Wednesday, 25 May 2011

New Jacket Required: Disliking Your Own Book Cover, And Why It's Such A 2011 Thing To Do


Above is the cover of my last-but-one book. Do you like it? I don't. Not much, anyway. I wouldn't go so far as to say I loathe it, but I think it looks like a birthday card you'd get for a distant aunt who likes cats but lives in a house you don't really like visiting owing to its unusually large amount of air fresheners. Besides the fact that it's a little bit cheeky, and, y'know, features a cat, I don't think it sums up the spirit of the book at all.

First, there's the sky blue background: it's a smallish point, but I don't think it's a very sky blue book. It just doesn't have a sky blue feel to it. If anything, it's a purple book, which the odd flash or green and puke yellow. Then there are the jeans. Are they my jeans? No, they are not. Obviously it would be a bit much to expect a photographer to come to my house, and take a picture of my own jeans just for authenticity's sake, but these don't even look like jeans I would have worn at any point during my adulthood. I just looked through my wardrobe, and I don't have any jeans that slightly resemble these jeans, not even in my "gardening clothes" section. They look like the kind of jeans my nan would have worn in 1991, whilst enjoying a casual afternoon smoking, pruning the roses in her yard, and relaxing with the smooth sounds of her Val Doonican cassettes.

People often say to me: "Your kitten, on the cover of your book, looks like a naughty fellow! What's his name?" To which I confess sheepishly that I have never met the feline on the cover of the book in question, nor its equally stand-offish older contemporary on the superior - though still not perfect - cover of its sequel, Talk To The Tail. I don't even know their names. These are aloof actor cats of the kind who would sneer at me, if I tried to befriend them in the street. I have put out a few feelers, trying to ascertain their identities, but heard nothing. They never write, they never call, they never do a big enthusiastic waz on my Buddleia. It's beneath them.

Many readers I've spoken to think the same about the cover. A couple have made comments along the lines of, "Well, I saw the jacket, and it looked a bit soppy, so I was going to give it a miss, but then I thought I'd give it a go, and I'm glad I did." Similarly, there are probably some who've liked the cover, then found it misleading, and perhaps been disappointed by the book's content. ("This doesn't LOOK like a book written by someone who calls his own cats dickheads! If it did, i would never have bought it!") The biggest problem is perhaps less the cover itself, and more the fact that many readers out there probably don't realise that I haven't given it the thumbs up. And why should they think I didn't like it? It's my book, and surely a person has to like his own book cover, at least a bit, if it's out there on shelves in bookstores all over the nation?

My publishers are currently putting together the paperback version of Talk To The Tail. They have some enthusiastic quotes for it, from Stuart Maconie and The Mighty Boosh's Rich Fulcher and a couple of newspapers, so it's a reasonably exciting time. I thought it would also be a good time to change the Under The Paw cover - a couple of people from my publishers, Simon And Schuster, have hinted they're not too keen on it either - so we had two paperbacks of a similar design, more consistent with their content, but they've decided not to. Their reason for this is needing to appeal to the "supermarket buyers". This was the reason why the the above cover was chosen. Initially, Simon And Schuster had selected a cover I rather liked for the paperback version of Under The Paw: a picture of a tabby with some impressive cattitude sneering from in front of a duvet, between a man's poking-out stockinged feet. Yet they decide to change it. The reason? "Asda wouldn't take it. They need a very simple cover that won't confuse the one-book-per-year market. Something cute, like the one for Marley And Me." This, even though the hardback of Under The Paw featured an image of two my own cats - an image far more in keeping with the book's chaotic, demented nature - and Tesco had deigned to include it in the store for a month, which was extended to an extra month, due to good sales figures (and, apparently, outselling John Prescott's autobiography in some stores).



I am not biting the hand that feeds me here. I am not going to fall out with my publishers over this. They know how I feel, they're not going to change it, and I know there's nothing I can do about it, and that's just The Way It Is. I also don't really feel too Jonathan Franzen about it. If Oprah Winfrey wanted to stick her Book Club sticker on the front of my book, I'd tell her to go ahead and go mad, stick three on if she liked. She could even superimpose her big grinning face over mine, in the pic of me with my cats on the back cover, if that was the kind of crazy shit that got her off. I never stop feeling fortunate to have books published and I realise that, in the current climate, publishers need to do what they can to sell books where they can. When my agent and I decided that the image on the initial trade paperback cover for my first book, Nice Jumper, was too complicated, we were able to get it changed to a simpler image for the mass market paperback, but that was in early 2003, and the publishing industry has become a more cutthroat, hand-to-mouth place since then.

Compare this to the decision-making process that goes into the artwork for an album, though: album sleeves are an integral part of the feel of a record, inseparable from it, in many cases. Why should books be any different? After all, books often take longer to create than albums, require even more commitment and staying power. I'm in a weaker position than some to complain, as my six books are fluffy affairs on the whole, and none stretch to more than 85,000 words. If I had spent five years writing and researching the Great American Novel, then been told I had no say in the way it looked, I'd feel rightly miffed. I recently spoke to a well-known comedian who also makes records, and had been thinking of self-publishing his first book. Waterstone's had been interested, but had said they wouldn't stock it, if he stuck with his proposed cover. His reaction was: "Sod that." Because of the background he was coming from, there was no question of compromising. He'd chosen exactly the sleeve art he wanted for his albums, so why should he compromise any more with his book? All but very few books are labours of love, involving sweat and sacrifice, and a person wants to feel proud of them when they're done. I don't want to put my all into a book, then only be able to love it in the way you'd love a person close to you who'd willfully disfigured him or herself slightly.

This is how far we've slipped, as authors, out of necessity, and it's devaluing books, as Sam Jordison explains in this excellent Guardian blog. We live in an age a long way from the one which produced these sensitively designed 1970s Penguin versions of Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy which I picked up the other day (not from Asda). Do I want my books in Asda and Sainsbury's? Of course I want my books in Asda and Sainsbury's. During the first week Under The Paw went into Asda, I hit the bestseller list for the first and only time in my life and I very much hope, when Talk To The Tail is published in paperback in January next year, I hit it for the second time. But Asda were selling Under The Paw for less than £4. Most magazines cost more than £4 these days. Surely that's wrong - and not just because it makes for piddling royalty figures? A book should cost more than that. A book should be more than that. It's not a soulless CD; it's something to be stroked, and to love on the outside, as well as the inside.

23 comments:

Sarah said...

Quite right too. I refuse to buy books in the supermarket for the same reason I pay my TV licence but don't own a TV. I value the service that the BBC (I have the radio on all day) and book shops provide AND I see no reason why programme makers and authors should not be paid properly for what they produce. To not pay for the licence or a proper price for a book seems a little like robbery.

Sam Jordison said...

Too right! I completely agree about record covers too. Many publishers seem to treat book covers as an unfortunate afterthought - and so limit their designs to according to what they think the supermarkets might like - and that's a wasted opportunity...

(What does your real cat think about the usurper cat on the front of the book?)

Kaite Welsh said...

It's false advertising, in a way. The cover makes it look like a book that well-meaning relatives who don't really know me would buy me for Christmas and I'd never pick up. The book you describe, on the other hand, is one that people who know me (and my cats) would buy me in bulk and I'd read (possibly out loud, and to the cats).

It just feels like a massive marketing error that it's clearly aimed at people who expect something different and, whilst they might discover something new and love it, might just be put off. All the while the audience who would really appreciate it might not give it a second look.

Andrew Collins said...

Don't get me started!

Anonymous said...

For fear of walking into the firing line, I am Tom's publisher (Hello Tom!) and on a number of points I totally agree. I'd like nothing more than to chose a great image that I love - edgy, funny, arch, all the things that Tom is as a writer - and let it speak for itself. I also really hate the idea of authors not liking their book covers.

However, if, as a publisher, you have a book that will sell strongly through the supermarkets you would be doing your author a disservice if you didn't consider these outlets when designing the look of the book. Oh that we all lived in a world where we could stick to our guns and not pander to "the market"! But you can't chose your fans in life (as Morrissey recently opined regarding David Cameron and his penchant for the Smiths) and if, as a writer, you want more people to read your books you have to make concessions to the marketplace. This may sound horribly pragmatic, but it's a reflection of the world that we live and work in.

Andrew Collins said...

I wrote a trilogy. I loved the covers of the first two books, which were designed along the same layout, as if to show that they were related. Design for book three, the end of the trilogy? In the bag, surely? Nope. Brand new design. So now my trilogy looks like two books and one other book.

(You're right though, Tom, it does seem like a rather bourgeois complaint: I don't fully approve of the covers of the books a publisher has published for me! Boo hoo!)

Anonymous said...

I understand the point made by Tom's publisher (and fair play to them for joining in) but I agree with Katie regarding the idea of it being false advertising.

I realise that the point of the publisher is to sell books but if the books are sold on a misleading cover then that surely does the author an enormous disservice.

Surely it's no better than a crass small ad that shouts S E X in bold text before continuing "now that I've got your attention would you be interested in double glazing ?".

DW x

Cyndi Tefft said...

Self-published authors can't get their novels on supermarket shelves, but they get 100% control over their covers and content.

Some authors are willing to go that route because the creative freedom is more important to them than the mass distribution.

It's certainly not for everyone, but it is an option more and more people are choosing.

Happing Writers said...

I visited Amazon recently, and while surfing, found a book with a cover illustration that was identical to the one used for a friend's book. I had somewhat naively assumed her cover had been designed for her. When I told her about it, she said it had come from a stock photo, and that in fact, there was at least one other book using the same image. This feels VERY lazy to me.

Holly said...

When I worked in editorial departments a book's cover was decided when final files were virtually ready to go to the printers (as Sam said, as an afterthought).

As the whole process of producing a book takes months, by the cover stage, it has worked from publisher/meeting level down to editorial assistant (who will usually be the one writing the briefs to the designer), who has the job of just making sure the darn thing gets out and published on time, whatever’s on the front, while juggling about twenty other titles. I remember using my powers of persuasion if an author disliked a cover, just to avoid another ten versions needing to be requested by an already jaded designer. Though this of course may not be the case for all publishers.

Even so, when an author disliked a cover, I/we worked very hard to send as many versions as was needed to reach an agreement, and would never have passed a cover unless the author was happy. I do think that the person who designs a cover, or briefs the designer, should have read at least some of the book. If they had, that cover would never have been chosen. (Poor kitten, not sure it deserves such hostility. Unlike the jeans.)

Tom said...

Suddenly feeling loads of remorse for being horrible about the kitten itself now. I'm sure if I actually met it I'd want to adopt it.

P.S. DW, I like your comparison, but can you change the double glazing and SEX bits round?

Jo Bliss said...

Ok, I'm lucky enough to have UTP in hardback with the original cover. I really like the cover. I also had the original cover of TTTT, but I wasn't as keen, I must admit. Having seen pictures of Tom's cats, I knew it wasn't one of them.

I don't quite understand why the authors cannot plan and shoot their own covers? I would much rather see Tom and one/many of his cats on his covers than some cutesy set up, which, as Tom so rightly points out; looks like a birthday card for a relative you don't see. Plus, having read Tom's books, it really doesn't suit the material inside. If I was wandering through the supermarket's books, if I was not already au fait with the author; I'm afraid it would turn me right off and automatically assume it would not be the sort of book for me.

However, the market is not directed purely at me. How about a collage of authentic photos? Surely publishers can come up with something a bit more eye catching?

Although on a much shorter scale; my OH has shot his own cover for his book, which the publishers are very happy with (and in the process, he's taken another for one of their other authors).

It needs to be eye catching, a pictorial description of the delights that are inside, and an enticing colour. The present one is, quite frankly, a kitten plonked on some jeans in a dental surgery. Only by the greatest stretch of the imagination does it say 'confessions of a cat man' to me. But that's me.

The debate could go on and on......

Kelly said...

I'm finding it hard to ciriticise what I had assumed was a pic of Pablo as a kitten! But I do agree with comments that it doesn't reflect the style of the book, and how funny it is (literally laughed out loud on almost every page of under the paw...) I really like the pic on the inside of the jacket of Tom and the 6 cats having lunch! (how on earth did you manage that by the way??) Maybe it would make a better cover?

Anonymous said...

Hello - publisher here again.

The way the book trade works at the moment you sell in a mid-range book and get orders of a few hundred here, a few hundred there, and then, if you're lucky you get a supermarket customer who'll say, "we'll take 10,000", at which point you have to provide them with something that they will happily stock. If you stick to your guns and don't design a jacket with them in mind you could, conceivably, be saying goodbye to 75+% of your sales. So the question becomes, are you doing your author a greater disservice by "misleading the customer" with a mass-market jacket (note, we've never had any complaints from Tom's readers) or by deciding to willfully exclude a possible 75% of his book sales?

It's a stark decision which, when you're in the business (and we must remember that it is a business) of selling books, rather than just thinking it might nice if some like-minded people read them, brings things into sharp focus. It's horribly frustrating that we have to play this game, but play it we must.

A comparison might be: you're selling a house. You have a strong prediliction for death metal, lumionus paint and tie-die textiles. You have £2,000 spare to spruce the place up a bit. Do you a) buy some signed Napalm Death posters, splash out on acid pink emulsion and get some ethnic curtains made up in the hope that someone else will share your tastes or b) paint everything white, declutter and appeal to the average buyer?

pauline said...

I suspect you are not going to like this.Waterstones in Oban had it in the 'pets' section. The cover might have something to do with that.

Tom said...

The only difference is: you let the house go, whereas you never fully let a book go, and you have to live with it. It doesn't become someone else's book. I'll just keep my fingers crossed the supermarkets take Talk To The Tail, then it will probably be worth it. Always felt a bit confused regarding why Tesco took the original hardback of UTP and not the paperback, though (especially as I was told it had sold unusually well there).

P.S. Not at all, Pauline. I'd totally expect it to be in the Pets section. It would be self-defeating to put it anywhere else.

Holly said...

In your publisher’s defence, the quotes which were selected and sought for your cover were what sold it the book to me, despite being a bit embarrassed when reading it in public and wanting to say to people ‘No, it’s not like that, it’s really good and funny and a bit dark in parts’. So they managed to capture two markets for you: those who are reasonably well-read and those who pick up books with cute covers whilst buying beans.

It’s a disgrace that books can cost the same as magazines. And it’s for this reason that publishers have to publish a greater number of books and consequently have less time and money to concentrate on covers, and more depressingly, the quality of the editing. Which is also why most authors often have to drum up their own publicity.

To paraphrase the venerable Stewart Lee (your book is of course not included – thinking more of Russell Brand et al), ‘The 18th-century polymath Thomas Young was the last person reputed to have read every book published in his lifetime. Someone who did that today would end up more stupid than the person who read nothing.’

Regarding the house analogy, I utterly agree, you have to hand this book out as something that represents you and your life so far without apology. It’s like someone else dressing your child badly but you still have to take the child out on trips and be proud of it. A cover should not be an albatross around an author's neck.

Customers would never bother to write to a publisher to complain about a cover – these people can’t even be bothered to go to a bookshop to buy a book. But please don’t suggest an author designs their own cover. There are some very talented designers who are paid to do this, in-house. An author is there to write, not design. I say this from experience – one author suggested to me a picture of a sow in farrow on the cover of his book, with his head as the sow’s head. That’s neither normal nor advisable, and at times like this, you have to rely on the publisher’s expertise.

Cantavestrella said...

I was lucky I got the cats-in-the-basket jacket, when I bought 'Under the Paw' at Amazon.uk Marketplace. I much prefer it to the other cover too.

So they were your cats there, Tom. I much suspected it was Pablo one of them, as he was sticking out his tongue.

Love your writing about cats as well as about music.

Yes, not all cat lovers like the Dolores Umbridge aesthetics.

Tina Bellamy said...

I agree with Holly - it was the comments that sold it, not the picture on the cover. It was also the title, and a quick skip through. Have to say I don't normally parade around reading books with kittens on the cover - the cover is completely out of character with the book.

Holly said...

It's a shame that you're not keen on your new book's cover, too. As a percentage of the profits from a book usually goes towards the designer’s salary, the designer is in essence being paid to provide the author with a cover they like, while balancing this with its 'marketability’ (i.e. a cover that the supermarkets (shudder) will accept). It's always possible in the end with a bit of patience, compromise and effort. Tom, you shouldn't approve a cover you're not happy with. Without authors, publishers wouldn't be in business, so it's in their interests to ensure you're happy at all stages of the process. The idea of supermarkets having such clout within the book trade saddens me as much as the number of celebrity books on display in Waterstones. I'd rather read a cereal packet than a book by yet another D-list celeb. But I guess that's another debate ...

Holly said...

It's a shame that you're not keen on your new book's cover, too.

As a percentage of the profits from a book usually goes towards the designer’s salary, the designer is in essence being paid to provide the author with a cover they like, while balancing this with its 'marketability’ (i.e. a cover that the supermarkets (shudder) will accept). It is always possible in the end with a bit of patience, compromise and effort. Tom, you shouldn't approve a cover you're not happy with. Without authors, publishers wouldn't be in business, so it's in their interests to ensure you're happy at all stages of the process.

The idea of supermarkets having such clout within the book trade depresses me as much as the number of celebrity books on display in Waterstones does. I'd rather read a cereal packet than a book by yet another D-list celeb, ghost-written by a bored writer selling their literary soul. But that's a whole other debate ...

john rushing vt said...

"I'd like nothing more than to chose a great image that I love - edgy, funny, arch, all the things that Tom is as a writer - and let it speak for itself."

Based on your publisher's insipid and soulless excuse here, for the adolescent and dumbing-down cover, Tom, I would argue that you need a new publisher -- one with intellect, a sense of art, and bollocks.

john rushing vt said...

Just read your publisher's second, pedantic moan about this book cover. What a boor, attempting to lecture us and juxtaposing his crap decision on the cover to a mindless metaphor about a house. No wonder the publishing industry is in a malaise.