Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Judging a Book . . . Update

 After writing the last blog, on book covers, I expected to put the topic behind me and move on to something else of interest to, well, me, if I’m being honest (and perhaps one or two others). But, to my utter delight and amazement, I had an email from my editor, Tiffany, at Five Star, asking me what I thought about the sample cover she had attached. This is where I admit that I read that short sentence two or three times, just to let the pleasure of being asked to comment on the cover sink in. (I also reread jokes to savor the full impact—I was raised to be a dour Protestant.)

            Tiffany’s note was short, since she’s nursing a broken collar bone and can type with only one hand. But it was clear and to the point. Does this cover work for my story? I opened the attachment, scanned it on my laptop, then printed it out. I was immediately pleased that the designer seemed to have read the story, or at least understood it. The novel, Under the Eye of Kali, is the first in a new series featuring Anita Ray, an Indian American woman living in South India at a hotel run by her aunt. It is a land of palm trees and high rises shooting up next to low-slung traditional houses with thatched roofs, with long white beaches running unhindered up the coast. And the cover pretty much got it—high rises behind a row of palm trees, water lapping gently against the coastline. But all was not perfect.

            Now, I do not in any way regard myself as visually artistic—I enjoy taking photographs, mostly for fun and my own pleasure, and I have strong views on what works and doesn’t work—but I would never dare tell a designer how to do his or her job. But Tiffany asked for my opinion.

            The one discordant note for me in the proposed cover was the image of a rug beneath the waves and a beringed hand emerging over the rug but still in the waves. It just seemed to be too much. After thinking about it for a day or so I emailed back that I thought the rug and the hand were a bit too much—they made the cover fussy. My thought had been an image of a deity emerging into view beneath the waves. I sent that back with thanks for having been invited to review the cover. I didn’t expect anything else to come of it, and wondered when I’d see the final book.

            Just a day later Tiffany sent me a revised cover—with exactly the image I had imagined. There just below the water’s surface, slowly emerging into view, is the figure of a deity with a necklace of skulls/heads. It’s fabulous! I sent back my enthusiastic approval and thanks once again to Tiffany.

            The cover for Under the Eye of Kali, due in May 2010 from Five Star, works perfectly in my view—with the story and the depiction of contemporary South India. The story takes place in a modern resort surrounded by palm trees, the murder victim is found along the shore, and the villain . . .  You’ll have to read the book.

            And now, if there are any complaints about the cover, those complaints come straight to me. I can’t hide behind the excuse of being only the writer and having nothing to do with the design of the cover. If I get to say what I like and don’t like, I get to take the heat if others don’t like it. But even so, this is one two-edged sword I’m glad to grasp with both hands.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

A member of the Five Star chat list recently posted a thoughtful and passionate piece about the role of luck in launching a new book. He touched on a lot of points, but one in particular caught my eye—the cover design.

            Whenever anyone talks about the effectiveness or irrelevance of a cover, I recall an encounter in the old Spenser’s Mystery Bookstore in Boston. The sales person had just read what she considered a terrific mystery but found the cover so off-putting that readers just weren’t picking it up. She talked about how well written it was, how interesting the story was, how she had been thoroughly caught up in the whole thing. She thought I’d like it too. And as I listened to her describe it, I had to agree. But that cover . . .

            The cover was brown with a figure emerging from the darkness dressed also in brown, and not a particularly attractive brown either. I could not bring myself to pick up that book. I was like everyone else she had tried to sell it to (or most others)—I couldn’t get past the cover.

            When my first mystery novel was published in 1993, my editor, Susanne Kirk, called to tell me about the cover. “There’s an old chair . . .” When I saw it, I thought I understood why she made the call. A Victorian-style chair in purple was placed against a black background, and had two eyes, a nose, and a slash for a mouth scratched into the picture, as though someone were defacing a photograph. I gulped, reminded myself to be grateful for being published by Scribner and set about selling the book as best I could. I accepted the cover as one of those things. Then, a friend showed it to her son, a successful graphic designer, and reported back that he really liked the cover—he thought it was very effective. Really? Well, who knew? After that I just hoped I’d run into a lot of designers who read mystery novels.

            Most of the time I pay little attention to the covers. I look at mine, at those of my friends, and forget the rest. But after reading Gordon’s comments I thought about some of the covers I really liked. In 1992 Ellen Nehr, who has since died, published the Doubleday Crime Club Compendium 1928-1991, a massive undertaking in which she included a selection of book covers. Most are unremarkable in design (the usually threatening male with a gun, skulls, dead bodies), but one in particular has stayed with me. The Needle’s Kiss by Austin J. Small appeared in 1929 with a cover of near perfect 1920s Art Deco design in blues and purples; the scene is of a man standing on a bridge smoking and another man fishing out a body floating in the river. Unfortunately, the cover also comes with the prejudices of its times. The headline “A hideous menace confronts the Thames River Police!” floats over the standing figure, who is wearing a green Mao-style jacket and smoking a cigarette, with the suggestion of Far Eastern features.

            Most of the covers Nehr included make much with little—two or three colors, usually black and white and another, red or green or blue—and do their best to create the fear and suspense the reader hopes to find in the story. I was also surprised to discover that I owned one of these—a battered copy of Marion Bramhall’s Murder Solves a Problem (1944).

            All of this leaves me still with the question of the importance of a cover. A good cover is a gift from the publishing gods, a bad cover is a curse, but the mediocre cover is just that—sort of neutral. I doubt anyone remembers Small’s book (well, okay, maybe Jon Breen or Jim Huang) or the cover, or the cover of my first book, and that’s a relief. This business is hard enough without starting to feel that everything is out of our control—the success or failure of something we’ve worked on for months, even years, at the mercy of a young designer trying to decide which bar to head to after work if he can just get this last cover done. No, I’d rather think that somewhere, someone will love each and every cover and we just have to find that person—and then hope he or she likes the story as well.