Should authors have more control over their covers?

by | Jun 19, 2019 | Publishing Industry | 9 comments

It often comes as a surprise to people that authors in the traditional book world don’t have that much control over their book cover.

Approval is rare. Consultation is more common, but how meaningful and sincere that consultation is vary greatly. (I liked to joke when I was an agent that authors are often consulted on a scale of love to simply adore).

So bestselling author Daniel José Older caused a stir when, in a thread urging authors to not take what they’re offered at face value, he urged authors to fight for approval over their cover:

Then Brendan Reichs then quote-tweeted his approval:

Then Justine Larbalestier quote-tweeted Brendan with a slight disagreement:

And then John Scalzi quote tweeted his agreement with Justine’s disagreement:


So. What to make of this?

Should authors have control over their covers?

I’m somewhat split on this one.

On the one hand, publishers really do have a great deal of expertise on covers. They have a sense of what’s worked in the past, they know the tastes of key accounts (for instance, if Target or Barnes & Noble doesn’t like your cover, guess what, your cover is getting changed), and the people who source and design the covers are enormously talented.

On the other hand… in my opinion it’s still more art than science, and I don’t know that publishers are quite rigorous enough in the way they bring data and A/B testing to bear with covers (I’d love to be corrected on this if I’m wrong). I’ve also seen authors get pigeonholed with their covers in seriously unfortunate ways.

And fundamentally, even if publishers did bring more data and objectivity to bear, that expertise still skews toward looking backward rather than forward. What’s worked in the past isn’t necessarily an indicator of what will work in the future. Some of the most iconic cover designs in history were marked departures from what came before and were simply great design and true to the book.

To me, it’s authors who are most in tune with what note their book is trying to strike. Authors may not be graphic design or product marketing experts and they should be humble about that, but they are in tune with some ineffable cultural chords.

At the end of the day, I agree with the sentiment of Daniel’s initial tweet. The author is the one who has to walk with that book cover, and if the cover isn’t one that makes sense to them, something is wrong.

What do you think? Who knows best when it comes to a cover?

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Art: Orange and Book by Raphaelle Peale



    May I suggest authors and others pay particular attention to the book’s spine, so as to get bookshop browsers to pay particular attention to it, since it’s all many, if not most, people will see of the book?

  2. Marilynn Byerly

    I have heard so many horror stories from big publishing, particularly romance covers–overweight heroes, a woman with three hands, and modern Jordache-branded jeans on the heroine in a historical romance to name a few.

    In my own case, working with small publishers, I’ve had to fight over covers. A romance cover on a science fiction adventure, an action/adventure cover on a romantic suspense, and a misplaced hand that made the cover hysterically funny. I even paid to have one cover done myself because the publisher was so clueless about my genre. I’d rather be considered difficult than lie to the reader about the kind of book I’m selling them.

    Sometimes, feedback is a good thing.

    • JOHN T. SHEA

      Unfortunately, your experience is not unique. Even large publishers have issued terrible covers.

      When Brian Aldiss’ SF novel ‘NON-STOP’ was published in the USA, it was remamed in such a way as to give away its main plot twist! To add insult to injury, the US cover reinforced the spoiler!

      Only recently, the excellent 1980s war/adventure thriller ‘THE MAN WHO LOVED THE NORMANDIE’ was republished in the US by a big publisher with a cover featuring the QUEEN MARY, but with the NORMANDIE’s name crudely added to its bow and other absurdities.

      As you so rightly point out, this can be a matter of basic factual errors rather than taste.

  3. G.B. Miller

    To be honest, this question is directed towards who are going to be traditionally published, and as such, they really don’t have that much say so. If you’re going indie, then yes, you will have 100% control of your cover.

    • Sam Golden

      Indie publishers statistically give no more control to an author than the big houses. The only way to ensure you have cover control is to self publish or put it in your contract.

  4. Adam Heine

    I agree with you, Nathan, that publishers tend not to be rigorous about data and tend to look backward rather than forward. Then again, most authors don’t have any data to work with outside of anecdotal evidence. So there’s a very real Dunning-Kruger effect where authors (myself included!) tend to think, “I know what I like, and I wrote the book, therefore I’m the foremost expert on what will sell.”

    I think I side more with Larbalestier and Scalzi here—most authors should leave the decision up to most publishers. That said, I think it’s a good idea for publishers to listen to authors, particularly those who can articulate their case in terms of culture, market, data, and comparables.

  5. Peter Rey

    More control is better, theoretically. But the word control implies that those doing the work know what they are doing. This isn’t always the case when writers make their own covers. In fact, even though writers know their own book better, this doesn’t necessarily mean they can ‘translate’ it into a cover more effectively than a graphic designer could.

    However, also graphic designers should pay attention to their writer clients when they are asked to come up with a cover. In fact, their task should be focused on the visual realization of such ideas. Of course, provided such ideas aren’t impractical.

    In short, an active, two-way flow of communication between the two artists should be the best solution.

  6. Jason

    Yikes. So I approach this question from the small-press-leader perspective; a majority of the books we’ve published hail from debut novelists. One of my key “tells” that an emerging author will prove difficult to work with is whether he or she wants to control the cover.

    It’s true that a cover is a book’s primary marketing tool. Experienced authors who understand the genre/market are, quite often, well-positioned to offer meaningful insight into a cover, and I’ve often collaborated with the author if I’m confident that the author “gets it.” But most, frankly, don’t. (Which is why I often hire graphic designers with a background in successful book development to design our covers — they’re the experts, not me or the author.)

    Yet I think that the cover-design question is less about the cover and more about an author attempting to inappropriately influence editorial processes — based on expectations that arise, in part, from “how to be an author” blog posts affiliated in some (often opaque) way with vanity presses. Generally, the authors most keen to control the cover are also the ones who fight minor edits, demand status reports, and vent spleen on social media — i.e., authors whose experience and expectations tends toward the self-pub/vanity-pub model, not the trad-pub model.

    Traditional publishing requires a division of labor wherein each contributor to a finished book respects the autonomy and judgment of every other contributor. Covers, like copyright pages, belong to the publisher. Framing the question in terms of “creative control,” as Older and Reichs seem to, misrepresents the fundamental dynamic at play.

    If authors really do want to die on the cover-approval hill, so be it. But from my view on the other side of the desk, if I have 10 equally promising manuscripts to pick from, with roughly equivalent P&Ls, I’ll go with an author who respects the division of labor over one who doesn’t.

    • Antoinette de Alteriis

      And you are a person I’d like to work with! You have presented a sane and intelligent response to this conundrum.


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