Jul 15 2008 4:59am

SF/F Book Cover Review: Call for Entries...and the Rules of the Game.

Every once in a while an email will go out at work that makes everyone stagger out of their offices into the hallway, and engage in an impromptu meeting. About a month ago (give or take), one of my co-workers at Tor Books, Jamie Stafford-Hill, sent out just such an email to the rest of the art department. Jamie asked whether anyone had stumbled across any book design review blogs specifically covering science fiction and fantasy books. We all read The Book Design Review, our Flatiron Building co-tenant Henry Sene Yee's blog, the Book Covers Blog, and a few others, but aside from an occasional mention, or the showcasing of a book by a genre-bending author like Michael Chabon or Junot Díaz, there's nothing dedicated specifically to SF/F book cover design critique (I make the distinction because, of course, there's The Art Department), that we could find.  (If we're wrong, please enlighten us!)

Well, to me that sounds like a niche that needs filling. After discussing it with Irene Gallo and our mass-market art director Seth Lerner, I've decided to take it upon myself to fill that hole. On further discussion we all realized that the perfect home for such a feature would be Tor.com. I've talked to the rest of my co-workers in the art department at Tor, and extended an invitation to submit reviews/critiques as well, since I don't want to be the only idiot talking my head off about this stuff. Plus, it will be easier to maintain a consistent publication schedule with multiple contributors chipping in.

However, in the spirit of fairness and transparency, I'm setting a few ground rules, which I'll outline after the break.

As always, suggestions and comments are welcome, and I suspect will be necessary, actually. The idea is to start a conversation among peers, after all, not to talk at people. I'll edit and amend this post as I get feedback from readers. Another reason for posting this ahead of time is that I want it to serve as a call for entries of sorts. One of my biggest reservations when coming up with this feature was that since I work at Tor Books, I don't necessarily feel that I'm the best person to review Tor books. I think that goes for the rest of the team as well. We're just too close to the work, I think. So with that in mind, I'd like to extend an invitation to any designers and art directors working at any of the other SF/F publishing houses to critique our work (or any other publisher's work, of course). So, to wit:

  • Any SF/F-themed book that is in print is acceptable to review, preferably something that has published in the last year or so. Trade books and mass-market books are both welcome, but please make sure to note which is which. Books by genre-bending authors such as Chabon are also fine, since they bring a bit of the literary book design sensibility into SF/F book design, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Since covers will often change until the book actually goes to press, no pre-release art should be reviewed.
  • Front covers are fine, but if you can get your hands on the spine and the back cover as well, that's even better.
  • Constructive criticism only. This shouldn't devolve into people shouting "I don't like it, because it's green, and I don't like green" territory. If something works in a design, explain why. If it doesn't, explain why as well, using all those fancy design terms we love to bandy about, like 'composition', 'use of a grid', 'typographical hierarchy', 'thematic unity', etc. This is the reason I've extended the invitation specifically to professional designers working at a SF/F publishing house. However, this doesn't mean that if you're not one of these people, your submission would be automatically discarded. If you're a designer in general, an author, an editor, in marketing and publicity, or if you're otherwise interested in participating, send me a submission via email anyway. If it's well-thought-out and meets the standards of a constructive critique, there's no reason why you shouldn't be included in the conversation. The more the merrier, I say.
  • Credit where credit is due. Whenever possible, try to find the designer, illustrator, or photographer whose work you're reviewing, along with any links to their online presence. This isn't always possible, but do try your best. On the flipside, if you see your uncredited work on here, or know whose work it is, please drop me an email and let me know, so that I can credit the work appropriately.
  • If you see your work on here, and you feel you must issue a rebuttal to a critique, please don't do it in the comments. Send me an email, and I'll gladly post your un-edited comments as a separate rebuttal entry, where you can then engage in direct debate in the comments for that entry. I'll also add a link to the rebuttal post in the original entry. This does a few things: first, it keeps the discourse civil, as it's very easy to degrade a comment thread into back-and-forth quippery, especially if you have a vested interest in the work being discussed. Second (and more importantly, I think), by having to compose a separate rebuttal as opposed to simply responding to comments, it helps to encourage getting the designer's full perspective on the work being discussed, as opposed to the shorter-form responses that usually pop up on comment threads. Additionally, it gives the designer a slightly more prominent soapbox from where to explain their take on the design, which could engender more and interesting conversations in its own right.

This is all I can come up with for now. If you feel there should be other rules or guidelines, or if you think that some of the stuff I've outlined here should change (or is just flat-out wrong), please leave a comment, and we'll talk about it. The first review should go up around the official Tor.com launch date. In the meantime, feel free to join in on the conversation.



Abigail Sutherland
1. evilrooster
Not all of us know the official terms that y'all bandy about with such joyous abandon. Any chance of a glossary, or a link to an offsite glossary, so that we can follow along?
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
oh, that's a great idea. I'll look some resources up.
John Ward
3. jlward
Hey Pablo, I love the idea of a column that reviews bookcovers. Have you decided if the discussion will be limited to design elements or will you (or possibly someone else) be discussing the illustrations as well?

I'm sure you're already familiar with them, but Lou Anders has written several excellent articles discussing this very topic on his blog.
Pablo Defendini
4. pablodefendini
Illustration and design go hand-in-hand, particularly in SF/F book cover design. More often than not, the illustration will dictate (or at least heavily inform) the direction of the design. I don't think you can discuss one without taking into consideration the other. Granted, this also depends on the tack that a particular reviewer wants to take.

Lou Anders, our own Irene Gallo, and others discuss these topics from time to time on their blogs, but we thought that in addition, it would be neat to have an ongoing, regular place in which to do it in.
Elise Matthesen
5. LionessElise
This sounds really interesting. I look forward to it (and to the glossary).
David Dyer-Bennet
6. dd-b
This looks potentially tremendously interesting (if possibly contentious :-)).

Good luck with it!

If it goes well, I'll learn a lot; I could definitely benefit by seeing people who know what they're doing explaining why various designs do and don't work.

(I'm a software engineer that takes photos (mostly documentary more than artistic) and sometimes plays at design (when there isn't a designer in the house to do the work). I've done web site development some professionally too.)
Jeffrey Richard
7. neutronjockey
I would love (lurve!) to learn about some of the design science behind the art of book covers. Especially spine science. Seeing as not all books receive the privilege of being faced-out on the bookshelf I imagine just as much thought goes into the spine as the cover.

Cover shoppers.
Spine shoppers.

I'm game for being an armchair book layout and design critic.
Nicole Cardiff
8. Nicole Cardiff
Hmmm... the closest existing blog I can think of hasn't been updated in a long time, but it was about 50% critique of F/SF cover design and illustration:


Looking forward to your blog!
Pablo Defendini
9. pablodefendini
Nicole, I had written off Nethermore because I thought it was inactive as well, but I just popped in, and it looks like they're at it again (last post, dated May 1st, 2008)! Thanks for the tip!
Paul Abbamondi
10. pabba
I'm definitely looking forward to this section of Tor. Book cover talk is always very interesting (well, to me it is), and a majority of the ones I see in the brick-and-mortars are often a hit or miss. Can't wait to see some discussion.
Nicole Cardiff
11. LaurDragon
I also think this is an awesome idea! I'll be interested to follow along, and if you really need more volunteers for amateur critiques, I'd be more than happy to oblige.
Jeffrey Richard
12. neutronjockey
We need to do a 'passerby' test. Use the blur/wind effect in photochop to give a simulation of someone passing by in an isle at a walking pace. I might go blur some spines for 'comparative studies.'
Nicole Cardiff
13. uglybadbear
this is a blog which posts covers, nice covers, or ugly covers. i definitely like the guy and i'm really sorry he writes mostly in romania. anyway, check it for some true gems.
Niall Harrison
14. niall
"I don't necessarily feel that I'm the best person to review Tor books. I think that goes for the rest of the team as well."

I for one would be interested to hear some of the thinking that goes into Tor covers, even if you get other people to post their thoughts on them as well.
Pablo Defendini
15. pablodefendini
@niall 14- I think we'll have that kind of content, but I'd rather it be in the comments section, or as a separate type of post, rather than a straight-up review.
Nina Lourie
16. supertailz
I feel like a pia doing this but I think that in the third bullet point, the word you're looking for is "specifically".

...I do feel like a pain in the ass now.
Pablo Defendini
17. pablodefendini
No, no, no. 'specofically' is a special term used for soliciting work from professionals on spec. Working on spec is a huge no-no, unless one is asked 'specofically'.

Um, just kidding, thanks for the tip. It's now fixed.
Nina Lourie
18. supertailz
Ohhh, I see. I thought you were suggesting that publishing houses were monasteries and holy places and only professional monks could contribute sacro specofically as it were.

(You made me snarfle my coke.)
Natalie Costa Bir
20. taelian
Am feeling a bit witless asking this - but has the first review gone up yet and am I missing it? I'm quite fearful that it's right there on the right and blinking and I'm missing it!
I'd love to hear from the Tor.com people on this too - and thought you guys might find this (from the Penguin Australia website) interesting (It's a link to a PDF not a webpage):
Gary Gibson
22. garygibson
Talking of book cover art, there was something here a while back (at least ... I *think* it was on Tor.com) which featured an artist who had done a painting featuring a vaguely At-At like machine on four legs with a couple of helmeted soldiers walking along beside it. It might have been a John Harris painting, but I'm damned if I can find it. Don't know if this is the right place to ask, but does anyone recognise the description?
Irene Gallo
23. Irene
Hey Gary - I'm sorry, that's not ringing a bell. Did you see it in the blog posts or in our gallery section?
Gary Gibson
24. garygibson
I really don't know, Irene, I'm beginning to think this might be a very long shot in the dark ... but I'm pretty certain at the least that it was a John Harris painting. Oh well, back to google image search...
Tara Chang
25. tlchang
Stumbled upon a book jacket blog today. It's emphasis is children's and YA, but the latest post at least is all fantasy: http://jacketwhys.wordpress.com/

Some interesting stuff.

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