If you want to hear hollow laughter, ask an author if they like their covers.
There is almost no topic in publishing more contentious. If I only had a pound for every author I’ve spoken to who thought their book was misrepresented I wouldn’t actually need to sell any books. The covers are nothing like the story, too literary or not literary enough, too muted, too generic, too much like that one that came out last year, but mostly, among my female writer friends, too PINK.
Publishers, in turn, suggest diplomatically to authors that their ideas are all very well, but these things actually need to sell. They need to sell in supermarkets, and big chainstores, where the in-house book buyers may have quite firm ideas how to shift books. Ideas that probably differ quite a lot from the author’s. Ideas that might comprise a fair bit of pink.
One of the most fascinating things about seeing your books translated into other languages is watching the way those countries treat the covers. My Italian ones are so beautiful that frankly I couldn’t care less if they are nothing to do with the contents. My Portuguese ones are tied with scarlet ribbons, my Brazilian ones lush and dreamy; my French ones make me look like John Paul Sartre.
But in the English language I often struggle, and it’s partly my own fault. In a world where brand matters, I write a completely different book every time. I am that author who causes brand managers to sink their heads into their hands. If the covers of my ouevre (I love that word) lack a certain coherence, it’s because so does my subject matter.
It’s hard to make a book about war brides in World War Two look like a book about a girl in an inner city stable yard, or a book about illicit love affairs in 1960 look like one about the right to die (coming in January!). What links my eight published books is a certain level of emotion – and that’s pretty hard to represent on a cover. I’m sometimes tempted just to suggest scrawling on them “Yup, this will probably make you cry”. Because that’s about an accurate picture as I can sum up of the content of most of them.
So when Pam Dorman Books, my US publishers, sent over the cover for the American edition of The Last Letter From Your Lover (on the home page of this website), something astonishing happened. I found myself staring at a cover that I really loved. One that was not just beautiful, but one that represented everything I wanted to say about the book. It had two characters who looked like Jennifer and Boot – really, scarily so, like they had just leapt out of my head; it had a lovely period shot of London; it had a mood that was evocative, and elegant, and romantic. If I could have invented my perfect cover, this would pretty much have been it.
In short, it looked like the kind of book I would pick up.
Other authors will tell you how rare this is, which is why I felt the need to remark upon it. The interesting thing now is to see whether it performs the other vital task required of a cover – and makes readers pick it up. I have two weeks till US publication to ponder that one… In the meantime, do you judge a book by its cover?