Better known as Game of Thrones thanks to HBO’s television adaptation, A Song of Ice and Fire is the title of a series of fantasy novels which so far include A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons and the upcoming The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Originally published in 1996 by Bantam Books in the USA, the first book did not reach bestseller status but thanks to word of mouth each subsequent novel gained more recognition until the fourth novel, A Feast of Crows, became an instant bestseller and the TV adaptation then boosted sales further, before it even began airing.
As the first book in the series was published as early as 1996 it is interesting to see how cover design for fantasy novels such as these ones have changed in recent years. Let’s start with the original covers from 1996, the former is for USA (Bantam Books), the latter for the UK (Voyager Books):
The US version is quite simplistic compared to the UK version (maybe too simplistic, they grey isn’t terrible exciting, at least it would fail to get my attention), which has a more typical fantasy look (see for example famous fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series). It is obvious, certainly in the case of the second one, that this is a cover for readers of fantasy. A Song of Ice and Fire is a medieval fantasy and that is where the inspiration for this cover comes from. Its very colourful, featuring strong colours, and characters that seem almost mystical, at least they are lords and ladies and knights. A reader should know exactly what he is getting with this cover, but it would not appeal to anyone that is not a fan of this genre.
This trend continues on the set of these covers, released before HBO adapted the books:
These covers are not as “busy”, that is there is not as much going on in them as in the original UK version but nevertheless they are still clearly intended for a fantasy audience. The look is clearer than before and still these covers do give the tone for the book, which takes place in a medieval world. Still, in such a small size these covers would not work well as thumbnails.
However, the covers that we know the series by today are quite different. As the books became bestsellers, the was clearly a need for a more polished look that could reach a mainstream audience, even the ones that wouldn’t normally read fantasy literature, as you can see here:
Each book has its own colour and image, there is equal emphasis put on the author and the title of the book, they are instantly recognizable and would make a good collectible for your bookshelf. They also work in a smaller size as the font is so big and the colours stand out.
I think that with these versions there are two things at play, one is that not everyone wants people to see that they are reading fantasy (or a childish book), so the latter covers are better for those purposes, they don’t immediately tell people which genre this is (on the other hand they might want to advertise that they are reading this series, with their known covers, as Game of Thrones and fantasy in general is “in” these days). The second is that the lines between which people read which type of a literature at this or that age is blurring, for example young adult fiction is not necessarily read only by teenagers or people in their 20’s. A great example is Suzanne Collins’ the Hunger Game series, which has become popular with adults as well.
Speaking of the Hunger Games, the latest covers follow the same tradition of creating a look, with a different icon for each book, which is instantly recognizable (and would work digitally as well):
Or a bit more visual and colourful but still sleek:
There are a few versions available as a Hunger Games cover yet they are all quite similar, there is nothing to draw your attention away from the important things; the title, perhaps the name of the series, and the author’s name.
Lastly it is worth noting that there can be, from a marketing perspective, a reason to include a bit more text in order to sell to a certain audience, for instance to fans of the show which might react favourably to a cover with the TV characters as this one is attempting:
Just for fun it has to be mentioned that the new, minimalistic look could owe its roots to the master of fantasy himself, J.R.R. Tolkien who himself designed a simple look for the original publications of his trilogy, Lord of the Rings from 1954:
And yet the early covers of his books follow the same progress we can see in the Song of Ice and Fire covers, which suggests that they are part of a larger trend in fantasy literature. Take a look at, for example, these early covers of The Fellowship of the Ring:
They are quite mystical, focus on nature, not terribly exciting I think. However, the modern ones bear more than a certain resemblance to the A Song of Ice and Fire and the Hunger Games covers:
Once again they are simple, classy, recognizable, and they form a whole. For my part I have to say I do like the modern versions better, the ones which are almost identical to others in the same series. For those who are not willing to spend extra money on beautiful hardbacks or special editions, the compatibility of these covers still ensures that they look good on a reader’s bookshelf (and taps into the collector in us as well).