Friday, October 21, 2011

Cover art and book design

The look of a book. The feel of a book. What draws you to a book?

I came into publishing after being a film-maker. It’s inconceivable a film would come out without careful thought about its image. The image has to tell you so much: expected audience, whether you might enjoy that type of product. It’s meant to excite and seduce.

Image and look should all head in one direction.

So it seemed unbelievable that as an author I was meant to have nothing at all to do with the look of a book I had written.

In my first contract I stipulated I had creative control of the cover. (At the time - prima donna that I was - I had no idea how rare this was.)

Over time this changed into ‘consultation with the publishing company’...

Thus adventures in the book trade and my journey working with contemporary artists to craft a beautiful book cover.

It began with my first book of short stories, Dangerous Desires. I worked with photographer Deborah Smith who created an evocative double focus image of fruit and classical male statuary. I liked the richness of the image. At this stage I wasn’t so conversant with typography and other aspects of book design. But in terms of the New Zealand book market at the time it was a stand out.

I’ll include here, for interest’s sake, the British cover (Minerva) which I think telegraphs in a much more competitive market its target audience.

The American hardback, interestingly, is the least successful in my view. It is a depressing image and to me always looks like a man crawling along in the dirty murk of a gay sauna. Hardly an uplifting image. 

Interestingly this was the second choice cover. The initial cover was much more pleasing but for whatever reason Dawn Sefarian at Penguin with whom I was working, imperially decreed that the murky cover be chosen.

I always see it as a lost opportunity, especially as the typeface and the paper quality had that characteristic American chaste excellence which New Zealand publications hardly ever match. 

My second book of short stories had a cover image specifically made by photographer Fiona Pardington. At this stage she was very interested in the aroma of sex, I guess you would call it. I can’t recall that I asked for that specific image. Fiona read the book and came up with the image herself, from memory.

(Both Fiona and Deborah Smith were people I knew at the time.)

The two young men on the cover were shocked that they were so easily identifiable. I paid Fiona a fee over what the publisher would pay, but the fee was still much less than she would normally charge. Publishers always cry poor. 

But all my carefully laid plans for this book went awry when I got the first copy. The publisher Reed had printed the book on cheap paper which has very quickly gone from white to yellow to that particularly unpleasant nicotine orange. It was a real disappointment. 

The British version of the book came out with an evocative image. But once again, that curious choice of ‘brown’. Given brown’s negative association with male homosexuality, I wonder if somebody’s subsconscious was in play? I still like the image however. The cute boy in the image reminds me of a character in one of the short stories.

The next cover was one crafted by myself and Rex Pilgrim. It wasn’t a contemporary photographer this time. The photograph was taken in the Edwardian period by Henry Winkelmann, best known for his magnificently breezy yacht photos. 

Privately he was homosexual and he took some extremely rare photographs of men on boats who were physically intimate. The photo was of two men tenderly kissing (one of the men being a Horton of the one-time newspaper owning dynasty.)

The Auckland Museum who owned the image refused to give permission for the photograph to be used. It was an act of censorship. Somewhat incredibly we went ahead anyway, and the publishers backed us up. (Thank you Reed for your courage there.)

It is still a hauntingly beautiful image and the book quickly became a collector’s item.

Jump forward now to my last novel, Lucky Bastard with Random House New Zealand. I was very lucky to have Martin Poppelwell create the image. (Once again, Martin was a friend.) It is a rich looking cover, sympathetic to the contents. In its own way it is like a mysterious Japanese box...

(By this time possible book covers were being vetted by main street stores which sold the book. ‘Would a book like this sell?’ I was fortunate in that some overseas books had parallel covers in terms of complex imagry. Otherwise no dice.)

The author is usually the last person to be consulted. This is a reflection of an inverted power structure. The writer who does the writing is the least powerful person in the equation.

I wonder if many people know that the author who writes the book gets slightly less than the GST on the book. Everything else goes to publishers and retailers. 

As Julian Barnes presciently said in his acceptance speech for the 2011 Booker (and a line which I noted all newspapers in NZ edited out) that the book will only survive as a physical object if it gives pleasure to the eye and to touch, as well as the mind.

My current book cover came about through different circumstances. 

The Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery commissioned contemporary artist Gavin Hurley to do a new portrait of William Colenso, the subject of my book. The current image on the book cover was an early version. The moment I saw it I loved it and saw its potential. (And once again I was lucky in that I knew Gavin. I don’t know how difficult negotiations would be if you didn’t know the artist. Or if the artist didn't know and to a degree trust the quality of your work.)

“The Hungry Heart’ published by Random House New Zealand is an updating of the story of maverick William Colenso. A completely contemporary fresh image messages this. 

Alan Deare, from Area Design, has shaped the product. He created the very beautiful spine motif - which is actually from kowhaiwhai sketched in the 1840s by the Reverend William Cotton. It glistens like just-wet black ink. The colourings are pleasant, cool in both senses of the word. And the fact the book is a hardback gives the book-as-object gravitas. 

I'm tickled pink.


Producing a book is a conversation. First of all, in your own head, as you write it, then as the book merges into the river of a publishing company, many other voices emerge. As a writer you have to keep a very clear sense of your own voice or you risk the book, like a boat, suddenly whirring off down onto another whole channel and being grounded on a shore you no longer recognise....

As for the cover image, as an author, it is something you live with for a long its own way it is permanent as a tattoo. And like a tattoo you want it to be...perfect.


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