As competition for readers in the book buying market becomes increasingly stiff, the cover of a book has never been more important as a means of wooing the bookseller, supermarket buyer and the reader at first glance.
A book cover needs to sell the story, to place the book within its genre so it’s immediately recogniseable. It needs to give an intimation of what the book’s about. To make that all important connection between eye and hand so that a reader is drawn to pick it up in the first place. And for that to happen, it needs to stand out from the crowd of other covers all trying to do the same thing, but it also has to remain within parameters that readers will recognise. Basically the same but different!
This time last year, at my UK publisher’s, LittleBrown, It was time to discuss the direction we wanted to take for the cover of my forthcoming historical novel TO DEFY A KING. Planning always starts at least a year ahead of publication, if not more.
The jackets of my previous novels, designed by Larry Rostant had served me extremely well and continue to do so. Sales have increased dramatically with my half-headed and head turned away ladies (and one man!) in nice clothes. They were part of a trend begun by The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, sales of which had received phenomenal global success. As time had gone on, everyone (not surprisingly really) had jumped onto the bandwagon and it seemed to us last year that you couldn’t move in historical fiction circles without seeing some headless period woman in a nice frock on the front cover. On a couple of reader forums where I go to socialise (as a reader not a writer) these kind of covers were being branded by the forum members as the ‘Dude I’ve lost my forehead’ look.
We felt it was time for a change, but we still wanted something that wasn’t a woman passively posing in a nice dress, but that nevertheless still said ‘Historical’, We wanted something that told the reader about the character, rather than just being about the dress.
I was invited to a meeting at LittleBrown to brainstorm ideas with Joanne Dickinson, senior editor of commercial fiction, Barbara Daniel with whom I have worked for twenty years, Hannah Torjusson from publicity and Carole Blake my agent. Joanne had prepared a presentation document where ideas discussed via phone and e-mail before the meeting had been set down in writing. We discussed who my target audience was and how best to reach it. We discussed my positioning in the market. Who were the historical novelists that my readers also read? What did readers like best about my novels and expect from them? We identified core words and emotions that cropped up time and again.
Our next move at the meeting was to discuss how to apply the feedback to the covers. Various historical fiction book covers were passed around and discussed and we all agreed that the half-headless woman in a nice dress had been used to saturation point. We were all particularly drawn to strong historical film posters and high quality shots from fashion magazines and we felt that the word we were seeking was ‘filmic’. We wanted richness, texture and drama.
Once we had made that decision, the next thing was to brief the designer with our ideas for the look we wanted, married to details from the novel. I sent LittleBrown’s book designer Emma Graves photographs of how I envisaged the heroine’s appearance, descriptions of her from the text of the novel, pictures of medieval costume, and text and photographs concerning specific details that were relevant to the story. I also sent Emma the book trailer I had made for TO DEFY A KING and the music that had inspired me during the writing.
Novels are briefed up to a year in advance of publication, so often the designer only has a synopsis and a few chapters to go on. The cover is generally briefed in discussion with representatives from the editorial and sales teams, from marketing, design and publicity. Once there’s a consensus, then the project can begin in earnest. Briefing meetings are held once a fortnight.
While I was sitting at my computer, working on my next opus, Emma went away and got stuck into the research material I had sent her and the chapters of To Defy a King so that she could get a feel for my heroine Mahelt Marshal, who was to star on the front cover. Emma’s initial task was to come up with concepts that could be further developed at the cover photo shoot and formulate an idea of how this was going to look on the book cover.
The next task was to find a photographer to work with. In this case, Jeff Cottenden was the choice. He’s a photographer who specialises in covers for historical fiction and has worked on jackets for the Jean Plaidy Re-issues and for Philippa Gregory among others. http://www.jeffcottenden.co.uk/ Jeff provided Emma with the name of a model agency – www.motmodels.com which he uses regularly. Emma went through the list of available models and chose a selection of models who resembled my descriptions of Mahelt’s looks and personality. Presented with a shortlist, I chose Jade Creswell because I liked her hair which I thought was suitable for Mahelt Marshal, and from the photos, Jade looked as if she was thoroughly capable of putting on the right expressions for Mahelt’s vibrant personality. http://www.motmodel.com/models/detail.asp?model_id=2827#
Jade was available for the shoot date and we were in business.
The next thing we needed was a costume. Emma and the photographer went to professional costumiers Angels – http://www.angels.uk.com/ and here selected a medieval dress. The original was green, but thanks to the wonders of photoshopping, turned out to be this glorious pinkish-red on the cover!
Although it doesn’t show on the cover, the shoot took place in a church not far from St Paul’s cathedral. The brief was to have Mahelt looking strong, powerful and pretty all rolled into one, and this was the mood they asked the model to portray. The shoot itself took about three hours with Jade sitting and standing and posing in different light to get a range of photos.
Emma tells the next part in her own words – being lazy here. It’s easier than me retyping it all!
‘After the shoot we had a very wide selection of pictures to choose from and selected three of our favorites to develop further. We tried different crops and ideas of single pictures of Mahelt but felt that we wanted to show the different sides of Mahelt’s character. We decided to do this by creating a mirrored image showing two different aspects . This concept worked well with the story and reflect it’s content. Although the idea is not unique and has worked on other printed material before, it gave us the filmic feel we were after. The photographs were then retouched to get the colouring of the dress and accessories right. We were after a rich, warm feel giving the story and cover that deep historical texture we were after.
Before the shoot I had looked into various option for type. I was after a historical typeface with some character and texture and thought the final choice worked really well with the title and cover feel.’
After this, Emma sent the cover to me for approval. I loved it and thought it was exactly right – saying historical but at the same time adding a unique twist.
Following on from this, the cover was presented to sales, marketing and publicity, who unanimously loved it and were very excited by it as they felt it would do really well in the market place. This is proving to be the case so far I am pleased to say with very positive noises being made by the booksellers to whom it has been shown.
I must admit to having a slight smile to myself. I really, really love this cover, but it’s a kind of ironic statement that instead of going headless, my heroine gets to have two heads this time!
So that's it. One of the ways in which a book cover comes about. It's not the same for all authors, and each cover is different, but this has been my experience this time around - and very exciting too!
One of the other interesting and positive things that has come out of the shoots that Jeff Cottenden undertook for TO DEFY A KING is that one of these shots is being used by my USA publisher Sourcebooks for the jacket of FOR THE KING’S FAVOR. (USA version of THE TIME OF SINGING). Although it’s very different from LittleBrown’s cover, I really love this one too. And again, it fits the novel in question. I love it that Jade can play both the imperious Mahelt, and the much gentler Ida de Tosney convincingly.
Elizabeth's latest release TO DEFY A KING is available from Sphere now.
To find out more about Elizabeth's work and books visit her website here