Long Live the Sci-Fi Book Cover

What’s the state of science fiction illustration nowadays? Check out this round table discussion with Steve Burg, Rob Caswell and Paul Bussey and add your own views to this analysis by replying to this post.

Steve Burg is a designer and Illustrator in the entertainment industry. He’s worked on films including Contact, Terminator 2, Waterworld and The Abyss. See examples of his work at steveburg.com
Rob Caswell is an engineer turned artist. He has worked professionally in various graphic disciplines from sci-fi to fantasy illustrations and RPGs and now operates a digital printmaker business. Find out more about Rob’s portfolio and blog at arcass.deviantart.com

This discussion was previously published as the editorial of  issue 14 in 3D Art Direct Magazine


Steve Burg: We had a very small book store in my home town, and at the back there was a single rack of science fiction paperbacks. And that rack held treasure, both in the cover art and the stories contained in those books.
I think at this point the shift to digital publishing is undeniable, but it’s hard to say what this ultimately means in terms of the fate of illustrated book covers. Science fiction and fantasy have been the last bastions of illustration in the publishing world. But with the closing of Vroman’s (A major independent bookstore in Southern California) and the general decline of the book stores in favor of online shopping and e-books, I wonder if the role of the book cover – to attract the reader’s eye – is still relevant.
I think part of the reason (quite possibly the MAIN reason) for the enormous influx of people wanting to work as concept artists is the dying-out of most of the traditional markets for illustration. I can certainly think of no other reason for it, except that art has no place else left to go.
A hundred years ago, art and illustration were everywhere, not only on books but on packaging, calendars, candy boxes, billboards, the list is endless. At present, the only real outlet for most art and illustration is the web, and sites like DeviantArt – and of course none of that affords actual income.
When I was starting out, relatively few artists were interested in concept art, since by its very nature it is utilitarian, and the art is most often seen only by a handful of people engaged in whatever the project was. It’s still true that 99% of concept art (professional, paid stuff, that is) is never seen anywhere. So it’s a bit perplexing that so many artists would decide they want to do that unless there’s an economic imperative serving as the main driver. That’s my theory at least!
In a nutshell – I think we may be in the midst of another “golden age of illustration” – but one that is occurring almost entirely online, and almost exclusively within the community of artists themselves, while the general public and culture at large inhabits a world increasingly dominated by “media” and barren of art.”

Rob Caswell: Well it’s also a product of passion and perspective. Both Steve and I were teenagers in the seventies and our visual sci-fi skills and visions grew from many of the same influences. So part of it is our own reflection of how those influences, like sci-fi book covers, have changed over time. But again, I think Steve’s comment on this being a Sci-fi and Fantasy art golden age…. just not professionally… is astute and interesting to ponder. You know as well as we do about the incredible volume of artistic talent out there in places like Deviant Art, Foundation 3D, Renderosity, et al. It’s amazing! But the number of artists grossly outweigh the commercial outlets that could use their product, and the demise of the paperback book cover only worsens the matter.
E-Books are certainly coming into their own… and quickly, now! But I suspect this just means another “old man” habit for me to adopt. I love owning paper books and losing myself in great cover art. I may use digital media myself, but the printed art form is still special for me. Maybe it’s just half a century of habit… but that’s where I’m at.

Paul Bussey: How the electronic medium might change the perceived value and frequency of placement of art covers for fictional works is an interesting discussion. I really hope the new medium doesn’t change things, but the shocking statistics of how long people stay on a website page, which is measured in seconds, compared to someone browsing a book in a store might give you an idea of how our society is changing.
It’s all about being in an “attention based economy”, where people’s spare time is that much compressed that their expectations of what can be done in it are super high – everything has to be done quick. Paid for services and products are decided upon in matter of a few mouse clicks.

Rob Caswell: I think the web has increased our sense of a “disposable culture”. It’s all “easy come, easy go” with one click of a mouse or tap on a touch screen. Still, books DO need to be marketed, even on the web. Cover art can still serve a role in inspiring purchases. The question is “will it”? Publishers are looking to cut costs wherever they can and if they think the e-book format could save them the price of hiring a cover artist, they’ll try to make that work… if they can. So it’s a coming battle… but coming up quickly.

Paul Bussey: Book covers by their nature provide more real estate for the illustration. A small 2cm x 3cm image on a website advertising a book has to be designed differently; its concept has to be simpler and provide a faster and more immediate impact than the traditional book cover. There’s just a few micro seconds for the eye to skip over the image on a web page….and the chance is gone, sale lost.

I welcome this “new golden age of illustration” that Steve mentioned. The twin developments of powerful digital art software packages and the world wide web bypasses the traditional gate keepers who controlled which artists could get their concept art published, such as book publishers.

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One Response to Long Live the Sci-Fi Book Cover

  1. Bob Bello July 26, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    Great article, thanks a million for the heads-up in our glorious sci-fi book cover industry. Godspeed!

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