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:
Also, ask your agent to get some language about cover approval in that contract. You’re the one who has to walk around with that shit everywhere you go, not your editor or agent or the pub execs.— Daniel José Older (@djolder) June 16, 2019
Then Brendan Reichs then quote-tweeted his approval:
Then Justine Larbalestier quote-tweeted Brendan with a slight disagreement:
And then John Scalzi quote tweeted his agreement with Justine’s disagreement:
So. What to make of this?
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.
At the end of the day, I agree with the sentiment of Daniel’s initial tweet. The author is the one who has to walk with that book cover, and if the cover isn’t one that makes sense to them, something is wrong.
What do you think? Who knows best when it comes to a cover?
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Art: Orange and Book by Raphaelle Peale