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The empty cover

Oh ye merry folk of writing, I have tidings to bring … but, in the best traditions of suspense, I’m not going to tell you just yet.

Instead, a question:

Suppose you were told that your book cover wasn’t allowed to centre on an image of any kind?

Fine, perhaps you might be allowed a doodle, or watermark, or something clearly secondary to the actual text – but mostly, you’d be allowed words, colours and nothing much else.

How would you feel?

I think most of us would feel disappointed. Text feels a good way to communicate data, but a lacklustre way of communicating emotion. And, since novels are mostly about an emotional journey, a text-only cover seems certain to disappoint.

And, OK, all my fiction covers use imagery of some sort. At times, that imagery has been very scanty indeed. The American cover of This Thing of Darkness features a cloud. That’s literally all. The US version of Love Story, with Murders features a tree in a snowy landscape and, again, nothing else. (The tree, by the way, plays no part in the story. It just looked nice.)

But what you have to remember about really good cover designers is that they’re really good designers. They’re creatives. You have to tell them the outcome you want – roughly, “This is the genre, here is the emotion I want to generate, and here are some visual ingredients that may or may not be useful.”

So when I talked to my cover designer about the Thing of Darkness cover, the basic mission statement could have been reduced to:

  • Crime thriller
  • Excitement / danger
  • Trawler / storm / waves

I assumed we’d have some shot of a trawler deck, tipped at some terrifying angle, with black water sluicing across the deck. Throw a crimey-title in a crimey-font across the image and – badda-boom – there’s your cover.

And sure. I’ll bet you a dollar to a dime that my designer explored covers like that. Dug out pictures of trawlers (from massive image libraries that have got shots of absolutely everything.) But in the end, a designer has to be guided by what works.

Try trawler. Does it work? Dammit. Not quite. Explore lighthouse. Does that work? Dammit. Not quite. Try waves-smashing-on-rocks. Does that work? Dammit. Not quite.

A creatively-led and experimental design process ended up with a cover – the storm cloud – that we hadn’t anticipated, but worked just great. Here it is:

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That cover, however, walked only halfway to pure abstraction; it didn’t go the whole hog. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, on the other hand, used text. And colour. And nothing else. Here it is:

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Ask yourself honestly: would this cover have been better with imagery? And what would the images have been? The book tells a heart-rending story of the Jewish experience of Ukraine – and of the Second World War. You could have had some sepia-tinted photos of some long-ago shtetl. But those images would have been reductive. They’d have limited the book instead of hugely expanding it.

And ask yourself. What do you feel when you see the Everything is Illuminated cover? The black and white looks sober, but the billowing colour keeps telling you: yes, there is illumination, it is joyous, and it is magical, and this book will open those doors.

Or look at this version of Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me:

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It’s utterly simple. The title already sells the book. The font and colours hint at the book’s classic status. And the two singed bullet holes: they give you all the promise you need to pick the book up and starting reading. More would have given less.

I make these points because, oh merry folk of writing, I have news. And the news is:

I’ve written a book! And it’s just been published!

And not to beat about the bush too much:

You know what the book is – because you’ve already read it!

The book is called 52 LETTERS and it’s a compilation of these weekly emails from me to you – but squidged into book form, drained of any residual marketing nonsense, and tied with a ribbon woven from rainbow beams and unicorn kisses.

Now, I have to say, I love writing these weekly emails and I loved-loved-loved squidging them together into a book. An email, inevitably, a bit of a throwaway thing. Even if you read one and it really hits a spot, the likelihood is that you absorb some of the message, then move on. Forget it.

A book just has more status than that. In the world, yes, but also mentally. Anything tucked up in a book is asking to be stored in a different way – read differently, absorbed differently.

So though I remembered writing all those emails, the actual book feels like a different thing. Different and better. I love it already.

But – gulp – to remove my (sober, black felt) writing hat and put on my (jaunty, yellow) marketing one: how the hell do you sell a book like that?

I mean: it’s not a book about writing, or editing, or publishing, or marketing. It’s a little bit of all those things, plus a big fat helping of whatever nonsense is in my brain at the time.

And what kind of image do you put on the cover to say: “here’s quite a general, discursive yet practical and entertaining book for writers?”

A pen? A typewriter? A quill? An inkpot?

If you browse the Authorship category on Amazon, you’ll find books that make use of all of those icons … even though damn few of us actually use a pen, or typewriter or inkpot to write with. They’re icons used by non-creative visual folks as a kind of angry shorthand: “You know that inkpot symbolises things-for-writers, so here’s a book with yet another damn inkpot on it. Now buy it, OK?”

So. What did we do, me and my numberless colleagues at Jericho Writers Publishing?

Well, the title we came up with – in the form it appears on Amazon – is:

52 Letters:
 A year of advice on writing, editing, getting an agent, writing from the heart...

But the actual cover delivers a much longer title / subtitle combo:

52 Letters:
A year of advice on writing, editing, getting an agent, writing from the heart, the world’s oldest book, marketing your work, battling copyeditors, the secret of style, probable vs plausible, what’s up with Barnes & Noble, cannibalism, empathetic characters, writing phonetically and much more.

We liked that title because it told you what a rich, glorious, unembarrassed mish-mash the book contains. It feels like, at a textual level, a title that delivers the promise of the book.

But in a way, by choosing such a massively convoluted title, we were giving our designer an even bigger problem than he might have had to begin with. Not only was the book hard to pigeonhole, but we’ve given him a title so long that it wouldn’t even fit on Amazon’s title box.

But you know what? That wasn’t our problem. It was the designer’s. The sort of problem he loves to solve.

We just threw a book description and our enormous title at our designer, Kelly Finnegan, and said, “Hey Kelly, here’s a ridiculously long title for a hard-to-categorise book. The book is about writing and editing and all that, but it’s definitely not a textbook. We think it’s useful but entertaining, practical but discursive. And also – well, hell, we want it to be joyous and inspirational and anarchic and personal and fun. So please can we have a book cover that says all that – and looks incredible? Thanks.”

I had no idea what Kelly would come back with, but he came back to us with this:

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And honestly? I think that may be the best book cover I’ve ever had. Any country, any title, any edition.

The fact is that, although Kelly’s used just three main colours, a watermark version of me, and the text, the result delivers exactly the message we wanted.

What’s striking is just how much creativity there is in the design.

We didn’t tell Kelly to make the actual book title (“52 Letters”) small; he just did it. We didn’t tell Kelly to put in the “Love from” before my author name; he just did it. And we certainly didn’t tell him to use that sprawling handwritten font for the subtitle, but his decision to do that immediately signified something personal, creative and fun.

We sent some advance review copies out to people and got lots of lovely comments back, including this doozy from John David Mann:

“Not since Stephen King’s “On Writing” have I so valued a writer’s writing on writing! These aren’t just 52 Letters—they’re 52 love letters, to and for writers of all stripes and stages of accomplishment.”

Now that’s a lovely quote, of course. (Thanks, John!) But that ‘love letter’ comment feels absolutely consistent with the cover Kelly created. And when you have that kind of merger between what the cover promises to a reader and what it ends up delivering, you have a kind of sweet perfection – and one not of my making.

Lovely.

And finally, my little pickled pumpkin, because you are one of the people to whom I have addressed all these letters, we have made the book available at a small fraction of its normal price. The paperback ($8.99 / £6.99) is just about as cheap as we’re permitted to price it: we literally earn almost nothing at that price. The ebook too ($2.99 / £1.99 / or free via KU) is priced to be more like a giveaway than an actual purchase.

So, please: I hope you pick up a copy, because it was written, quite literally, for you – and because you helped create it.

The fact is, that if you lot weren’t such a totally brilliant audience, I’d never have written as many emails as I have done, and they’d have been a lot more boring too. You guys are the best.

You can buy the book here.

And please, buy it fast, because when the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, we shall ratchet those prices up higher than a stilt-walking giraffe on a stepladder.

I think Kelly Finnegan is a wee bit of a genius. And best of all? No inkpots.

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Comments (6)
  • Great stuff and congratulations on the book Harry! As a full-time graphic designer (and aspiring writer) it's fantastic to see the results of the collaboration between designer and author.

    My favourite cover designer is David Pearson, who worked for Penguin for many years before starting his own studio. He works principally in typography and pattern – he designed some beautiful covers for Cormac McCarthy

    https://a-g-i.org/design/the-road/

    as well as this cover for Nineteen Eighty Four

    https://a-g-i.org/design/nineteen-eighty-four/

    A couple of years ago I was fortunate to attend a presentation by David, who came across as a genuinely decent bloke – humble, down to earth and totally into his craft, in short a real inspiration.

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    • That 1984 cover design was a stroke of genius.

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    • Choosing the Bond cover is interesting because the design of that Vintage series of reprints accepts Bond and Fleming's status as part of the literary canon, either as camp nostalgia or the precursor to every Bourne or Jack Reacher that's come since.

      Go back a few decades, though, and the Bond covers either tie in with the movie version or concentrate on a scantily clad woman who Bond is about to have sex with. Probably. In other words, despite the films and massive sales, Bond spent his golden Connery/Moore age acknowledged as nothing more than generic pulp fiction, with covers no different from a thousand other Pan or New English Library quickies. Fine for a train journey but not meant for the ages.

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      • image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=186&dpx=2&t=1596265480

        I think Faber covers work powerfully well. That said, most people would have a pretty clear idea of what to expect before even picking up the books, so the cover designs probably only have to be informative and don't need to entice readers in.

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        • Well done Harry, I always enjoy your weekly missives and this will allow a few more people to do so too. The hardback cover for my forthcoming debut (designed by Heike Schüssler), also eschews visual imagery in favour of the graphic, and is the more original and intriguing for it.

          image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=188&dpx=1&t=1596268734

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          • That's a great cover for 52 Letters. Very appealing, a good combination of serious information and positivity. The Jonathan Safran Foer I'm not so keen on. I'm happy without a picture - these days no picture seems to signal literary fiction, and that's enough of a message for me. The black background is good, given the subject matter, but the overall effect is a bit crowded.

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            Our book cover selection process
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            •  · Rachael
            They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to Amazon that’s the first thing our potential buyer will be doing. The book cover needs to engage the reader’s interest, just long enough for them to click on the image. After that it’s the Amazon description and ‘Look Inside’ feature that’ll secure a sale. But how do you know which cover will appeal to your target reader?   I’m going to talk you through the process we used for selecting a book cover for Getting Published. As Harry explained in Covers? Sorted. Reviews? Sorted., we commissioned a selection of book cover designs and tested them on Facebook to see which design would appeal to our target audience.   To start