01 December, 2011

Guest Post - Michael J. Sullivan on Book Covers

I’m so pleased to be asked here today to do a guest post about book covers, as it’s a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. When I was a kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had two responses: a writer or an artist. Little did I know how difficult those aspirations were to achieve. Well, writing and drawing really aren’t all that hard, but making a living at it is another matter altogether. As I grew older, and realized just how bad my spelling and grammar was, I concentrated on art, and received a scholarship to The Center for Creative Studies, a well-respected college for artists not far from where I lived in Michigan. I knew there was no money to be found in fine art, but I thought there could be some commercial success in doing book covers…alas one thing led to another, and I never did end up pursuing that goal…until 30 years later.

For those that don’t know me, my name is Michael J. Sullivan, and I’ve written an epic fantasy series, The Riyria Revelations. Because I originally self-published, I was able to create the covers myself (and live out both of my dreams at once). My goal was to tie all the books together as a series, and not scream “self-published” in the process. I wanted them to look like anything coming out from a “real publisher” and I think all in all I achieved my goal.

As some of you may have heard, the series was picked up by Orbit and they are re-releasing the books as a trilogy and as such the covers were recreated as follows:

For those that don’t know, traditionally published authors really don’t have a lot of say when it comes to cover design. The publisher sees this, as they should, as a marketing function, and focus on designs that will sell the best. Usually by the time an author gets their first peek, the publisher is already pretty far down the road toward completion. Oh sure, little tweaks can be made here or there, but the overall concept is pretty much set in stone…artists have been commissioned, other departments have weighed in, and in some cases covers are even vetted with major retailers. I’ve actually heard of covers being redesigned based feedback from a powerful bookstore chain.


To be one-hundred percent honest, I’m not a big fan of characters on book covers. There are several reasons for this, but first and foremost I want readers to be able to conjure their own idea of what the characters look like. After saying this you might conclude that I’m not happy with the Orbit covers…but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I was in a bookstore and saw both on a shelf, I would pick theirs up first, which just proves my point that they know how to create covers that compel readers.


The Orbit covers convey, much better than mine do, that The Riyria Revelations is traditional epic fantasy. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but they reveal more about the series than mine do. From the Orbit covers I know there are two main protagonists: Royce and Hadrian. I can also see battles and castles in the background that tells me more about events that I can expect. All in all I think Orbit’s covers are very professional, and if you get a chance to see them on a shelf with other books, you’ll see that they really stand out from the crowd.


The quality of Orbit’s covers really didn’t come as a surprise to me. In fact, cover design was one of the criteria I used when selecting a publisher (yes I actually had several publishers interested in the books). I encourage you to look at some of the other Orbit covers. They are some of the best I’ve seen, and no one else produces such consistently high levels of quality as they do.


So was it difficult for me to have someone else do my covers? You might think so, but the truth is I’ve had the best of both worlds. I’ve been able to put out the books with covers of my own design and have them elevated to another level through the vast resources of a larger organization. The process was actually a very smooth one, both because I knew the books were in capable hands, and I already had “my shot” at what they should look like. I couldn’t be happier with the way everything turned out.


It’s an old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but we all do so. I’ll admit that I’m a cover coinsurer. I’ve actually bought some books that I’ve never read just because I’ve liked the covers. It’s from the cover that first impressions are made, and I’m just happy that whether self or traditionally published, my covers have had a pleasing exterior. Of course it is the interior that really matters, and hopefully people will like what they find inside after all I like to think my books are more than just another pretty face.

7 comments:

Sunny said...

Actually, I like the original 6 covers much more than the new 3. Much more mysterious and intriguing...Gorgeous work!
And although I generally don't mind characters on the cover, it does bug me when the cover artist gets it blatantly wrong, such as depicting a blond character with black hair or whatever, or depicting a scene that never happens in the book.

Bryce L. said...

Thanks for stopping by Michael. I loved this article, I was really curious to hear your thoughts, thanks again.

Melissa (My World...in words and pages) said...

Hi Michael! Wonderful post, as always. :)

I have to say I'm more a fan of your covers. They depict a scene from the book for me and I see it there in those covers clear as day. The Orbit ones are nice, but I just can't figure out which one is who. ;D

Best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

I hate to burst your bubble, but as a professional graphic designer/art director, your 6 designs scream self-published. Though I would have guessed they were New Age type self help books.

The 3 new designs are much better. They identify the genre and are a bit masculine.

Bryce L. said...

I completely disagree Anon although I'm not a professional graphic designer, just an avid fan who's seen a lot of covers.

Compare Wintertide with the cover of Mark Charon Newton's Nights of Villjamur for instance.

Melissa (My World...in words and pages) said...

I have to go with Bryce on this one. But let me start as I do understand everyone has their own attraction to covers.

But being a graphic designer that seems to be where you are attracted to. I love the painted covers, and even the covers that are on the simpler side.

I also love covers that relate with the book. And for me I'm having a hard time relating the new covers, probably because I so easily can relate to the original covers.

And this goes for many books I've seen over the years. I really think the covers should relate more and better to the books. Yes the 2 main characters are here, but it doesn't sway me more. It has a similar theme like many other fantasy covers. That is the graphic aspect though, a lot of the same ideas right now. Not a bad thing, but just a thought.

Jay said...

The cover for Wintertide was what first drew me to your books. If I had seen the Orbit covers in a book store, I would passed them right by. I do think the 2 green colored covers look 'self published' but the other 4 are really nice.

Self published look wins over urban fantasy trope anyway for me.