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.