I had a question proposed to me in my Saturday blog here on Black Gate concerning the multiple covers of Howard Andrew Jones’s The Desert of Souls. I’ll repost the question here.
I see a lot of photo-manipulation covers and hybrid photo/3D/digital painted covers, and I feel that a lot of them actually look pretty cheap and nasty. If I was Howard Andrew Jones, for example, I would be very happy with the first The Desert of Souls cover (100% digitally painted, stirring, full of life and movement, etc) and very unhappy with the second cover (a mish-mash of photo elements and, I don’t know? 3D elements? What’s going on with those faces? It almost looks like a romance novel cover.) What do you think about this trend?
I’m going to break this down into two different answers. The first will deal with The Desert of Souls, and the second on the current state of science fiction/fantasy covers in general.
The question immediately reminded me of Hollywood and their great marketing machine. In 1990 Paramount Studios released Hunt for the Red October. The movie cost roughly $30 million to make and grossed $200 million worldwide, which is to say it was an enormous success. The movie poster featured a shadowy submarine, Sean Connery’s face, all in black and red, and the title in white lettering.
In 1995 Hollywood Pictures produced the movie Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. Again, another submarine thriller with a cost of $53 million to make and a sturdy $157 million gross sales. In essence, Tide was a clone or piggyback of a successful movie, and to illustrate this, its movie poster featured a shadowy submarine, Hackman and Washington’s faces, all in black and red, with the title in white lettering.
This is mental marketing, and for Hollywood Pictures it worked very well. The lesson; if you can disguise yourself as a hit movie, you just might be a hit movie yourself when all is said and done.
In the case of Crimson Tide, great clone marketing actually turned out to make good money…
The same can be said for novels. There is a reason you see trends in the industry, and that if I walked into a bookstore in 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000 the bulk of all books would resemble one another.
In the strange case of The Desert of Souls, the cover for a novel was directly impacted by a Hollywood blockbuster, or in reality, a huge Hollywood flop. In 2010 Disney released The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Prince was a complete disaster, only currently topped by Disney once again with John Carter of Mars, and the marketing of this Arabian fantasy movie spammed the American marketplace and then putrefied on its shelves.
My son is 6 and loves Legos, so I’m up on the current Lego trends, and each time I go into a Target store and STILL see Prince of Persia Lego sets on shelves it reminds me what a disaster this movie was. Simply put, Prince of Persia didn’t sell in the theatre, and it sold even worse at brick and mortar retailers.
Enter the release of The Desert of Souls in early 2011… The cover mentioned above in the reader’s question as being so ‘stirring, full of life and movement’ suddenly harkens back to the disaster still languishing on shelves of B&N, Toys R Us, etc. That stirring movement, a roguish fellow leaping between middle-eastern buildings with a scimitar in Desert, suddenly becomes Prince Dastan from Prince of Persia, and negative marketing perception takes over. This is by no means the fault of the book, which has been fantastically reviewed, nor is the cover anything but beautiful, and yet it is intrinsically tainted by mere association with a failed franchise.
So, St. Martin’s Press, who produced Desert, now has a problem. Their Art Director picked a lovely cover piece, but because of unforeseen [which is debatable] circumstances, well outside the publishing industry, the company is now faced with a tough choice. They can stick with the original cover and hope the novel breaks the negative association marketing, or they can change the cover when the book goes into trade paperback format.
Obviously, they chose the second option, but in doing so they’ve had to compromise. The newest digital amalgamation cover falls in line with most books seen on shelves today, the fully painted look of the hardcover too expensive to replace. I will say this however, as much as the 2nd Desert of Souls cover might not hold up to the first, it’s still a strong showing compared to the bulk of most covers I see rolling off the presses these days. It also holds less of a connection to Prince, so that also has to give it a plus.
Thus, in the case of the Desert of Souls hardcover release, great art actually turned out to be bad art…
As for the trend in science fiction and fantasy covers today, I’ll go on record once again and say I’m not a fan. I walked into Mysterious Galaxies here in L.A., a fine bookstore specializing in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy only, and was both moved and saddened. Galaxies is a phenomenal store for a guy like me, and I could literally spend hours in it each time I go, but the more I walk the isles and look at the covers, the more I feel something has been lost in the industry.
There is a line I’m often reminded of in the movie Gross Point Blank when Alan Arkin’s therapist character is talking with John Cusack’s assassin character. Cusack says he keeps having a dream where he is the Energizer Bunny, and Arkin says something like this, ‘No Martin, it’s a horrible dream! The bunny has no anima, no spirit… it just moves around banging on those cymbals all day long!’
To me, that’s what I see on the bookshelves today, an Energizer Bunny. There is no anima there, no spirit, just a splash of digital ‘paint’ and a woman’s leather-clad ass. For the most part, there are currently three types of covers in fantasy and science fiction.
- 1. The Pissed-Off Vixen: You know the one, the queen of Urban Fantasy. She must be wearing leather. She has to have a weapon in hand. She needs to either expose her midriff or wear a mini-skirt and boots. These are all digital touch-ups over physical models.
- 2. The Anime Star: Japanese animation continues to grow in the U.S. as covers start to feature more and more cartoony characters with big eyes and small mouths in fully digital anime style art.
- 3. The Digital Oil: This new wave started in 2003 and continues today. It’s painting on a computer tablet using the same techniques as you would with oil. A computer generates the final image, and in some cases you have a very hard time of telling if the image is digital at all. However, I see these pieces a just a bit too ‘perfect’, too polished, or sometimes taken in the opposite direction and too vague as portrayed in ‘shadow’ covers where everything is all hazy figures, blades, banners, or battle.
It was for the above reasons that I chose to found Art of the Genre as a publishing house. I could no longer sit back and watch the industry lose itself in a miasma of soulless covers. As long as I can remember reasonable variation, the palpable flavor of oil, and the characterization of hand-crafted cover art, I’m going to strive to keep it alive.
I hope that answers the above question, and as always thanks for dropping in!