Book Cover Award Thing 2016: Round 2.1 Functionality

Round 2.1 Functionality. I said originally 0 to 3 marks but that is too many levels of distinction and I’m knocking that down to 0 to 2.

Does the cover get the job done?

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. What is it called?
  3. What kind of book is it? (tricky)
  4. What else do I need to know?

Aesthetics aside, this category is about the cover as packaging. Looking for readability and information.

Pictures below the fold – and at a smaller size so you get the thumbnail ebook feel.

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More on Gender Disparity and Book Covers

So delving further into the question Cora Buhlert left a long and interesting comment that I thought I’d quote in full here:

SFF is the last bastion of the custom illustrated cover in adult fiction. Most other genres have moved to photographic covers using stock photos. And even SFF is moving that way, partly due to the rise of self-publishing, since self-publishers often cannot afford custom illustration. But even trade publishers are relying more and more on stock art (and there are a few covers here I think are based on stock art), because stock photos and stock art are cheaper than commissioning an artist. e.g. You can find a lot of decent exploding spaceship type CGI images, if you browse the stock art sites. And with stock art, the image itself usually comes before the artist (though I know at least one excellent SF stock artist who’s female).

Now the question is, why are there so few female SFF artists, especially since the art directors at the publishing houses are often women, e.g. Lauren Panepinto or Irene Gallo. This raises a few additional questions: Are there fewer women commercial artists in general? Do women illustrators tend to work in other areas, e.g. children’s books, comics, greeting cards, fashion illustration, etc…? Are women pressured to work in those areas or do they work there willingly? Is there a conscious or subconscious bias against female artists at publishing houses?

Phantom is correct that publishers prefer to work with established artists, which is e.g. why Bob Eggleton or Larry Elmore or Michael Whelan (who doesn’t appear here) have been around for decades. The question is, are those established artists more likely to be men and if so, why? One possible explanation I can think of is that cover art was often supposed to appeal to men, so maybe male artists were believed to be more likely to produce art that appeals to men. Though pulp artist Margaret Brundage and her scantily clad damsels in distress would belie that idea.

For example, the ridiculous clinch covers featuring a half-naked man engaged in a torrid embrace with a woman about to fall out of a dress of dubious historical accuracy, that were common on romance novel covers into the 1990s, were never actually supposed to appeal to the overwhelmingly female readers, but to the overwhelmingly male truck drivers working at the distribution companies, who stacked paperback spinner racks at drugstores, gorcery stores, etc…. The distributors and their truck drivers are long gone, but their taste continues to influence book covers via established artists that have been around for a long time. Similarly, the tendency for YA novels to feature a girl in a ball gown on the cover, even if no ball gown ever features in the novels, was supposedly due to the (female) YA buyer at Barnes & Noble really liking those covers. Even Baen’s famously awful covers must appeal to someone. And interestingly, I see a lot of self-published science fiction authors attempting to imitate Baen’s covers rather than the IMO much better covers of Tor or Orbit or Roc or DAW.

Besides, there are several established and popular female SFF artists, e.g. Julie Dillon, Galen Dara, Cynthia Sheppard, Kinuko Kraft, Rowena Morrill, but for some reason none of their covers appear here.

The last point, in particular, raises an issue with having an award for book covers. If this was a serious award (e.g. if there was a Hugo for Best Cover rather than Best Artist), then by not looking at a body of work, the nominees are likely to skew more male – which wouldn’t be good. The Hugo awards “Best Professional Artist” and while I’ve found that an annoying category, it is possibly a better option than “Best Cover”.

Also, by way of comparison, I looked for some different kind of data here:

I looked at picture books primarily because illustrators are credited, often with equal billing as the author (or the artist is the author). As picture books are aimed at children, we might expect to find more women represented because of traditional gender roles and stereotypes (maybe).

I didn’t chase down the bios of these artists, and so just did a quick count using traditional female names. If in doubt, I counted the name as maybe not a woman.

Of the 62 names I counted, 28 had female names. The number of women artists listed is probably a bit higher. Either way, it looks like a very plausible 50/50 split.

That means we can throw away as implausible the idea that women just don’t pursue book illustration as a career or that women somehow can’t cope with the publishing industry or a whole bunch of other  nonsense. I’ve also been looking for data on numbers of art-directors at publishing houses that are women but without much success. I think many may be women but that is just an impression I’ve got from a few notable names.

Perhaps more plausibly, is whether SF/F art in general has skewed male. That sounds plausible but rests on stereotypes of fandom being inherently male that are dubious. Alternatively, slow turnover of artists into the field may have resulted in the artists publishers turn to being predominately male because of conditions that existed 20-30 years ago.

Book Cover Award Thing 2016: Round 1.1

Oh how to manage 34 books and four criteria! I’ll be doing 9 posts. Two for each criterion (one directly after the other – just for manageability) and then a final post with the totals. Feel free to argue with criteria ratings and I’ll change them because I have no backbone.

Just to recap. Four criteria with varying points. (original) Artwork first with 0 to 4 points. Ceiling and floor effects are intentional (i.e. not everything with a 4 is equally as good, and not everything with a zero is equally lacking).

With artwork, I’m looking for original images of an SF/F nature that are notable independent of being on a book cover. Textual and other graphical elements I’ll ignore. For some covers, there is going to be a blurred line between the artwork and design. However, the Graphic Design criteria has extra points available to compensate for covers that are less focused on a pretty picture.

Works are in alphabetical order of title.

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Best cover thing etc: Why finding artwork credits is so frustrating!

Here is an example. James Smythe’s book Way Down Dark and its striking cover (comes in three varieties with changes in colour scheme and type layout):

Nice. I like it. It has a strong Saul Bass feel to it.

Now here is a blog post at the PUBLISHER’s blog, posted by the EDITOR of the book and written by the AUTHOR about how great the cover is and what a brilliant job was done by ____ some phantom? A mysterious stranger? Did it appear by magic?

And the cover, of course, had to reflect the same things that the title did. So when I saw this image – of Chan, the novel’s main character, standing below the towers of the great spaceship Australia – it felt perfect almost immediately. And the font! It’s beautiful, somehow both art deco in style while having this slight futuristic edge to it. The whole thing is a pretty exceptional piece of work – and will work wonderfully for the rest of the series, moving forward.

That is great praise but who is being praised? I get that employees will have signed away formal moral rights to be credited and the IP rests with the publisher but heck – name somebody or name the team or the art-director.

Best SFF Award Nominee Book Cover Award etc: Institutional Sexism

I’ve been collating names of cover artists/designers on the list of 34 covers left after the previous culling. Guess how many are women?

Did you guess ONE? If so, then you are probably right. I say probably because I’m going off names and what bios I can find. So maybe some of the named artists I could find are women with names that are traditionally male. For example, I don’t know Sam Weber‘s gender.

Victo Ngai  ( ) the artist for the striking Barsk cover was the only one.

Now thirteen of the thirty-four covers still don’t have names, so maybe many of those covers were illustrated/designed by women. But, I’m not sure which is worse – that gender proportions of the named covers represents the whole or that it doesn’t and hence women artists ARE DISPROPORTIONATELY uncredited in their work! Either option would seem to be appalling but at least the possibility that women’s work goes disproportionately uncredited at least has something we can fix more directly.

Yes, this is a weird and arbitrary sample of book covers, but it is weird and arbitrary in so far as it picks on covers that publishers (both big & indie & self-published) were putting their supposed best-foot-forward on. Also, it was an anonymous selection when it came to artists – covers were picked out for reasons OTHER than the cover artist and artists were identified later.

I’m genuinely surprised by this. The world is not lacking in talented women artists and designers.


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I’ve mocked in various ways some of Castalia House book covers but they are typically not too bad and while they lean heavily on off-the-shelf 3D models, the composition of the scenes is often good. However, the latest one from the supposed new-new-newHeinleinn-who-isnt’-Timothy is a horror:

I hope those guys are literally clones in the story because they look like it. I assume the enormous guns are meant to look impressive but it just looks like somebody has made a horrible error in scale.

The background, with the jungle and the Avatarish helicoptery thing looks OK (nicely lit) but the foliage at the front looks like its pasted on to hide a mistake. The net effect is cheap and amateurish, despite the obvious effort.

Then the lurid green text over a green background. urrrgggghhhhh.

Maybe this is Vox Day’s new weapon against the forces of the left – because one look at that has me recoiling like a vampire from a crucifix.

Currently Playing: Dragon Quest 7 (3DS)

I don’t play video games much these days due to time in general, books, other books and everything else. But I do have big Nintendo 3DS for when I just get the urge to play games rather than read on the train.

So I was quite excited to hear that a Dragon Quest game was coming out. Technically a remake of Play Station game from 2000, the new 3DS version offers updated graphics more like those used in the frankly awesome Dragon Quest 9.

Like all of the Dragon Quest games, this is a sprawling RPG with signature monsters (including the iconic little blue slimes). In this particular case, there is an additional time-travel twist which sends you back in time to a series of island communities.

Each community gets its own cringe-worthy regional accent (Yorkshire people in the volcanic ‘Emberdale’ with speech rendered in idiosyncratic vowel combinations) as well as some emotional backstory and a mystery/threat to resolve via dungeon crawling and boss-battle beating.

If you like that sort of thing (and I do) then this is hours and hours worth of fun. The usual dodgy gender stereotypes and odd sexualization of some female NPC is also sadly still there, like a voyage back to the 1980s. The customisation is not as extensive as Dragon Quest 9 and the battles are simpler and also easier. Yet, the careful parcelling out of a huge explorable world keeps the game from feeling repetitive.


Best SFF Award Nominee Book Cover Award 2016 or thereabouts: The Great Cover Culling!

Eeks! Have I taken on too much? Maybe.

So I’m going to do some culling of books with more than one cover. I’ll keep two at most per book but try and get it down to 1

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (2)
I’ll keep both of these because they show really different ways of covering the same book.

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (2)
The first of these two covers is fine but the second one is more interesting.

Arcadia – Iain Pears (3)

Arcadia – Iain Pears (3)
I’m keeping the first two and ditching the third. Nothing wrong with number 3 but it is the least remarkable of the set

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett (2)
Both of these covers stay in play because they show the perennial question of how to cover Pratchett.

League of Dragons by Naomi Novak (2)
A hard choice. These two covers are too similar to keep both but too different to make it easy. I’m going to go with the second because the aged-paper background in the first is a bit old-hat for a fantasy cover.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (3)
Clearly, Novik was tipped off about this competition and really wants a chance at winning that jpeg of Timothy. I’m going to drop the third one, although I kind of really like it.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2)
The Subterranean press covers of the first two books were more interesting. The art in the second looks great but as a cover, it looks like a random page from Breq-the-graphic-novel. Keeping the first.

Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (3)
I think the first is THE Seveneves cover. The second is a bit generic and including an image of the moon is arguably in bad taste considering…

Updraft, Fran Wilde (2)
Wow, both really compelling. Keeping both.

War Factory, Neal Asher (2)
Different but sort of the same. Keeping the first.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (3)
I just don’t like the first all-red cover – also Naomi Novik has sneaked in again! :). Keeping the other two.

Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (3)
All serviceable covers, but the first one is the notable one. The other two are fairly generic fantasy covers – nice art but unremarkable. Mind you…am I only saying that because I’m a Guardian reader? Note the first has a review blurb from the Guardian and the second has a review blurb from the Daily Mail. Talk about market segmentation! Damn, there is a whole Dave Freer essay to be made out of that (assuming Dave gets the sociopolitical, regional and economic flags inherent to a British audience going ‘oooh the Guardian likes it’ versus ‘oooh the Daily Mail likes it’)

The Traitor, Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson (2)
The first is powerful and the second is OK. Keeping the first.