The Endangered Genre Book Cover Painting

Kristine Kathryn Rusch in one of her recent writing business columns mentioned a discussion she had with her publisher, wherein she asked, “What can you do for me that I can’t do myself?” And his first answer was, “Well, I can pay for that beautiful cover.”

She reports that she turned him down, and this left me wondering suddenly what the fate of the beautiful book cover painting would be.

I remember when I was just embarking on my Fine Art education in college, I did some research on the average amounts made by different freelance artists. I was heartened to discover that the artists who provided the gorgeous book covers I so admired—people like Michael Whelan—could expect to receive between $14K and $20K per project delivered. These were for people working at the top of their field… but it was still good to know that if I could get to that point or even close to it, I could make a living handily.

Things though, have changed.

If I put on my Marketer Jaguar hat today, I would look around at this market and say, “Wow, the big publishers are feeling endangered, or actively going down; either way they are feeling parsimonious. I’m going to be selling a lot less art to this market, and competing against a lot more people. But there’s a huge crop of indie writers out there, and they need tons of book covers that only need to look good at thumbnail size.

“Therefore,” says Marketer Jaguar, “I will retool my business process to start delivering hundreds of small, quick, less detailed paintings to capture the actual money in this market segment. This is a better use of my time than attempting to compete for the few (and getting rarer) Giant Gorgeous Book Cover Painting slots offered by the Big Publishers.”

And that makes total sense; I can even be glad that it’s offering a lot more opportunity for work to a larger number of artists. But it leaves us without one of the genre’s most magnificent hallmarks: the incredible art produced by illustrators for book covers. Science fiction and fantasy has a rich and deep tapestry of art history for such a young genre, and such glorious things! The need, the desire for realistic covers has driven the development of a raft of naturalist painters who are masters of their craft, and their works have enriched us all. They’re beautiful things. I remember seeing a photo once of Michael Whelan standing next to one of those paintings: it was almost as tall as I was! And all that work, to fit onto a tiny 8.5″x5.5″ cover! And we see them not only in the bookstores, but in these giant beautiful art books, and at conventions, and on merchandise…

…the experience I had, looking at the original for “The Snow Queen,” was fully as awing to me as the time I saw a real Rothko in a museum in California. We visually-moved people are so blessed in the genre.

Of course, artists will continue to make beautiful, time-consuming works. But there will be a lot fewer of them with the market going cheap e-book; inevitably, since freelancers need to make money. It’s the one thing that disturbs me; I don’t know a lot of indie publishers who can afford even $1000 for a book cover, much less $15K. And Big Publishing is a lot less motivated to shell out for complex paintings when photo manipulation will keep their margins down.

So I worry about the fate of the Big Beautiful Book Cover Painting. I wonder: are there alternatives? I wonder if a Big Painting in the grand book cover-style could be crowdfunded or kickstarted. How would that work? Could it succeed? Or will we lose one of our beautiful, defining qualities of the fandom?

Stardancer Home.

About M.C.A. Hogarth

Genderqueer sci-fantasy writer, animal geek, conlanger, pyrographer, painter, doodler, jewelry artisan, web designer, Kemetic, and musician. Snake-crazy.
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