From an editor’s point of view, it’s vital to obtain a great piece of cover art for every book you publish. An outstanding book cover can make a first-time writer. It can separate an author from the pack on crowded bookshelves. It telegraphs the right message to the perfect readership.
Given all that, why do some book covers go so wildly astray? More than thirty years in New York publishing have given me some answers.
There are a number of factors. Sometimes an artist doesn’t have the time or inclination to actually read the book he or she is illustrating. They rely on a synopsis provided by the editor. Nuances like mood, setting, even character description are apt to disappear.
Cost is always a frustrating limitation. If a dreadful cover comes in, it’s almost impossible for an editor to reject it and start anew. Attempts are made to “fix” it, but we all know the saying about the sow’s ear. (And just in case we don’t all know it, the saying goes, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”)
And then there are cases in which “marketing reasons” rule.
Dawn, the first book in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, is a prime example. Dawn, recently announced as being in production for television under producer Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) and writer Victoria Mahoney, is the story of Lilith Iyapo, one of the few survivors of Earth’s self-destruction in an orgy of war and disease. She is rescued by the alien Oankali for mysterious reasons of their own—and must decide whether to contribute to humanity’s survival by agreeing to the Oankali’s plan, or choose oblivion instead.
The original 1987 cover from Warner Books shows a white woman awaking from what appears to be a medical procedure of some kind. However, early in chapter 1 of Dawn we read this very clear description of Lilith, the main character, from her own point of view: “Once, they put a child in with her—a small boy with long, straight black hair and smoky-brown skin, paler than her own.”
Now, was this a case of artistic error, or was it an example of a publisher deciding that a black woman on a book cover would turn off too many potential purchasers? If it was the latter, it’s far from the only case of cover art designed to avoid the depiction of characters of color. Octavia’s editor and art director from that time are no longer alive, so we can’t be sure of the thought processes involved. But we can take a look at Butler’s other covers from early in her career to see how they were handled.
Butler’s first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976. Teray, its main character, is never described as black, although the entire series centers around the issues of power and control, the mastery of some people over others: a clear parallel to the system of slavery. Teray’s dangerous brother Coransee, whose burning ambition is to become the new Patternmaster when their father dies, says this the first time they meet: “ 'Teray,’ he repeated, drawing the word out thoughtfully. ‘How did you happen to choose a name ending in “ray,” boy?’ ”
All the books published by Doubleday’s science fiction line at that time carried book jackets printed in two colors, so it means nothing that the art does not indicate skin tone. But using line art rather than anything offering more detail does demonstrate one way that publishers used to avoid the issue.
The paperback reprint of Patternmaster looked like a standard shoot-em-up sci-fi spectacular. One can only imagine Butler’s reaction to it. (Authors almost never receive approval on their cover art, even today.)
Next came Mind of My Mind and Survivor, also from Doubleday and again avoiding the issue of color.
Happily, Octavia’s fourth novel to be published, Kindred, was a very different story. Although it too came out from Doubleday, Kindred was published in 1979 in a very different way, receiving a rather lovely full-color book jacket that shows very clearly the identity of main character Dana, a modern-day black woman repeatedly thrown back in time to a Maryland slave plantation. Kindred has proven to be Butler’s most popular novel, and its graphic-novel adaptation just won the comic world’s highest award, an Eisner.
Butler returned to the Patternist series in 1980 with Wild Seed, whose Doubleday cover obviously benefited from the critical success Butler received with Kindred.
The final book in the Patternist series, Clay’s Ark, was brought out by a different hardcover publisher. Oddly, its two-color art was similar to that used on the Doubleday list.
In 1987, after a hiatus of several years, Octavia may have felt that her cover treatments were slipping backwards when her Xenogenesis series debuted at a new publishing house, Warner Books. After Butler’s success with Kindred, why did they give Dawn such a puzzling visualization of a white woman? Adulthood Rites is a bit more definitive, but Imago once again presents a white woman.
RELATED: 10 Octavia Butler Quotes to Live By
This is where I enter the story. I became Octavia’s editor at Warner Books in the early ‘90s, just after hardcover publication of Parable of the Sower. She needed very little of my input on the writing side—but the look of an author’s books is part of an editor’s job as well. It was my great pleasure and privilege to spearhead the re-design of Octavia’s entire backlist (except for Survivor, which she did not want republished after its initial editions). When Parable of the Sower came out in paperback from Warner Books, we were proud to be able to release all the other revised covers alongside it.
When Warner’s art director for science fiction, Don Puckey, came to me with the mockup for the first of those re-designs, Mind of My Mind, I literally staggered back against the doorway and my hands flew to my mouth. Artist John Jude Palencar had captured exactly the qualities of the story that had seized me as well.
Palencar, a multiple award-winning artist, recalls his assignment to create new art for all the Warner Books titles:
My family and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio at the time. Oberlin College was one of the first institutions of higher education to admit woman and minorities back in the 19th century. The Underground Railroad also made its way through Oberlin… many of the old houses, of which we owned one, included hidden rooms to safely hide slaves moving northward to freedom. My approach to the cover art was that I used archetypes and symbols to reveal the character's inner struggles and spiritual strength and fortitude. Some have a contemplative prayer-like mood and others are more direct and softly confrontational. I kept it simple and direct, so the covers would ‘read’ quickly and create questions rather than give answers. The surreal approach I employed was a pleasant conceptual match. I didn’t want the covers to come across as a visually chattering narrative.
I heard from someone at a industry convention that these were some of Octavia’s favorite covers - that always made me smile. I was heartbroken when I learned of her passing away. She was one of those rare people that still retained a child-like innocence and a well-seasoned maturity in their work. Ms. Butler’s work is still as relevant today as it was yesterday.
Many of the covers he painted for Octavia’s books now reside in private collections throughout the U.S., Palencar says. They were featured in an exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Harlem a few years ago.
It’s my contention that the Palencar cover art reached an all-new audience for Octavia’s work. Both male and female readers—and writers—saw themselves in the characters she created and the near-future situations she wrote about with such passion. Science fiction readers hungry for new faces and new voices picked up the new editions throughout the ‘90s.
Since that time, Octavia Butler’s work has gained more and more attention, having been adapted to opera and graphic novel form, continually being optioned for Hollywood, and now on schedule to become a television series — fulfilling Octavia’s long-ago goal to become a bestselling author.
All of the books have received new cover treatments, and the Palencar versions are no longer available except as used copies. But the artwork remains in my heart as some of the loveliest I have ever seen.
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Featured photo: Alchetron; Doubleday, and Warner Books covers of "Dawn"