Cover Story

Cover Storygeneric-book-cover

I was recently asked how much control authors have over the covers and back-blurbs of their books. I suspect the answer is 'very little'. And this is probably a good thing. There is an enormous amount of pressure to get that cover exactly right. It's got to function as an advertisement, a logo, an introduction, a sample of the book's personality – all this without giving too much away or emphasising the wrong element. It's the cover's job to get that book out of the store and home with the right reader. Any time you see a novel for sale, you can be sure that someone has worked very hard to make sure that you really do judge it by its cover.

What if I had to design a cover for my own book?

My head would explode.

Put aside the fact that I know nothing about marketing and graphic design. How could I possibly distil thousands of words, years of work and a full cast of characters into one image? Say you're a trained graphic designer and marketer as well as a writer. I still think you'd never be objective enough to separate what appeals to you personally about your book from what will sell. Before my book had a cover, I'd daydream about what I thought would be on it. But when my editor asked me if I had any ideas, I was too embarrassed to mention them. I realised they were vague and generic (mix tape unravelling, teenage boy on a porch looking away from the viewer) because they were probably Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet E Cameronbased on other covers I'd seen. I wanted my novel to look like a 'real book', and that meant it would look like a book I'd already recognised on shelves a hundred times. I never would have been able to come up with something surprising or new.

So what was my contribution to designing the cover of my book? I was asked if I liked it. I said yes.

I loved it, actually – once I got over the shock of seeing what someone else's idea of my inner universe looked like. Here's the cover of the edition that appeared in Irish bookstores last March (left).

Reactions from readers was mixed. Several bloggers told me they'd bought the book because of the cover and title alone. Some went on to say that they were surprised at the dark moments in the novel – that cute, portly toaster seemed to promise more light-hearted adventures. My favourite comment was from a reviewer who wondered what the toaster was doing sitting on a beach. I am now unable to look at this image and not see a kitchen appliance relaxing by the seaside, and this makes me pretty happy.

Then, in September in Ireland and last week in Canada, this edition arrived in stores

Cinnamon Toast pb cover low res

(right):

Damn! I love it! Not that I didn't love the toaster, but there's something special about the fact that you can see Stephen here, even if it is just his feet. Plus, who could beat that quote? 'Stunning'! (And yes, if you've bought a copy, feel free to stun someone with it, should the need arise. Truth in advertising and all.)

What was my contribution this time? Getting all alarmed because I thought the spine looked pink. It did seem pinkish on the screen of my old netbook, but nowhere else on earth. I realised I was wrong and the book went to print. Um...so glad I could help.

Of course all this has made me look at book covers from a different perspective. I've also realised that covers are only important until you get the thing home. If you love a book, it doesn't matter what it looks like: after a while you'll probably start to have warm fuzzy feelings about the image on the front of it anyway, like seeing the face of a friend in a crowd. How else could I account for my sentimental attachment to these plain orange and white designs?

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Does exactly what it says on the tin.

Not to say that I think it's fine to put no thought at all into the cover. I'm not mad about this lazy practice of covering 'classic' books by slapping a copy of an unrelated painting from the past on them. Somtimes it works, but often this just results in something bland and forgettable that will have strangers asking, 'Are you reading that for school?'

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So boring! Why would I settle for that when I could have this?

maugham cakes ale

This is more like it. I want to be at that party. I want to listen to this conversation. I want to buy this book. I did. (Second hand, but still.)

This is nice too. Everyone loves Vintage.

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And with good reason. Check out this fantastic cover for Wuthering Heights.

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...but of course there are all kinds of ways to sell a story.

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I suppose even with the best designers in the world involved, there's always the chance that a writer won't be happy with her cover. If you find yourself in that position, just remember that it happens to the best of us. Here's J.R.R. Tolkien on the first American edition of The Hobbit:

'...horrible colours and foul lettering....what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author.'

On being told that the illustrator hadn't read the book he added: 'I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse.'

Here's the cover that caused this upset:

original

Can't blame him, though it just looks quaint to me now. And I'm really not sure what his reaction would have been to this:

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bilbo the greek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bilbo Baggins, everyone! Or maybe the front man for an eccentric 70s wedding band. I'm not sure.

And then there's this:

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But all this talk might end up being irrelevant if ebooks really are set to replace print. Do covers matter in the digital world? I'm not entirely sure, but here's what window shopping looks like on my Kindle:

res-kindle shop

Wow! Really lures you in, doesn't it?

So, do you have any memories of a cover you love? One you find misleading or lousy? Have you ever bought a book based on the cover, or left one on the shelf for the same reason? And would you change anything about your own book's cover? (Send pictures if you've got a comment. It might be fun to do a follow-up post.)

What's your cover story?

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51U3E6BPgnL  SL500 AA300  Cinnamon Toast pb cover low res

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In Canada...or try here. Or go independent.

"...astonishingly good....a juicy coming-of-age story...also an important read." The Globe and Mail

"...poignant...heart-wrenching. This stunning debut will surely appeal to both teenage readers and adults." Quill & Quire, starred review

"Witty, devastating, with a melancholy humour..." Sunday Business Post

"...page-turning, top drawer stuff..." BGE Book Club

"...warm, witty, heartfelt and utterly engaging..." The Irish News

"A stunning debut. I loved it." The Irish Examiner