Nothing is quite as sad as watching a quality book cover illustration be slowly butchered.

As a writer/illustrator, I’ve seen the world from both sides (13 novels with HarperCollins and Avon Books, over a thousand book illustrations). While the process of writing a book and painting an illustration are similar, there are some important differences.

An example of a cover where the cover illustrator was allowded to "do his thing" with quality input from the publisher.

A great cover in large part because of quality input from a thoughtful writer/publisher.

Before continuing, I want to note that not all input on any given piece of artwork is bad. I’ve had art directors, authors, and even family members offer suggestions that have transformed the mediocre into something special. Someone with a quality opinion can be helpful. (A good example of how a publisher/author and a cover illustrator can maximize the effectiveness of a cover can be seen in the cover at the left. Here’s a link for those wanting to find more information about Philip A. Genovese’s crime novel The Grandfather Clause.)

Every illustrator has a few horror stories of cover illustrations gone wrong. And they all have a very similar storyline.

Part of the trouble is that a book cover illustrator normally comes to the “story” after the fact. The novel is more or less set in concrete by the time the artist comes to the scene; he is told exactly what is needed as far as the scene and characters, and thus works within closer restraints than the writer usually does. In effect, the artist often starts his project with one creative hand tied behind his back. As he works, he will be constantly bumping into the creative cage he’s working in. This is just the way it is, but it is important for the writer to realize that the limitations can be frustrating and, on occasion, make the work excruciatingly hard to pull off in a manner that will become an attractive cover.

(As a side note, some of the best covers of the 1950s and 1960s came from artwork purchased by an editor who had no book to pin them on. His solution was just to tack the illustration on the first novel that came close to fitting. Sometimes this led to oddities, the strangest perhaps being a science fiction novel of the 1960s which had a skimpily clad green princess riding a tiger. By the time the reader reached the end of the book, he discovered there was no princess – green or otherwise – and the closest thing to a tiger was a house cat.)

It’s important not to expect too much from a book cover illustration. That’s because it’s more like a snapshot than a story. It can never reach the all-encompassing proportions of a novel. An illustration can generally only capture a moment in time and create the atmosphere that hopefully reflects that of the book. The cover isn’t like a movie: You can’t zoom in on the character, you can’t pan the scene, you wait and discover what happens next. A cover is like the photo of a ball player going for a lay up. Maybe he made it; maybe he won’t. The sports photo, like a good cover illustration, can be full of action, it may even hint at what will happen, but it can only do so much.

But sometimes publishers or a writer in charge wishes to add everything. More warriors, another moon, and on it goes… Some easy to add, some meaning days of work. But the effort isn’t so horrible as the results. As things start to be micromanaged, the layout that the artist has carefully balanced out and honed starts to go south in a hurry.

Now don’t get me wrong. There have been times when a writer has pointed out a glaring wrong, or made a thoughtful suggestion. Most people have the ability to see when something isn’t quite right with a picture. Those suggestions are always appreciated.

But there’s also a certain “death by committee” that can happen to an illustration if care isn’t taken by all involved.

Sadly when it comes to small presses or self-publishing, the writer too often jumps into the fray (or, worse, the writer’s secretary, spouse, friend or — yes – child) to suggest less merited suggestions. It is during such times that one is reminded that a camel has been likened to a horse designed by committee.

Large publishers have learned it’s best to let their artists operate with as little input from the writer as possible. There’s a reason for this. Just as you wouldn’t expect good results if you had the artist dictate changes in a novel, you also can’t expect a writer to be qualified to determine what changes are needed in an illustration. Sure there may be exceptions, but generally the artist is hired because he knows his work, just like the writer knows his.

Invariably an illustration with poor input from various sources ends stiff, muddled, cobbled, and less than worthy. Most artists comply with such butchery because they are under contract and can’t walk away. But the results are horrid as a rule. (And it’s so sad to watch a quality illustration slowly be shifted, tweaked, and altered until is it a weak and spindly ghost of its former self.)

My advice in a nutshell: If you’re a writer, let the artist, art director, and publisher have the freedom to produce a quality illustration for you. If you’re an artist, think long and hard before taking on a job that may deteriorate into torture.

An illustrator should be hired because he can do the work better than the writer or anyone else involved in producing a book. In the end, letting the artist take advantage of his training and skills results in quality work. The picture may not look exactly the way the writer pictured it, it may surprise the art director just a bit. But 99.99 percent of the time it will be a better in illustration in terms of attracting attention and presenting a professional appearance for the book. And ultimately will sell more titles than any reworked-to-death picture ever can.

If you’re a pro interested in becoming rich and famous, then selling your book should be of greater importance than having a cover that’s accurate in minor details of character and scene.

Let me underscore my point: The purpose of a book cover illustration is to help sell a book, not necessarily to tell a wealth of information about what will appear in the story line or to exactly conform to how the author pictured a scene in his mind.

If a book cover illustrator is allowed to “do his thing” without a lot of input, the results will almost always be fresher and more compelling for the potential book buyer.



Duncan Long was the cover artist for HarperCollins’ Digital Artwork for the 21st Century.