They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but we do it all the time. Literally.

You’re walking the aisles of a bookstore and something catches your eye, so you pick it up thinking that it might be interesting. Or you notice someone reading a book, and the cover of it doesn't appeal to you so you dismiss it. Maybe you picked up a media tie-in book because your favorite actor was on the cover. Or you pick up a book because it looked like something your friend would rave about. All of these assessments are based solely on the book cover and your notions of what it says about the story.

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Science fiction and fantasy art, or "fantastic" art, plays a particularly important role in science fiction and fantasy literature. SF/F readers love stories that ignite their imaginations, making it that much more important that a book cover convey that wonder right from the outset. If SF/F readers are looking for imagination, the cover better let them know where they can find it.

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Let's take a look under the covers in science fiction and fantasy cover art.

The Job of Book Cover Art in SF Fantasy Literature

Ask anyone: When you’re browsing for a new book to read, what's the first thing you notice about a book? Chances are they said it was the book cover. If a book cover draws you in, you're more likely to pick it up, and if you do that, you're more likely to buy it. And that right there is the primary job of book cover art, to sell books. The only way it can do that is to visually grab your attention. If it doesn't get your attention, it's game over.

Selling you is not the only thing book cover art needs to do. It also needs to convey something about the story. It would make no sense if, say, a near-future thriller that takes place on Earth had a cover with spaceships battling around a distant planet. It would drive away thriller lovers and attract readers looking for something they won't find. It's misleading and detrimental to the intended customer of the book. The trick in representing the story is to do so in a way that makes it stand out from other books like it. If it's done right, you'll stop scanning the bookshelf when you come across it, pick up the book and take a look.

Art is a Collaborative Process

There are a lot of people and process that go into making a book cover. Publishers have art directors who are responsible for putting the public face on a book. The art director commissions an artist to draw the cover. Depending on the artist and their schedule, they may or may not read the book they are drawing for; if they don't, they work with the art director to capture the essence and feel of the story. The artist will then submit sketches to the art director, who will discuss them with a book's editor. The artwork may go through some iterations at this point, until a final piece of art is decided upon and created. Then a designer will add the title and other text you see on the book, laying it out for maximum appeal. This process varies from publisher to publisher, of course, but you can see that creating book cover art is a collaborative process, sometimes with one person fulfilling multiple roles, all for the purpose of helping attract a reader.

Don't e-books Make Book Cover Art Obsolete?

With the rising popularity of e-books, what does all this mean for book cover art? I don't have a crystal ball, but I do know a few things:

  1. Physical books aren't going away. Publishing is definitely undergoing some changes, but physical books will still be around. And that means they will need cover art.
  2. E-books should include cover art, just like their physical counterparts. Author J.A. Konrath, who's sold hundreds of thousands of books online, contends that an awesome cover will boost sales
  3. You can make difference. As an e-book consumer, you can demand that publishers include artwork with their e-books.

mastesr of sf A Quick Hit of the Fantastic

Enough art speak! A picture is worth a thousand words. For a quick hit of what of science fiction and fantasy art, seek out a book that collects fantastic art from various artists and sources. A great starting point is the annual Spectrum art books edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner. This year Spectrum will publish volume 19 and, if history is any indicator, I already know I'll love it. Every single volume I've seen is a pure eye-candy feast. Also worth checking out: Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art edited by Karen Haber, a focus on some of best illustrators working in fantastic art right now.

Hey! What About the Artists?

Glad you asked! We'll look at some of the artists of the fantastic next time. Stay tuned!

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.