What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book: Cover Design

So your first book has been accepted for publication: congratulations! In the next few months your face will be all over television and you’ll be getting daily bank deposits of thousands of dollars. Right?

Maybe not.

In What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book, myself and Jane Rawson share the whole truth about our experiences of being published, including the not-so-awesome bits, alongside the perspectives of agents, editors, publishers and other industry experts.

About Us

JaneRecently my fourth book – a novel – was published, in Australia and the UK. In Australia I’m with a small independent publisher, and they’ve previously published another novel of mine, and a non-fiction book about climate change that I co-authored with an environment journalist. My other book, a novella, was published by a different, even smaller independent publisher. My UK book is published by a ‘big’ publisher. I’m not represented by an agent.

Annabel: I published my first two novels with small independent publishers. My second novel was sold by my West Australian publisher to a small(ish) independent publisher in the US, where it has gone on to sell more than 75,000 copies. My third book, an interactive digital novel/app was self-published. I’m not represented by an agent.

Annabel’s Experience

When I first told people my debut novel had been accepted for publication, one of the questions most often asked was: What’s going to be on the cover? People often (mistakenly) assume the author will be instrumental in the cover design but the reality is often far from that.

Sometimes publishers (especially indies) may consult with authors for cover ideas, or feedback on design drafts. But more often than not, the author will be sent an image of their book cover when the design is already finalised. For first time authors this can feel like a slap in the face: But I wrote the damn thing. shouldn’t I at least get a say in what it looks like? Firstly, writing and visual design are two completely different skillsets. But perhaps more importantly, cover design is a critical element of the book’s marketing. As such, it is better left to experts in that field, who have not only been trained in design, but have a firm grasp on industry trends and so forth, and therefore understand what kind of covers actually sell books. And if you’re anything like me, you probably do want to sell books. 

The folks at UWA Publishing were lovely enough to ask for my input on the design for A New Map of the Universe. As a story about architecture, I pictured blueprints. My designer, Robyn Mundy, focused more on the book’s title and female protagonist to create a cover which was nothing like I imagined but with which I was delighted.

Image of my book cover A New Map of the Universe. Woman in yellow dress on starry background.
Cover design by Robyn Mundy

For my second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, the team at Fremantle Press showed me several ‘dummy’ covers and asked for my thoughts.

I wasn’t a fan of the left-hand cover. It’s got an old-fashioned feel, and to me, suggests a book about childhood, and while my story does begin in childhood, it follows my characters into their thirties. I felt the right-hand cover perfectly captured the simultaneous connection and distance between the twins in my story.

However, Fremantle Press also showed the dummies to the sales reps who distribute their books shops, and their vote was unanimous:

Though it was not my first choice, I love the colours and the sense of energy. And I can see that a potential reader might be more likely to pick it up, which ultimately is more important than how well it ‘matches’ the story (unless, of course, it’s such a mismatch that it’s misleading, which is obviously problematic.)

Jane’s Experiences

My most interesting cover experience has been having the same book published by two publishers in two different markets with two different covers. ‘From the Wreck’, my second novel and fourth book, features a shape-shifting alien (often an octopus, but also a woman and a cat), a historical shipwreck, and a lot of angst angst and confusion. It was first published in 2017 in Australia by Transit Lounge, who often work with cover designer Peter Lo. The process started when publisher, Barry Scott, asked me for any ideas I had and any pictures that would help him and Peter understand what I was thinking. I was, as always, vague.

I don’t consider myself a visual person, and I’m happy for the designer to be in charge.

But I did send them a piece of art I like, which is a photo-realistic painting of a beach at night with a million falling stars. (I may have also said ‘tentacles’ and ‘boat’). Peter and Barry sent me five concepts to look at, all very different, some riffing off my suggestions and some not. The most wonderful one had nothing at all to do with my ideas and wasn’t anything I would have ever thought of. I showed the selection to a few other people, including an agent and bookseller I know, and everyone loved that one best. So did I, and that was the cover we went with. It had a mysterious, literary feel and gave no hint of octopuses or science fiction.

At Picador in the UK, the process was quite different. My editor sent me an email to let me know the ‘nearly final’ cover design was attached. It would be reviewed by an important bookseller, so there might be small changes, and they hoped I loved it as much as they all did. In other words, my feedback was not required. It was an amazing cover, so that was a relief. Later, I did some research online about the designer, Mel Four, and discovered she had made a three-dimensional model of an octopus out of modelling clay, then photographed it, then used that as the basis of her design. Such dedication! This cover, a purple mass of writhing tentacles, is much more science fiction than my Australian cover.

A Book Critic’s Perspective:

James Morrison is an editor and designer who sporadically writes about book design.

In recent years, the average standard of book cover design for literary fiction and non-fiction has improved dramatically. I suspect that here are probably two main factors at play in this, both related to the internet.

First of all, and most commented on, is that competition from cheap ebooks has meant that physical books have needed to become more attractive in order to maintain their sales. Secondly, the online reading community can now talk about great book design and find out about talented designers in a way that just wasn’t possible before for people who aren’t actually in the business themselves.

This growing audience, full of fragmented subgroups, has also encouraged many publishers to take more risks with design: you no longer have to just appeal to the main buyers for the major bookshop chains the way you used to.

In Australia this has all been true as well. Compare the staid, slightly clunky cover of a 1980s or ‘90s Penguin paperback with something they publish today. They even publish certain books in special formats just to appeal to design nerds—it took the 2014 Australian Classics hardback series for them to finally update the cover to Picnic at Hanging Rock, which had been unchanged since its 1975 film tie-in edition.

There are more novels set in regional Australian than actual people living there. Just as Australia is an urban country that likes to think of itself as wild and unsettled, our books—some thrillers aside—are almost invariably decorated with native birds, local flora, dramatic landscapes photos and dusty rural roads. Fortunately these things are all extremely photogenic.

One of the powerhouses of Australian book design is W. H. Chong at Text, who seems to design almost every cover they publish. Thanks to him we have the beautiful Italian neorealist covers for Elena Ferrante in Australia, whereas the rest of the English-speaking world is stuck with horrible Hallmark card nonsense.

One final odd point to consider: despite the much-touted Australian sense of humour and anti-authoritarian outlook, almost none of our books, even the funny ones, have funny covers. Beautiful, yes, but always serious. You have to go to children’s fiction to find wit and laughter.

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About Me

Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.

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