Sunday, September 29, 2013

Judging a Book By Its Cover

For some authors, the really big names, the cover image simply isn't important. I'm sure they want a decent cover for their new novel but I'm willing to bet they don't stay awake at night hoping the artist comes through. The authors who succeed by name recognition simply don't need to concern themselves with that. Is a fan of John Grisham's really going to pass on his latest book because they don't like the cover? Doubtful. Did JK Rowling agonize over each and every Harry Potter cover? Unlikely. Frankly, the next Stephen King novel could have a pile of rubber dogshit on the cover and people would still buy it. The big guns have the freedom to concentrate on telling their story and most probably don't give much thought to the cover.
Then there's every other author on earth.

When it came time for a cover to be created for my first novel, I was a bit nervous. Okay, that's not entirely true. I was terrified. My terror came from two facts that I hadn't spent much time contemplating before then: 1) I can't draw worth a shit so someone else would have to do it; and 2) Someone else would have to do it. Allow me a moment to explain.
I spent almost two and a half years writing The Last Battleship. No one knew I was writing it, not family, not friends, no one. I spent uncountable hours getting the story to where I wanted it to go. Endless editing and rewrites, sometimes to the point of deleting entire chapters because they didn't work. I consulted no one, answered to no one. During those two and a half years it was just me and my characters.
And then came the professional editing. No matter how great your manuscript is, the editor is going to want changes made. No editor is going to go to the publisher and tell them your manuscript is flawless and requires no changes. Editors who do that quickly become ex-editors. So they're going to make you change things. Not huge, story-altering changes, but changes nonetheless. That's an odd situation in which to find oneself. Haven't you spent a lot of time with these characters? Don't you know them best? Who does this editor think he/she is, demanding you make changes? But they do. And you have to roll with them. I've been lucky. I've worked with editors who have made very minimal requests of me (for the most part) and the changes have been easy to swallow (again, for the most part).

It's still such an odd situation to let someone else touch your baby in so intimate a manner. But that pales in comparison to turning your baby over to a complete stranger and trusting them to whip up a great cover for you.
Publishers will send over something called the Cover Art Form. This is the author's opportunity to paint a mental picture of what he/she thinks would make a great cover. Sometimes the artist will even read it. The rest of the time they'll read the cover blurb and whip up something they think best captures the spirit of the work based on those few short paragraphs the author used to tell prospective readers about the plot of their novel. That's where the terror part comes in. There is no way, no way, an artist completely unfamiliar with the nuances of the story can create a drawing that captures the spirit of the novel. But that's what you have to deal with as an author with no measurable artistic ability.
I got lucky. Right out of the gate I learned the cover duties for The Last Battleship were assigned to Taria A. Reed. Never heard of her. But what she did was create a cover image that wasn't very far off from what I was picturing in my head. Here it is:

I asked for a few minor changes to the original image. For one thing, I had her ditch all the little fishies she had swimming around. I believe I even said something along the lines of, "This is a horror novel, not Finding Nemo!" She removed all the critters and the end result is what you see here. Pretty damned good, if you ask me.
I became friends with Taria on Facebook and we chatted back and forth a few times. When I was going to New Jersey last year I arranged to meet up with her. I started talking about my second novel, Moon Dust, which had sold in a preposterously short amount of time. I knew Taria was working for this publisher as well and I really wanted her to be the cover artist. I mentioned it to the publisher but had received a noncommital response. I was worried I'd get some hack who didn't know anything creating a cover that sucked. The way I looked at it, I'd been lucky once. No reason to push it now. So I told Taria about the image I had in my head for Moon Dust. That same day she whipped up a preliminary design that wound up close to the published version. This is it right here:

That is as close to humanly possible to the image I described to her that day in Red Bank. I was overjoyed. The publisher, less so. Oh, they liked the cover, liked it a lot. But they weren't crazy about me doing an end-run around them and consulting with the cover artist myself. Tough titties. All I cared about was having a kick-ass cover on the novel I spent a year and a half of my life writing. And I got it. Bully for me! And for Taria, who seems incapable of creating a bad cover.
I think perhaps I'll always be nervous when it comes time to hand over the novel, story and characters I've spent so much time with to someone else. That's just how I am. Either that, or I'll have to learn how to draw. But since that's never going to happen I guess I'm stuck with the nervousness. It's a small price to pay for being able to do what I love, and to make a few bucks doing it.
The cover for novel #3, Dark Annie, was not created by Taria A. Reed, much as I tried to talk the publisher into making it happen. As the novel's publication date drew nearer and I had seen no preliminary artwork my nervousness ratcheted up quite a bit. Then I received the "first draft" of the cover. I asked for a few small changes. The artist obliged. Here's what she created:

Her name is Clarissa Yeo and she's from Shanghai and she knocked this one so far out of the park even Mickey Mantle would be impressed.
It's not the cover image I had in my head, not even close. In fact, other than my description of Dark Annie herself there's virtually nothing on this cover that came from me. And I like this one better than the one I had in my head. Loads better. I think it sets the tone perfectly. I doubt anyone knocking around Barnes and Noble will see this and mistake it for a nonfiction firsthand account of a Ferris wheel being built next to a woman's dilapidated schoolhouse.
(Don't laugh. Some idiot blasted me on Amazon because he thought The Last Battleship was a historical account and was deeply disappointed when he discovered it's sci fi. He never bothered to read the description or any of the reviews, and he obviously didn't read the novel, either, because he labeled it sci fi when it doesn't even come close to being a sci fi story.)
So I'm pretty happy with this cover. And I'm pretty happy with the previous two covers as well. So far I've been lucky. I've been gifted some pretty good cover artists who know what they're doing and they've come through for me every time. I cannot thank them enough.
Until the next time. When I'll be nervous all over again. But for now, you're looking at a content author.   

1 comment:

  1. Taria is amazing and your covers are great.
    Cora Blu