Judging A Book By Its Cover

I haven't forgotten about my 'How I Got Where I Am' series, but other things have intervened over the past couple of weeks! I'll pick up where I left off next week. Meanwhile, I feel the need to write a bit about 'cover images' for eBooks. And here's why.

In traditional publishing, you may be consulted about the cover of your book, but you won't have the final say - or, more often than not, any say at all. Marketing, branding, current fashions all take priority. (I used to loathe those headless women covers so much but it's a fad that seems to have faded thank goodness.) As a writer, you will hardly ever be able to communicate with the artist involved.  I liked the original paperback edition of the Curiosity Cabinet a lot  although it was very different from the eBook edition - of which more in due course. As far as I remember, the image of the embroidered casket which the artist used came from the Burrell in Glasgow, where there's a splendid collection of them. (Go and see for yourself!)

There are whole websites devoted to praising or slating eBook covers. There are competitions and awards. I sometimes wonder why we human beings are so darned competitive. Free us up to be what we want to be, do what we want to do, and people will instantly suggest that somebody (preferably themselves) needs to exert some sort of control, judge, make distinctions, create hierarchies. People become so alarmed by the random nature of the emerging eBook market that they suggest a string of controls involving submission and judgement followed by the acceptance and curation of the favoured few, seemingly unaware that they have just reinvented traditional publishing.

Over a long career in writing of all kinds, I've come to loathe that word 'submission' and to consider other models, other ways of doing things. Submission means the 'action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.' Which only works when that other person really is genuinely superior, a wise teacher, an experienced and respected expert. Writers begin their careers by submitting - we're routinely advised that we need to contemplate scores, nay hundreds, of submissions. We get into the mindset at a time when we really do need a modicum of expert advice, but the trouble is that even when we become seasoned professionals, we too often continue to yield our power, our ideas and significant equity in our product to other people. The fact that quite often those people don't really know their literary bahookies from their elbows somehow escapes us. They tell us how superior they are and we believe them. Relationships which should be creative partnerships become lopsided. Until Amazon came along, there was little alternative.


So where do covers come in? Well, eBook covers aren't really covers at all. They are images, images which you see at thumbnail size on Amazon and other listings pages, images which are enlarged on e-readers, but which can be works of art in their own right. To some extent, this was always the case. Years ago, one of my short stories, The Butterfly Bowl, was published in a glossy women's magazine and the accompanying image was such a small work of art that I bought the original from the artist. But images for eBooks may be an opportunity for creative collaboration of a new and exciting kind.  Let's free our minds from the usual design/marketing/judgmental constraints for a bit. Let's decide that if we want to, we can explore new ways of doing this, too. If we're eBook publishing because we're writing across genres or because what we write doesn't fit comfortably into any single marketing paradigm, then why shouldn't we consider new ways of approaching the images which interpret and reflect our books?

When I decided to publish The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, I knew that I needed a new cover image to go with it. A friend, distinguished textile artist Alison Bell - who had read and loved the book - offered to design an image for me. It is her own response to the novel, and a very beautiful one at that. I would no more have looked at it as a piece of utilitarian design than I would look at any other genuine work of art only for what it could bring to the 'pack shot'.

It's an approach which I have largely followed with my other novels, either asking the artist to read the book, or at least talking about the themes in some detail and asking for a creative response, much, I suppose, as one asks a designer to approach a play - discussing the thinking behind the project but then giving them the freedom to interpret, using their own individual  creativity.


The image above for Bird of Passage, by a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti, was a revelation to me. I had discussed the themes, the setting of the novel, passed on some of my own photographs, even  had something in mind. What Matt came up with, though, was utterly unexpected.  But the sheer brilliance of it as an interpretation of the novel, the loneliness of the central character, the sense of his imprisonment in his own past, all of them are there in Matt's superb image. I remember the first time I saw it, it brought a lump to my throat!

Two more novels have covers designed by another young Scottish artist, Claire Maclean. The Amber Heart is a big book, a sweeping love story, set in nineteenth century Poland. I wanted romance on an epic scale. It's a story of a lifelong and passionate love affair. Claire, with a deeply romantic imagination seemed the ideal choice and she produced a cover of such warmth and beauty that I had no hesitation in asking her to work on my next novel, Ice Dancing, as well.
But this was a different proposition.  Ice Dancing is grown up, sexy, quirky. An intelligent love story with a dark side.  The hero plays ice hockey, for sure. (The title is a metaphor for relationships that extends through the whole book!) But it's really  a story about an exotic and charismatic interloper in a small Scottish village - and love at first sight.. The idea of  hockey as 'fire dancing on ice' - the sheer, intensely physical sexiness of it, certainly permeates the whole novel, and that's what Claire seized on. Once again, the image practically took my breath away.




Now, Alison has read, and is meditating on the ideas in The Physic Garden, my next book, a historical novel set in Scotland in the early 1800s. She has remarked that it is a deeply melancholy tale (it is, I'm afraid) and - unerringly - she has honed in on a passage which is absolutely central to the novel. I await her interpretation with interest.

When it works well, we need to acknowledge that the symbiosis between artist and writer can create a piece of art which illuminates and comments on the writer's work. All of this is such a creative pleasure: a new and unanticipated benefit of inde publishing. The odd thing is that, although the covers have been created by three different artists, there is a 'look' about them which seems somehow to reflect my own voice as a writer. That voice is the common denominator and it shows.

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