Authorial Intent

I liked Lindsay Ellis’ video on “Death of the Author,” and John Scalzi’s blog post on the subject, and it reminded me of a story. Check ’em both out, I’ll be here when you get back.

Lindsay Ellis: Death of the Author

John Scalzi:  Death of the Author… Maybe

Back? Good, okay, here’s the story…

Years ago, I was hired to paint a cover for Fred Saberhagen’s omnibus The Complete Book of Swords. The publisher gave me the manuscript to read, I read it, and the Art Director and I agreed that the cover should depict the “one sword to rule them all,” as it were. Problem was, though this was a super-special sword made of unobtanium (or whatever, I forget the term), Fred had never actually described the thing.

So I called the A.D. up and said “I want to be sure and get this right, but I have questions about how this sword looks that aren’t answered by the text. Can you put me in touch with the author, so I can ask him about it?” The A.D. sez “Absolutely not! We have a strict rule about that, no contact between author and cover artist.” Hunh.

Okay. Well, it’s not as if I didn’t know a few people in the field, so through mutual friends, I managed to get a message to Fred (this was in the days before email). He responded with his phone number, and an invitation to call. So I called him. We had a nice chat about various aspects of the book, and writing and publishing generally (the guy was a prince, very gracious, full of interesting stories). Eventually, I got around to asking about the details of this sword.

And Fred goes, “Gee, I dunno, I never thought much about that. What did you think it should look like?”

(Yeah, if you went to the links above, you saw that coming, right?)

He liked my ideas. So I painted the cover. Art Director loved it. Fred called me up to say he loved it. I got paid. But much as they loved it (and kept reissuing it with the same cover for years), that publisher never gave me another assignment. Made me wonder if they’d found out about my end run around their “no contact” rule.

Coda:   Years later, after Fred had passed, his executor got in touch with me to say that it was one of Fred’s all-time favorite covers, and to enquire how much I would charge to allow them to use it on the memorial website they were doing for Fred.

I told him they were welcome to use it for free, all I wanted was credit.

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