As a writer, we’re supposed to hate and eschew clichés like vampires do garlic and crosses. They should make us shrivel and cringe, and sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t and we reach right into that trow of overused phrases and sprinkle them around our prose, anyway.
Here’s one that I hate and that makes me cringe: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Now, as a cliché (i.e. we’re not actually talking about books but about people) it doesn’t work because we all USE our “cover” to send messages. That’s why goths dress the way they do, and punks and why business-people wear all the same boring suits :). I’ve grown up a fat chick with a pretty face, and like everybody else, of course, I’ve always been aware of being judged by my looks, but just as aware of the messages my choices in clothes and make-up etc. send to people. That’s why we wear clothes. And even if we don’t care (and quite often I don’t, I just dress in what’s comfortable) that still sends a message that we’re the kind of people who don’t effing care what we look like when we go to the grocery store.
So I reject the cliché. Don’t be a superficial asshole, but also stop pretending like how we dress, what we say, how we act in public says NOTHING about us as people. Of course it says stuff about me. Not everything, by far. And most people may be inept at reading all those signals correctly, who knows, but there’s a correlation between a person and their “cover”.
I also reject the premise: There is also a correlation between a book and its cover. And it’s intricate and fascinating and it’s something to love and explore rather than just put off as superficial, image obsessed internet culture.
I love good covers. And I love the process, too. After writing, it’s kind of the funnest part of this whole publishing deal, and I have to admit, the fact that I get to design my own covers and work with artists and do all of that, is one of the biggest incentives for self-publishing for me. Because yeah, I don’t like that lack of control, leaving the public, outward representation of my work to people who aren’t me. I LOVE doing them, love the process of creating a cover that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also represents the content, the genre, the target audience, and yeah, your own brand. That’s fascinating stuff.
When By the Light of the Moon was first published, I did have some impact (i.e. I was asked to describe a few possibilities and I had the opportunity to suggest small alterations), but I was never happy the cover. I always felt slightly weird asking people to read my book, almost like I had to say “I know, I know what it looks like, but please…? Could you do that thing that I don’t believe in and reject, where you don’t judge the book by its cover?” And that’s an uncomfortable position to stand and to market yourself and your book from.
The re-release cover of By the Light of the Moon is different. I can fully stand behind it and say “I love this cover.” That doesn’t mean everybody will, or that it will connect with anyone who chances upon it, but I love it. I can stand with both feet on the ground, shoulders back, chin held high and promote it.
It took ages to get there, though (which is e.g. what a good cover says. It says that the publisher or author believes in the book enough to spend ages, or a lot of money working it out). I think I have at least 10 different cover mock-ups for By the Light of the Moon on my computer. And I don’t mean evolving ones (then we get into the hundreds), but complete separate ideas from completely different source images. In the end, the only one I sort of liked would have relied on a very expensive photograph and I just didn’t (and don’t) have 500 bucks to blow on a cover. So I went back to the drawing board and changed my tack. It’s fantasy, after all, maybe photography is the wrong way to go.
Now, I am very lucky to have grown up in a family of artists and so I could go to my grandmother (whom I chose because I thought her personal style resonated most with my writing and my ideas for a cover, and I still hope I didn’t somehow insult my grandfather by not asking him). And we talked a LOT. I told her about the book, about my ideas. She talked about painting proportions and constraints and in the end, she painted something that I liked, but that I also didn’t know how to use. It was a little too colorful, with too much going on and at first I completely despaired of ever getting this right.
In the end, and after soooo many attempts, I found a way to limit the color and the busyness of the painting (if you want to compare, I took out most of the reddish/purple hues from the dress, the sky etc. and pumped up the real red in her hair; I got rid of her hands and the shore at the bottom of the painting and yeah, in the end, I added a tree that wasn’t there for color contrast balance).
This time around, and for Lakeside #2, I could take all those experiences on board and give my grandmother a much better idea of what I needed. And I think it shows. I was there yesterday to look at the progress, and we sat together, talking, looking at pictures of wolves and drew one into different copies of the same painting. It was a lot of fun, but I look at the unfinished work, and I can already see, that i will have to work a LOT less hard to make this a cover. It’s basically already one, and all I have to do is add the title.
I write a lot about how writing is learning. Every day. But this stuff is as well, and I’m really grateful and appreciative of the lessons I am given and allowed to learn on this journey.
For me, getting really involved with my covers, is almost an extended part of the writing process. It allows me to translate the written word into a visual impression, it makes me think about what my books are, what they represent and how I want them to be seen and i love that part.
It doesn’t always work – i.e. for After Life Lessons, we chose a very calm and thoughtful cover because we did want people to judge the book by it. And still we get a lot feedback about the gory action-ridden zombie bonanza they expected (and didn’t find inside this very calm cover). But that’s all part of the learning process. And it’s all good. It’s all part of the fun.
PS: Just putting it out there. I am open to advising authors about covers or helping them realize their dream visual representation. So if you’re still looking for a cover artist and like my stuff, why not send me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org.