Monday, March 13, 2006

Cover Story

This week I received the cover art for The Book of Lost Things, which we should have on the website by early next week. I think it’s a small work of art. It’s quite beautiful, one of those instances where an illustrator - in this case, the wonderful London-based illustrator Robert Ryan - seems to have perfectly understood the writer’s intention with the book, which is rarer than one might think.

It’s a curious thing, but that old adage about never judging a book by the cover applies pretty well to most things in life, with the exception of books themselves (and possibly cobras and scorpions, but that’s another matter entirely.) In fact, most browsers in a bookstore are probably attracted to new authors by the cover image of the books in question. The title plays a part too, obviously, but it’s interesting that a literary medium should rely so much for its primary impact upon a visual stimulus. For that reason, writers do fret a lot about their covers, and publishers offer them varying degrees of input. Sometimes, the author may feel that it’s not his or her place to offer suggestions about the cover, but I’ve found that, by and large, design departments are at least open to an author’s ideas, as long as they’re not completely off the wall.

In the past, I’ve tended to have more to do with the U.K. covers than the U.S. covers. For Every Dead Thing, The Killing Kind, and The White Road, I provided illustrations that I thought might be particularly striking, most of them from 16th and 17th century sources. Looking back, they were rather skeletal, and not a little gruesome, but they certainly stood out.

The problem, though, was that they were putting off some readers, particularly female readers. My UK publishers decided to go with a new look, that was much more neutral, for Bad Men. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work either, as the covers went a bit too much in the opposite direction and looked rather bland as a consequence. So, for the publication of Nocturnes and The Black Angel, the covers were redesigned again, and I think the right balance has now been struck. Obviously, different readers will have their own opinions, and I still hear from those who were fond of the initial designs, but there’s very little point in writing and publishing a book that puts people off picking it up because of the cover.

The changes in the U.S. have been more gradual, but Atria, my American publisher, has put a lot of thought into the presentation of the books. In fact, U.S. book covers in general have improved a lot over the last ten years. For a long time, it seemed that American publishers, or certainly the big publishers of commercial fiction, didn’t care about much more than making sure that the author’s name and the title of the work were visible on the front of the book. Now they rival, and sometimes better, their British equivalents. It says a lot about Atria, though, that when the British cover was presented to them they saw that it was stronger than their own, and a decision seems to have been made to go with the British cover, or a version of it, in the U.S. as well. I suspect that many of those who publish the book in translation may follow suit, and so The Book of Lost Things will have a single identity across countries and continents. That thought leaves me feeling both happy and relieved. It’s a strange little book, but very personal to me, and for that reason I am very protective of it. It seems to have been born for its cover, and I imagine it will be comfortable in that skin.

Anyway, one more important step has been taken on the road to its publication. Next month, the proofs - the soft bound copies of the uncorrected final text - will begin to filter out to booksellers and others in the trade, and I’ll start to get an idea of how others feel about it. The book, for so long known only to me, then to a handful of people in the British and American publishing houses, will slowly become public. It is a difficult time, perhaps more difficult even than the initial presentation to the editors and my agent. After all, if they are unhappy with it they can send it back. Changes can be made. Nobody will be any the wiser, apart from perhaps three or four people, and it will be in all their interests to remain quiet about the book’s history, troubled or otherwise. Out in the public domain, though, the book has no such protection.

There’s a pair of lovely verses, close to the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the poet writes:

Go, litel bok . . . /
And red whereso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understood, God I biseche!

It should be the author’s prayer: Go, little book, and wherever you are read, I ask God only that you be understood.
And so I’ll say that prayer now for The Book of Lost Things.

This week John read:

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (uncorrected proof)

and listened to:

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case
Fab Four Suture by Stereolab


Noeni said...
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Marcus said...

Yep the Bad Men cover was a bit poo, I nearly didn't buy it. Glad I did. :)

Tom Hyland said...

"I ask God only that you be understood."

That says it all.

St Jude said...

I'm sorry. No butt licking or arse kissing, I'm a Yorkshire Lass. Don't try and sell me a work of art under any guise but art, If the cap fits. I actually hate the publishing /marketing people who 'decide' what works and what does not work. I have news for you snotty nosed little boys and girls. Don't teach your mother how to suck eggs!!! We are capable of making our own minds up. If you don't understand that, you are selling your 'author' short and have no respect.

Jeff said...

I'm looking forward to The Book of Lost Things. :)

Tom Hyland said...
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Jayne said...

I'm very often attracted to books because of their covers and I've come across many new wonderful authors whose work I might not have read, had their book covers not caught my eye.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the cover for The Book of Lost Things: I loved the covers for Nocturnes - both the paperback and the hardback.

hrhg said...

>Go, little book, and wherever you are read, I >ask God only that you be understood.


It's nice to know you're pleased with your cover art; having art that resonates with your story must be quietly satisfying. Can't wait to see it (even if I do have to wait to read).

Gordon Harries said...

You know, I loved those early editions, with the skeletal figurines on the covers.

Although I suppose there’s an argument that they’d appeal more to a horror audience than a crime audience which, equally, I suppose is a balancing act when dealing with crime books that have supernatural overtones.

And yeah, covers have defiantly improved over the last ten years or so, thankfully.

Oh, by the way, thanks for the CD in Leeds, I really like the Neko Case Track.

Anonymous said...

The Neko track was my favorite too Gordon! I irritated everyone for quite a while with that!

I can't wait for the new novel John! You're right about the cover art being important- I've ordered the UK versions from Amazon UK because I liked the art better. But, I'll buy the book just cause you wrote it- it could have Nick Nolte's mug shot on it for all I care!