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12/04/2012


Judging a Book by Its Cover
By Nina Hess with Jon Schindehette and Erin M. Evans


        The letter O!
      ne of the best books I’ve worked on this year comes out today: Lesser Evils by Erin M. Evans. The words themselves were a pleasure to edit. Erin’s talent for writing strong, compelling characters makes it a quick and easy read—but also an unforgettable one. The characters stayed in my head long after I finished the last page. If you’re looking for a can’t-put-it-down fantasy tale for the plane ride home for the holidays, this is a sure bet!

But a novel isn’t just thousands of words printed on paper (or digitally rendered on a screen). When we set out to publish a new novel, we think about it as an entire package—from the design of the type, to the cover art that greets a reader checking out the book for the first time. That art, above all, is taken very seriously. Yeah, people say they don’t judge a book by its cover, but in the world of book publishing, we know that’s a big fat lie! And so we do everything we can to make the cover art something that will draw readers in and give a great first impression.

In celebration of the release of Lesser Evils, I sat down with author Erin M. Evans and our art director Jon Schindehette, to discuss the behind-the-scenes process of creating cover art for the novel—and more specifically, designing the look of Farideh, the story’s main character, and her cambion patron, Lorcan. This cover, like all of our covers, started in the imagination of the author.

ERIN EVANS: The first step is to suggest scenes and point out details the artist would need for them. This is a little hard—you want it to look like it does in your head, but at the same time, the artist knows better than you do how to make an attractive cover. There’s a happy medium there, but it means letting go of your character(s) a little. I know I’m not the only author fighting the urge to give too many details and convince the powers-that-be that the scene that belongs on the cover is this one over here that you don’t like, come on! Fortunately there’s an editor and an art director between me and the artist.

For Lesser Evils, most of the scenes I pointed out were fight scenes—including a big group fight with Zhentarim and shadar-kai, a battle with an undead monstrosity, and a quick fight with a hydra in an underground cave. Some weren't suitable because they were too jumbled, and some were suspect because they would've required details that might've spoiled the story. In fact, I can't even tell you my pet option! (Maybe later.) The scene Nina liked best was low on punching but high on atmosphere, and (much like the Brimstone Angels cover) you can appreciate on its own though once you finish the book and know exactly what you’re looking at, it's even better.

NINA HESS: It’s my role to mediate between the author’s vision, and what I know of the marketplace and our own strengths as a publisher. As a former editor herself and an author with three great books under her belt, Erin’s got an excellent sense already of what makes a good cover, so she makes my job easy. Once we’d discussed the options, I took Erin’s write-up of the scene we’d decided on, added a few clarifications, and compiled it all into a document we call an art order, which we submitted to the art director, Jon Schindehette. For Lesser Evils, this was the art order:

Art order for Lesser Evils by Erin Evans

Looking back at this reminds me of one of the weird things about our process that people may not realize. In order to meet all our deadlines, we’re often working on cover art before we’ve finalized the text of the book. So when we wrote this up, Erin had an idea about this scene, but hadn’t finished writing it. Some of the details ended up changing in the final draft of the book. (And some are a little spoiler-y so I blacked them out!) But in the end, the changes didn’t matter much based on how the artist ended up interpreting the notes.

One of the most important things I noted on that art order was: “This is a sequel to Brimstone Angels.” As you can see, I was so intent on noting it, I wrote it twice! I wanted to make sure that the artist looked at the previous book’s art and took in how we’d previously depicted Farideh and Lorcan. We didn’t want it to look exactly the same, but there needed to be continuity. A lot of work had gone into developing the look of Farideh on that first cover, if I recall.

ERIN: Yeah, the first sketch of the Brimstone Angels cover had a few elements where the artist and I didn’t quite have the same image in our heads. I’d said “Farideh wears robes. I can make them whatever color works with the composition. You pick.” But then I didn’t really give him enough character background, I think, to have a sense of what those robes otherwise looked like. The first version of the art featured a very busty Farideh wearing, basically, purple ribbons. In the book, she’s poor, she’s young, she’s so self-conscious that she goes around in the summer wearing a hooded cloak. And she’s around her overprotective dad all the time. Skimpy is not her look—the original outfit might have been eye-catching, but it would have given the character a panic attack. I almost had a panic attack, because I thought it was final art. Fortunately, it was an easier fix than it seemed like, and the artist made some minor changes along with the outfit that really captured her perfectly.

The first book featuring Farideh, Brimstone Angels

JON SCHINDEHETTE: The book releasing this month, Lesser Evils, had a few challenges of its own. First of all, the artist that had done Brimstone Angels cover was not available, so after I received Nina’s art order, I went looking for an artist that could work in a similar style to keep visual continuity. Min Yum jumped into the project with gusto, and did a great job of bringing together the visuals. I chose Min on his ability to really impart character with subtle nuances. This was going to be necessary since the art in this series was quite gestural and abstract. Hitting the nuances was super important when everything comes down to just a couple of visual components.

NINA: Getting those nuances right is so important to me as an editor, too. You can’t always communicate those in an art order. You just hope the artist will read between the lines. An artist always brings something to the table—their own interpretation of a character. Sometimes it’s not what you were expecting, but usually it’s even better. Seeing a character for the first time is like opening a Christmas present.

JON: I feel like it’s Christmas too—Christmas at my folks’ house. Will I get something off my “wish list,” or will I get the argyle sweater vest? I always open the art holding my breath. Now don’t get me wrong, I work with some of the best artists in the business. It’s seldom an issue of good vs. bad, it’s simply an issue of “did they capture the essence of the character?” Normally I open the piece up and am wowed by the beauty of the art, and then I’ve got to get down to work assessing the artwork for details and personality. So the “new art glow” only gets to exist for few minutes before I’ve got to put on the art direction glasses and start looking for holes in the piece.

To help, I pull out the original brief and read it over again. I get the vision of the character firmly planted in my head, and then start going over the art, making a list of changes and recommendations for myself. Then I’ll put the list aside for a few hours, and let my brain just sit with the artwork for a while. I’ll even go back to the piece again and make sure I didn’t miss anything. At that point, I’ll do my write-up and share it with the editor—who in turn shares the art and write-up with the author.

ERIN: When Nina sends me an email with a sketch, I hold my breath and shut my eyes before I open the file. Seeing that character for a first time is a little weird! Exciting, but I also feel vaguely embarrassed. It’s the same feeling I get when I see the book in the store the first time. Like “Oh no! Someone found the story I wrote!” (I assume I’ll get over this. Someday.)

Then I go, “Oh hey, that’s pretty awesome. But…” And I send an email back with changes that I usually rank by how important they are. With both Brimstone Angels and Lesser Evils, one thing I remember focusing on was the look of Lorcan, Farideh’s cambion patron.

NINA: Getting Lorcan right was a little tricky. If there’s something in the cover that needs to be rendered very specifically, like a monster, we like to send the artist a visual reference. Artists are visual learners, and even authors and editors realize that a picture works a lot better for them than words. At the time, the policy was that references needed to be pulled from existing art owned by Wizards of the Coast.

ERIN: This was a big problem when it came to giving direction for Lorcan, because I really didn’t want him to look like the cambion from the Monster Manual. I like that picture, but it’s not the right look. But with Brimstone Angels, it bled over anyway—can’t be helped when that’s the only example you can show. I felt like with Lesser Evils the artist came closer to the look that I wanted in the very first sketch.

NINA: Yup, Min Yum really got it right off the bat. We started with four conceptual sketches, picked the one we liked best in terms of composition, and then the Min Yum went for a tighter sketch. Even in those first loose sketches, the character nuances felt right.

Four conceptual sketches from Min Yum

The Lesser Evils tight sketch by Min Yum

JON: The next stage in the process is to communicate our notes to the artist. I take any feedback, assess it, have discussions as necessary, and then do a final write-up and occasional paint-overs or sketches to make visual suggestions that don’t translate well to words. I’ll deliver that to the artist, and we'll have a discussion about my comments to make sure they don’t have any questions or concerns—and then off they go to work their magic once again.

NINA: With some covers, we need to see additional sketches, but in the case of Lesser Evils, we really didn’t have too many things to fuss over. Min Yum did a fantastic job of interpreting Erin’s vision. The only thing I remember really worrying about was whether he would remember to paint the eyes the correct colors in the final art. But he did!

ERIN: Yeah, the Lesser Evils cover was a pretty good surprise overall. I was really happy to see how well it turned out. Farideh looks very nearly like I imagine, and a lot of her character comes through as well. This is the only depiction where (I don’t think) there was any discussion about unsexying her. I also like this Lorcan. He’s a good balance of monstrous and attractive. It actually surprised me a little how there’s almost a separate continuity for the characters in art and in text—and that’s okay. From the start, the art depicted Lorcan with straight black hair (likely because that’s what the cambion in the Monster Manual has). But Lorcan’s hair in the books is collar-length and kind of curly. But that guy on the cover? He has all the right vibe.

NINA: And so that’s the story of how the cover art for Lesser Evils was born. To say nothing of the story itself: a truly twisty plot in which Farideh is drawn into an assignment for the secret society of the Harpers, an assignment which leads her and a ragtag group of allies to an ancient Netherese library deep underground. In the midst of it all, she’s doing her best to protect her sister and herself from the menaces of the Nine Hells. But don’t take my word for what a good book it is! Just after we finished the final edit, I sent it to Ari Marmell, author of Agents of Artifice, The Conqueror's Shadow, and the Widdershins Adventure series, who replied a mere one day later with this breathless note:

“Well, I'm now behind on my own writing, because I couldn't tear myself away from Lesser Evils. Then again, I'm only behind by a single day—because I really couldn't tear myself away from Lesser Evils. If the next one's not out until tomorrow, it's still too far off. And if Evans is not already a name spoken of as part of the true Forgotten Realms pantheon, along with Kemp, Cunningham, and Salvatore, it can only be because she has fewer books out, and thus hasn't reached everyone yet.”

I hope you’ll pick up Lesser Evils and enjoy it as much as Ari did. The next book featuring Farideh will be part of our Sundering series, which you might have heard something about. If you’re at all interested in the future of the Forgotten Realms, you’re going to want to read Lesser Evils to get ready for the Sundering!

Meanwhile, let us know what YOU think about novel covers below:

Succubus: Demon or devil?
Monster vs. hero -- it's gotta have lots of action to get my attention.
I like atmosphere -- a location that sets the scene.
I want to see the hero, up close and personal.

Nina Hess wishes she could escape to an ancient Netherese library—to read and edit in peace. But she could do without the scary stuff that goes down in Lesser Evils. Jon Schindehette art directs the Dungeons & Dragons brand with an iron fist in a velvet glove—but he only wears a chainmail shirt on special occasions. Erin M. Evans is frantically finishing her next novel, interrupted by day-mares of the cambion from the Monster Manual.

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