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Cover Launch: Best Served Cold

Good Afternoon from the Orbit US Art Department. Today we’re giving you a sneak peak at the new Joe Abercrombie title, BEST SERVED COLD. (Out in July in the US)

This book is an exciting new chapter for Abercrombie fans, and a great place to jump on if you’ve never read Joe’s books before. This title is a standalone, so don’t worry about needing to know backstory, just jump in…

Best Served Cold is the story of Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in the ruthless Duke Orso’s employ. Her victories have made her popular — a shade too popular for her employer’s taste.  Betrayed, thrown down a mountain, and left for dead, Murcatto arises with a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. 

“A Girl?!” you say? Well, trust me, this is pure Joe Abercrombie. It is as action-packed, as edgy, and as bloody (as you can see from the cover) as any epic fantasy I’ve read in a long time. However, it also opens the door for a brand new audience of female readers (myself included) to get sucked into Joe’s vivid storytelling and the world of Styria. This book is both true to Joe’s First Law Trilogy and a huge step forward into exciting new terrain.

That said, there was much debate in the halls of Orbit as to how we should handle the cover of this book. Joe’s UK publishers have established a very specific look with The First Law Trilogy and are following that through with Best Served Cold.

Genres develop certain visual cues, and this happens in all kinds of media — book covers, music packaging, and even websites. Old manuscripts and maps evoke armies and fighting and war. The same way a slick photographic style says urban fantasy. As visual beings we make snap judgements from these cues, and a designer knows these cues and when to use them or purposfully confuse them.

Our approach was to focus on a more character-driven cover, while keeping the grit and dirt and gore of the epic fantasy look. The fabulous Hsu & Associates Design and Michael Turek Photography were put on the case. They did a series of great covers, but they just didn’t capture the raw violence of this book. We had one huge issue — the main character is a woman, and a good chunk of male fantasy readers think any cover with a woman on it is immediately girly urban fantasy fluff. So we kept pushing the texture, and the grit, and we came up with a gorgeous image and design…



We loved this last cover. It’s gritty, it’s character-driven, it’s dark, and the texture is gorgeous. If the main character was a man in a loincloth or armor, let me tell you, this cover would be it. Unfortunately, it’s an ugly stereotyping of the genre (and we here at Orbit are all about challenging stereotypes), but a woman on the cover still reads urban fantasy to a lot of people. We showed the cover to Joe, who thought the cover was great, but he was also concerned about his fans. We didn’t want to alienate epic fantasy readers, and of course we didn’t want to misrepresent it as an urban fantasy book. But we truly felt that it was important to have Monza on the cover — so we decided to combine the two.



And after a lot of photoshop and a LOT of playing, we reached a happy medium. It speaks to Joe’s core audience of shields-and-swords fantasy readers, but opens the door for new readers to be interested by the mixed signals of the cover and pick it up. And that’s our goal — getting a person in a bookstore who has never heard of Joe Abercrombie to pick it up. Because if they give the book that chance, read the flaps, read the praise that Joe’s great writing has already achieved, then we have them. Do we expect that there will be some controversy? Of course, I can hear it already. I grew up a girl in a male geekboy’s realm and I am well used to being downplayed, dismissed, and told to “go watch Buffy” (and ogled, but that’s a post for another time). I am female, but I love epic fantasy. I love swords-and-shields AND love urban fantasy. And there are a lot of women like me out there. And there are male urban fantasy readers as well. (Don’t tell me no, who do you think is buying those Dresden Files books, hm?) And this book, which has such a great, strong, female heroine (or antiheroine, if you prefer), is something I would pick up and love.  Joe’s writing will succeed on its own merit, and we of course expect he’ll gain new readers through reviews. However, I believe, as a book designer, that a cover is successful if it reaches the same audience that the interior of the book does. And I believe this cover does that. Is it controversial? of course. Is it a mashup of different styles? yes. But Joe is pushing the envelope and challenging readers, and so should we here in the Art Department. 

Comments? I LOVE IT. Bring it on. But be warned, Don’t try to challenge me on genre trivia, I started working in a comic book store when i was 16. I will crush you on geek references.

  1. Aidan from A Dribble of Ink

    February 3, 2009
    at 9:16 pm

    Thanks for pulling back the curtain on the process behind the cover. I’m still not a fan, but I appreciate the fact that you folk at Orbit are willing to back up your product.

    A Dribble of Ink

  2. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    February 3, 2009
    at 10:29 pm

    My pleasure. I am always happy to explain our thought process. And I will be posting as many new covers as I can starting with the Fall 09 season we’re working on now. I find even if people disagree with you, they can at least see that real thought went into the decision. It’s too easy sometimes for people to gut react and say “this sucks, they’re dumb,” but i prefer engaging people in conversation rather than just judgement.

  3. RB

    February 3, 2009
    at 11:09 pm

    I, for one, like the updated cover. How many times can you do a crinkled map spattered with blood? This keeps the look of the previous volumes, but definitely adds another dimension. It promises action, that’s for sure! The other one promises Treasure Island, with a paper cut…

  4. Ross

    February 4, 2009
    at 2:05 am

    I am many others think the art is not good. I truly enjoy the UK cover art and am seriously considering importing a book via Amazon Uk.

    I am sorry but this just doesn’t appeal in any way to my tastes.

  5. Luke

    February 4, 2009
    at 3:47 am

    Seeing the process behind the cover IS interesting, and it does lend the cover a little more credibility in my book. That being said, it still looks a little too pulpy for my tastes; the UK cover is simply awesome. I think perhaps you’re underestimating the draw that would have on the average I-pick-my-books-out-by-browsing reader. Of course I probably sound like a pompous windbag saying that; you guys are the experts. But personally (I do go ‘cover shopping’ from time to time) I would be immediately drawn to the UK cover while I would sneeringly pass up the US one w/o a second though.

  6. Matt W

    February 4, 2009
    at 4:28 am

    From your reference to working in a comic book store, I’m tempted to say “Worst…cover…EVER!” But it’s not. I admit that I prefer the UK design (on this book, as well as many others), and, living in Canada, we can often get those versions. But I really appreciate your description of the complex process of designing the cover, and I don’t see anything wrong with your version. After all, as you know, anyone who’s a fan of Joe’s other books will not be dissuaded by this cover from buying the book. What you really want is to attract the attention of people browsing in a bookstore who have not heard of Joe before, since selling books and increasing the audience is the name of the game (especially in these tough times!). So I definitely hope this design works for you.

    Two other thoughts: (1) Since you mention being ogled by the male fantasy/SF/comic book geeks out there, I suppose posting a photo’s (sigh) out of the question :P (2) Isn’t Joe being just a little bit coy in refusing to include maps in the books, when there are snippets of them on covers? I have read his rationale for not putting maps in (many people in that world don’t have maps, they’re kind of a fantasy cliche blah blah), but he mentions the odd map in the books, and…damn it…I just love maps. Or is he finally going to break down and put one in this volume?

  7. Dark Wolf

    February 4, 2009
    at 11:14 am

    Thanks a lot for the insight on the wonderful process of making a cover.
    As for this one, I believe that it suffers because it is compared with UK cover. Taken on itself, I have to admit that I would have picked it up if I didn’t know the author.
    I eagerly wait to see further works on covers :)

  8. Darius Hinks

    February 4, 2009
    at 2:00 pm

    Hmm… If a cover needs that much text to justify it, I can’t help thinking it’s not really doing its job properly. Fair play for discussing your design process so openly though – it certainly makes for an interesting debate.

  9. Iain Coleman

    February 4, 2009
    at 3:09 pm

    There’s a poll at Instant Fanzine on which cover people like best. You might find the results interesting.

  10. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    February 4, 2009
    at 4:42 pm

    I am glad you guys are enjoying the “behind the scenes” blogging. In fact, I’ll be blogging every new cover – although i expect not many will have quite the level of controversy this one has attained. I’m sure none of you guys would be caught dead reading an urban fantasy post, but you can see my previous post on the BITE MARKS photo shoot if you want more insider info. And to respond to Matt W, I have never attested to beauty – ANY girl in a comic book store will get ogled, but I will be working the Orbit/Yen Press booth at NY comic con this saturday if you feel an undying need to judge for yourself.

  11. Jeff

    February 4, 2009
    at 5:57 pm

    The UK cover looks like Pirates of the Caribbean. The US cover looks like Kill Bill.

  12. Gearóid

    February 4, 2009
    at 8:39 pm

    Interesting article. nice to see the thought process behind the decision.

    It’s certainly not a bad cover, but it does seem to suffer in comparison to the UK cover (But I did like the simplicity of the manuscripts/maps). It will be interesting to see how you carry this new visual style forward.

    On a separate but related note, I find it strange that on a page talking about the cover of Joe Abercrombie’s latest book, I notice that there is no link to his website on your list of links on the right of the page?? An odd oversight?

  13. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    February 5, 2009
    at 1:05 am

    Good eye, Gearoid. Joe is one of our newer authors, so I suspect we’ve been a bit slow on updating our lists, but I’ll make sure and remind our webmaster to add him. Thanks!

  14. Jaye Wells

    Jaye Wells

    February 5, 2009
    at 3:49 am

    Well, I’m both a chick and an author of “urban fantasy fluff,” but I think the US version is cool. Can’t wait to read this one.

  15. Liz

    February 6, 2009
    at 3:02 pm

    I have to say, I like both covers – as an absolute geek when it comes to both UF and grand sweeping shields and swords fantasy – and will no doubt end up getting two copies of the same book if I like the different covers enough…yes, I’m afraid that happens in my household.

    Also – this behind the scenes sneak peaks are just brilliant. It really brings “home” the hard work that goes into putting the cover together in order to do the book justice.

  16. Dave

    February 6, 2009
    at 6:05 pm

    As a cover designer myself, I have to say that this process sounds all too familiar and while you’re putting a brave face on the whole situation it’s clear that the marketing department has done its usual job of diluting and ruining two good ideas by demanding the cover be all things to all people.

    The art for the woman looks like urban fantasy because it’s done in the near-photo-realistic style of those titles — which is known to sell. She could have been handled in a completely different style and without the vague S&M leather getup and high cheekbones. But you can hear the marketing department saying it was necessary because the map and sword won’t appeal to women and they want to hit that “market segment” to expand the audience.

    One of the best things about the covers for Abercrombie’s First Law books is that there are no images of characters on the front. It adds to the tight focus of the books — intimate characterizations of individuals taking part in enormously world-changing situations — and doesn’t try to define what comes between the pages. The books are brutal, brutish, dirty, and vibrant — the covers get that across without trying too hard.

    But, what you’ve ended up with is a compromise that is an artistically unsatisfying mess. It’s two ideas that don’t go together. The UK cover is far superior as a piece of art, and the original US version is ultimately a better design. The new US cover is trying too hard.

  17. Bear

    February 6, 2009
    at 7:28 pm

    As an avid reader and fan, I admit that I will buy the UK version for my own shelves. But, as a publisher (and sometimes cover designer too – we’re a small company), I definitely agree with your choice. Your cover art is what would mostly appeal to a wider audience. And after all, you, at Orbit, are selling books (with an emphasis on selling) and that means you want to sell as many as possible.
    Anyways, I loved the earlier version too (maybe even more) and, as a fan of Joe (I had the chance to meet him and exchange a few words last year at Eastercon) I would buy anything he writes, even with a blank cover.

  18. Erik Amundsen

    February 6, 2009
    at 9:40 pm

    “A Girl?!” you say? Well, trust me, this is pure Joe Abercrombie. It is as action-packed, as edgy, and as bloody (as you can see from the cover) as any epic fantasy I’ve read in a long time.


    any cover with a woman on it is immediately girly urban fantasy fluff


    and we here at Orbit are all about challenging stereotypes

    …To paraphrase Sesame Street, it would seem that one of these things is not like the others. But I’ll give you points for not indulging in the execrable “Woman facing away/ass to shoulder shot” which seems so very popular.
    I am curious about this meme in which epic fantasy is somehow the he-man woman hater’s club and urban is covered in girl cooties. Anecdata from my experience shows the opposite (male friends wait for the next Jim Butcher or Laurel K Hamilton like they were made out of pure cocaine and cigarettes they wish they could quit, respectively [and they’ll credit their wishing to quit Hamilton to the decline in quality of her work over the last few years arguing that her first books were brilliant] and my wife complains about the lack of good epic), so I’d love to know if there is some kind of actual data that backs this up.

  19. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    February 6, 2009
    at 11:06 pm

    Jaye – we’re working on your next book now. So I hope your support of our cover doesn’t have purely diplomatic motivations. hah.
    Liz – glad you enjoy the behind the scenes, I’ll be doing that a lot in the future.
    Dave – ah yes, even if you didnt say it, I would know you were a cover designer yourself.
    Erik – actual data? about 7 years in cover design, 6 years in a comic book store, and a lifetime of geekdom. However it IS true, I am using stereotypes here. There are exceptions to every rule. But, overwhelmingly, in the posts all over the web, girls say they love the US cover, and most of the UK-preferers are men. (From which posts have pictures or use real names, of course). and I was saying in that particular run-on sentence that at Orbit we are TRYING to challenge stereotypes, but succumbed in this particular case. Also boys may read Anita Blake, but Meredith Gentry? I’m skeptical.

  20. Stefan

    February 7, 2009
    at 12:58 am

    Well, I like it.

  21. Tzia

    February 8, 2009
    at 3:25 am

    As a woman, I must say that I am drawn to the “pure” uban fantasy look cover. I wouldn’t have picked up the First Law Trilogy at a glance. But the mixed cover? Would have me picking it up. I guess its another book set and single book to add to my growing list of reads. But, that’s a good thing!

  22. Ryan

    February 9, 2009
    at 6:01 am

    Well, I suppose I’m going to have to say that although I understand the reason’s for doing what you did. I am not a fan of the US cover. This is in part because it will never quite fit in with the other First Law Trilogy books, and also because I can not stand those kinds of covers. It would not have mattered if it was a man or a woman on the cover.. just something about that kind of art. It could very well have been a man in armor on the cover, I would still have been disinclined to pick it up and give it a chance.

    Admittedly, you quite obviously know the best way to interest new readers into picking up the books. Although it seems almost as though you are attempting to create a stereotypical urban fantasy cover, in the hopes of getting the women (who supposedly all quite enjoy those covers) to pick the book up, but what happens when they read it. What if they expected an urban fantasy due to the cover? They could be sorely disappointed in the book. Of course, they would most likely enjoy the book nonetheless (because his books are quite good), but it seems to me almost like tricking them into reading the book. Again though, I suppose that is half of what advertising is, heh.

    If I had not read the previous books by Joe, I would probably have passed it by without a second thought. Instead, I may resign to the inevitable fact that I might have to pay some extra money to get the cover I enjoy more.

  23. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    February 9, 2009
    at 4:27 pm

    Actually, I would reserve judgement on BEST SERVED COLD until you read it. I think this book is not only a fabulous exciting read, but amazingly more approachable for a reader used to urban fantasy than the First Law Trilogy would be – while definitely remaining true to Joe’s established voice and writing style. I do not feel we are falsely advertising the book at all…

  24. Jon Dahl

    February 14, 2009
    at 12:49 pm

    I do wish there had been a bit less Photoshoppery involved, as the woman now seems malformed and caught in the process of… how to put this delicately?… Well, let’s just say ‘in need of some serious dietary fiber’.

    But from a design standpoint, I do think the cover is now far too busy and does not track well to the eyes. In my opinion, Orbit has had some fantastic covers, and in general I’ve loved the visual identity you’ve created. But in this case I see a failure, and can’t help wondering if, by trying to please everyone, you’re now pleasing no one?

  25. Andy Symons

    February 24, 2009
    at 2:38 am

    Thanks for posting this. It’s always fascinating to get a peak behind the curtain and see the process in action. Perversely it is it the first image that appeals to me the so I guess that is one tick in the, ‘go with the first thought column’.

    I do have a question concerning the final image. How did you decide what proportion of the cover be given to the map versus the character? Based on market? Image balance? Slide rule?

  26. Dan S

    April 1, 2009
    at 8:49 pm

    First up I must say that from what I have seen I prefer the look of the UK cover. The style that was developed in the first series was quite unique and the book just jumps out of the shelf.

    It was good seeing the thought process though and I do quite like the mixed cover, it’s defiantly better than the earlier options that were posted. Will it be int eh nice parchment effect? or glossy? (I think that glossy will look a little tacky but…)

    This seems to be a general thing I have noticed though. US covers for fantasy books tend to look a lot more tacky than for the UK edition. I guess it’s the market segment thing. It is as though the target audience for the US is teenagers while in the UK it is across a larger segment of the population. There are books I have picked up from the US that I have thought looks like a quick time wasting read based on the cover that I only chose as there wasn’t anything else and I have been very pleasantly surprised once I looked inside.

    I know the old adage is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but let’s face it we do and getting it right is very important.

  27. Molly

    April 5, 2009
    at 4:15 pm

    I’m thrilled with the cover and think it looks gritty enough to be a Joe Abercrombie book and be true to what the plot seems to revolve around.

    On a side note, I was happy to read the description of how the cover came to be. I’m also female and I love me some epic fantasy and the idea of having a dark and flawed female lead is too exciting to pass up.

    Can’t wait!

  28. GMSilinsky

    October 10, 2009
    at 12:40 pm

    Ill have to amit to being biased, I would have picked it up with a blank cover, I am a fan and loved this book. I did like the cover though and am 50/50 to either cover, UK/US. I like them both.

    My wife has never read fantasy in her life… She loved the cover, so if you can get her to pick up the book, think about reading it. I think you are doing your job.

    Also in no way is this cover missleading, if you look at a cover and expect something other then what it is, you are judgeing it buy it’s cover and have fooled yourself.

    Great book/Great cover… Good job.

  29. Jason

    November 18, 2009
    at 9:38 am

    Had to weigh in on this…I had never heard of Joe Abecrombie before seeing this cover. The cover not only made me want to buy this book but as soon as I opened it up and found out about the First Law Trilogy I went out and immediately bought those as well.

    The cover was eyecatching and seemed, at least to me, to convey that I was in for an adventure instead of urban fantasy.

  30. Wolfgang

    January 14, 2010
    at 7:14 am

    … in the end this all is about selling stuff. Just like wrapped candies (do not use green paper for cherry flavour) or any other consumer product.
    To make sure people that never heard of Joe Abercrombie picking up exactly this book – lower the price. “… this week only: 2$ off!”

    Wait >> there are tons of people, depending on the income of this (and a lot more) book(s)?

    OK, if you are from Europe – there had been a change in currency, some years ago. In Germany we went from “Mark” to €uro at an exchange rate from 2:1 roughly.
    You would expect to see prices turn lower by 50%, roughly?
    Nope, most goods that had been sold at 25 “Marks” were on display now for 25 €uro. Most notably books had been among those!

    What I mean – your explanation of the thoughts behind working out this cover do not differ from any design work for any consumer object. What you want to do is sell this product.
    Nothing wrong about that, but what reads like you are on a quest for the good of your readers – well, I bought this book, sporting this cover, and it will take me hours to get the picture of that woman out of my mind, exchanging it with the one that Mr. Abercrombie describes.
    Maybe I should purchase hard covers – there you can get rid of the paper cover (turn it around, put it back on – BINGO!! ;) ),

  31. click here

    July 27, 2012
    at 10:27 pm

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  32. Crusher

    March 17, 2013
    at 8:14 pm

    I’m pretty sure you really lowered the chances for the US version of the book to be bought by a LOT of people. Why would you want to butcher the original UK version is beyond me. That applies to any book that gets published by another country. Why does every publisher have to change the covers instead of keeping the one chosen by the author. I would understand doing that if the original cover really sucks but not when literally thousands of people praised the amazing covers existing for the UK version.

    IMO you did this by trying to reach the the female readers of your country and I think you did this the wrong way. Why should we use a blank cover (as in no characters) when the main character is a woman? That would have been sexist right?

    To tell you the truth there is a slim to none chance for me to buy “Best served cold” (or any of Joe’s books for that matter) with the US covers, even if now I know who Joe A. is and what his books are like.

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