I don’t know many topics that engage authors and readers as much as do book covers. Blood on the tracks, sometimes. The debates can be fierce, and the authorial cries of pain resound from bars and cafes across all the lands.
Covers do get discussed with intensity, they are analyzed in cultural and political terms (the headless women meme!), there are conversations about the obvious – ‘That doesn’t look at all the way I picture Lord Protector Crum!’ – and strategy sessions about the less obvious – ‘Why don’t we flip the image: have her looking out towards where the book opens, not in towards the spine?’ (I’ve had that done, twice. Er, to my cover, not to me.)
This spring I was working with my American and Canadian editors, and an art director, and a gifted artist to devise and shape the cover those territories are sharing for Children of Earth and Sky.
Contractually, all that the publishers are allowed to use, all they purchase, is the finished version but the artist, Larry Rostant, (http://rostant.com) has generously allowed me to show early versions as they emerged and were changed to show what I want to discuss here – which is about process in the evolution of a cover.
One new aspect of the book business is how soon everything starts these days. Lead times have lengthened greatly. This means, in practical terms, that a publisher needs (urgently desires?) a cover and jacket copy startlingly early. Startling for me, that is. It isn’t ‘when are we gonna be there?’ it is ‘are we there now?’
In this case, my dialogue started with my New York editor Susan Allison before anyone had read the whole book – and that was for the entirely valid reason that I hadn’t finished it. My editors and agents had seen twelve chapters. I wasn’t even thrilled with sending that much out before completing and polishing (that says something about me, I know) but since my UK agent, Jonny Geller, was thinking about submitting the novel more widely in UK, it was necessary for a partial manuscript to be seen (can’t sell to a new house, not as easily as to an existing one, based only on a half page of themes, a snappy quote, and a setting).
Everything was complicated by the fact (sad and happy, both) of Susan’s upcoming liberation/retirement, coming at the end of June. We had done so many books together over the years (we go back to The Summer Tree) that Susan wanted to make a good start on a cover before vanishing on us.
She had read those twelve opening chapters and so we were able to have a good conversation and emails as to ‘what do you see on the cover?’ I wasn’t ready for this, was still in ‘write the book’ mode, but managed to get my head into that space.
We talked about cityscapes and seascapes – merging into a possibility of a walled city and harbour – the ‘big historical setting’ cover idea. (You’ve seen lots of them.) But Susan also said right away that she wanted to do something that linked up in style with the previous books – Ysabel, Under Heaven, River of Stars – and that her preference would be to use Larry Rostant, who had done them. I was entirely onside with this – I love Larry’s covers for those books.
I think I was the one who threw out, ‘Maybe an iron gate … in front of a retreat, or perhaps with the sea beyond?’ And I could hear Susan on the phone scribbling as she said ‘I like that!’
She went off for a chat with her art director. That is generally the next stage: the art director is the one who will shepherd the cover forward, ideally under guidance from the editor who knows the book best. Susan emailed me that the art director was going to see if Larry was free to work with us, and that he was keen on the ‘gate’ idea. In fact, he immediately sent her – just as a concept – a photo of a Renaissance period gate:
Susan and I both felt, immediately, that this would work as a direction for this cover. In fact, looking back over all my books, it is rare for a vague idea and a sample photo to so immediately elicit a ‘yep!’ from everyone. The art director turned the idea over to Larry, who was keen to work with us again (God bless). We’d already agreed the better background was the sea – opening the book up, and making use of both a sequence in the novel (spoiler!) and something interesting when considered with the title.
Larry Rostant did what he does, and came back to us with this first draft idea:
It was shared with the Canadian editorial and marketing team, who would also be using this cover if it worked for them – and it seemed to be pretty universal, from everyone’s first look … this was a direction that was going make a cover for us. I felt instantly reassured. Even happy. This is not invariably the case, I should add. (You probably know that about me by now.)
Fine-tuning was needed, just as for a book. People were divided on the foreground figure of the digging labourer you see above. I was unsure. On the one hand I liked it, the figure picked up a motif I’d spoken of to Susan (and which she’d obviously relayed) about ‘the lives of those not powerful’ in the book. It also evoked (Too literally? We wondered.) the word ‘Earth’ in the title.
Beyond this, it was my son who first noted something amusing, one of those things you might never see, but once it is pointed out you can’t unsee. He saw a lizard head (someone later said a Ninja Turtle) in the peasant. The actual figure is in profile, of course, with a hood. But looked at slightly askew, the lizard appears – looking right out at us. I knew there would be people who saw this right away, and were distracted and amused by it (we were), and none of us wanted a ‘What colour is the dress?’ debate opening up here!
In addition, someone else wondered, what was being dug by the shovel? Was that a mound of earth – or was it a corpse being buried? In a way, I didn’t mind that, and my NY agent, John Silbersack, liked the visual ambiguity, but we ended up agreeing that Larry would be asked to fix the hood to avoid the lizard (as it were), and he’d also visually clarify it was not a dead body down there.
But in the meantime, it was now July and Susan was headed off to read books for pleasure not work, and travel, and ride horses in retirement, and Claire Zion, my new editor in New York, raised a different issue, and Larry was asked to address this, instead.
Claire’s feeling, along with the art director now, was that my previous two book covers had had more scale, more of the epic to them, and this one, with two visual elements (the digger with his spade and the icon of the sun) wasn’t as focused and didn’t ‘match up’ to the others as well as it could. They had ideas for how to address this.
So the next version we saw, when it came back from Larry, addressed this:
And, essentially, looking at it, everyone said, ‘By George, I think he’s got it!’
Still not quite finished (of course not!). Claire and I continued discussing – within the framework of a new author-editor relationship, too. We agreed that in this version the presence of the sea might be too soft, muted, it was slightly challenging to decode at a glance. And reading at first glance matters.
So the next stages were those that can vex (mild word chosen here) an artist and art director as they ‘cope’ with editors and writers. The sea was made hyper-sharp by Larry in version 3:
You can see the difference best on the right side. And looking at it we decided (you know what is coming…) that it was a touch too sharp now. So a split-the difference (it is pretty subtle, look to the right of the word ‘Sky’ in both) shift back took place.
After which this cover (which is the one we posted last month) was happily signed of on by everyone in New York and Toronto, including the author. Drinks were had.
There will be light tweaks to come: the title lettering will be embossed, for example, as was done with the previous titles (the typeface and formatting is deliberately the same as those), and the exact quotes and copy for front and back covers are to be determined.
The British cover is being designed as I write these words. It will not be the same. Hodder and Stoughton, my new UK house, do not, for example, have the same rationale to ‘echo’ the previous books. This is their first of mine, so varying considerations apply, over and above the fact that different markets operate in different ways.
There is another essay to be written here some day about ‘styles’ in markets and countries (including foreign-language editions), but for now two of my publishers have a cover we all love, and that’s a really important element done. Now (tomorrow, actually) I dive into my usual slow revision of the novel before it goes to the copyeditor. I have had a month to step away, get some distance, I have notes from several people, I have a book to fine-tune.