Mon
Jun 2 2014 3:30pm

Duck and Covers: The Art of Orbit Books

Orbit cover art Ann Leckie John Harris

Art is important. It’s important socially and culturally and, when it comes to publishing, commercially. The cover art is the first thing a potential reader reacts to. It’s what convinces that consumer to pick up a book, turn it over, and see what’s going on the page. It’s been argued that with declining shelf space in traditional retailers that maybe art is becoming less important to the buying process. The argument is the digital retailer is relying on crowd sourced reviews, and blog commentary, and algorithms to help today’s reader make a purchasing decision. What used to be a full size 6 x 9 inch image is now a 150 pixel thumbnail.

Nothing in the last two sentences is wrong, but it’s also bullshit.

Art in publishing is as relevant today as it was ten years ago. In fact, it’s probably more important now. The market is saturated. More books are being published every year and in the era of self-publishing, art is one of the most visceral discerning features we have to differentiate something as a professional product.

I bring this up not so much to have a conversation about the importance of cover art, and the tragedy of ninety percent of self-publish covers, but to extol the virtues of one of the finest purveyors of cover art in the business—Orbit Books. Led by art director Lauren Panepinto, Orbit has pioneered new and bold approaches to science fiction and fantasy art. Using photography, graphic design, and unique illustrators, Orbit has something few publishers can claim, an artistic voice.

Orbit cover art Powder Mage Brian McClellan Gene Mollica Michael Frost

One of the most recognizable set of Orbit covers are Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage Trilogy. Starting with Promise of Blood, contunuing with The Crimson Campaign, and concluding with The Autumn Republic (publishing February 2015), Gene Mollica and Michael Frost created this combination of photography and illustration, using McClellan’s main character Field Marshall Tamas. Personally, I find the first cover the most compelling, with a man at the end of his prime sitting on a throne, exhausted but committed.

Orbit cover art Imperial Radach Ann Leckie John Harris

Although Orbit has become known for this photography/illustration combination, used previously on Michael J. Sullivan, David Dalglish, Gail Carriger, and Jaye Wells titles, there’s also a commitment to traditional illustration. Best demonstrated by the John Harris covers done for Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series (the multi-award winning Ancillary Justice, and the forthcoming Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy), the Orbit team decided to divide the painting into three separate covers with a different slice for each book, moving left to right. Harris’ covers always have this incredible sense of proportion that communicates the vastness of space. Tiny space ships against the backdrop of a massive station and a moon beneath it seem to analogize the struggle the novel’s protagonist must survive to take down an empire.

Orbit cover art Parasitology Mira Grant

And then, there are covers like Mira Grant’s recent Parasitology books, which are purely graphic. Simple, but elegant, the first novel, Parasite, is a pharmaceutical sleeve complete with perforated tear lines and trademark stamped pills. Its sequel, Symbiont (publishing November 2014), features petri dishes or microscope slides. In both cases the message is “medical thriller,” but one you’ve not seen before. The vertical type, forcing the reader to tilt their head creates the sense of newness and interest in what is otherwise an easy cover to gloss over. It invites a closer look. In other words, it does exactly what a cover has to do.

Orbit cover art Shambling Guide Mur Lafferty Jamie McKelvie

There’s traditional illustration like the Harris covers above, and there’s non-traditional, which Orbit is never afraid to play around with. For Mur Lafferty’s supernatural travel series (The Shambling Guide to New York City and The Ghost Train to New Orleans), they called on comic artist Jamie McKelvie. The joy in these covers really takes my breath away. They’re light hearted and whimsical and do a tremendous job of connecting with the underlying text.

Orbit cover art Outsorcerer's Apprentice Tom Holt

Speaking of whimsical, Tom Holt’s forthcoming novel The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice (with the tagline of “A novel of overlords, underlings, and inhuman resources”) has a delightfully silly illustration. Random fantasy themed silhouttes with lines graphs and pie charts and infographics is simply brilliant. It isn’t just the execution that makes this cover so great, but the creativity that sits beneath it. It demonstrates not only a great talent for making art, but a talent for understanding what the right art is for each project. It’s a theme I notice with Orbit not just in the art department, but throughout the imprint. They demonstrate an understanding of how each book is unique and demands a different kind of treatment, whether it be artistic or marketing.

Now, in case you’re thinking I’m overly indulging Orbit, not all of their covers strike me as perfect. Take David Dalglish’s A Dance of Ghosts, forthcoming in November 2014:

Orbit cover art A Dance of Ghosts David Dalglish

But, let’s leave this look at Orbit’s cover art on a more positive note. I give you the cover for Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty, which is, in my humble opinion, one of the most incredible covers we’ve seen in recent memory:

Orbit cover art Love Minus Eighty Will McIntosh Erin Mulvehill

It goes beyond the beautiful photography by Erin Mulvehill because the Orbit design team separated the type from the image by using a transparent vellum dust jacket. The woman, reaching out to press a button to start something, is literally reaching out to the reader. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll understand how heart-wrenching a concept is.

Most important for this discussion, though, is how conceptually daring this kind of design is. It shows me a publisher who isn’t just churning out product to make a buck. It shows me a publisher committed to its readership and its creative team. It’s committed to the commercial realities of publishing, but also to the artistic one. Because say what you will about books as a business, they’re also an art form. And a publisher that recognizes the synergy between those two facets is worth supporting.


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

21 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Having distinctive cover voices matter. But one can botch this--as witness the sometimes painful looking Baen covers. Those go across series and authors. (that cover for the last Bujold book. Oy.)
Robert H. Bedford
2. RobB
Orbit has something few publishers can claim, an artistic voice.
EXACTLY. I know an Orbit book when I see it and like what I see. Not mentioned are the gorgeous covers for the Jimmy Corey adventures, aka The Expanse novels
Colin Bell
4. SchuylerH
@1: You know, I still haven't bought CVA. I'm waiting for mass-market, which looks like the generic cityscape from the front of the hardcover.

@2: Another favorite of mine: they're by Daniel Doicu, who has also done work for Tor and the Night Shade reprints of Glen Cook.
Lauren P
5. Lauren P
Aw you guys are the best!
Lauren P
6. puck
Covers are definitely important! That's how I've picked up most of my books.

I really hate the mash up of photography and photoshop though. Those covers almost always look really terrible. Reminds me of when movies first went from models and puppets to "look at all I can do with CGI!" They also apparently use all the models from the Romance section, and honestly I've completely passed over decently reviewed books because they're sporting those covers. Traditional illustration all the way, please. I can even do with a good graphic cover (at least, one that's not 95% text of author's huge name and smaller title).
Lauren P
7. AO
Generally speaking I agree, and really enjoyed reading about their successes, but would have liked hearing more about the misses too.

For example, I've found the covers given to Miles Cameron to be not terribly impressive, and the recent Joe Abercrombie covers to be terrible, especially so when contrasted against the gorgeous UK versions. I have heard from some who have liked the ones for The Heroes and Red Country, but many more who have said that they were sending overseas for those instead.

I did appreciate the article though, thank you.
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
Oh my, I didn't realize the Ancillary covers are one painting. Amazing

Another set of covers from Orbit that I thought were very effective are the ones for the first three books in Simon Morden's Samuil Petrovich series. Thematically significant and instantly recognizable. On the other hand, some of them will make you dizzy if you look at them for too long.
Lauren P
9. pskye
My GAWD the cover for The Outsorceror's Apprentice is perfect!

I absolutely must have the book I imagine it to be! I added it to my TBR list before even reading the marketing copy. Here's hoping the text can measure up! :)
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
Those covers are great. By and large they give a good sense of what the book is about, while generally being pleasing to the eye.

Tor could really stand to take a lesson from this. Look at Scalzi's "Old Man's War" series. I really do get the feeling someone in the Tor art department said, "Oh, hey, it's another Scalzi novel. Go grab the next one off the stack of random spaceship paintings."
Brian R
11. Mayhem
The challenge is coming up with a coherent cover design across a series ... especially when you may not ever commission the rest of the series. When done well, it can look stunning - I picked up Karen Millers Innocent/Awakened Mage pair based purely on the strong Red/Green hooded figure mirror on the spine. A consistent cover artist makes a huge difference.

I also particularly loved the Orbit covers for Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger series back in the 80s. Bizarre, but really good for creating a consistent feel.

That being said, I have to admit one of my pet hates is the changing of book covers halfway through to "encourage" readers to rebuy the ones they have to get them all to match. The Wheel of Time was particularly notorious for that one I recall.
Worst is the current trend in the UK to change the book format from A to B. My copies of the Dresden Files fell foul of that trick, along with getting rid of the simple but elegant 'case file' style covers, which I rather preferred over the current "moody staff guy in cloak and hat" we're stuck with.

Actually I think I prefer the UK cover art to the US about 90% of the time. US ones tend to be fairly heavily Generic Person based, while the UK ones are more artistic, often implying rather than explicitly showing.
The Malazan covers are a great example of that - the US ones generally look bloody awful in my opinion.

And yes @1, Baen automatically loses any cover art contest they enter by definition. Definitely an unmistakeable style though.
Lauren P
12. Booksnhorses
@11. Yes! Drives me mad in an ocd way when I look at different covers and formats on my book shelves. WoT and ASoIaF are guilty as charged.

I have to say that I've decided that Baen are so bad they're good. Having said that when I was checking that I'd read all of Tanya Huff's Valor novels I realised that the cover of A Confederation of Valor (a compilation) had chopped out the green alien from the original cover and I'm sure it was featured on Good Show Sir fairly recently :)

The Orbit covers for Rachel Bach's recent Paradox series were spot on and they do seem to have some really good work going on.
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@11 & 12: It happened to me with the Orbit Laundryverse books: I've got the first two mass-market with Sean Garrehy covers and the next two trade with the artist uncredited. The Ace editions, by contrast, are all Frederickson. I have not convinced myself that replacing the MMPBs is a good idea.

I think that Baen are excellent at marketing their books to their target audience, at the cost of putting off everyone else. Unless you, for example, have taken to buying Baen ebooks because it's easier to replace the cover file...
Lianne Burwell
14. LKBurwell
I started reading 'Mira Grant' based almost completely based on the cover of her 'first' book, Feed. A battered wall with an RSS Feed icon smeared on it in blood. It grabbed my attention and insisted I read the books. I didn't regret it, either.
Lauren P
15. BearMountainBooks
Oddly enough, the David Daglish cover is my favorite of those shown...
Lauren P
16. Lauren P
Just goes to show, you can please some of the people some of the time, but all of the people none of the time. haha.
Laura Miller
17. lkmiller
One of the reasons I am a fan of fantasy and science fiction is the cover art. It's wonderful when it's good. But even when it's cringeworthy, it's more interesting and fun than the covers of other books.
Lauren P
18. Greytfriend
You're so right, covers matter as much for people who find their books online as they do for in-store browsing. They still matter very much when it comes to if I can resist the impulse to buy a book. But I find all of my library books through blogs like this and Twitter and Goodreads now and covers still make a huge impression. I frequently dismiss books after just quick glances at the covers and blurbs. My to-read list is huge now with so many resources adding to it and the ability to keep track of it with Goodreads or Riffle or whatever, much more so than when I only had the library and bookstore at my disposal, so in some ways first impressions mean more than ever.
Lauren P
19. The G
While I agree on the Harris paintings (awesome!), I'm going to have to break ranks with you on the photograph/illustration covers. They look very corny to me, and are guaranteed to look dated as hell in 10 years, just like the facepalmy US WoT covers do now.

As far as I'm concerned, I much prefer the cover design aesthetic you see from British publishers--more abstracted, less literal; cleaner, less ornamental; etc.
Tabitha Jensen
20. pabkins
They really do magnificent covers. Love Minus Eighty is of course my favorite cover ever perhaps. But hell that is one of my favorite books now. I love the want they broke up Leckie's covers and that it is all one painting I didn't know! I love the feel they give. I can't wait to dig into it hopefully in a few days.

I do love the way they've been blending photography and illustration it has been working so well.

and that HOLT cover - I love it!! Pretty much they have a bead on my cover heart strings.

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