I fear that I am, at heart, a shallow person. I generally pick wine bottles by their labels, have been known to judge a man by the shoes he’s wearing, and – most shameful of all – often select my next read based solely on the cover design. Sure, good reviews are nice, recommendations from friends, a movie tie-in (or not) may push a title into my ‘must read’ column. But if the cover is striking or weird or beautiful – that pretty much trumps all. And there’s always a bit of magic involved when a cover strikes me in that particular, visceral way.
So it was with great relish that I anticipated the design process for the cover of my first novel, The House Girl. As a total newcomer to the publishing world, I didn’t know what to expect. According to my contract, I had ‘consultation rights’ on the cover but what, exactly, did this mean? Both my editor and agent assured me that my input would be valuable and that I would have ‘veto power’ – that is, no one would insist on a cover that I hated.
But how to achieve a cover that I loved?
I gathered together all my favorite book covers (which, I was surprised to find, did not necessarily correspond to my favorite books) and made some notes about why I liked them. I spent far too long clicking through the fabulous website The Book Cover Archive. I even dug out some grainy old photographs I had downloaded years ago, when I first started writing The House Girl, of historic plantation homes where my protagonist might have lived. Armed with ideas about colors, photos, themes and fonts, I wrote several long-winded emails to my editor about My Book Cover Vision.
Then, I sat back and waited.
A couple weeks passed. No word came. I wondered if she would mail me hard copies of potential designs. I wondered how many meetings she’d convened, how many ideas had been floated, how many uber-talented designers were pouring over my emails about Vision, not to mention dissecting my novel for its various big themes, searching for the perfect balance of symbolism and aesthetics that would achieve that magic connection: grab a potential book-purchaser by the throat and never let her go, or at least not until she was at the register handing over the cash for a hard-cover copy.
Finally, an email arrived from my editor. An email with a single attachment. The cover note said: Everyone LOVES this design (all caps hers). I opened the file with bated breath.
Did I love it?
To be honest, not at first. Was it too predictable? Too busy? Too old-fashioned? Too… orange? After some back and forth with my editor and agent, the designer tinkered with the cover. The colors changed, the fonts altered, an image was shifted, but the essentials remained the same. I showed the cover to some friends and family. I hesitated and considered, looked and looked some more. Finally, yes, I decided: I loved it. (In fact, I now wish I could wallpaper my house with it, but that would be a little weird…)
Was this the process I had hoped for? Not exactly. I had anticipated a soul-searching, months-long quest as the designers executed my Vision of the perfect cover. The reality was a little more pedestrian: there was a publishing schedule to keep to, and design professionals who knew what they were doing. There was also a team of people for whom cover design was not some amalgamation of magic and art but a tool for selling books, a way to mark a book for a particular audience (no vampire fans will accidentally pick up The House Girl) and appeal to independent and chain booksellers alike.
I’ve since learned that my cover experience was par for the course, if not tending towards the more positive end of the spectrum – after all, I genuinely like the finished product. Check out these stories on The Awl written by authors far more experienced than I. There’s also a pretty great new blog called Talking Covers about, well, writers talking about their book covers. Although I think my belief in book cover magic may have faded a bit, it’s a subject that I still find infinitely fascinating and, if you’ve read this far, you probably do too.
So, tell me: what do you think of my cover?