Cover art trends and science-fiction/fantasy covers

Having recently met with my cover artist to discuss the cover for my next work, which should be released sometime this month (follow me on Amazon for e-mail notifications of new releases), I wanted to write a post on the topic of cover art.

A few months ago, I ran across an interesting article in which the author collected the cover art of bestsellers throughout recent years (2000-2012) and compared them side by side. He found a number of interesting trends, such as white covers were popular in the beginning of this time period, then in 2008 black covers flooded the charts (mostly comprised of the hugely popular Twilight series). At the end of this span, he observed that overall the trend in cover art has seemed to move towards “bright saturated hues.”

This got me thinking of the trends that I have noticed in science-fiction and fantasy covers, specifically, what appears to be a move away from the grandiose, scene-setting covers of old and towards simpler, more abstract covers which focus on the title and author text.

First, I will draw on a couple of books I have talked about previously.

Cover art of Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward Cover art of Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward

Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, which I wrote about for my first contact series, was published in 1980. The first image is the cover that was on the hardcover edition that I read sometime in the early 2000s. The second is the cover of the current edition, released as a part of the Del Ray Impact series, which appears to be a collection of classic and notable science-fiction.

The color differences between these covers are extreme. The older cover is what I would consider to be a very subdued blue, almost peaceful in its hue. In addition, it has a classic Eastern dragon prominently displayed, which brings up a benevolent association, very much in line with the story’s direction.1

In contrast, the newer cover is very jarring in its coloration. It practically screams “look at me!” with the bright yellow, orange, and the white highlighting of the object held in the hand. Unlike the clearly defined dragon, the object here is perhaps a petri dish, or maybe the neutron star which is the focus of the story. It’s very abstract, so who really knows but the artist? In my opinion, the new cover is good, but doesn’t set the right tone for the story.

Cover art of Black Sun Rising by C. S. Friedman Cover art of Black Sun Rising by C. S. Friedman

My second example is C. S. Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, mentioned briefly in my post on character names. When searching for the cover to this edition, I discovered the current cover and I was pretty disappointed with the change.

Again, we have a vast color difference between the two covers. The first is primarily a subdued blue hue, while the second is mostly black, contrasting heavily with the colors of the fonts and the stylized sun. In the second, you can faintly see some trees in the background, but they aren’t apparent unless you are really looking for them. This indicates that they aren’t important and probably just there so that the cover isn’t only a solid black.

This is quite different than the older cover which clearly sets a scene.2 There is a man with a sword standing in a forest with a castle in the background. After reading the book, the reader will recognize the man as the villainous Gerald Tarrant, the blue magic streaming from the sword as the coldfire that he uses, and the castle in the background as his lair. To me, it is an intriguing cover, setting a dark tone for the story, and the newer cover is rather bland in comparison, with nothing special about it since it seems to be following the lead of the Twilight covers.

Cover art of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin Cover art of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Cover art of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin Cover art of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Nearly everyone will recognize this example: the very popular A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The first cover is the edition as I read it. The second is the cover as relaunched in 1997. The third is the cover again as revamped and relaunched in anticipation of the HBO adaptation. The fourth is the current cover, with a banner at the top proclaiming “Now the acclaimed HBO series.” (You will find that the covers of very popular books tend to go through many reimaginings as new adaptations or merchandise comes out.)

Again, we have a similar contrast between old and new as the Black Sun Rising covers. The second and third covers focus on the title and the author name, with the hilt of a sword/dragon head to provide a bit of spice to the cover. The fourth cover is much like the new Black Sun Rising cover: the dark background provides contrast to the white font, though the throne in this example is much more prominent than the trees in the Black Sun Rising cover, probably because the publisher wants to catch the eye of fans of the series who will recognize the Iron Throne. This is also why they use the font of the HBO series, and the title is only Game of Thrones, having dropped the “A” to match the HBO adaptation’s title.

Let’s contrast these new covers with the old edition: the character is presumably Jon Snow, and the animal his direwolf. He is riding a horse through a winter landscape, perhaps near the Wall, but to the casual observer unfamiliar with the story, the setting looks like what one would expect from a fantasy world, though it could be medieval as well. Though some might think it “hackneyed and clichéd,” I like the old cover more. It sets a scene, invoking a world to imagine, and especially in light of the oft-referenced Stark motto, “Winter is coming,” I think the snowy landscape was a good choice.

Overall, it does seem that most new science-fiction and fantasy covers are leaning towards a bright crispness to the illustrations, or the “bright saturated hues” mentioned earlier. I don’t mind this shift in palette, but I would like to see more covers with a defined scene. Perhaps I’m just old school and adverse to change, but I prefer the older covers. I want to catch a glimpse of the world that I am going to read about.

What about you: what kind of cover do you prefer? Have any of your favorite books been given a new cover that was disappointing? Or a new cover that was a vast improvement?

1. See Wikipedia’s articles for a breakdown of the differences between the Western and Eastern dragons.
2. The cover is the work of Michael Whelan, a well-known artist who has done a great deal of cover art for both science fiction and fantasy, and who is one of my favorite cover artists.

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