Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cover Story! (In Homage To Steve Jobs)

Chapter 1. Coming Out From Under.

An interesting thing is happening. People are asking me about my book covers. It started about a year ago at a Literary Festival I went to.
'Do you design your own?' someone asked.
'No,' I told them in a slightly tight-lipped manner.
'Really? But I read somewhere that you're an artist.'
'Listen,' I said, leaning forward so the microphone made a hissing noise, a bit like a snake about to strike. 'They tell me I don't know what sells. The covers are not my business.'
I paused. 'Apparently.'

This was a conversation that was to run again and again. Finally someone popped the question for which I had been waiting. The question that needed asking. The question which, like a marriage proposal, had to be asked first before an answer was required. It came at a lick.
'D'you like your covers?'
'No!' I shouted. 'No! No! No!'
The microphone whined nastily and died. I felt as though I had killed something. A dragon, perhaps? One that was antiquated, and needed slaying?
'I loathe my covers,' I said. 'I loathe them with a passion that is almost as much as my passion for writing. Why,' I continued, pausing only for breath before beginning to bellow again, 'do these people think they can design a cover in three seconds for a book that took at least TWO YEARS to write?'
In the stunned silence that followed a member of the audience stood up and ripped off the cover of the book she had brought for me to sign.
'Thank you!' I told her, speaking with feeling, but without the microphone, and above the applause.

That incident really happened, and more and more I have found myself talking to audiences about the cover stories to which I have been subjected. Why does the British book-buying market have such appalling covers thrown at them?
As an author I have been told that my covers sell books. Really, why am I complaining? My answer is simple. Think how many more books would sell if the cover was tasteful.
The hard back edition of my second novel had the pink palace in Jaipur, India on it. It was a novel about Sri Lanka. When I questioned the wisdom of this I was told,
'Oh no one will notice!' thereby confirming my belief that not only was I being treated like an idiot but so were my readers.
But this sorry state of affairs is not confined to me and my books, alone. Here are a few more ridiculous, old-fashioned cover ideas in circulation, currently.

1. If the author has a foreign sounding name or hails from The East then the cover of his or her book must have gold on it. A couple of mangos would be good too and maybe even a woman with a sari around her HEAD! (because we women from the east always cover our heads, don't you know?)
2. Books for women should have some pink on the cover. Or at least something pinkish. (did our mothers fight for the vote for this sort of stuff?)
3. Books that are meant for men can have a more 'butch'-like font, and splashes of red/black or, (wait for it), unpleasant mustard-gas yellow.
I could go on but before I come out in a heat rash I would like to mention my hero Steve Jobs, that incredible designer, lost now, to the world. What made him his millions was, amongst other things,  his fantastic design sense. His attention to detail, his care over the kind of fonts he used on his Apple Macs, his packaging...oh I could go on. In short, his presentation of the object, as much as everything else.

What we need in this ailing market is a similar shake up of all things visual. We, the real book buyers should not be fed those tired old categories, those tasteless, hastily cobbled together bits of card that look as though they have come from the pound shop. We the writers should not be pigeon-holed.
Especially now, with badly designed kindles fighting with the-book-as-an-object, what we need to make us want to buy and to own books are their covers. Hurrah! Yes! So come on, publishers, give us things of beauty, give us something we'd love to touch, to keep on our shelves forever. Till we're old and sightless!  It doesn't have to cost more. All it needs is a little talent and some thoughtfulness. It's what I bang on about to my students all the time.

I'm now with a new publisher. They seem sensitive and interested in my latest book and I'm crossing my fingers and holding my breath...

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