“Any art history student can tell you that art has long served as a record of the past, a mirror of our present, and—occasionally—even a crystal ball into the future,” says illustrator Michael Whelan. “But that last quality is rarer than unobtainium, and is why illustrating SF is so fraught with danger. Alas, one may live long enough to watch one’s ‘futuristic’ illustrations gradually morph into laughable misconceptions of fashion, technology, and so on.”

With new technologies, new book formats, and new reader and publisher expectations, keeping futuristic covers “current” may be the least of worries for SF illustrators and art directors. In the past, fantastically detailed illustrations dominated cover art for the genre, but digital books and online bookselling call for artwork that’s effective as a 100-pixel square. According to Paula Guran, editor of Prime Books, “Trends aren’t really trends, so much as a result of three converging factors: budget, market/audience expectations, and the thumbnail aspect—what a cover looks like online at a small size.”

“At one time, Stephan Martinière was the go-to guy for sweeping far-future vistas,” says Lou Anders, editorial director of Pyr Books. “He was the hands-down master of futuristic cityscapes—and still is, as demonstrated by his covers for Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days and The Dervish House. But these layered, deep covers don’t read well at all at thumbnail size. Stephan and I had a conversation about this, and he immediately set out in a radical new direction. His cover for Joel Shepherd’s military SF novel 23 Years on Fire and its sequel, Operation Shield, are character-focused while keeping the sense of depth and the use of layered lines and planes that make for a quintessential Martinière cover. And the result is a work of art that is beautiful at either [large or small] scale.”

While print still dominates book sales, the gap between p- and e-books is closing, and covers that don’t look good at a small scale may not grab the attention of prospective readers. “For [Prime’s] all-original anthology Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales, our cover designer, Sherin Nicole, used dynamic stock art and design to make a cover that coveys the content at any size,” Guran says, noting that the back cover detail provides a rich visual experience for anyone picking up a physical copy of the book.

Eric T. Reynolds, editor and publisher of Hadley Rille Books, agrees that thumbnails are vital, but he maintains that covers must also hold up at larger scales. “Often, when there are print and e-book editions of a book, we see the same cover design used for both, but a growing trend toward different cover designs wouldn’t be surprising.”

A two-cover approach would involve creating a simplified thumbnail image for titles displayed in online stores and on smaller screens, like phones and tablets, while using more detailed and intricate images (of the kind that are traditionally associated with the genre) for print books. Elizabeth Story, head designer for Tachyon, says, “For a print book, you want nice covers, because books aren’t just for reading, they are for display. It’s a larger canvas, with room for detail. An e-book cover doesn’t get the same visibility after the purchase, but you still need something eye-catching to get to that purchase.” One approach to this problem is exemplified by The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, from Tachyon: the digital edition uses a much simpler version of the print book’s detailed cover art.

Anders, from Pyr, notes, “Print is still very much a viable outlet and will be for some time.” He doesn’t feel that sacrificing detailed cover art altogether is a smart move for the industry. “The SF/F field is unique in publishing in that it has a century-plus of tradition of working with some of the most talented and imaginative artists in the world. Sacrificing this history for the sake of a new technology that is itself still rapidly evolving would be a grave mistake. As direct sales replace bookstore shopping, the need for ‘a thing to represent itself’ grows ever stronger. Books will be judged by their covers more than ever. Let’s make sure they put the best face forward they possibly can.”

Color, at Any Scale

Rowena Cory Daniells’s King Breaker, Libby McGugan’s The Eidolon, and Tony Ballantine’s Dream London, all from Rebellion’s Solaris imprint, make use of tonal covers, which show a great deal of detail up close but can convey a sense of mood from a distance or at a small scale through the careful selection of a very focused color palette.

V.E. Schwab’s Vicious was enhanced by the powerful art of Victo Ngai, who won a Society of Illustrators gold medal for a Tor.com illustration. Irene Gallo, art director at Tor, says, “Victo’s stylized line drawing and vibrant coloration were good ways to distinguish this book on our list.”

“With fantasy becoming more mainstream, I’m often trying to make covers that have broad appeal, but keep an essential sense of majesty and strangeness,” says Adam Auerbach, associate art director for the Penguin Group. “I think the jacket for Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names looks epic but also has a graphic simplicity. Paul Youll created the illustration. It’s bold and attention-grabbing, but at the same time very evocative. I think this is largely due to the atmosphere of the piece, and the color palette that shifts from green to golden yellow.”

Denise Roy, senior editor at Dutton, is particularly happy with the way that the cover of M.D. Waters’s Archetype evokes the feelings of the novel. “The main character, Emma, must contend with a watery prison, and this was the inspiration for the cover art, rendered in a palette that encompasses the full spectrum of blue hues. The jacket looks ethereal, timeless.”

Taking Risks

Artist Scott Fischer sees e-books not as a death knell for cover detail but as an opportunity to be creative and push boundaries. “I think with the dawn of e-books, we are seeing more publishers taking risks with their cover designs and using artists who break from the norm, stylistically,” he says. “The best example of this is Tor books and the covers Irene Gallo has been commissioning for Tor.com online fiction. She is tapping a much deeper well of artists with vastly different styles than what the genre has generally seen in the last 10 to 15 years. Personally, I think this is a great sign of things to come.” Fischer is happy to provide some of that new and experimental energy. “I might be considered on the fringe of SF/F novel illustration, as I use a bit of abstract design within my figurative covers, like the jacket for the first book in Ann Aguirre’s new Dred Chronicles series, Perdition, which just came out from Ace.”

Diana Gill, executive editor at HarperCollins, agrees that innovation is the key to the future, even as artists are potentially being squeezed by thumbnail covers on the one hand and traditional expectations on the other. “We’re constantly looking at our covers and updating and trying new treatments, as per the image overlay on Richard Kadrey’s upcoming Dead Set,” she says. “I think the design of a book will become more important—books as physical objects will have more design, and potentially illustration, to be art objects as well as text. We’re doing a number of books that match illustration with art, and looking at the design of books as well, as in William Morrow’s first edition of Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu, which had two-color text.”

Michael Homler, editor at St. Martin’s, says, “I think what’s changed in SF/F aesthetic presentation over the past few months and years is that you have to account for more genre-bending or mash-ups. So when presenting a book that has fantasy elements or science fiction elements, you have to try to create an image that reaches out to everyone.” As a result, he notes, “You are not seeing the typical hard SF images that, in the past, we have been used to. On my own list, I see this in Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola’s Joe Golem and the Drowning City, Adam Nevill’s Last Days, and Michael Logan’s Apocalypse Cow. It’s obvious what genre these books are in, but the cover element has to try to speak generally, as opposed to very specifically, to a genre-reading audience.”

Digital books are also encouraging the creation of digital cover art. “For a lot of publishers, the focus has definitely shifted to Web colors and Web art for e-book covers, instead of paintings actually created on canvas,” says Brian Freeman, managing editor at Cemetery Dance Publications. “For our e-books, we still use a mix of paintings and electronically created artwork.”

The New Realism

Illustrator Scott Grimando is taking up the challenge of creating innovative artwork that is also realistic. “The evolution of science fiction and fantasy art has always been toward greater realism,” he says. “I think that trend is directly tied to our exposure to better movie and TV special effects. We become desensitized to, and maybe a little jaded about, fantastic imagery, and so the bar is continually being raised.” He adds, “I think there is a clear trend toward photographic covers that are purposely nonnarrative. The contemporary cover is often simply pretty or edgy. I create photographic-looking covers that include elements that can’t be photographed, in order to imply a narrative.”

Pyr often commissions realistic detail on even its most fantastical covers. “John Picacio has always been a visionary artist, constantly reinventing himself,” praises Anders. “With the cover of Brenda Cooper’s The Diamond Deep [sequel to The Creative Fire], he builds on some of the approaches he pioneered while working on the George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire calendar last year. These two covers [of The Diamond Deep and The Creative Fire] focus on the central figure, without sacrificing their value as objets d’art. The cover for The Creative Fire is one of the four on the Chesley Award ballot for SF/F illustration this year. I love how both covers almost use photorealism in their depiction of the figure, but with a heavily-lined rendering of the waving red locks. The juxtaposition is delicious.”

Gallo has used the trend toward realism to try to separate Tor from the crowd. “I was excited to work with Italian twin illustrators Anna and Elena Balbusso on Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor [due out in April 2014],” she says. “The Balbussos have been doing some amazing work on our Tor.com short stories, so when Addison’s steampunk-fantasy imperial court drama came up, I thought it would be a great opportunity to employ their unique stylization to make a cover that would stand out against the many realist covers on the shelves.”

Guran also sees the benefit of realism, particularly when it comes to portraying characters who look like real people. “When we do commission art, it is often for very specific reasons. We wanted Scott Grimando’s cover for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi to scream ‘science fiction,’ but with a realistic female protagonist of color who is not glamorously beautiful, as our culture currently defines it.”

Reynolds also wants to accurately portray heroines that female readers can identify with. “Not only are we seeing changes in how we design e-book covers, but we might see changes in the artwork itself,” he says. “We’ve never adopted the fantasy cover cliché of women in high heels, wearing a small bit of leather and wielding swords. We don’t know how much change we’ll see toward realistic depictions of women on fantasy covers from other publishers, but it’s the direction we’ve been headed at Hadley Rille, including with some of our forthcoming novels: She Wrote on Clay by Shirley Graetz, Beyond the Gate by Terri-Lynne DeFino, High Maga by Karin Rita Gastreich, Three Great Lies by Vanessa MacLellan, and After the Ruin by Harriet Goodchild.”


There are always a few publishers and artists who enjoy bucking the trends. New editions of classic works often get lush and fantastical illustrations that recall older artwork. “We are very excited about our new illustrated edition of The Hobbit,” says Ken Carpenter, director of Tolkien projects at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “The illustrator is a wonderful young artist named Jemima Catlin, and she truly captures the warmth and magic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic.”

Paul Stevens, an editor at Tor, sees the potential in older styles of illustration for historical fantasy. “We approached the design of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons and the forthcoming The Tropic of Serpents as if the books were being published in the 1800s,” he says. “Each piece of interior art gets its own page, followed by a blank page, which was the custom at the time. The page headers change to match the action that occurs on that page. Our design and production team tried to grasp the archival feel, with rough front edges, three-piece case, and printing the entire book in sepia brown ink, suggestive of a field journal.”

SF/F covers may be changing in many ways, but they remain an important part of the publishing process for books in the genre. Whelan sums it up best: “Whatever the format, words and pictures, design and packaging, will always be linked. Since there will always be a future, and imagination is limitless, I feel secure in predicting a long and healthy life ahead for SF/F illustration. The form it appears in and the way it is used may change, but it will always be with us and will remain an integral part of publishing.”

Who Buys Science Fiction?

Men, mostly. According to Bowker Market Research, 62% of sci-fi book purchases in the first half of 2013 were made by men, up from 61% during the same period in 2012. The genre’s sales demographics skew young, with over one-third of total purchases made by consumers under the age of 29. The 30–44 age range accounted for the largest portion of total purchases, at 28%. In terms of annual income, 26% of sci-fi purchases came from households in the $50,000–$74,900 bracket.

E-book is the format of choice for sci-fi, comprising 49% of all genre purchases in the first half of 2013, up from 43% for the same period in 2012. Hardcover took the biggest hit, dropping to 12% from 17%. While Amazon still sells more science fiction books than any other retailer, its share has dipped slightly in the first six months of 2013, to 35%, from 37% in the same period last year, as Barnes & Noble edged upward, to 21%, from 17% in 2012.

Top 10 SF Year To Date

Rank Title Author Imprint Format YTD Total
1 Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 138,169
2 The Host Stephenie Meyer Back Bay Trade Paper 100,911
3 The Host Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown Mass Market 79,071
4 William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Ian Doescher Quirk Hardcover 45,624
5 Ready Player One Ernest Cline Broadway Trade Paper 38,131
6 Speaker for the Dead Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 23,239
7 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams Ballantine Mass Market 23,014
8 The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams Del Rey Trade Paper 22,066
9 Dune Frank Herbert Ace Charter Mass Market 19,339
10 Shadows in Flight Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 17,458

Fantasy Top 20

Rank Title Author Imprint Format YTD Total
1 Ender's Game Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 138,169
2 The Host Stephenie Meyer Back Bay Trade Paper 100,911
3 The Host Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown Mass Market 79,071
4 William Shakespeare's Star Wars Ian Doescher Quirk Books Hardcover 45,624
5 Ready Player One Ernest Cline Broadway Trade Paper 38,131
6 Speaker For The Dead Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 23,239
7 The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Douglas Adams Ballantine Mass Market 23,014
8 The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams Del Rey Trade Paper 22,066
9 Dune Frank Herbert Ace Charter Mass Market 19,339
10 Shadows In Flight Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 17,458
11 The Host Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown Mass Market 17,378
12 After Earth Peter David Del Rey Mass Market 16,913
13 Book Of Sith: Secrets From The Daniel Wallace Chronicle Hardcover 16,595
14 The Ender Quartet Set Orson Scott Card Tor Boxed Set 16,527
15 Earth Unaware Orson Scott Card Tor Mass Market 16,227
16 The Last Jedi: Star Wars Michael Reaves Lucas Books Mass Market 15,619
17 Scoundrels: Star Wars Timothy Zahn Lucas Books Hardcover 15,246
18 Shadow Of Freedom David Weber Baen Hardcover 14,913
19 The Host Stephenie Meyer Back Bay Trade Paper 14,323
20 Jurassic Park Michael Crichton Ballantine Mass Market 14,179
Source: Nielsen BookScan, week ending 9/8/13

Science Fiction Top 20

Rank Title Author Imprint Format YTD Total
1 A Memory Of Light Robert Jordan Tor Hardcover 289,850
2 Song Of Ice & Fire (4-volume boxed set) George R. R. Martin Bantam Boxed Set 182,836
3 Dead Ever After Charlaine Harris Ace Hardcover 178,543
4 A Game Of Thrones George R. R. Martin Spectra Mass Market 150,678
5 A Dance With Dragons George R. R. Martin Bantam Hardcover 130,945
6 The Ocean At The End Of The La Neil Gaiman Morrow Hardcover 127,791
7 A Feast For Crows George R. R. Martin Bantam Mass Market 119,510
8 A Game Of Thrones George R. R. Martin Bantam Mass Market 114,163
9 A Clash Of Kings George R. R. Martin Spectra Mass Market 94,357
10 A Storm Of Swords George R. R. Martin Bantam Mass Market 81,022
11 The Hobbit: Or There And Back J. R. R. Tolkien Mariner Trade Paper 70,974
12 A Storm Of Swords George R. R. Martin Bantam Mass Market 62,213
13 Deadlocked Charlaine Harris Ace Mass Market 55,602
14 A Clash Of Kings (Hbo Tie-In E George R. R. Martin Bantam Mass Market 51,689
15 The Hobbit: Or There And Back J. R. R. Tolkien Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hardcover 50,483
16 A Game Of Thrones (Hbo Tie-In George R. R. Martin Bantam Trade Paper 43,011
17 A Game Of Thrones George R. R. Martin Bantam Trade Paper 39,615
18 Frost Burned Patricia Briggs Ace Hardcover 39,373
19 J.R.R. Tolkien 4-Book Boxed Set J. R. R. Tolkien Del Rey Boxed Set 38,282
20 Ever After Kim Harrison Voyager Hardcover 37,725
Source: Nielsen BookScan, week ending 9/8/13