The Evolution of Cover Art: Thanks, “Who is S.E.?”, and a reveal

Just weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda Carre at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio as we shared seats on the “Writers – Artist Panel.”  Thanks Brenda for the opportunity to guest post! This continues our writer-artist discussion focusing on cover design. As a practicing chemist and hobbyist illustrator, I’m driven to explore the weird experience of artists & scientists attempting to capture the divine. I identify with early scientists before chemistry splintered from alchemy, when Art and Science disciplines had common purpose. Take, for example, early anatomy (Medieval and Renaissance period): surgeons searched for the elements of the soul as they dissected bodies; data was largely visual, and had to be recorded by an illustrator. The technology behind paint and dyeing was developing alongside advances in medicine. Back then, the same instrumentation in apothecaries produced medicines as well as paints/inks, so the distinction between artist & scientist was obscure. Despite all the advances over centuries, much of the alchemical focus remains at large.  Personally, it drive me nuts knowing that energy and mass are conserved quantities (that can be measured, tracked, and manipulated), yet the “soul” still evades detection or practical measure. As long as intangible things exist beyond our reach of understanding, we’ll need artists to interpret (study?) them.  With Dyscrasia FictionÒ, I rely on Sword & Sorcery as a medium to contemplate life-death-art… so undead characters play a big role! In 2017, expect the release of Daimones, cover illustration by Daniel Landerman revealed here:


The cover is a Promise:

By day I work for a consumer product company, and even the chemists are exposed to business terminology popularized by our once-CEO A. G. Lafley that describes consumer expectations. The “First Moment of Truth”  is when you are in a grocery store and your eyes catch a fancy package then you pick it up to inspect it. Any initial observations set expectations, including the weight or scent. These form a “promise” actually.  Later, when you use the product, the “Second Moment of Truth” better match the promise! The same is true for books.  Just as the initial few sentences form a promise to the reader (as described wonderfully in Nancy Kress’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends), the cover sets an initial promise. What promise do you want to make to your readers? Is your book about a single character? Is the content cryptic and haunting? How can you convey this to your audience? Would you let someone else represent your work?


Evolution of Control and the Creative Process

It is interesting that historically, when traditional print publishing reigned supreme, authors had little control over the covers of their own work. Publishers owned that process and since they had a stake in the game financially, they chose the artist and design often. This did not always sit well with authors. I regularly interview artists/writers on the topic of Beauty in Weird Fiction and questioned author Janet E. Morris in 2104–she has pushed people’s expectations of sexuality and the role of women in fantasy fiction since 1976.  She explained “human extravagances and limitations are what, for me, Silistra is about, but it is not a series for the erotically-averse, or the intellectually timid.” As a reader/reviewer, I could not agree more with that self-assessment. In that interview she also noted her dislike of the 1977 cover art Boris Vallejo that depicted Estri with a brass bra and Gucci boots. For the author’s cut, she employed artist Roy Mauritsen who presented a more intellectual design for the Silsitra quartet by dividing the Dancing Maenad in (a Roman relief) over the four books (photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz). I paraphrase her thoughts below on the process:
“When I wrote High Couch of Silistra, I was twenty-five and loved being female; my body and mind were my laboratory, and I wanted to write the book I couldn’t find to read: not a book that was a clumsy attempt to treat a woman as a man, or as an enemy or competitor of men, or as a victim of men, but as someone powerful in a different society for genetic and political reasons; a protagonist whose sensuality and sexuality are at the heart of her world, and whose travails are self-created, so that I could explore the genetics of behavior…“I was a fine arts major in school. My first cover was the Boris High Couch, commissioned by Bantam for High Couch of Silistra… When I saw the Boris High Couch cover for the first time, I was insulted that anyone could have derived the brass bra and Gucci boots image from my work…so I got Bantam to arrange for me to talk to him and request changes (feathered wings to non-feathered, etc). He didn’t like that…” Janet Morris 2014


Today’s Promises

As 2016 wraps up, with electronic books and print on demand commonplace, the cover art process is changing for the rising Self-publishing/Indie Press/and Small-Presses. Counter balancing the enormous competition in the marketplace, at least many authors can now participate in (or execute completely) the cover design. As above for Janet Morris, who is releases author cut versions, she now has control. Also, with the digital marketplace overtaking brick and mortar store sales for books (since 2014), cover design no longer need to be a full “wrap” for front and back; and there is an increased need for the cover to be perceptible at many sizes including small icons (~1”x2” as well as 6”x9”). It is fairly easy to track down professional artists and propose a commission that includes permission to press/print. Many post rates on their website. I illustrated the cover to my first book, but then decided to commission Ken Kelly (2014) and Daniel Landerman (for 2017).


Portraits and Spawn of Dyscrasia

I detailed the Ken Kelly cover design process in detail on my blog, but I share snippets here. Spawn of Dyscrasia (2014) follows the development of a single character, Seer Helen. The sequel’s cover had to embody an emphasis on characterization, so an appropriate portraiture composition was targeted. It may seem strange to intentionally pose characters passively on the cover, but there are plenty of precedents. For example, Larry Elmore did this effectively with the original DragonlanceÒ trilogy (authored by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, including: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning).  Also, Frank Frazetta did this effectively with his Deathdealer character. These portraits promise books with developed characters…without showing any action.  Ken Kelly has many of these, like his Death’s End and Rogue’s illustrations (the latter was the cover to the first Horseclan’s book by Robert Adams).  In Spawn of Dyscrasia, the character Helen does not develop in isolation; rather she teams with the protagonist from the first book, the skeletal Lord Lysis (who is featured on the cover of Lords of Dyscrasia).  Hence, Ken Kelly’s “Rogues” stood out as a good example of what I wanted: a female and male duo portrayed against a fiery scene.




Audio Books

This notion of partnering with other artists to realize a vision/milieu is also extended to audio books. Just like connecting with cover artists is easier than ever before, we can also connect with professional voice artists to create audio books or clips for video trailers (check out the Amazon Exchange ACX).  As technology evolves, there is a blending of audio-eBook (i.e., via Amazon Kindle/Audible synchronization). Here, the cover needs to match the content…and the voice needs to match both! Audio book covers have different requirement, namely that they are square. It’s amazing what a change in aspect ratio of a canvas will do to design.  One may be tempted to just shrink the paper copy to fit, but that will leave a vignette view, wasting valuable space in an image that may be very tiny already as viewed online.


Bio & Links:

Seth (S.E.) Lindberg lives near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist by day. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword & Sorcery genre, spurs him to write graphic adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors. He co-moderates a Goodreads- Sword & Sorcery Group and invites you to participate.


S E Lindberg Author-Reviewer Blog  | S E Lindberg – Amazon Author Page

S E Lindberg on Goodreads | Dyscrasia Fiction on YouTube








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