I didn't forget about my Immortals cover-designin' project while I was thinking about Northern Lights, I had a composition worked out for Wolf Speaker I was pleased with, I just had some complicated technical issues to address before I could proceed (i.e I didn't have any brown paper and I had to go buy some).
This has partly been an exercise in creating a set of three covers which match very closely, a single idea with small variations rather than three matching ideas. The Immortals feels like a series one would market by playing up the continuity and growth within (as opposed to, for example, a series like Discworld where you'd be more keen to make the identity of each particular book clearer).
This approach throws up some points where one has to decide whether consistancy takes priority over making changes to suit the book more. For example, the middle book is called Wolf Speaker and normally I'm against putting apples on the cover when apples is in the title. One wants antithesis between title and cover generally; what's the point of merely reiterating what a title is already telling browsing customers?
Or the opposite issue: where a book has apples in the title and you put oranges on the cover. That creates no synthesis between title and image either. If The Emperor Mage were a standalone book I probably wouldn't use this image because it jars oddly against the title.
But I think as part of a series it works. The context of the companion books trumps the context of the title, so we're not lost as to what this girl is doing on the front of this book.
As for the wolves, I feel the fact they are not the focal point makes all the difference. The focus is on Daine, and I made sure to put her in an active pose that tells us something else about her than the fact she can speak to animals (by having her loading the crossbow). The book is called Wolf Speaker, implying perhaps a new-agey, gentle vibe, and the image is of a snarling pack and a girl amongst them preparing a weapon. Therefore I feel the cover image is adding enough antithetical information to the title to earn its place.
If the point of this project was, 'how would I approach a brief of packaging The Immortals by Tamora Pierce for a current YA audience who would enjoy them for their many merits', the answer is partly that I would go broad and obvious with the covers. Show the main character. Show her exercising her central and titular power. That's the hook of the series after all.
A project like this has a different purpose from covering new releases or re-issues of perennially popular books. Those can be more enigmatically illustrated if they choose because they are already marked out in the customer's mind (and will have the advantage of prominent display).
In my last post I mentioned how Northern Lights got updated paperback covers over the years that I may personally not have enjoyed but which I did respect as doing the job they were presumably intended to do - opening the books out to a new, perhaps younger, audience by making where they fit genre and tone wise.
I'm working in light of what I feel have been successful and unsuccessful covers for The Immortals previously (remember, for the purposes of this project I am only looking at the first three books in the quartet):
These the best covers the series has had. The first US editions, UK editions and second UK editions respectively. I remember actually kind of hated the latter when they came out. So much so that I bought them and swapped them with the battered old public library copies of the first row's editions, carefully removing all the library stickers and tags from one set and transferring them to the other. But now I think they're the editions whose design stands up the best. Perhaps simply because they're the most recent. They're not perfect, though, the title treatment looks very odd to me.
I adore the illustration work on both US and UK first editions (Especially the UK ones which are by the always amazing David Wyatt) but I must admit that the framing devices on both make them look extremely dated. You would also never get away with the titles or bylines being so small and unreadable today where designs must work at thumbnail size. And even if those extraneous features were dealt with - e.g. by giving the paintings full-bleed treatment and adding some new typography - I think anything in this style of painted illustration, full scene illustration just wouldn't fly right now. The YA market has got extremely sophisticated and the adult market's distaste for full illustration on covers had bled into it (I'm talking primarily about the UK here, the US market still is much more accepting of traditional illustration).
But they do all work, and they all work on the same principle: they present an image of the main character interestingly engaged in fantastical goings on. She is the dominating and central focus of each, they are more character study than action illustration.
These more recent editions that still more or less work but and follow the same principles, but just don't have quite the power to attract of those above. I like Liselotte Watkins, the illustrator responsible for the top row's images, and thought some of her Tamora Pierce covers worked well (she briefly did 'em all, though sales must have dropped because the publisher reissued hastily to the much safer and duller ones below after about a year of the Watkins editions being on the shelf). These Watkins covers kind of work. They look curated and cared for, as if the publisher esteems these books. They've chosen a distinctive and young aesthetic for the illustration and created a lovely foiled byline lockup to brand the books with. The fantasy edge of the lockup counterbalances the fashion-mag-illustration look of the rest of the cover. They end up being a bit bland though. Watkins comes from the world of fashion illustration and her girls can only really pout and smile enigmatically while staring into the middle distance, with no engaging hint of personality or emotion. This girl doesn't look like a a character whose personality and world you want to get to know, she looks like a clotheshorse because that what Watkins draws. Her inclusion of animal motifs into Daine's clothing is clever and might have lent the books the intrigue and character that the face lacks if we could see more of them, but they mostly get lost with the rigid formatting.
The replacement covers, the photo-montage ones below, perhaps speak more to the actual content of the books but they look dull and cheap. Any readers they pick up by accurately conveying the girl/magic/animal content they surely match by putting others off with the 'these are churned out by-numbers books, take them or leave them, we've paid no attention to them'. It's a sad end for these great books to end up in.
I believe the last set above are the current US paperbacks. They look more bespoke and sympathetic to the books. but they are also dull as tar. Only Wolf-Speaker looks kinda cool in a 90s wolves-are-magical way. I'm can't say super excited to read a book about a badly drawn badger. Animals are a good and obvious motif for these covers, but animals on their own and illustrated in this style make the books look like they are an Erin Hunter project. They skew way too young. Tamora Pierce is firmly YA.
Finally, just for contrast, this is what fully illustrated covers look like. the first set is beautifully illustrated and I think could still be used (at least in the US market). These would find an audience. There's enough teens who are still swayed by beautifully drawn scenes of girls on horseback.
The second set were always terrible. They're badly executed and they either pick dull imagery or frame it dully. Compare the image from this set's Wild Magic to the one from the second issue UK paperbacks above. Both feature Daine fighting a monster. The UK one is vivid and dynamic, both subjects large and with the background dropped out to focus on the action. Looking at the US paperback you might miss that there was any action going at all at a glance. The lighting is dull and devoid of atmosphere on all three. The second cover just has characters standing around looking at nothing much. The third cover is for a book that includes a girl magically animating dinosaur skeletons to stomp a palace into the ground and it chooses to show on the cover a conversation in a room.