For the last two months I have been flogging my latest book on the Harper Collins UK website, Authonomy, in order to interest British and European agents and editors, and it has proven to be an interesting experiment. I have received some good insights and help, and there have been a few snarky comments. There are jerks in every facet of life and it is best to ignore them. They usually go away when they fail to create the drama they seek.
I did not think that a site devoted to the contents of a book would be so focused on the cover art. I was wrong. The cover art does matter in how a book is perceived and whether or not anyone will take the time to read it. The results in the past twelve hours since a temporary cover was uploaded are proof.
There have been articles and comments and even firestorms of controversy over the covers of books, mainly with publishers using a Caucasian in place of a more ethnic character. The supposed logic is that covers featuring Caucasians is more likely to sell even when the book is about an ethnic character. I do not agree, but then I have only my own experience as proof. Two books that stand out in my mind had very different covers. One showed a woman flanked by two men with obvious control over magic and the other was a woman whose skin was deep black and her hair silver. I bought both books, not because the cover art was intriguing, but because of the author whose writing was consistently good. So, does cover art really matter? It does not if the data include books I have bought that had the covers stripped. In those cases, it was either the author or the short synopsis that interested me in the contents. For me, it is always the contents that interest me far more than the cover. I am strange that way.
So, here I am with a 12-hour flurry of readings and backings that are greater than the two months I have had my book posted on the site to use as a comparison, and that is just since I put up the temporary cover. Is it a fluke? Are people more like magpies and crows that are drawn to bright, shiny objects than thinking individuals who are enticed by a sharp pitch and synopsis that excite their literary interests? I can only keep watching and keeping records to determine whether the bargain basement sale day interest continues, but I am convinced that something has changed and that covers do matter.
A couple weeks ago I set out to find an artist to work with me on the cover. A high school friend with whom I recently became reacquainted suggested his daughter. She has proven to be quite an amazing graphic artist who does not balk at listening to a writer about what should go on the cover. It is a unique approach. The first thing Aubrey did was ask to read the book. That was a revelation. She was interested in the story in order to create the art. I sent her the file and explained what I had in mind. I do after all know the story and the essence of the themes. We emailed back and forth and came to an agreement, although there was a little confusion on her part what I meant bya crowd of women coming to a point at the central character, finally settling on bowling pins as an example. Unable to sleep one night, she stayed up and created a gift for me: a light post like those seen throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans with the title on the street signs. It was simple and elegant and got the point across nicely. There were no women and no Bourbon Street down the sides, but it works. That is the cover I posted on Authonomy. That is the cover garnering so much attention. Maybe writers should not be involved in creating the cover art.
And maybe they should . . . at least nominally.
I know the story because I have lived with and written it over the course of the past two years. I know every detail and the central themes. I am also an artist -- a portrait artist, but an artist nonetheless. However, I do know my limits and Aubrey has reminded me just what they are. What I want is a cover that entices people to look inside and read the words. The pitch has been honed to razor sharp perfection; there are only 200 words allowed on the site to provide a sample. It is all on the surface, like the cover art, but it is an important element. I am beginning to see that the surface tension is very important and that no one will ever look inside if the surface is not sufficiently inviting.
No one enjoys seeing a beautiful lake, serene and sparkling in the sun, that invites closer inspection only to find the water is just barely above freezing. It is a nasty shock that has stopped a few hearts unready for the warmth and beauty above only to be sucked into the freezing dark depths. Books are like that. All show and no substance. So, where does the balance lie between contents and cover art. Does an ugly cover mean no one will bother to pick up the book? Does a beautiful and exciting cover over an insipid and poorly written book guarantee the sale? It is all becoming so confusing, especially nowadays when writers must also turn advertiser, promoter and showman in order to keep writing books and have a publisher at the end of the day.
As if the marketing and writing is not enough on my plate, now I must also worry about the cover. I might as well go the way of Mark Twain and Leonard Woolf who set up their own publishing houses to further their literary fortunes. It was easier in those days because all a book needed was a well made book in a pleasing color with gold lettering on the cover to sell what was contained inside. I am not Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf and at this rate I wonder if I will ever get the chance until I get the cover right.