Probably the biggest surprise you will learn today is that a book cover is not designed for the book’s fans. It’s not even meant to please them. A book cover has one and only one purpose: to get a potential reader to stop and look at the book---and, hopefully, pick it up and buy it. It has to attract attention from among hundreds of other books---in much the same way someone might try to draw attention to themselves in a crowd. The cover is shouting, "Hey! Look at me!" And if it fails to get you to look, it's failed as a cover.
To this end, a book cover is really a kind of miniature poster. It has to not only attract attention, it has to get across in the briefest glance something about the book: what kind of book it is, what it might be about, what a central theme might be---whatever seems most likely to inform and intrigue a potential reader.
In fact, it might be best to think of a book cover as packaging, exactly in the same way as the design of a box of cereal, a frozen pizza or a can of peas. The first thing it needs to do is attract attention amid a host of competing products. The next thing it needs to do is tell something about the product itself: is it a can of peas or a can of sauerkraut?
Those are the two things a book cover needs to do: attract the attention of a potential reader then, in a glance, convey some sense of the book's theme, subject or genre.
One way to do this is to try to ferret out one key element from the book, some action or scene that is a set piece, some visual element, symbol or icon that represents the book's theme, idea, premise or character. I think it's important to focus on a single idea. This not only gets the message across instantaneously, it avoids what I call the "kitchen sink school" of book cover design, in which everything important has to be on the cover.
While it is always nice to try to get all the details right, in the end it really doesn’t matter in the slightest whether a heroine’s hair is the right color or the hero has the right number of buttons on his uniform. You will have to have already read the book in order for these things to matter---and if you have done that, then the cover has already served its purpose and any mistakes it may contain are moot.
A fundamental truth is that all the exactingly precise details in the world will go for naught if no one ever picks up the book and reads it.
As I said, it’s nice to try to get the details right. It’s also a lot of fun to do. But in the final analysis, making the cover do its proper job overrides everything else. A cover that requires a reading of the book in order for it to work is a poor one. It puts the cart before the horse. A cover should intrigue a potential reader, it should not confuse or mystify them. Or worse, completely mislead them. A reader can ask, "I wonder what this is about?" but they shouldn’t be asking, "What the hell?!?"
In short, a cover needs to attract a potential reader, it needs to convey something about the nature of the book and it should make the book seem unique rather than generic.
All that being said, any good book cover illustrator will try to get as many details as accurate as possible. I know I enjoy doing that and most of my illustrator friends do as well. But accuracy must always take second place to effectiveness. If a cover conveys the sense of a book better by depicting two characters together who never actually meet face to face in the story, well, then they will meet on the cover if nowhere else.
But a good cover artist won't play with details just for the sake of doing it, or flatly ignore accuracy when there's no reason to. There will almost always be a purpose. And that purpose, of course, is to create an effective cover. That absolutely always must take precedence.
Every detail of a book cover needs to contribute something to conveying the nature, theme or idea of the book as immediately and clearly as possible. Sometimes, paying attention to descriptions in the book can help this---but sometimes you may have to ignore what the author wrote. For instance, if the book's heroine is described as a tough cookie who wipes up armies of Alpha Centaurian Squidoids single-handedly...it would be a nice touch to depict her as appearing physically capable since it would help get across the idea that the book features a strong, practical, female protagonist. But if the author describes his character as looking like a Barbie doll, the artist might be justified in adjusting her look for the cover. Conveying the correct impression of the character's nature is more important than getting specific details right.
A book cover also cannot be designed for the initiated, for those who have already read the book and are familiar with contents. That’s putting the cart before the horse. All too often all you succeed in doing is mystifying---and potentially alienating---new readers. This is why a book cover is not---and should not be---designed for fans. They do not need to be sold on a book they have already purchased and read.
(As an aside, one of the most teeth-gritting critiques an artist can get is "That's not how I imagined my favorite character." We are not mind-readers!)
Authors are generally the worst at this (Lois excepted, I hasten to add!), since it is almost impossible to be wholly objective about one's own work. I remember one author who drove me nuts, fiddling with every minute detail of the appearance of one of his main characters...even though he never actually explicitly described her in the book! It's also hard for both authors and readers to understand that what seems to be the most vitally important scene or image in a book might not be anything like the best choice for cover. For instance, one of Lois' fans thought that depicting "the knife Bothari wielded" would make a good cover for Shards of Honor. The problem, of course, is that all the significance of the knife would come from having already read the book...but to anyone who has not read the book, it would be just a knife, ho hum.
Here is perfect example of the kind of backwards thinking that comes from being too intimately involved with a book. The cover of the book was a beautiful image of a rustic stone bridge over a pellucid country stream in a lovely wooded setting. It was the most pastoral thing you could possibly imagine---perfect for, say, a travelogue of rural England. But I knew the book was supposed to be a rousing fantasy adventure, so I asked the author what in the world he was thinking when he designed his cover. "Well," he replied, "you know that one of the main characters is a troll, right? That’s the bridge he lives under."
Lois has gotten some excellent covers from publishers both here and abroad (I think the Baen Barrayar is one of the best of them all). But, as well all know, she has disproportionally inflicted with some of the worst covers any author has ever gotten.
Let me use the original Baen cover for Shards of Honor as an example of some of the things I’ve been talking about since it’s been recently discussed on both Facebook and Goodreads because of its reissue. A number of people have mentioned their displeasure with Ari’s sleeveless outfit, the size of his weapon and Cordelia’s hair color. Although I hate to defend a cover that I don’t think is very good (and I’ll explain why in a moment---and I should add that I am a little hesitant to do this, since criticizing someone else's cover artwork implies that I set my own work on a higher plane---and I assure you I do not), these things absolutely don’t matter in the least. It would be hard for me to overemphasize how unimportant these are.
They certainly have nothing at all to do with whether this cover works or not. The question to be asked is not "are the details of the characters’ appearances and costumes accurate?" but rather, "does this cover describe the book accurately?" Because if it has failed to do that, then it has failed to do its job.
A book cover is not meant to be an illustration of the story in the same way that an interior illustration might be. As I pointed out above, the purpose of a cover is to sell the book. It is part of the book’s packaging. By the same token, a book cover should not knowingly misrepresent a book. You don’t want to put a space battle---with ray gun-wielding women in brass bikinis fighting off hordes of Neptunian slime people---on a book that is in fact an introspective, psychological character study with the only action taking place in the characters’ angst. That would be the equivalent of selling someone a gold watch that is really nothing but brass-plated tin.
There are many problems with this cover, but I think it is a poor one not because Cordelia’s hair isn’t red enough but because the cover is bland, generic and uniformative.
The male figue is in some sort of defensive pose. This would be all well and good if he were facing some sort of threat…but there is nothing there (unless that harmless-looking little spacecraft is it). Whatever he is doing, the woman could evidently not care less: she is staring off blankly into space. Worse yet, she is sitting calmly (if awkwardly), apparently unaware of or completely disinterested in whatever it is that’s getting her companion so worked up. There is absolutely no connection between the two characters at all, nothing to suggest a relationship, not a hint of who or what they may be to one another. (And one of the worst things about the cover is really the art director's fault: The title is totally unreadable.)
And perhaps the worst thing of all is that there is nothing to set this book apart from any one of a hundred others. In fact, the only really distinguishing element, the only thing that might make a potential reader stop and look at the book, is the tag declaring the author’s awards. Take that away and to someone who is unfamiliar with Lois’ name the only thing they may be able to say about the book is that it appears to be generically science fiction with not much suggesting that it might be anything above average. But what it might be about or what it’s central themes might be would be anyone’s guess.
Would putting long sleeves on Ari and making Cordelia’s hair redder have solved any of these problems? Absolutely not.
Just to show that I do like to get details as right as I can. Here is my take on Cordelia and Miles for whatever it is worth.
A few covers I've done that illustrate different ways of focusing on a single theme or key element that represents the idea or nature of a book quickly and simply. In some cases, such as River Horses and Dragon Lensman, this was done by picking a key scene or set piece. In others, such as Fahrenheit 451 or Dracula, an image was chosen that symbolizes the book's theme. Likewise Rage, which was about a town torn apart by a senseless murder. For Clones, I tried to do this entirely through typography.
In spite of my criticism of the artist's choices, the painting itself is very nicely done and I'd hesitate to think I could have rendered it better.
I think this is one of the best covers Lois has ever gotten. It says something to those who have already read the book while at the same time being both intriguing and informative to new readers. And it does this in a simple, compelling image that gets all of this across in a glance.