Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why Ever Did You Pick That Cover?

By Laura Crum

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.
Laura Crum


White Horse said...

Hi Laura,

Haven't read your lastest novel yet but it is in my TBR pile on my night stand. Sorry to say I still think this cover looks YA also..Too bad the publishers don't get a clue and listen more to the author's ideas for cover art. After all I thought the idea for them was to make money? If they took time to consider they'd know that adults spend more than kids and adjust their thinking. Oh well, that's what happens when companies get to big for their own good. Looking forward to reading your latest......keep up the great work. Regards, Linda (your long time fan from Northern NY)Have retired from the bookstore and am enjoying reading all these books I have now!

White Horse said...

Oh yes, one more thing Laura. Tell your publishers that this fan is 61 years old and I'm sure there are many more muture ladies that read your books...after all the horse has been around for how many thousand of years? So it's just not horse crazy girls!

Apparently your publishers know little of the Millions of dollars spent by adults on horses in this country every year :o) Not to mention Queen Elizabeth, a few Saudi's, many folks in Middleburg, VA and all the Western riders West of the Mississippi! Said my piece for now :o) White Horse

Laura Crum said...

Hi Linda, Glad to hear you're doing well. I actually liked the Chasing Cans cover--I thought it had a nice, retro rodeo poster look. But I'm glad to get your input. Thanks for your long time support. Enjoy your reading and retirement! Do you still have horses? Cheers--Laura

Jami Davenport said...


I had to laugh when I read this post. I loved it. BTW, I just finished Cutter. It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it. But I did wonder about the English saddle on the cover. Well, like you said, often you have very little control with a NY publisher.

That is one thing about a smaller press, they're willing to work with you on your covers.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Laura --

Hopped over from DL.

Back when I taught writing the novel, I summed up the publishing process in three steps:

1. Write your book.
2. Sell your book.
3. Hate your cover.

But that experience is being contradicted now at William Morrow, where my editor, Marjorie Braman, not only solicits my input on the cover, but also accepts it. (They even have me review the flap copy.)

And I have to say that the jackets for the two Bangkok novels they've published are the best I've ever had. They get 99% of the credit, but it was very rewarding to be involved.

Why don't more publishers do this?

Laura Crum said...

Jami and Timothy, Thanks for your comments. One of the reasons I left St Martins (there were several, and I did have the option to stay with them) was the fact that I never had any control (or much input) over any aspect of my book besides the writing. Not the cover, not the marketing...nada. The small press I'm with now (Perseverance Press) is happy to have me be involved in all aspects, though they make the final calls, and I've found it very rewarding.

Anonymous said...

Hello Laura--

Very interesting discussion accompanying your covers.

Thanks, I enjoyed reading it.
Theresa de Valencenygyd

Kay said...

Hi Laura,

I found this topic to be very interesting. My travel book was published by a small company but I was happy they used a collage of my photos for the cover, front and back. I agree it is nice to have some control although actually not a lot.

At any rate I had good response to my cover and I agree with you in that I really like your cover to Moonblind.

Kay Fellows

2horseygirls said...

Laura -

Thanks for sharing this! I had no idea that the author had such little input. That seems like a silly way to do business. Glad you like your new publishing house & and I'm going to have to look at the Cutter cover the next time I'm at the library.

Jenne :)