As the author of ten mysteries featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I’ve frequently been asked the above question. Believe me, on some of those books I would have asked the question myself, if I had been the reader. The truth is that I didn’t pick that cover(!) In fact, I had virtually nothing to say about it.
My first mystery, Cutter, came out in hardcover from St Martin’s Press in 1994. Needless to say, I waited with great excitement to see what the jacket would look like. (For those unfamiliar with this process, it takes roughly a year from the moment of turning a manuscript in to the publisher until the finished book arrives in the mail…a long wait.) I can still remember my immediate sense of deflation when I finally saw the book. It looks like Nancy Drew, were the words that came to mind.
This was my first experience with a phenomena that I later became very familiar with. For some reason, books with horses on the cover have a tendency to look “YA” (publishing industry slang—means “young adult”), unless the cover artist is quite skillful. Cutter looked very YA from my point of view.
Still, I had no idea how dire things can get in the book cover department. Not until I saw the paperback version of Cutter. Not only did this cover also look very YA, the artist had depicted my western cutting horse with an English saddle (!) You can imagine the comments I got on that one. Unfortunately, most of the world believes that an author personally chooses or designs the cover—I hate to think how many folks may consider me dismally ignorant on the subject of cutting horses, based on this jacket.
As you might imagine, at this juncture I called up the St Martin’s art department, wanting to be sure I could have some input into the cover of my next book. To make a long story short, the answer was “not”. A midlist author (publishing industry slang for anyone who’s not a bestseller but is still getting published by a big publisher), it turns out, has very little control over what cover her book will have. I could whine to the art director about what I wanted and didn’t want, sure, and he would agree to pass this on to the artist, but the net result was that the art director was interested in his/her concept, not mine.
Fortunately Hoofprints, my second novel, had a much more pleasing cover than Cutter. Or at least, I thought so. (Not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, it sold a lot better, too.) When I praised the cover to my agent, however, she sniffed dismissively. I was quite surprised that she didn’t seem to like the jacket. Novice in the publishing business that I was, I had paid no attention to the lettering. My agent was no novice. “I wish they’d done your name a little larger,” was all she said.
Sure enough. Now that I considered this aspect, I saw that my name was printed in such small letters it was hardly legible. Another lesson learned.
Finally, on my third mystery, Roughstock, I hit the jackpot. I loved the cover, and virtually everyone who saw the book did, too. Not to mention my name was nice and big. (Roughstock also sold very well, by the way.) The cover artist, Peter Thorpe, had emailed me in the course of his work (being one of that lovely breed who actually reads the material and tries to make the cover fit), so I was able to thank him for a great job. Naturally I requested him thereafter.
This system didn’t work all the time. The art director at a big house like St Martin’s has a tendency to be a “revolving door” position. Seldom did I have the same art director from book to book. So, periodically the current inhabitant of the office would decide to replace my favorite artist with someone else, usually not to good effect. For instance my sixth novel, Breakaway, which is one of my favorite books, but also probably the “darkest” of my mysteries and the least suitable for young readers, has a cover that looks more YA than all the rest. Needless to say, I was not thrilled.
So the answer to my title question is that I have mostly had very little control over the covers of my novels, which is unfortunate, as I think many people do judge a book by its cover. I have to admit, I find it easier to buy a book with an appealing cover than one with a repulsive or boring jacket (in my eyes), despite the fact that I may be familiar with the author and able to evaluate the book more fairly on its merits. I’m a big believer in the idea that covers are very important. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that overall, those of my books that have what I would call appealing covers have sold better than the others.
Thus I’m grateful that my last two books have been published by Perseverance Press, who has been willing to use Peter Thorpe as the cover artist (and thank you, Pete, for being willing to do the work). Moonblind and Chasing Cans are two of my favorite jackets—I’d welcome your input.