science fiction cover art: appealing or a barrier to success?

by Stevie on May 31, 2010

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I’m embarrassed to admit that though I love science fiction writing (at least some of it) the bright, flashy, sexy, cheesy covers on most of the novels make me anxious and slightly uncomfortable. It’s true. On the one hand, I’m intrigued by the art. It’s often incredibly complex, visually stunning, etc. Sometimes I even fantasize about having the original painting used for a cover of a favorite novel for my personal art collection. That would be cool. Where can one acquire one, anyway?

which cover art looks most appealing to you?

Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that these wild covers are designed for children and teens. Should someone in his Forties really be reading books that look like that? Shouldn’t I be, you know, like, more mature?

When I compare the covers of Lords of the Middle Dark, Empires of Flux and Anchor, Quest for the Well of Souls or The Run to Chaos Keep, let’s say, with covers for de Bernières’ Corelli’s Mandolin, Lampedusa’s The Leopard or even Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (admittedly, the last is in the sci-fi borderland), the Chalker books look so, I don’t know… un-serious. It’s not just their diminutive size compared to the other volumes, either.

whether the novel's funny or not, no one would guess that it's anything less then very adult by looking at this cover

I know it’s ridiculous and I blame this hang-up on my parents. My mother likes mysteries and doesn’t appreciate sci-fi. To me, mystery writing, like sci-fi, is merely another style of adventure story. But those novels always seem to have such somber covers that you’d never feel a moments qualm pulling one of them from your Gucci bag on a busy commuter train or while riding in an airplane to a medical symposium on new treatments for malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Dad secretly reads an occasional science fiction novel (I’m fairly certain he read Children of Dune a few years back) but only on the D-L as far as I can tell. I suppose that romance novels with their over-the-top shirtless heartthrob hunks embracing their super-sexy-but-tasteful heroines on those bright shiny covers struggle with much the same issues.

I do think that there’s a lot of serious stuff in science fiction. If you’ve been following this blog at all, then you know that I’ve been bending over backward to point out the meatier parts of Jack Chalker’s fiction. At the end of the day, though, this type of writing really does appeal in part because it is so fantastic, silly, exciting and not too serious.

say what you will about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, it sure looks good!

I read in some sci-fi blog a few months back someone complaining that the garish covers prevent sci-fi writers from crossing over to the “mainstream” reader, whoever he or she might be. They cited the subdued covers of the aforementioned The Time Traveler’s Wife and the phenomenally successful Twilight series as sci-fi related novels without the baggage of the traditional sci-fi look, suggesting cover art significantly influenced their success. They also thought that these writers didn’t try to publish the books as science fiction. Rather they went for general fiction or perhaps teen fiction, assuming that if you avoided the sci-fi label, you’d be better off financially. Maybe there’s something to it? Though there shouldn’t be.

It’s the classic Freudian struggle between the id and the super-ego. And that’s before you’ve even read the first word! Fun things don’t necessarily mean bad-for-you. We should all snap out of it!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

tasteofbeirut June 1, 2010 at 5:07 am

I am like your mom: I like mysteries and am bored to death of science fiction; one of my neighbors is a science fiction authoress (published) ; I had an art teacher who used to do book covers for a living, his name is Dave Kramer.

Stevie June 1, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Joumana, you’re amazing! I looked up your art teacher, Dave Kramer, on Google. His painting really is beautiful! Though it is that dramatic kind that you see in children’s books and on the covers of sci-fi paperbacks, don’t you think? Perhaps you don’t care for sci-fi because you haven’t found the right thing yet?

Callie August 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I loved the old-style shocking covers when I was a teen. I wonder if the readers of these books was at least thought to be younger by publishers at the time. Newer science fiction and fantasy books, even ones that don’t make the NY Times best seller list, seem to have much more tasteful covers.

If anyone has some particularly tacky covers in their collection I’d suggest they put in a submission at

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