4/16/2005

People talk about writer's block, but they rarely talk about cover block. This involves spending up to a couple of years working on a piece of writing, then your publisher wraps it in something that tightens every sphincter in your body and makes your brain feel like it's about to commit a kamikaze death leap out of one of your ears.

Now, I'm fortunate in that I've never had that experience, nor am I likely to: there was an early version of the cover design for Against Gravity I wasn't entirely sure about, but Tor UK (as H/al Duncan pointed out in his own blog) were incredibly good about allowing me input. Which is pretty remarkable, given that there's no guarantee any particular author is going to have the faintest clue what a good cover design should look like. Put yourself in the shoes of an editor trying to explain to an author why the painting his mate down the pub knocked together isn't necessarily suitable for a print run of fifteen thousand trade paperbacks.

The reason authors get so worked up about this, I think, has to do with a degree of identification between the author and the book they've written: that book isn't just selling the words on the pages, it's selling - in a sense - the author as well. That's you on the shelf: and if somebody's taken your technothriller and wrapped it up in a party dress with a pink ribbon, you're going to feel driven to suggest this is perhaps inappropriate.

The fact that Tor Uk are not only going to accept feedback from one of their authors, but even go so far as to act on that feedback, is a phenomenon perhaps unprecedented in modern publishing: as long as there have been books, there have been writers wailing about their cover design. Book companies do not have a reputation for taking writer's comments concerning cover art on board. The people most authors deal with, after all, are the editorial staff: all the art stuff is in another department, closely tied in with marketing.

I got thinking about all this when I was at a writer's circle meeting last Tuesday. Jim Steel came along as he occasionally does, and showed me a copy of the most recent Locus magazine: naturally I flicked through to the 'British Books Received' pages and, with heavy heart, noted the early 'discarded' version of the cover for Against Gravity up there in black and white at the top of the page.

The reason for this is simple, and in fact makes a fair bit of sense. The opportunities for promoting a book tend to be limited. In some ways, a publisher's job is not so much to sell a book to the public as it is to sell it to the booksellers. The presence of some form of cover art is frequently an important part of this, so Tor simply used what it had to hand. Which is why there are, at least for the moment, two versions of the cover art for Against Gravity floating around: the one that got chucked (as seen in Starburst and Locus), and the one that's actually going to be on the book (to your left, top of the page).

In this light, I've been aware of certain related conversations in the online sf world, in particular an online discussion and essay by Ted Chiang, concerning the US cover design for his collection of short stories. He hated it so much he paid an artist three grand to come up with a brand new design, which his publishers rejected: he considered giving it away to people who'd already bought the book to put around it, which his publishers hated even more.

I tripped across a new cover design for a book by Lucius Shephard called The Golden, which it was clear from the context of an online conversation Mr Shephard wasn't happy about. Personally, I wasn't so hot on it either: but I own an earlier hardback cover of The Golden from about ten years ago, and I'm not sure that isn't worse.

The thing is, if you're just someone browsing through the bookshelves of a shop looking for something to read, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was perhaps all a bit of a storm in a teacup. It's only a cover, you might say. And, that's true. But on this side of the fence, it feels different: it's like someone's paid you a sum of money to publish your book, but in return you need to attend every subsequent sf convention and business meeting dressed like a mutant duck. In other words, people feel silly at the least, badly misrepresented at the worst. They want their work - and writing a book is a lot of work - to have dignity. Nothing wrong with that.

The worst possible outcome is when a book isn't so much given dodgy cover art as mis-marketed. The other day, someone was having a clear-out of books and I subsequently received a copy of Dreamwatcher, by Theodore Roszak. Now, Roszak isn't exactly a house-hold name, but he's known in certain circles for his non-fiction writing. However, I've only read one book of his, a work of fiction, called Flicker, which easily makes it into my top hundred books of all time (the convoluted route by which I became aware of this novel is an entire blog entry in itself, one I intend to write up sometime quite soon). It's a complex detective story concerning the hunt for an elusive movie maker embarked upon by a young film critic, and even these few words don't even begin to do justice to this remarkable book.

The copy of Dreamwatcher I received I haven't yet read, but it's unlikely I would ever have picked it up from any bookshelf if I wasn't already aware of the name: the art - the copy dates, probably, from the mid-eighties at the latest, mid-Seventies at the earliest - is of the type I'd expect to find wrapped around some hacked-out sub-Stephen King gorefest by a writer of considerably less talent than I know Mr Roszak to have. Now - I haven't actually read the book yet, and for all I know it deserves exactly the cover it got. But, you know something tells me otherwise.
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