Where book covers come from

“Love that cover!” “The picture of the girl with the hand over her mouth is sooo compelling!” “Great cover–it really makes me want to read the book!” And so on.

People think they’re complimenting me when they say that sort of thing, and I suppose they are. After all, my name is on the cover. And I did create what’s inside.

As for the cover itself? Er, well . . .

For better or worse, those are almost entirely the work of our publishers.

The cover creation process works more or less like this:

1. A year or so before the book comes out, the publisher sends the author a cover art questionnaire that asks for stuff like physical descriptions of the main characters, the story setting, objects that play key roles in the plot, etc.

2. About six months later, the publisher sends the author an e-mail titled “Your cover!” or something similar. It contains a .jpeg or .pdf file of the cover. If an author is lucky, the e-mail may even contain two or three cover choices to choose from.

3. The author spends the next week showing the cover(s) to friends and family. If they ooh and ah over it (like they did with this one), the author does a Snoopy dance and begins fantasizing about how the cover could be adapted into a movie poster. If there are multiple options to choose from, the author picks one and the cover creation process is over.

4. But sometimes the informal poll turns up negative results. The author’s critique group gives only faint praise. A more experienced author opines that it’s “not an eye-grabber.” Even the author’s mother hints that it doesn’t quite do justice to the book. The author is distraught. His or her agent gets an anguished call and is begged to do something–anything–to fix the horrible cover that is about to doom the author’s career.

5. If the agent agrees with the author, the next step is a call to the publisher to explain that the cover isn’t quite as good as the publisher thought. Sometimes the agent can talk the publisher into redoing the cover and sometimes not. It depends on how much clout the agent has, how much money is left in the publisher’s budget for the book, and how much the publisher likes the original cover.

6. With luck, however, the agent can get the publisher to fix the problems. And pretty soon the author starts getting misguided compliments about what a great cover he or she created.

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