When I meet readers at book signings or lectures, they often have comments or questions about my book covers. Many people are under the impression that an author gets to choose their own cover, and with a self-published book, that is indeed the case. But with traditionally published books, the author usually has little or no say. I’m not sure my experience with publishers and book covers is typical, but here is the story behind my covers.
The Kingsley House
It’s only natural that a novel based on a family home should feature an image of the house, so for the original hardcover the publisher asked me to provide photos for reference. I sent the earliest photos we have, which date from 1913, and from these a computer-enhanced painting was created.
I liked the overall layout and open font, but the artwork of the house seemed a bit muddy. My then-agent agreed, but when I asked if this could be corrected, she set me straight. First-time novelists do not get to tell major publishers how to design book covers. “You like it,” she said.
While readers rarely comment on the painting, several have mentioned the orangish “spots” on the pale green background. Presumably, the publisher intended it to suggest an antique effect, but one person likened it to spilled coffee and another to splatters of spaghetti sauce. “You just tell the publisher to take those splotches off, and it will look fine,” one woman reassured me.
The hardcover and paperback editions of the novel published in Danish also feature a house, but again I wasn’t consulted and don’t know why this particular image was chosen.
For the ebook and paperback versions of the novel I turned to my daughter, Kira, a graphic artist and web designer. Her design features a photograph of the house as it sits today in Greenmead Historical Village in Livonia, Michigan, framed top and bottom by a sepia photo collage of some of the real people whose stories make up the book. I hope readers will have some fun guessing which photo matches which character.
For more photos of the Kingsley House and the people who lived there, see the Photo Galleries.
How (Not) to Have a Perfect Wedding
When the publisher first sent me their cover art, I was disappointed. I have never thought of or described this novel as chicklit. With its multiple viewpoints, both male and female, and its upstairs/downstairs perspectives, I would call it a social satire. Yet here was a typical chicklit cover depicting two brides in a catfight.
I confess I had my own cover image in mind: the wedding cake figurines of a bride and groom toppled into the frosting of the cake. The publisher agreed I might submit such an image for consideration, and my son, Dane, a professional photographer, produced the image. Two wedding cakes were harmed in the process.
I was given the impression the publisher intended to use my image, so I was blindsided when, a month later, an alert friend emailed me asking why the book was shown as “Coming Soon” on Amazon with the catfight brides. The publisher’s belated explanation was that the book buyer for one of the major big box stores had loved the novel but wanted the chicklit cover. In other words, neither I, the author, nor the publisher had the final say on the cover; a single book buyer did.
In retrospect, it was probably naïve of me to expect a novel about a wedding to be categorized as anything other than chicklit, and for marketing purposes, the catfight brides image may work better than my wedding cake idea. Nevertheless, some readers do ask me why there is a catfight on the cover when there is no such episode in the book.
Most of all, I was deeply hurt that no one at the publishing house had thought it necessary or even courteous to inform me the cover had been changed. In the end, the big box buyer did not purchase the book.
The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare
If ever a cover failed to accurately represent the contents of a book, this is it. As I am forced to explain repeatedly at book signings, this is not a sappy teenage romance about a dreamy girl confiding her secret longings to her diary. It is not set in a wealthy household surrounded by a pink rose garden. It is the story of a mature, talented woman with ink under her fingernails and her sleeves rolled up to write the greatest plays of all time. It is about creative toil in the gritty atmosphere of sixteenth-century London. The depiction of Will at his writing table in Shakespeare In Love got it right.
I made all these objections to the publisher. I pointed out that in the novel Anne doesn’t even pick up a pen until she is in her mid-thirties, married and the mother of three children, whereas the girl on this cover looks about sixteen. Nor does the image agree with the publisher’s own back cover copy that describes Anne as “smart, witty, resourceful,” the setting as the “rough-and-tumble world of London’s theaters,” and the overall theme as the story of a marriage “born of passion and strained by ambition.” The publisher did relent insofar as to change the original background of rose-draped columns to leaded windows and added a crackle finish to make the girl look “older.” I don’t think either change helped much.
I will never know how many readers and reviewers have bypassed this book because of its cover. I especially thank those male readers who got past the sappy image and wrote to say how much they enjoyed the book. On the other hand, some female readers do find it pretty, and since historical fiction sells primarily to women, that was most likely the publisher’s intent. But shouldn’t it be possible to create a cover that is both appealing and reflective of the story? What is so far-fetched about that?
Sanctuary is a story of secrets, redemption, and the healing power of art and nature as the lives of three women converge at a rundown New England estate. It is also my first self-published novel, which means I got to design the cover. Nevertheless, even with the creative and technical help of Kira, Dane and my husband, Eric, it was easier said than done.
First, since a major part of the storyline revolves around the weekly bird walks at the estate, I wanted a bird on the cover and spent weeks searching the Internet for a suitable image. However, in addition to birders, other characters in the novel include artists and actors, and the story has a dark side. Most of the images available on the Internet were too simplistic to convey the novel’s complexity.
Then I came across the website of artist Adam S. Doyle and his painting, “Direct Assent.” Bold, beautiful and dynamic, it was a perfect fit. An ebook, especially, requires an eye-catching cover to stand out on the Internet, and Adam’s art certainly does that. I acquired the rights to use “Direct Assent” on Sanctuary, and Kira proposed Aramis for the type font. Eric and I then created a layout and thought we were all set…
…only to have Kira and Dane shoot it down. They felt we weren’t making the most of Adam’s artwork. Dane created the next version by enlarging the image and positioning the title across the bird. Better, but not easily readable in the small format in which most book covers are shown on the Internet. Kira then took the design to its final form, using a combination of Garamond and Aramis as the fonts, and adding a slight background color to help the book stand out against the white of the Internet.
The Coloring Scroll
Designing a cover for The Coloring Scroll was particularly challenging. The book opens in the early 1960s with three children clustered around a coloring scroll that depicts a journey by train. Trying to locate a ready-made image that encompassed all these elements proved fruitless, and the image would probably have been too crowded anyway.
I played with other ideas and finally did the smart thing: I turned to our daughter, Kira, who not only drew an original coloring scroll but included the three children and their grandmother as passengers. She then shipped the scroll to our son, Dane, who photographed it with the crayons and wood table background. Dane sent the image back to Kira for the final steps of building the cover, front and back, for publication. If ever there was a custom-made cover, this is it.
The Passion of Hubert
As with The Coloring Scroll, envisioning a cover for The Passion of Hubert posed special challenges. It’s a complicated story with a diverse cast of characters and a number of unexpected plot twists. It’s irreverent but also dead serious in the issues it takes on and the questions it asks.
For a start, my husband Eric and I played in Photoshop with existing images of saints and apostles, adding a huge halo and Hubert’s glasses and mustache. Next we tried photos of swimming pools/drowning men. It was fun, but the results failed to convey the true flavor or scope of the book.
Then, in the space of five minutes on Skype with our children, our son Dane hit on the answer. “What you want is a Monty Python look,” he said, to which our daughter Kira replied, “I can do that.” She grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil, drew an immediate rough sketch of Hubert on the cloud, and held it up for our reaction. Yes!
The final design, coloring and font selection required more work, of course. But when it’s right, you know it, and the depiction of Hubert is perfect, an Everyman buffeted by forces beyond his control and striving to make sense of it.
What have I learned from all this? That designing a book cover can be both frustrating and enlightening. That while Photoshop may give me the illusion that I, too, can be a graphic artist, I definitely am not. That the money Eric and I spent on our children’s art education has been well worth it.