From Nathan Bransford:
It often comes as a surprise to people that authors in the traditional book world don’t have that much control over their book cover.
Approval is rare. Consultation is more common, but how meaningful and sincere that consultation is vary greatly. (I liked to joke when I was an agent that authors are often consulted on a scale of love to simply adore).
So bestselling author Daniel José Older caused a stir when, in a thread urging authors to not take what they’re offered at face value, he urged authors to fight for approval over their cover:
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Should authors have control over their covers?
I’m somewhat split on this one.
On the one hand, publishers really do have a great deal of expertise on covers. They have a sense of what’s worked in the past, they know the tastes of key accounts (for instance, if Target or Barnes & Noble doesn’t like your cover, guess what, your cover is getting changed), and the people who source and design the covers are enormously talented.
On the other hand… in my opinion it’s still more art than science, and I don’t know that publishers are quite rigorous enough in the way they bring data and A/B testing to bear with covers (I’d love to be corrected on this if I’m wrong). I’ve also seen authors get pigeonholed with their covers in seriously unfortunate ways.
And fundamentally, even if publishers did bring more data and objectivity to bear, that expertise still skews toward looking backward rather than forward. What’s worked in the past isn’t necessarily an indicator of what will work in the future. Some of the most iconic cover designs in history were marked departures from what came before and were simply great design and true to the book.
To me, it’s authors who are most in tune with what note their book is trying to strike. Authors may not be graphic design or product marketing experts and they should be humble about that, but they are in tune with some ineffable cultural chords.
Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford
PG says those who fall into the “let the publisher decide on the cover” side of this argument are operating from an unstated assumption that publishers are good at what they do. They know their business.
PG can respond with confidence, “This is not always the case.”
Sometimes, publishers do a terrible job with a book. From editing to proofing to marketing to accounting, sometimes publishers perform in a horribly inept manner.
Large publishers, small publishers, established publishers, new publishers can and do make idiotic decisions and stupid mistakes. The more such decisions are challenged and mistakes exposed, the more vigorously the idiots defend them.
PG found a nice comparison of Malpractice vs. Negligence in lay terms at a site called Diffen:
Negligence is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances. In tort law, negligence applies to harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm.
Malpractice is a type of negligence; it is often called “professional negligence”. It occurs when a licensed professional (like a doctor, lawyer or accountant) fails to provide services as per the standards set by the governing body (“standard of care”), subsequently causing harm to the plaintiff.
Link to the rest at Diffen
When a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, etc., fails to act in accordance with the standards of her/his profession, they are subject to being sued for malpractice.
When anyone acts in a negligent manner and someone is harmed, generally, they may be sued to obtain compensation for the consequences of their negligence.
Publishers are not licensed to be in the publishing business by any government authority (at least in the US), so, technically, there is no such thing as publishing malpractice right now.
However, publishers hold themselves out to be knowledgeable professionals operating in the publishing business. Why else would an author ever approach a publisher with a manuscript if not to have the manuscript professionally published in a competent manner?
If we apply the Negligence definition above to someone (or a group of someones) who says, “I am a publisher,” what do we get?
PG suggests the following definition for negligence by a publisher:
Failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances when the person is representing her/him/itself to be a publisher and entering into contracts to publish manuscripts owned by others.
Given that standard of care, PG suggests that publishers large and small regularly act in a negligent manner, thereby harming authors.
Back to the OP – A book’s cover design is perhaps the single most important element in the marketing and selling of a book.
The cover design stops (or doesn’t stop) someone browsing through the world’s largest bookstore, Amazon. In an online or a physical bookstore, instead of seeing a single book, a potential purchaser is usually presented with a group of books to choose from, and, hominids being primarily visual creatures, the cover design – color, artwork, formatting of title, etc. – is the most eye-catching element of the book. If the cover is off-putting or bland, the potential purchaser is likely to move on to something that looks more interesting at first glance.
A good argument can be made that the author’s name and reputation is even more important than the cover design, but PG suggests this standard only applies to books written by authors whose names are recognized by a reasonably large number of readers, a number large enough to constitute a commercially useful target market.
A commercially useful target market must be much larger for an author who is commercially published (many mouths demanding to be fed at the publisher) than it is for an indie author.
So, generally speaking, other than for a relatively small number of authors, a book’s cover design is the single most important element in the marketing and selling of a book that is commercially published.
Perhaps an author is independently wealthy and writes as a hobby.
That person does not need to worry about covers.
Every other author has a cogent business requirement for a good cover. Just as the author should be consulted about recommended changes in the manuscript (and have ultimate veto power), the author should be consulted and have veto power about the cover.
We’re getting down to the bottom of the list of rational reasons a publisher might not want to give an author any say about the cover of the author’s book.
This last reason is:
“What if the author is a crazy person?”
PG turns to one of the fundamental business principles that govern his legal practice: