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Being Published Part 4: Covers

This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here.

Your book is (not) your cover

The cover of a book is a hugely important - possibly the most important - selling tool the publisher has. To start with the brute industry facts, I'll quote the chief fiction buyer of Tesco, some years back. When she was deciding what to re-order, and what to stop stocking, she would stand back from the whole display, look at it hard, then turn her back and see which covers she could remember. Those were the ones granted another few weeks' life on the shelves of what was then the nation's biggest bookseller. And if you're horrified by that but luckily don't care because you don't aspire to Tesco, I should point out that the branch of Waterstones which makes the most money per square foot is ... Gatwick North. 

TooLongDidn'tRead: Drawing potential buyers in quickly, steering them to the book which will genuinely intrigue them, then keeping them there long enough to decide to buy it and then not to bother with an (in-flight) movie, depends hugely on the cover.

So the cover must speak to the reader by Showing, not just Telling, what kind of book it is, and almost before they can read the title. And it needs to be the right reader: the one who will find the title and author and any cover quotes, interesting enough turn it over and read the blurb, be intrigued enough by the blurb to flip through a page or three - or do the online equivalents - and end by buying it. 

So it can't represent everything your book is, any more than a "hook line", summary, blurb or synopsis can. Indeed it's best to think of a cover as being like those: sales tools for the industry, not embodiments of your creation. And it's wise to remember that, as a writer, you are by definition in a tiny minority of the readers your book must attract for it to break even. What matters is atmosphere, style, intrigue, echoes of the "If you liked X you'll like this" kind. So - sorry - accuracy to history, geography, the looks of the main protagonists or the setting of the story only matter if they're such drastic mis-steer the book will be a laughing stock. It's incredibly annoying to have inaccurate things on the front of your story - and I hope you won't. But in terms of the book's prospects, it's much less important than other things that might go wrong.

The cover, to be crude, should also not draw in the wrong kind of reader - and even more so these days. Just earning the microscopic amount they do for a copy does little for the longer-term life of publisher, book and author, so word-of-mouth has always been important in selling books. But nowadays the wrong kind of cover can be more immediately disastrous: the last thing the publisher wants is for someone to buy it, discover it's not what they expected at all, feel they've been cheated out of time and money, and post snarky one-star reviews on Goodreads and The Online Retailer Who Must not be Named. 

One more thing in the algorithm: statistically speaking, the book a potential buyer is most likely to buy is one by the author they most recently read and liked. The next most likely is a book which is very like that book. That's another reason to let go of the idea that the cover is a summary or an illustration of your book: what it needs to be saying is, "This book is about new interesting story X, for readers who like stories by/like/set in/about Y."

That may be obvious with commercial fiction, but literary fiction too (click here to explore what we mean by those terms) has its cover styles, tropes and selling messages - and as with the text inside, that may include playing with famous predecessors. The trade paperback (=instead of a hardback), UK edition of Mike Thomas's Pocket Notebook, was a witty play on the very famous Penguin cover for Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. But the mass-market paperback cover changed direction, emphasising the rough, real-life, as well as satirical, nature of the story.

All of which is why, by contract, you won't have right of veto over the cover, only the right to be consulted: you're an expert in your book, but not (generally speaking) in book design or bookselling - although if you are either of the latter, then your publisher will certainly listen to you.

Time was when authors first discovered what their cover (which arguably isn't "theirs", but belongs to the collaborative artefact which is the published book) was like when they saw it in a bookshop. It's largely thanks to the Society of Authors that we now have that right to be consulted, and since the cover's such a crucial selling tool you will probably start hearing about what's planned fairly early: just after you send in the final text, and before the copy-edit would be typical.

With my first two novels that right-to-be-consulted largely consisted of my UK editor saying "Here it is, hope you like it," and me saying "Oh, that's fantastic, thank you so much!" because that was what I felt. My US editor did ask what ideas I had, but when it comes to covers I can't think in the abstract, I just know it when I see it. Beyond saying I hoped it wouldn't involve headless bodices - then the cliché of commercial historical fiction covers - I couldn't be much help. And luckily I loved that cover too, though it was very different.

Last thought: one thing I regret is that I hadn't realised then just how anxious editors are when they send over the cover: publishing is a creative process, if a second-order one, and it's a huge creative responsibility, as well as a financial one. Editors are really nervous about the author's reaction, and I fear my overt response was rather more workaday-appreciative than - looking back - would have been true to my genuine thrilled-ness. 


The whole process of cover design takes time. Larger publishers have in-house design departments, but either the importance of the book, or the press of work, may mean they use a freelance. Publicity, marketing and sales will all have their input, and the publisher will hope to get the cover onto the Advance Reading Copies. These - otherwise known as "bound proofs", "uncorrected proofs" or just "proofs" - will be going out to reviewers and the big buyers at least six months before publication date, and very possibly much longer. (Though it's not a catastrophe if the cover's not ready: A Secret Alchemy went out with a perfectly functional, knocked-up-in-house cover because my editor was ill and the real thing got delayed.)

The ARCs are the first testing ground for the cover out in the industry, and it's by no means unknown for one or more of the big buyers - the supermarkets, Amazon, the big wholesalers, the library suppliers - to say that they don't think it works. It would be a foolish publisher who didn't listen to their reasons and tweak the design to suit. And it would be an insane publisher who ignored a big buyer who says, "If you put that cover on it, we won't take the book because it won't sell. If you put a cover on it like Smash Bestseller, we will." If you hate Smash Bestseller's cover, say so to your agent, but in the end the only recourse is to remember that a publisher's first duty to literature is not to go bankrupt, and open the gin.

The next big testing ground is the feedback on and sales of the hardback (or trade paperback), and everything to do with the cover will be re-examined in the light of that, before the mass-market paperback cover is decided. It's a smaller space, so details may just become too fiddly, and there may be review quotes or puffs to fit on it, or even prize nominations. If you see a drastic change between hb and pb, then the publisher has decided the hb version doesn't work - so fingers crossed the new one does. Or it may simply be that the market for the hardback (cool early-adoptors, say) is different from the paperback (mainstream commercial readers). This is more likely if it's fairly literary, because the paperback can't afford to appeal only to hard-core literary readers: there aren't enough of them. Either way, the ebook cover and audio book will reflect whatever the physical book is currently wearing. 

With This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, I've been much more involved than with my first novels. My editor feels that the author as well as the publisher must be happy with a cover, and more generally Agent Joanna says that publishers do involve authors much more these days, if only to avoid the fallout of it all going horribly wrong - which, to be honest, it can.

Indeed, there's more blood on the carpet between authors and publishers over covers than almost anything else, but for all the reasons I've been outlining, by no means is the author always right. Still, when you or your agent are considering offering a book to a publisher, it's not a bad idea to take a long, hard look at their covers from the last few years: some definitely have better eyes - and design departments - than others.

If there's a really big gap between what your publisher thinks will draw in readers, and what you think will, then you may like the cover in itself but feel it's deeply wrong for the book - or you may just hate it. For all the reasons I've outlined you may just have to live with any of those, but hopefully your editor or your agent can explain the thinking behind it, to the point where you can at least make your peace with your novel's outerwear.

If you and your agent truly feel the cover is catastrophically wrong, then of course you must at least try and change things - and this is one place where having an agent to do the fighting with your editor about the cover, while you have friendly and creative conversations with the same editor about the text, is worth every penny of your agent's 15%. But even if you do manage to persuade the publisher - against what they would say was their better judgement - to change it, remember that if the book bombs, the publisher will be able to blame that on it having a cover they always said wouldn't work.

So, how are covers designed? In terms of how designers think, this is a great post, by Jo Lou, over at the very excellent Electric Literature, about the journey from first to final cover of ten different books - and this is another of hers on similar lines.

I know the majority of Itch readers are probably mostly writing fiction, but the need to evoke both what the book is, and what kind of book it is, is equally true of creative non-fiction and perhaps clearer to see, and the cover of This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is a case in point. It was designed by Liam Relph, and to my eye it evokes books like Adam Rutherford's A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, but also perhaps memoirs such as Rose Tremain's Rosie: scenes from a vanished life both of which are good steers for readers who might like it. This_is_not_Final_cover_alt

But detail matters too. We discussed if the author's name should be above, or below, the title.  Above was a nice and clear space, while below risked getting it mixed up, visually speaking, with the subtitle and the "tree of life". But we are hard-wired in the West to read top to bottom. The title is the opening statement - this is a book about Charles Darwin - and visually and verbally it has a joke tucked in; people smile (I know, I've seen them). But if they don't see the author's name till after that, then it forms a second joke, a punchline, that the reader didn't see coming: that this book is by another Darwin.  

It was important, too, that the "tree" was effective both for readers who know it's derived from The Ancestor's first "tree of life" diagram of the evolution of species from common ancestors, and for everyone else. The diagram is pretty famous among anyone interested in these thing - but that's still only a fraction of the people who we can hope would be interested in the book. Some of the designer's versions of the tree were flat colour, but the varied, speckly colours, and the drop-shadow, of the final choice is both visually more dynamic, and to my eye evokes something organic: a microscope slide in biology, perhaps. Since this is not a book about evolution, nor about The Ancestor, accuracy to the actual diagram isn't important, what matters is that it accurately evokes the way the book takes all those things and appliqués them together to make a narrative of my journey.  

It also matters that the sales team of Holland House Books love it, and so did the vastly experienced and successful booksellers at my local independent bookshop, Village Books. When I took in the Advance Information sheet which is each book's calling card in the trade, their always-friendly welcome to a local author (and good customer) turned into an "Oh, yes," when they saw the title, and an "Oh, fantastic!", and a big thumbs-up, as they assimilated the cover. Booksellers know more than anyone else about the day-to-day reality of what draws readers to books, or doesn't.

If your book has sold rights in other countries - particularly if that's happened via your publisher - then the chances are you'll have very little input into the covers. Visual traditions are very different even between North America and the UK (which is another reason to resist automatically selling a publisher World Rights), and so are their book markets, so on the whole you'll just get what you get. But as an idea of what might happen, I've rooted out all the different copies I can find of The Mathematics of Love. 


Left to right, top to bottom (hb = hardback, pb=paperback, tpb=trade paperback)

US hb, Spanish hb, UK hb, Portuguese tpb, Turkish tpb
US pb, Spanish pb, UK pb, French tpb, Russian hb
UK Large Print, UK bound proof*, UK bound proof for the paperback (this an unusual thing), audio book, Polish hb
* the UK bound proof had an outer cover cut like the letters, and inside that was sales blurb. That was very expensive, and very rare.

Notice how the quite literary-looking, and square royal format UK hb was very cleverly morphed and riffed into the paperback - clearly the same book, but subtly different. You can't see that the US hb had lovely deckle-edged paper to give it a vintage feel, and a cover that surprised my agent, given how prudish the US market can be, but the pb definitely went after a different, less overtly historical-fiction market. Notice too how many of the foreign publishers went with the UK design - but others did their different thing. And the strap on the Spanish hardback mentions The Ancestor, but then, they are his Spanish publisher...

Like I said, always remember that the cover is, at heart, a sales tool.