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.




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