Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who Says You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover?

 by Rebecca Yount
As a child I had a love affair with book covers.
Wesley Dennis's artwork that graced Marguerite Henry's 
stories drew me in like a magnet attracts metal.

 So, too, Arthur Rackham's illustrated edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.  It was Rackham's cover that initially attracted me to the book that would become one of the most beloved of my childhood.

  To this day, I cherish memories of the "olde fashioned" illustrations from my early edition of Mother Goose.  At times I merely flipped through the pages to revel in the pictures, rather than read the nonsensical verses.

 And I surrendered to shameless vapors over Beatrix Potter's charming illustrations for Peter Rabbit and her other tales. 

 My point is this: these evocative covers led me to read those books and their successors.  In short, a passion for the cover preceded my love for the story.

A cover can make or break a book.  If it fails to convey the essence of the story, the buyer will move on.  This is especially true for a first-time author: the only thing readers have to go on is your book's cover.  Does it attract them?  Does it intrigue them?  Does it speak to them?  Does it compel them to flip through the pages, attempting to divine your book's contents?

Ideally a cover should announce to the prospective reader, "This book is going to rock your world!"
I am a new author, having had my debut crime novel, A Death in C Minor, published as an e-book in the summer of 2012. The following November, my second book in the series, The Erlking, was also published as an e-book. I released the third title, The Ravenhoe Cauldron, on June 30th.

I have been fortunate to work with Sarah Cotur, who manages to divine my thoughts.  Being a graphic designer, Sarah is visual while I am verbal.  While I am garrulous, she is a woman of few words.  However, what Sarah does say matters.

Somehow she and I have managed to override our individual quirks while having fun along the way.  

"Designing book covers, particularly electronic, is a relatively new design endeavor for me," Sarah admits.

 "As a designer," she continues, "I have learned that asking the right questions and listening well is as important as the design skills themselves.  From our first conversation, Rebecca immediately had an idea about how she'd like to visually represent her novel.  I didn't have to ask too many questions.

 "However, it can be difficult to extract exactly the image a client (author) has envisioned....  Even if the design is completely wrong, [designer and author] will be literally 'on the same page' and can build upon feedback from that first draft."

 As Sarah infers, our initial effort was further complicated by the book being electronic, rather than hard copy.  Does an e-book cover really matter?  Is rain wet?

 Whatever early differences Sarah and I may have had regarding concept, we both knew that both covers had to knock my books out of the park.

 Our initial conversation about A Death in C Minor went something like this:
     Me: "The story is about a mysterious man who is murdered with his own kitchen cleaver."
     Sarah:  "Hmm."
     Me:  "So could you work up a cover with a bloody cleaver --  perhaps having it chop through the head of a musical note, since the female protagonist is a concert pianist?"
     Sarah: "I think you may need an illustrator."
     Me:  "But I want you."
     Sarah:  (Pause). "Okay, I'll take a crack at it.  'Talk to you in a week."
     A week later Sarah e-mailed her draft cover: a bloody cleaver impaling the head of an equally bloody musical note.  She had created exactly what I had asked her to do.
     And it was all wrong -- which was entirely my fault.
     So it was back to the drawing board.
     Our second conversation:
     Me: "Gee, Sarah, this cover is really gory!"
     Sarah:  (Silence).
     Me:  "Then again, it's what I had asked for, isn't it?"
     Sarah:  "Perhaps some background would help."
     Me:  "How about a suggestion of the story's English rural village in the background? And a reference to a musical score?"

 Sarah e-mailed her concept of the background to me: a village in the moonlight with a ripped musical score slicing across the graphics.  It was pure genius!

  And so A Death in C Minor is graced with a cover that has received effusive praise.  It evokes the story, reaching out to the reader and announcing, "If you enter this picture and walk with me down that moonlit village path, you'll be in for the adventure of your life."

 Conceptualizing the covers for the next two titles was easier.  By that time Sarah and I were completely comfortable working together.  As a result, she created two more knock-out designs that have also attracted considerable praise. 

So don't ever delude yourself into thinking that e-book covers don't matter.  A brilliant one can take the book to places you never imagined.

Is there a Pulitzer Prize for book covers?  A National Book Award cover prize?  Is there something akin to a book cover Academy Award?

If not, there ought to be.  

Rebecca Yount's Mick Chandra series, A Death in C Minor, The Erlking, and The Ravenhoe Cauldron are published in e-book format and are available from all major vendors. Her website is