Cover Story (the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

Cover Story

(the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

A recent review of Little Gidding Girl mentioned the image on the cover, querying why the figure is fairly slender when the statue mentioned in the book is of a goddess figurine with generous curves. I confess that when I was trying to find a concept for the cover art of this book I was all at sea. I don’t understand cover design, or why it’s quite so important, because for me, the vast majority of the covers I see are a big turn off. They make me feel manipulated, the way almost all advertisements do. That might well be just me, though. I am told that because most people are highly visual, the cover art is vital to grabbing the attention of potential readers and getting them to take notice, read the blurb and buy. Many authors redo covers, finding a new theme or concept to tie together books in a series or to standardise a brand. I have no idea whether it works, or whether it would work for mine or not, and don’t have enough energy to give thought to it. Finding the right ideas for a cover has been the bane of my existence.

For Little Gidding Girl, I combined two ideas from the story and from my vague blatherings and a photo of my own, Annette composed the art. The background shows a rustic door or gate in a wall, behind which you can see what may be roses or may be apples and may be both; the door we never opened into a rose garden is drawn from the poetry that runs through the book, but apple trees fill the garden of the main character Verity. The goddess figurine unites two strands within the story: Verity’s grandfather had been an archaeologist of some note, and the figurine was acquired by Nick’s aunt, who was a buyer of antiques and antiquities. Yet finding the correct image wasn’t easy. There are pitfalls and prat-falls abounding when it comes to acquiring and using photographs of actual antiquities and art. The image is actually from a pendant I bought last year, rummaged from a bargain bucket in a shop in Glastonbury and digitally altered somewhat (the thing itself is a bit over an inch long). I would have preferred a more fecund set of curves, but since fat is OUT in terms of the way our culture seems to lean, I settled for this relatively slender and youthful form. Together the image is striking and intriguing and also, unlike anything else I’ve seen.

When it comes down to it, I find myself baffled by the fashions in book covers in the time I have been self-publishing. Not just independent books but traditionally published ones all seem to follow trends until you can almost always guess the nature of a book by its cover; in the wake of (cough) Fifty Shades (cough) every volume of erotic fiction sported certain instantly recognisable clues to its contents. Often highly symbolic in theme (fruit, masks, whips, dark colours etc) the covers gave a sense of what lay within in a codified manner. I sometimes toy with the idea of producing a cover with that type of symbolic images for, let’s say, The Bet, and see what happens. Probably a swathe of disappointed readers for though that novel contains a lot of sex, pretty much all of it is off-camera.

Each genre has a well-established set of codes for cover art, because it’s a way of subliminally attracting readers in the same way the Also Bought suggestions online also do. Books that straddle genres (like mine) or defy classification (again, like mine) can’t easily take advantage of this visual shorthand. I’ve thought occasionally about new covers for some books. The Bet is my own favourite book (yeah, I am that vain) but I don’t think its cover is right. The current cover suggests a gothic horror and while in a strange way it does trespass into that territory, it doesn’t fit at all. The folks who have read it have generally raved about it, but when it comes to finding it a well-fitting niche, there doesn’t seem to be one and I am reluctant to proceed any further with the sequel (written but needing a good proofread and a cover) until I have cracked that conundrum. What I’d like is to find the right themes for the covers of both The Bet and the first sequel (currently entitled One Immortal Diamond) and when OID is ready to roll, relaunch The Bet with a new cover that prefigures the cover for OID.

The other problem with going back and redoing covers is that it takes away energy from writing and releasing new books. I’m working on very restricted energy anyway, so the chances are very small of coming up with new covers for all that need them. I think I’d rather use what creative forces I can muster to actually get on with writing and while my health remains impaired, I apologise for my lack of alacrity in getting new books out there. People say the best way to sell more books is to write more but I am far from sure that’s true. But having managed to write (longhand) some short stories recently, and observed that I felt mentally and spiritually a LOT better for doing so, I am starting to think that if writing is my way through the inner horrors, then I must just write and stop worrying whether the current covers of my books are “good enough”.

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“There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

A couple of years ago now we worked our way through a dvd box set of the hit series Deadwood. Set in the town of Deadwood (a real place) and following the fortunes of various people (many of whom have the names if not the actual characters of real, historical and sometimes famous people), during the Gold Rush period.

At the time, it rang a lot of bells about the way the self-publishing world was going and since then, I’ve thought about it a lot.

I first began publishing my own books in 2011 (though Strangers and Pilgrims was first published by someone else for me, it was a false start about eighteen months before I finally took it back and began again). It was a time somewhat akin to the early years of the Gold Rush. A new, exciting and potentially extremely lucrative adventure awaited those who were willing to just get their work out there, battling the new tech and avenues the way the prospectors battled weather and mountains and so on.

But gold is buried deep, is hard to find and seams run out unexpectedly and anyone who made plans based on a first lucrative lucky strike were fools if they thought the gold would just keep on coming. I’ve seen it said that the entire amount of gold in the world would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool and no more than that. Gold is finite but hope is eternal. The cannier inhabitants of Deadwood became the suppliers instead of prospectors. They opened saloon bars, shops and brothels; they sold food and drink, shovels and pans, flesh and promises and treasure maps to the folks who flocked there believing they’d make their fortune.

You really can’t blame them. They’d been lured there themselves by the dangling carrot of unlimited wealth if you just dug long enough in the right places, and when they’d got enough to start a business of some sort, the wise ones quit prospecting. As long as people continued to flock or even trickle there, hope in their hearts and enough dollars to buy equipment and whisky, the legends would keep being retold. It only took the occasional lucky strike to keep hope fresh and new legends to be forged.

It’s the same with self publishing and probably publishing generally. We all hear tales of people whose work suddenly went viral and they sold millions; we all probably secretly still believe it could be us, if we just stay out there. But few of us are making any money any more. There’s a whole other debate about whether writing for money is a fool’s game anyway, and another about whether ethically and faith-motivated folks are allowed to ever admit that some of their motivation for writing is in the hopes of making a living or even a decent paying hobby or second job. I’m not going there today.

The people who have a chance of making a living are those who now run businesses selling to the writers. Whether it’s editing services, formatting, cover design or one of a plethora of services deemed needful for authors, aspiring or otherwise, there’s a LOT of canny people out there, offering it. Organisations like Book Bub offer dreams of success through their advertising services (which cost, and dearly and they’re choosy who they will take on for a campaign) bringing your book in front of an audience that matches the demographic your book is aimed at.

For me, I’ve realised that I’m a gold panner. I’m someone who goes out weekends and evenings, with makeshift equipment and warmly-padded waders, and stands bent over a fast-flowing mountain stream, sifting gravel and occasionally finding grains of gold. Once in a while, a nugget comes my way. Sometimes, the dynamite someone has used higher up the mountain has loosened more rocks that bear gold, and I find that the tiny specks come to me more often. But it’s the process of being out there, looking at the fish and the sparkling water and the occasional gleams of precious metal, and knowing that while I could have boxed smarter and found another way to garner my gold, at least I am still doing what I set out to do, and still have a tiny bit of hope in my heart.