How cover art influences book sales (at least, for one picky reader)

Guest blogger Jason Sanford often rants on his website at His fiction has been published in Interzone, Year’s Best SF 14, Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pindeldyboz, and other places, and has won the 2008 Interzone Readers’ Poll and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.

Here’s a simple story about how important cover art is to an author’s book sales. There’s this struggling new writer named John Scalzi, who has a first fantasy novella coming out called The God Engines. Okay, I’m being a bit silly—we all know Scalzi. But for me, this book wasn’t an automatic buy. While I’ve really enjoyed Scalzi’s science fiction novels, I wasn’t sure I’d buy a fantasy from him.

Scalzi1Then I saw the cover by Tomislav Tikulin (see right) and decided to take a pass. This isn’t a pan on Tikulin. I usually love his art. If you go through his online portfolio, you’ll see a ton of amazing illustrations, any one of which would make me buy the story they’re based on. But in this one case, the art didn’t work for me, so I decided to take a pass.

Scalz2Fast forward a few months and Scalzi announces that Vincent Chong is now creating a new cover for the book (see left). Suddenly I’m once again interested in the book. Chong is one of my favorite genre artists and has illustrated two of my Interzone stories (“When Thorns Are the Tips of Trees” and “The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain“). And while the new cover is thematically very similar to the original cover, Chong has taken the art in a totally different direction. Instead of the original’s retro-pulp feel, Chong’s art feels both cutting edge and ground-breaking, as if this story will be unlike anything I’ve ever read before. So I ordered the limited edition as an early holiday present for myself.

This is a fascinating case study in how an illustration can make or break a book’s sales. And yes, I realize with the draw of Scalzi’s name and talent, he probably would have sold out both editions of this book with either cover. But I wouldn’t have purchased the book without Chong’s art.

BTW, it blows my mind that we aren’t seeing more of Chong’s art on these shores. He’s one of the most talented new artists working in the genre. While he has created a series of amazing covers for Subterranean Press, I’m shocked we aren’t seeing his work on more covers for the larger presses. But their loss is the gain of Subterranean Press and readers like me.

11 comments on “How cover art influences book sales (at least, for one picky reader)

  1. keyan says:

    I agree with you. I’d have picked up the yellow cover, but not the blue one. Partly, I think, because the man on the blue cover was a less interesting stereotype than the man on the yellow cover… Also because the blue cover said sci-fi and the yellow one, fantasy.

  2. NewGuyDave says:

    In this case I fully agree with you. Another example is Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I wouldn’t buy the cheesy mmp covers, but I did pick up the collected editions. The cover art by Raymond Swanland kicks.

  3. Rachel Swirsky says:

    The Chong cover is very visually striking. He does a lot with lighting, and compositionally, the tension between the ugly chains and the restful pose is much more intriguing (to me at least) than the straining, angry man. I think the Chong cover also has a better use of text, and uses the spears and the chained man to draw one’s eyes to the title in a way that keeps the eye on the page.

  4. Actually the cover on the right says “homerotic romance novel”. Let’s see, bare chest, presenting crotch, chained down, this would be hardcore S&M? Possibly a post-apocalyptic mad max type of thing (especially since I can’t tell at first glance if that’s a beard or a muzzle).

    Maybe that wasn’t the publisher’s intent, but considering I get John Scalzi and John Ringo confused when I’m not paying attention, and the whole tradition of “Oh John Ringo, No!”, it’s really not something I would have picked up to read the back cover of.

    The guy on the left seems to be thinking about his problem. The guy on the right doesn’t seem capable of it.

  5. David E says:

    Neither of those covers particular work for me. But I very much agree that cover art makes a big difference. I can’t begin to count the number of times I bought a book for its cover art alone. I rather doubt any of us would have heard of a barbarian named Conan if it weren’t for the Frank Frazetta covers.

  6. Very true about Vinny Chong deserving more exposure in the USA though. Here in the UK, he’s now won the British Fantasy Award for Best Artist three years running. And he’s such a nice guy – the first time he won it, he’d slipped off before the awards, assuming he had no chance.

    Happily for us at Angry Robot, his artwork will decorate Tim Waggoner’s series featuring zombie private eye Matt Richter, which hit US stores from next July.

  7. Jetse says:

    If you like Vinny’s art, then you may like the cover art for the Shine anthology, which Vinny did (with lots of input from me). I’ll get it your way when I have time.

    And Vinny’s art will probably appear on more Solaris Books covers.

  8. My Australian covers for Harper Voyager are done by Vinnie too. Lovely use of light…And I must admit, I wouldn’t have even picked up the book with the Tikulin cover. Somehow it looks like cheap porn to me, at least when seen small scale here…

  9. rushmc says:

    Trashy vs. classy…what’s the mystery?

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