I know that unless you self-publish, authors rarely get to decide what their books look like, so I thought it might be fun to pose the question to the literary folks here at S.W.A.G. ...
Steampunk art can run the gamut from technical drawings of complex machines to head shots of folks in goggles. So I'm curious, assuming that a piece is well-executed, what type of art are SP affectionados interested in seeing? What engages you as a viewer, or what themes might you look at and say 'I would consider making room on my wall for something like that,' or 'it would be cool if my cover was like this.'
Could it be...
I guess it depends what application the art is to be put to.
If it's book cover art, then it should be related to the story, and give some sense of what kind of experience the reader will have if they read the book.
If it's to hang on their wall at home, that's quite another matter. Do they want something restful? Something dramatic? A cityscape, perhaps, of a fully realized steampunk world and its citizens, going about their business? A Nautilus-inspired painting for the bathroom?
It very much depends on the individual.
I kind of chose my cover arbitrarily. I really liked the artwork, so I approached the artist to ask about using it and having it changed a little. It so happens that the cover says something about the story in an abstract sense - an unfurling of events from the hands (actions, life) of the protagonist. Superficially, that's what the story is about. She has control, to the same sort of extent that we all have. When I read back over the completed story, the message "no man is an island" jumped out at me. Nothing takes place in isolation: my protagonist's actions have consequences she never foresaw, she has blind spots you wouldn't expect her to have, and some things are not within her grasp.
Pic related: it's my cover. http://clfornax.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/fornaxrising_sample.jpg
As a writer who's also a self-employed artist, I'd have to say: I'd produce a cover which best serves the aims and spirit of the work. A cover is really a visual shorthand for what lies inside. When working with genre fiction (and all my cover art to date has been either fantasy, weird, or thriller-based) it comes down to how much, or how little, one wants the conventions of that genre to be portrayed.
A cover is also psychology, and marketing. At the end of the day you want someone to buy it, or at least be curious enough pick it up and flick through it (or investigate further online if browsing the 3W). A genre work need not be pitched solely at diehard, rabid fans of that genre - if the core story is a universal tale of passion or discovery, non-genre afficiandos may also wish to explore it, but may be put off by imagery which looks weird or they don't quite understand.
No cover art piece I've ever created has been undertaken lightly, or made any assumptions on the part of the viewer or would-be reader. When working with a client, I will pump them for as much input as possible before even commencing a sketch, to ensure they themselves understand the core appeal and the main point of their own book.
So much for me as an artist - as a browser, I tend to favour figurative and character-based design, as interesting characters are, to me, one of the most vital components of any fiction, other than an intriguing core concept. Any piece which can combine great design with character and a sense of scene or action will get my attention - however, if the design element is lacking, no amount of great artwork will convince me that the work is as worthy as it could be. There seems to be a habit now among smaller art/design companies to put everything into the actual art, slap some lettering on top and call it a cover. Design, layout and typography, if handled well enough and integrated into the art, will grab me as much as outstanding draughtsmanship - similarly, sloppy, unbalanced and blah design and layout will repel me no matter what the blurb or the reviews say.
Looks like your comment got cut off, but it's funny you should post that. The current piece that I'm working on is not too much different that this, it's an airship battle, with a crew firing off a steam cannon.
I'll have to be sure and post it when it's done.
Oops! I was just saying that would be fun. :)
I like to see characters in action, or about to leap into action. I don't have to see their faces distinctly, though. I like some space left for my imagination to fill in.
Actually the feedback that I've gotten from art directors is that if there are characters on the cover, it's often good to pose or paint them in such a way as to allow the reader to imagine themselves in as that character.
See any Urban Fantasy cover where the heroine extends off the top of the cover or is in deep shadow, or the popularity in recent fantasy covers of a robed, deeply hooded figure.
I'm very much one of those people who don't care what a book looks like. I tend to go and buy books based on recommendations and reviews and the cover is of secondary importance to its size (you can fit more paperbacks on a chelf than hardbacks).
But when I'm just browsing I find myself bias against books that are very generic in their cover art. So the lone, adolescent female looking moody in YA fiction, or space ships in SF (anything by Peter F Hamilton).
Steampunk is lucky so far in its art in that it's not the money spinner for publishers that other genres are, so the art is all over the place, which I love. I still think I can get a sense of the book from the cover rather than the 'Our Marketing Department Says Stem Tanks Sell Books' approach.