Judging books by covers and publishers by … covers

Okay, so this isn’t what I was going to write about either, but as it’s been the leitmotif of the last seven days or so, it’s what’s in the front of my mind. I’ve been emailing to and fro with a writer of my acquaintance whose novel has been accepted for publication by a small publisher. No agent involved, you see.

I am happy for her. Very much so, as she’s a writer whose work I’ve admired for several years and this could be her chance to break into a more mainstream audience which I believe she richly warrants. But there’s an issue.

The cover.

Oh yes. You see, the writer (who has given her consent to me saying whatever I like as long as she can’t be identified and doesn’t have to read it) has a very clear idea what the cover should be like. She’s been working on the novel for seven years, and in all that time her vision of the cover art has become refined and condensed until it has crystallised into a literal picture.

The publisher, on the other hand, has something of a house style. And that house style is rather different to the writer’s mental image. So after six (I think) versions of a cover that writer has rejected (cogently but determinedly rejected, I may add) they are somewhat stalemated. The writer has produced a mock-up of her ideal cover and they’ve told her that (a) they can’t get permission for it and (b) even if permission was forthcoming, the cover design she’s got in mind is way over their budget.

My view, oft expressed to her, is that if she sees herself as having a career as a novelist, she should let go now. Another book will have another cover, perhaps even a different edition of this book, should it sell well, will have something more like the cover she craves, but head-butting her small publisher over this issue is likely to cost her everything: not just this book, but her reputation.

It’s a tough old world, and recession doesn’t make publishing any more tender. No publisher, particularly a small one gambling on new writers, wants to have a drama queen on the team. While it’s hard to let go of a long-held dream, that dream should have been of getting a novel published, not getting a novel with a specific cover published. If that’s what the writer wants, she should stump up the cash and self-publish the novel. She may be right or wrong, but what she’s not is a publisher. Horrible though it is, all she can hope is that she’s enough of a success to get more control over covers in future … and that isn’t going to happen if this novel doesn’t get published at all.

I’ve known other writers less than thrilled by their covers, who’ve gone on to have more input to later novels, or even to second edition covers, which made them happy. You can’t win if you aren’t in …

Bookshop courtesy of ButterflySha at Flickr


  1. Jim Murdoch
    7th April 2009

    Playwrights know from the off that what they’re writing and what they imagine in their heads is not what they will see on the stage if they are ever lucky enough to have the thing put on. Collaboration and compromise are a part of the game. It’s both a tad naïve and arrogant of any novelist whose book has been accepted by a traditional publisher to think any different. I think your friend has been very lucky that her publisher has been so indulgent because there are plenty of other authors out there they could pick from; it’s a buyer’s market.

    Even though I self-published I still found I had to make certain compromises (e.g. choice of text, quality of paper) purely to keep costs down. I wanted a gatefold cover – I think they look dead smart – but it was a pure indulgence, nothing more, and so I gave in. Granted I did get the artwork I wanted but even there I was limited by the technical abilities of my wife (she’s better with Photoshop than I am). Life is all about compromise.

  2. Annie Wicking
    10th April 2009

    Oh dear, you are so right my dear friend. Your friend may lose out if she not careful, they may publish this one but not another one by her if they feel she is costing them too much money before they have sold any books by her. As you say, once she made a name for herself she can pick and chose as much as she likes.

    Wish her good luck from me. Happy Easter to you and your family.

  3. Kip de Moll
    14th April 2009

    Has she never heard that little ditty about books, covers and judgement? It would indeed be sad to think getting this close and letting it slip away.

  4. Rita J. Webb
    17th April 2009

    I never realized just how hard it could be to design a cover. And yeah, it’s more important to let the publisher win. If you are not self-publishing, you have to let them make the decisions.

  5. jem
    18th April 2009

    Interesting post. I remember once having a conversation with a writing tutor at a class I was doing and she said she’d love to be published in a pink cover, I said I’d rather die than be published in a pink cover. She said, quite rightly, that I might not have much choice in the matter. Ever since it’s hung over me like an idle threat. Sometimes I think I’m even conscious of trying hard not to write anything that might possibly suit a pink cover 🙂

  6. Kay Sexton
    18th April 2009

    You all make great points, although I think the prize has to go to Jem for the funniest way to spur on creative writing – inventing the ‘avoidance of the pink cover’ syndrome!


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