Authors and seeing their books for first time

This was kind of fun. I can affirm that my story, and my one-liner, are absolutely true. I told this anecdote long ago, on a two-person panel with Terry Pratchett, where we expected to be funny about the writing business. We set out to ‘one-down’ each other with publishing screw-ups. This one triumphed. Always good to make a gifted humourist laugh!

Some writers noted that they hug their books, or do a happy dance. My primal moment comes when I write the last words of a book, and there’s another, of sorts, when I have a printed manuscript and do the ‘it goes thump when you drop it on a table!’ thing.

(No, have not tried that with an iPad or Kindle.)

Monday = essays

A post-Super Bowl morning writing two essays and firing/whipping/lasering emails all over the place. This is where it gets complicated having three different publishers headed towards release of River of Stars. There are different issues in each market.

The essays aren’t for here, though I’ll signal where they end up. But Elena and Tanya of Wunderkind would defenestrate me if I didn’t do some writing for them to make use of. (Should post a photo of the window for the Defenestration of Prague. It was a weirdly great moment being in that room – and not being hurled out the window. It is a seriously long way down. No idea how the defenestratees survived, but apparently they did, layout of Prague Castle must have been different. Or – miracle!)

Why would good-hearted, nimble-minded publicists do violent things? Because they can? No, because this is part of what publicists do: they are working right now to set up ‘placement’ for some pieces by me, interviews, articles, in the period just before and after the book comes out. And although they push me stay busy here (don’t really need pushing, the Journal is a part of the process I actually enjoy – does it show?) they make sure I know that our marketing needs to ‘go wide’ as they say.

(San Francisco went too wide in that last goal line stand last night. Not happy with the play calling.)

So I’m writing the essays (one done, another started) on two completely different topics. One, actually, was suggested by Elena, and I am not even that suggestible. But she had a terrific, throwaway email query, a reader’s question not a publicist’s, and it started me thinking. (Not teasing about this, I will alert when I get it written and it pops up somewhere!)

Tomorrow is drinks with a magazine editor at new favourite bar in town. It puts me in a John Cheever state of mind: midday Old Fashioneds or Sazeracs at a long marble-top bar under a copper ceiling while the snow falls outside and winter dusk descends.

Wednesday, Liu Fang and her husband come into town for a dinner, then Thursday is the Book Lover’s Ball, where Fang is performing a piece to honour River of Stars. I wrote here last week (don’t be lazy, just scroll!) how pleased I am about that. I also just like the idea of the BLB: how can writers not support libraries, especially as so much is changing with them? It sometimes seems to me that I grew up in Winnipeg on the hockey rink at William Osler School or cycling to the River Heights Library. And I remember the same kind of inner buzz, anticipation, as I approached either of them. I did get thrown out of the library a few times (not defenestrated, mind you) for tripping or cross-checking people on the way to the New Arrivals rack. You can take the boy off the rink but …

Books and covers

I posted the full wrap of the Canadian (and essentially the American) cover of River of Stars this week, and people have been saying really nice things in various places. They’ve been saying that for awhile, since the front cover was posted some time back.

That, of course, is a compliment not to me, but to the artist and the art director. The art director, in fact, is a too-often-overlooked player in all this. A cover can be made or broken by their creativity. Not just in typeface and design, but in commissioning the right artist, and making the right use of the work delivered. (Sometimes only a detail of a painting is used, for example.)

We say two contradictory things on this subject. We say ‘don’t judge a book by…’ but we also say ‘I bought this book because I loved the cover.’ Even if we don’t verbalize it that way, research suggests that cover art plays a major role in book sales – even with online buying.

Given that this Journal is built aorund the idea of sharing info about the book world, I should say that one of the most often asked questions I get (and I suspect this is true of most writers) is, ‘How much input do you have in the covers?’

The predictable answer is: it varies. Some authors, like my friend Janny Wurts, are also painters and they will often do their own covers. (Janny also plays bagpipes, but we won’t go there.) Self-published writers will often be their own art directors, for better or worse. (Sometimes they can afford to hire someone.) Younger writers, working with an established house will rarely get too much in the way of consultation. (I used to warn younger friends that consultation means they have to ask your opinion before ignoring it.)

Once you get to a certain level, real consultation is more common but even then it is fraught and authors can get intensely frustrated. (So can publishers, to be fair.) It doesn’t help much to be ‘consulted’ if one’s first glimpse of a proposed cover comes so late in the production process the artist has no time to revise, let alone start again, or he or she wants more money to keep going. (This isn’t unreasonable, in many cases, by the way.)

I always ask (read: beg) to see cover ideas early in the process. With many of my editors by now I have really good working relationships and I have conversations with them before anything is even put together (before anyone else in the house has seen the manuscript). The editor is almost always the one who briefs the art director. ‘I see a 19th century British country house. Therevare stairs going up and down. There are pink zombies with ak47s, and pre-Raphaelite women and …’ (I just disturbed myself, actually.)

When it comes to foreign-language editions, most contracts (once you are reasonably senior) will provide for consultation as well, but communication and timeliness are even more of an issue, and there have been a few times when the first look I have had of a book is when actual copies arrive at my agents’. This doesn’t necessarily go well. A glance at the Art Gallery at will reveal (expose?) a few of my … well, less-loved cover children.

On the other hand, I have been really lucky in my cover art here and in the States for the last several books and I love Larry Rostant’s cover for River of Stars. The editors wanted ‘big book’ as part of the underlying message, and I think they got that.

Subsequent editions (trade paperback, paperback) are likely to have very different covers, incidentally. That’s another post. But the mandates for initial hardcover and for reprints in paperback are very different. Paperbacks are still, for strictly economic reasons, much more of an impulse buy, and the covers try to take that into account.

I’ve just been told actual books will be in the warehouses first week in March. I will use ‘tangible’ here. (In-joke, from the Journal for Under Heaven.)