I’ve written in the past about “being a pro” and “unsocial media” and, oh, probably a few other things about about professional conduct for artists. Being a Pro isn’t a one-way street, of course: give respect to your colleagues to garner respect in turn sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, it seems that behaving like a pro is something that’s become increasingly easy for people to forget or, more sadly, ignore. In case you missed it, there was a prime example of distinctly UNprofessional behavior that blew up on online February 24.
Bestselling Tor Books author Terry Goodkind expressed his extreme dislike for his latest book’s dustjacket on his FaceBook page and Twitter account, describing his own novel as “a great book with a very bad cover.” To add insult to injury, he created a poll (screenshot seen below) and invited his fans to “have some fun with it” and chime in with comments, promising to give out 10 autographed copies of the book to posters chosen at random.
I doubt he anticipated the immediate backlash from readers who, in increasing numbers, described his behavior as “appalling,” “unprofessional,” “shameful,” and, ahem, a “dick move.” As internet news sites and blogs—ranging from io9 to to File 770 to Bleeding Cool to The Guardian to NewsHub—reported on the brouhaha, Goodkind was kept busy blocking critics and deleting comments either valid or snarky throughout the weekend (which almost never helps). He ultimately issued something of a half-hearted apology to cover illustrator Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme, insisting that his ire was really directed at his publisher. Whether his apology was sincere (if lacking) or simply an act of damage control is up to people to decide for themselves; following the close of his poll he made additional mocking comments and posted a video of his dog licking the book cover on his FB page so it’s understandable when his mea culpa is viewed as disingenuous.
But regardless of his stated motive…the artist was the one held up to public ridicule for directions and decisions made by others.
Bastien eventually weighed-in himself, expressing disappointment at being blindsided and treated disrespectfully.
The covers for book series, particularly for genre titles, almost always resemble each other as a way to create a visual shorthand that enables readers to find their next purchase easily. Marketing 101. Goodkind, as far as I can tell, had not expressed any displeasure with the jacket art for the first book in the series (seen above); the second followed the style and direction of the first and had been released 9 weeks prior to his poll without comment. Goodkind had even used a portion of the Shroud of Eternity art for his FaceBook cover image up until the backlash so his unhappiness came as something of a shock to everyone, including, I’m sure, Bastien. (In an odd io9 follow-up piece that appeared a few days later, the assertion was made that Goodkind actually didn’t like the first cover and accused both 1 & 2 of being, uh, “sexist,” supposedly because of the…boots? Suuuurrrrreeeee.)
The other big shock was that as an author of, by his own account, 30 years, Terry Goodkind seemingly didn’t know how the publishing industry works today—and he should.
Surprise, surprise: Book covers are not created in a vacuum, especially as publishing has become less independent and has morphed into divisions of increasingly bigger corporations. I was talking with Lauren Panepinto while we were both watching the social media train wreck unfold and, as an artist/art director/Creative Director she made some excellent points. “An enormous amount of thought and care goes into each and every book cover. A publisher may have different priorities than an author does, and that is part of the expertise you want a publisher to have. An author often can’t see beyond the core diehard fans they have, but it’s the publisher’s job to consider beyond that base to potential fans that may be reached with each new book. The sweet spot we all aim for is pleasing the fans they have with visual easter eggs while appealing to people who have no idea what the books are about.”
“An enormous amount of thought and care goes into each and every book cover. A publisher may have different priorities than an author does, and that is part of the expertise you want a publisher to have.”
And with that goal of growing the audience in mind, the freelance artist, regardless of how accomplished they might be, isn’t granted total freedom to do whatever they want. The cover is a collaboration. While they recieve their brief from—and submit sketches to—the art director, lots of others have input into what ultimately gets approved and printed. The art director, the designer, the editor, the creative director, the editorial director, the marketing team, the sales staff, the publisher, AND, often, the buyers for the major accounts (like B&N and Amazon) have a say. “Make this bigger, make this smaller, add a woman, take out the woman, the monster’s too scary, the monster’s not scary enough, don’t include a monster, make this blue, make this green…” back and forth and back and forth. The freelance artist is never alone in the creative process—but is often left to dangle in the wind when something doesn’t turn out or when a cover is held up for derision. And, conversely, if something exceptional results, if praise and awards and sales come the book’s way, the author basks in the limelight while the artist rarely receives much credit, even though that success is often attributable directly to their ability to incorporate all the disparate input they get and produce a work that connects with an audience.
It’s hard enough making a living as an artist these days without someone going out of the way to kick you in the teeth on the internet.
As I’ve written on Muddy Colors in the past, I’m not a huge fan of the mob mentality that often takes over when controversies arise on social media—little, if any, good ever comes from it and too often the innocent wind up suffering as much as the guilty. But at the same time, when you’re on the recieving end of an attack, hitting back is fully justified and it can be comforting to know that you have friends willing to support you. Corporations as a matter of routine are gun-shy when it comes to internet explosions—no matter what they say, most recognize that it’s rarely going to end well—and it is unusual when they officially come to the defense of someone maligned. That silence can compound the hurt inflicted on individuals, but in this Age of Trolls when even the dumbest stuff can rapidly turn virally toxic…that cautious corporate policy is unlikely to change.
Of course, these types of situations fomented by a colleague shouldn’t happen in the first place, really: business should be conducted professionally and privately and not devolve into public fisticuffs. Public shaming, accusations, and side-choosing is, sadly, the current m.o. in politics as well as business and personal life…and we’re all much poorer for it.
Writers complaining about their covers —or the covers of others— can admittedly be spot-on every once in a while, but from my experience they’re more likely to be be misguided, self-righteous, or pompously self-serving (or all three). It’s hardly anything new (there are even convention panels devoted to “bad cover art”—conducted by writers, naturally): they have personal tastes and visions of what their characters or scenes look like in their own heads and it’s perfectly understandable if they’re sometimes disappointed when the publishers’ ideas don’t always match their own. Some are quite happy with how the covers turn out; some, obviously, are not. But what they rarely know (and even more rarely acknowledge) are all the aspects that makes a good book cover… good. Though it’s nice if it happens, a cover doesn’t exist to please the author or capture their vision in the most minute, exacting details: it’s meant to sell books. Period.
If a cover makes a customer pick a book out of a whole shelf-full of others to look at, half the sales battle is won. Whatever treatment or art that does that—regardless of how the writer feels—is what matters. “That’s not a scene in my book!” or “Thedrica Thickthrew wouldn’t look like that!” they may complain, quietly or loudly to anyone that will listen. And they’re probably right—but their likes and their opinions matter very little in the greater scheme of things. The person whose opinion matters the most? The one willing to open their wallet and take that book home. It is the cover art that often helps make that sale happen—and the illustrator deserves respect.
So when it comes to this particular situation: an author—any author—using an artist (or an editor or art director) as the public whipping boy/girl for other issues they may have with their publisher is little more than disrespectful BS.
Am I picking on Terry Goodkind? No, not really (though his attitude could use some serious work). He can love or hate any artwork he chooses. He can wear his ass for a hat in public as often as he wants and more power to him. And as Dave Palumbo wrote on FaceBook about this particular incident, “I think all cover artists need to face the very likely reality that, somewhere along the line, we really let the author down.” That’s most probably true—but the point of all this is that when true, the disappointed author should take everything into account and not make the artist a singular symbol to lambast. Remember: publishing is personal. One’s actions, regardless of being a “New York Times Bestseller” or not, can and often do have long-term consequences.
What I’m simply doing is reminding everyone, entreating everyone—once again—to be a pro. Being a pro, regardless of which side of the table you’re sitting on, will serve you well in the end. Being a putz in public—again, regardless of which side you’re on—rarely will. (Hmm. “Be a Pro, Not a Putz” is a pretty good motto.)
Grouse as they may, it’s the wise writer who respects what their fellow creatives bring to the table—because, honestly, everyone on the publishing team wants a successful book. As Lauren said to me last weekend, “Sometimes publishers and art directors take risks; sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. But to imply that we’re not putting enormous thought into the process is delusional.”
Besides, sometimes not following the writer’s descriptions, not accurately illustrating a scene in the story, can produce results so definitive and iconic that the tail begins to wag the dog. And when that happens… Oh boy!
If a writer can’t respect that simple truth, if they can’t respect the professionalism and expertise of their fellow creatives…maybe they should self-publish and control everything themselves. But then…whom would they have to blame if their book doesn’t sell?