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July 11, 2006 6:36 PM   Subscribe

"What Do I Put in My Portfolio?" Irene Gallo, art director for science fiction/fantasy publisher Tor Books (and its mainstream imprint Forge), lays down wisdom on how to impress an art director and maybe get one to hire you for a book cover. Aside from being a practical primer for artists on everything from picturing the human figure to how not to annoy an art director at a party, for everyone else it's a glimpse into why SF book covers look the way they do.
posted by jscalzi (24 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey John! I totally just finished your book yesterday! (Old Man's War) You rock. I hope you continue writing long and late into your life. It was an awesome read.

As for the post - she needs a spellcheck but I think her advice is applicable in almost any portfolio situation - whether it's poetry, photography, anything.

I always wondered how the artists got picked to do cover work. And I always wondered why, and how, the dude who did the atrocious covers for the Wheel of Time ever kept his job.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:07 PM on July 11, 2006


The artist who did the atrocious covers for the Wheel of Time series is Darrell K. Sweet. His covers are something of a running joke among people who like good genre fiction.

That said, he kept his job because his covers sell. They sell like hotcakes. They sell like hotcakes laced with crack. At one point, if you got a Darrell K. Sweet cover, you could apparentlycount on a bunch of extra sales from people thinking "hey, that cover looks like the covers from Wheel of Time. I better buy it!"

At least he didn't use Poser for his people. I'm looking at you, Baen Books. (but respect, Jim. We hardly knew ya.)
posted by Justinian at 7:14 PM on July 11, 2006


Hey I work in a bookstore, oversee the SF/Fantasy department (and recommend Old Man's War whenever I can -- I second Balrog's kudos), and every day I see crappy cover after crappy cover (mostly on all the Vampire Romance shit that's migrating into SF/Fantasy from Romance... someone shoot Laurell K Hamilton), but after all those that float by there's the inevitable "whoa..." cover. I, too, have wondered what various publishers use as criteria for judgement.

A lot of times there aren't even figures or characters or swords on the real genius covers (see the hardcover editions of "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy -- an amazing read, btw).
posted by dopamine at 7:28 PM on July 11, 2006


R. Scott Bakker is awesome. I just met him at Readercon and we spent a good portion of Saturday night at a pub discussing the nature of human consciousness (and also, why people suddenly go quiet when they poo. It was a wide-ranging conversation). I will second the vote for his covers, as well (and the books within).

Another good book cover, similar to Bakker's: the one for Vellum, by Hal Duncan (great book, great cover).
posted by jscalzi at 7:34 PM on July 11, 2006


As for the post - she needs a spellcheck but I think her advice is applicable in almost any portfolio situation - whether it's poetry, photography, anything.

SPELLCHECK IS FOR THE WEAK!

I really like the jon foster portfolio she linked too, but I wish she included clickable thumbnails to what she thought was good.
posted by delmoi at 7:52 PM on July 11, 2006


The covers on the Bakker novels are understated like that because people who pick them up to read them and aren't HARD enough are immediately roundhouse kicked by Chuck Norris. It's a safety measure.

This is a weird thing to say, but my favorite cover at the moment is from a print on demand book and is done by the author: Etched City, by K.J. Bishop. This is the one I'm talking about.

I've found in general that a good cover won't make me buy a book, but a really bad cover will make me pass it over. I neglected to read Avram Davidson's Ursus of Ultima Thule for years because it had this horrible Ace SF cover with a Loincloth Dude, but it turns out to actually be an excellent book.

The one time I actually picked up a book based on the cover was Black Sun Rising, years ago. It was partially because it had been shelved in the regular fiction section. I was browsing along and suddenly that guy with the lightning-sword popped out at me like "Hi! Buy me!"
posted by selfnoise at 7:57 PM on July 11, 2006


selfnoise, I believe the Black Sun Rising cover is by Michael Whelan. Click "Galleries" and "Archive". Though that particular cover doesn't seem to be included, anyone who's been reading SF for the last several decades is sure to recognize something there.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:09 PM on July 11, 2006


Oh my God I fucking hate and despise with an abiding passion as deep as the oceans and as wide as Time any cover by Michael Whelan. Sappy, poorly-executed, sentimental drivel that never has anything to do with what's actually going on in the fucking book.

Best cover ever? The Michael Rosen cover for the large hardcover edition of The Hobbit.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:54 PM on July 11, 2006


I'd agree with you on the sentimental -- way too heavy a hand with the airbrushing and you always feel like you need to be listening to new age music while looking at it. But let's face it, he's commercial. I'd disagree with it having nothing to do with what's going on in the book -- SF covers have a history of being generic but his are often descriptive of things that appear in the book; in a few cases very accurately so. They don't depict actual scenes, but I don't think there's much of a case to be made that they should. Personally I dislike it when they do. Anyway, if you look at the Horror section you'll see signs of a little more range. I like the "something in my eye" one a lot.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:05 PM on July 11, 2006


My favourite covers for SF/F books are the Mythago Wood series (Robert Holdstock) done by the fantasy artist Geoff Taylor
posted by dhruva at 11:19 PM on July 11, 2006


I dig Freas, Foss, and Powers.
posted by sourwookie at 12:26 AM on July 12, 2006


Whelan seemed to to more fantasy than Sci Fi. Off my radar.
posted by sourwookie at 12:28 AM on July 12, 2006


I give Barlow props for good biology. Not so much for ships and architecture.
posted by sourwookie at 12:30 AM on July 12, 2006


Whelan has done a bunch of SF as well as fantasy. I believe he did a bunch of the recent Cherryh covers, for example.
posted by Justinian at 3:50 AM on July 12, 2006


The job of cover art isn't to illustrate a scene from the book; it's to convey a sense of what it feels like to read this particular book.

Regarding spelling: I expect a good art director (and Irene Gallo is a very good art director) to be able to do many things. Oddly enough, "spelling perfectly" is not on that list.
posted by pnh at 4:47 AM on July 12, 2006


dhruva writes "My favourite covers for SF/F books are the Mythago Wood series (Robert Holdstock) done by the fantasy artist Geoff Taylor"

Oooh! I've read the first one of those--a friend of mine gave me, oh I don't know what it's called, the trade something or other? It's not a manuscript... maybe a proof? Anyway.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:09 AM on July 12, 2006


It's interesting, but it would be awesome if the example covers were big enough to see what she means.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:54 AM on July 12, 2006


That Tor has more than one cover artist comes as something of a shock to me.
posted by absalom at 7:35 AM on July 12, 2006


Oooh! I've read the first one of those--a friend of mine gave me, oh I don't know what it's called, the trade something or other? It's not a manuscript... maybe a proof?

If it's what I think you're referring too (an advance copy for review or for bookstores), among those I know, it's usually called a galley or I'll call them ARCs.
posted by drezdn at 7:40 AM on July 12, 2006


Absalom:

"That Tor has more than one cover artist comes as something of a shock to me."

You need to get out more, then. Tor uses quite a few. Heck, they've used three different ones for my books alone: Donato Giancola, John Harris and Shelley Eshkar.
posted by jscalzi at 9:15 AM on July 12, 2006


Oddly enough, I expect anyone who writes prose for others to read to spell perfectly.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:48 AM on July 12, 2006


I always guaged the worth of book covers by how much work I put into tracking down a poster-version of the cover. My greatest success in this was the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser covers and the Elric of Melnibone series of covers. I think I might still have some of those bundled up in the basement. The Elric ones were very interesting, as they had the pseudo-celtic knotwork bordering the images, just as they had in the generation of books I was reading.

One I never managed to find when I was younger was the intricate cover of Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle (I believe it's the Jim Burns version -- with the huge blue castle on the back cover). I haven't looked for it recently, but by just Googling now, it looks like I may never find it...
posted by thanotopsis at 11:21 AM on July 12, 2006


Most SF and fantasy cover art annoys me greatly. I'm rereading the Honor Harringtons, and I have no idea the caucasian women on the covers are supposed to be. Ms. Harrington is Chinese.

However, I do enjoy the covers for the Chicks in Chainmail series.
posted by QIbHom at 12:38 PM on July 12, 2006


@pnh: I've *been* an art director a couple times: it falls within their sphere of responsibility, yes, to make sure everything's spelled correctly.
posted by baylink at 8:37 PM on July 13, 2006


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