Should Authors Have More Control over Their Covers?

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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:



24 thoughts on “Should Authors Have More Control over Their Covers?”

  1. John Scalzi is on very friendly terms with everybody at his main publisher, Tor. Somehow I find it difficult to believe he lacks input on his book covers. Especially as a “name” author in SF, he’s one of the few authors people would buy in spite of his covers.

    Little surprised the OP didn’t reference Fantasy author Terry Goodkind, who acted like a complete donkey’s posterior on Facebook over one of his recent covers, publicly shaming the artist, posting polls asking his fans about how awful they thought the cover was, etc. I saw all of that, but this article claims he apologized, too:

    Fantasy Author Terry Goodkind Wants Everyone to Know How Much He Hates His New Novel’s Cover Art

    Never saw that, in all honesty. And the cover looks decent if a bit generic, in my inexpert opinion.

    • WI don’t really agree with Scalzi but Terry Goodkind proves that he is right about some authors. Goodkind seemed to be asking for a much too literal match between cover and book contents and so missing the things that really matter (like does it suggest the right genre, can the title and author’s name actually be read …)

  2. I have heard so many horror stories from big publishing, particularly romance covers–overweight heroes, a woman with three hands, and modern Jordache-branded jeans on the heroine in a historical romance to name a few.

    In my own case, working with small publishers, I’ve had to fight over covers. A romance cover on a science fiction adventure, an action/adventure cover on a romantic suspense, and a misplaced hand that made the cover hysterically funny. I even paid to have one cover done myself because the publisher was so clueless about my genre. I’d rather be considered difficult than lie to the reader about the kind of book I’m selling them.

    Sometimes, feedback is a good thing.

  3. Years ago I had a part-time job with Borders (worst paying job ever, but I loved the work). One big NYT publisher was putting a HUGE money push behind a serial killer thriller–front of store, front window, endcap, paid ads in NYT, PW, you name it, they paid for it. As a bookseller, I paid a lot of attention to new books and how they were promo’d–especially since we were required to push titles like this one–so I followed this one closely. Or tried to. I don’t remember the title or the author, but the book cover was memorable–very literary/dark artsy. Probably cost a bundle. BUT…. It didn’t say thriller at all and it was NOT the kind of cover to catch a reader who liked serial killer stories. They probably never even picked it up. I swear, every single time I shifted that book on the table or on the shelves, I had to read the cover flap to remind myself what it was about. Every. Single. Time. No matter how many times I read that blurb, I could not remember what the book was about or who its preferred reader might be. The book was a bust–my store got a gazillion copies and sold….wait for it!….Zero. Zip. Not a one. And I am convinced it was all the fault of the cover. The author never had a chance to overcome it.

  4. The OP doesn’t seem to grasp the “over the wall” methodology followed by the BPHs. Small publishers might or not consult the author but they do consult the editor more often than not.

    The BPHs? They have “specialists” running every step of the assembly line; the acquisitions “editor”‘s job is finding manuscripts, not proofing the text, formatting it, or overseeing the cover.

    And for the cover they have an arts department, whose artists might at most read a summary of the book. More commonly, they’ll express their artistic bent on a dozen covers a month, maybe more. They’ll go, maybe by sales numbers, by “color psychology”, by fads (TEXT-ONLY covers this month, abstracts next month, etc), or vague topics (it’s set in Africa? Acacia tree!)
    Their job is cranking out cover after cover, a few thousand each year, not selling books.

    • Yes, it does. Cover art is the first thing you notice in a Kindle listing or elsewhere. Most people, whatever the media, look at the cover to determine the author, title, and genre of the book. Cover art is the first indicator of genre if they are not familiar with the author’s name. A good cover can make or break an ebook.

      • Agreed, Marilynn.

        Nobody sees your book on Amazon without also seeing covers for other books at the same time.

      • Not if “you” means “me”.

        I regard cover art as something different from the information about the title & author. Genre is implicated in cover art, of course. And there are times when the cover art actually conceals the T&A info – unless it’s advertising the other kind.

        But my own experience on Amazon is that the cover art has NOTHING to do with whether I look at an ebook or not. And now that I focus on it, I realize that this is true no matter what the format is. I see a list of books, with the title & author and a little icon to the left which conveys nothing to me except “book icon” so I know I’m not looking at pen knives or printer ink. And this is true when I use the online library. It’s nice that they have different colors.

        Now, in both instances, I’m usually starting out simply looking for a specific book. But things like “other books you may like” don’t catch my eye because of the cover art, or much at all for that matter.

        This is not true, however, in the bookstore near my house (where I actually buy my new hardcover books.) There, the cover pulls me to the book. And cover art is important in advertising a book, perhaps. It can become iconic, as with Catch-22.

        For that matter, the same thing has happened to me with music. There’s an LP store down the street from me, where I occasionally browse, & the cover art there is, some of it, museum worthy. Likewise with CDs. But online, the Apple Music or Spotify equivalent are simply irrelevant to my shopping eye.

        So, universalizing my own experience in accepted social media fashion, I say ebook cover art is an empty category.

      • I’m gonna go with harmon in this instance. Cover art might be huge for some people, but not for everyone, and my observation (anecdata, but aren’t we all spouting it right now?) is that the readers who chew through dozens of book a month don’t really care about the cover.

        (I also have a look at my own books, and my series with the most questionable cover sells just as well, and some years better, than the ones with the most polished, appropriate covers, which baffles me.)

        So like everything it’s a variable. Can it improve your chances? Of course. Is it going to destroy them irrevocably? Probably not. *shrug*

  5. I absolutely hated the covers that Signet and Bantam put on my books. To be fair, I wasn’t always crazy about the cover designs on my indie published ebooks. In the latter case, though, I was free to go back and change — improve — the covers. That just doesn’t happen in traditionally published books, at least as far as I’ve seen.

  6. Yes.

    The book has the author’s name on it, so yes: author gets a say.

    “Title be a question, and the answer is ‘yes’ for $5,000, Alex.”

  7. The empirical answer is “small author, big publisher, answer “no.” Big author, any publisher, answer “let’s talk.””

    In terms of “should,” interpreted as a moral question, I come down on the side of the author.

    I see cover work as no different than artwork inside the book. When the author is also the illustrator, then surely he should do the cover himself. Hendrik van Loon comes to mind immediately. Where the illustrator is not the author, it seems to me that this still holds. The illustrator should do the cover as a matter of artistic consistency.

    Since I think that an author should be able to illustrate his own work if he wants, or reject someone else’s illustrations as inconsistent with his artistic intent, or work with an illustrator who can do a satisfactory (to the writer) job, I don’t see how the cover illustration is, in any moral sense, any different.

    Speaking as a retired lawyer, it all depends on the contract you can get.

  8. FWIW, I was consulted on my cover by my mid-sized publisher. It was far better than anything I could have come up with. I suggested one addition, which they made without complaint.

    • Richard –

      I saw your book Strike Four (& bought the kindle version after sampling a single chapter!). I am savoring it, a chapter (or 2) at a time. Fascinating!

      I hope you get notified about followup comments, because one of things which a reviewer says you did not address in the book is “why is a batted foul ball a strike for only the first two strikes, but if the ball is bunted foul with two strikes it is strike three?”

      Now, I believe this must be some kind of leftover from the bound game, but precisely how evades me. So I’m hoping you pick this up & will tell me the answer!

      hlists at iCloud dot com. (Don’t let spellcheck eliminate the “h”.)

      (David – I hope you don’t mind my going off-topic. All I can say is go read the book…)

      • Richard –

        I was just too curious about this, so I jumped ahead in the book to the chapter about foul strikes, & learned that the reviewer was wrong in saying that you didn’t cover the point!

        • Thank you for your kind words. (Hint: Amazon review) And yes, I did cover that point, but I agree with the wisdom of authors not getting into public spats. (And no, it has nothing do to with the bound game. Even for foul balls, that was a dead letter a decade before the earliest version of the foul strike rule.)

          • Maybe it’s just the lawyer or the historian in me, but your book has added a dimension to my enjoyment of the games I attend!

            • And now I see that you were way ahead of me on the Amazon review part. Thanks again.

  9. I sold two programming books some years ago. One came out with a cover matching the publisher’s line for that type of book. The other… looked like something you’d find on bad Doctor Who fanfic. It was downright embarrassing.

    As a book purchased, I can tell you that while your cover is unlikely to make a sale to me, it’s the first and primary point where you can *lose* that sale. When the cover looks like something done by an editor’s seven year old child it tells me “we cared so little about this book we spent minimum effort on it.” Which tells me they thought it was so bad sales were unlikely to pay back even minor expense.

    Signet’s paperback line lost a lot of sales that way when they started using photographs of toys and dolls for cover art…

  10. Should authors have more control? I don’t know. What standard is employed to make the determination?

    I’d ask an additional question. Do authors have the power to control their own covers? We don’t have to apply any standards there. It’s a pure power play.

    Some authors have the power. Most don’t.

    There is a simple test. If an author has to ask if he has control, then he doesn’t have power, and won’t get control.

  11. When my editor emailed me the cover design of my books, it was never “what do you think?” It was always: “Hope you love it!”

    Pushing back was not an option. (Though I did try.)

    The second book cover was so bad the marketing team should have been sent to the Yukon with nothing for shelter except a leaf and a dead bee. The book tanked (of course).

    Third book I published myself. At last I had a say. I designed the cover myself (which I felt qualified to do…since I’d worked as an artist for Disney) and love how it turned out. What a freeing process.

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