick:

Cover consultation, a more nebulous concept than cover approval, isn’t easy to get written into a contract, but a writer who is important to the publisher can often get it. George Cornell, NAL’s Mass Market Art Director, considers author consultation “problematic” and likens it to “choosing a wife for your son.” However, contractual cover consultation doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Irene Gallo, Art Director at Tor Books, points out that cover “consultation” merely guarantees that the publisher must show the author the cover somewhere along the way; the art department is not obliged to pay any attention to the writer’s opinions. So your entire “consultation” may actually consist of looking at a reproduction of the completed artwork and saying, “What is this washed-out, tasteless, semi-pornographic monstrosity you intend to put on my book?”

(That quote is from an excellent series on cover design by Laura Resnick, which I wholeheartedly recommend.)

To be fair, I’m not making the argument that there is industry-wide abuse. I’m not saying that most authors are not consulted on the cover art for their books, or even that most authors care about their cover art. All I’m saying is that in general the industry tends to want to control the cover-design process, for understandable reasons related to the marketing of book as a product.

Still, the idea that something like this could happen to me is pretty revolting:

Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.

Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

The obvious problem with validating a process by appealing to marketing rationales is that the marketing department you end up dealing with may be populated by weasels. Again, these weasels may be focused solely on profits, but such a focus can then be used as justification for putting a naked woman on the cover of your book of Amish recipes. Point being: if marketing is the main goal of a book cover, then connecting the book cover to the content may be less important than connecting the book cover with the average consumer’s eyeball by any means necessary. If you’re willing to put a picture of a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl, you’re willing to do just about anything.

The premise of course is that while the author and each person in the marketing department may have their own personal tastes, it’s the marketing department as a professional body that knows what sells. The very fact that a marketing department exists would tend to support this idea, yet for any example of a marketing department knocking a product out of the park there seem to be examples of marketing departments predicting doom for products that go on to wildly succeed. (Will Wright’s The Sims, one of EA’s most successful products, was actively fought by the marketing department.)

The truth about why publishers limit authorial input on cover designs is probably a bit more mundane. While everyone has an opinion, I think marketing departments try to limit authorial input primarily as a means of making sure that their opinions win out, even as (or precisely because) there exists no science or data supporting marketing’s cover-design convictions:

The question is, who knows best?

The test case was the paperback of Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass. The initial design, with which editorial was happy, depicted a man’s checked shirt hanging next to a boy’s top on a washing line. It was a visual image that chimed perfectly with the book. But Vintage publisher Rachel Cugnoni flashed up a series of redesigns based on sales and marketing reaction, ultimately resulting in a jacket that, with an unmemorable, slightly twee image, made it look like any one of a thousand other books.

There’s no easy answer here. If looking like everybody else is bad, then standing out is good, right? Well, not if your book cover is hideous. But who decides which norm-busting cover is amazing and which one is awful? (Other than not the author.)

The Subjectivity of Cover Design
No matter how many people are involved or not involved, the truth is that designing the cover of a book is a subjective process. Everyone reading this post knows this to be true simply because they’ve been in a bookstore looking at racks of professionally-design, marketing-department-driven book covers, some of which were wonderful, some of which seemed truly bad, some of which were so blase as to not even catch the eye, and some of which were never seen because the books were shelved spine-out. Even allowing for the possibility that a given customer might not be part of the target demographic for a particular title, if so many covers routinely fail to do what they are professionally designed to do — meaning attract our attention and motivate us to pick up the book and look at the professionally-edited blurbs on the back — how legitimate can the claim to cover-design professionalism really be? More importantly, how can anyone claim that professionally-designed covers which shun authorial input are more successful than covers that admit authorial input?

I don’t have any problem admitting a lack of experience with a particular subject. If you come to me and say you want me to design a suspension bridge, I might be able to mock up something with Popsicle sticks, but that’s about it. I would also make it clear that you shouldn’t trust me with any of the math, load stresses or material requirements related to my design.

My admission of incapacity, however, is based at least in part on my belief that people who hold degrees in engineering and architecture really do have knowledge that allows them to build a bridge that will not fall down. They’re not just guessing the same way I would be guessing: they can build bridge after bridge and those bridges will reliably function.

If a publisher’s marketing department could show me the same kind of credible data regarding cover design I’d certainly be willing to put my own opinions aside. But if your average publisher was pressed to show a relationship between cover designs and sales, I don’t think they could do it. In fact, I don’t even know how you would isolate the cover design as a variable in order to gather such real-world sales data, meaning it’s highly likely such data doesn’t exist.

(I’m not talking about focus-group testing. I’m talking about real-world, long-term sales, and data which takes into account other factors such as the amount of money spent marketing each cover and where the covers were marketed, normalized against any changes in the economy or culture that might also have affected sales.)

Now, all organizations are at least partly political, and for marketing the ability to influence a product’s design or look-and-feel is considered important if only for buy-in — meaning positively motivating the people in the department to work for a product’s success, over and above the fact that they should already be motivated by their paychecks. If a marketing department ever said, “We don’t know anything more about how covers drive books sales than authors do,” well, you can imagine that marketing departments might suddenly become scarce. So marketing insists that it has secret knowledge which can’t be demonstrated or proven, and protects that claim by keeping authors at arms lengths during the cover-design process, and everybody keeps their jobs.

Cover Design as Opportunity
Self-publishing isn’t just making web searches more difficult, it’s changing basic assumptions in publishing. What’s interesting to me is that while this change is being embraced by authors, it’s being resisted by publishers even when that resistance makes no sense.

Today any author can completely control their cover design process from start to finish by publishing a title themselves. But if I had to wager I’d bet most authors aren’t going to want that responsibility. In fact, I don’t think most authors have the tools or time or inclination to puzzle out, let alone produce production-ready image files for, a book cover that is appealing, attractive and reflective of their book’s content.

As noted in the previous post, it’s now absurdly easy for an author to find cover-design support at almost any price point. Apart from concerns about quality, the marketplace has stepped in to provide self-publishing authors with a service that many authors may not only need, but actively want to embrace. (I put myself in that latter category.)

In the indy-author world, cover-design is the author’s responsibility, but authors can choose to offload any or all of the decision making. Now contrast this with the traditional publishing world, which actively seems to reject authorial input. What’s remarkable about this antagonism is that the number of published or to-be-published authors who want to have anything to do with their cover design (let alone anything substantial) is probably about the same as the indy-author crowd. Meaning most published authors would probably be quite happy to either be left out of the process entirely, or to be shown a courtesy comp or two during the production phase.

Which raises an interesting question. Just how much extra work would a publisher be making for itself if it proactively sought — or at least offered to listen to — an author’s input on cover design? In the industry’s condescending parlance, just how many difficult authors are there who would insist on having input, let along final approval, of their book’s cover art? Twenty percent? Ten percent? Five?

Why publishers aren’t actively bringing authors into the cover-design process more is beyond me. If buy-in is important for the marketing department, why isn’t it equally important for authors — particularly in a business climate in which books sales are hinging more and more on the efforts of authors themselves? If the argument ever made sense that marketing deserves to control book covers because they’re the ones selling the books, then doesn’t it now make sense to give at least some of that control to authors, who are, more and more, being asked to lead the sales fight?

Publishers should have a cover-design conversation with each author, respect the author’s input, find something that works for everyone, and use that team-building to motivate the entire sales process. And not just because it’s the right thing to do. If publishers don’t listen, more and more authors who care about this issue — including successful authors — are going to hire people who will.

— Mark Barrett


  1. says

    Just a word of warning: when you say that authors get no say over their covers, you will be told you don’t know what you’re talking about. When you point out examples, you will be told that you are taking things out of context. When you ask what in the world that means, you will be told that you are so misinformed that you have no concept of the actual world.

    Ignore all that, though, because that’s just their fear talking.

    • says

      The good news, if I can call it that, is that I’ve had plenty of people try the same arguments on me.

      Leaving aside the very remote possibility that I am simply wrong all the time about everything, I think in this instance I would simply ask for the data referenced in the post. If someone can show me that covers designed with authorial input sold worse than covers without that input, I’d have to reconsider my position. (I wouldn’t change it, but I would definitely give it another look.)

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