Sunday, 26 February 2012

Go Ahead, Judge a Book by Its Cover

Wayne Simmons
Check out the cover art for Wayne Simmons' new novel Fever.  It is brilliant and, importantly, instantly recognisable for what it is:  a horror novel and follow-up to his carcass-shredding masterpiece, Flu.  It appears so effortlessly representative of the subject matter—gut-ripping zombie invasion of Nor'n Ireland spurred on by a virus so lethal it makes my man flu look like…well, man flu—but it is the end result of hours of professional, hard-graft creative work from cover designer and publisher Emma Barnes at Snowbooks.  I know something of what I speak here as Emma's work adorns the cover of my recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010). 
Give Me Fever
            When Mercier bought my novel I was told--it was in the contract, if I remember correctly--that I would have some ‘input’ into the cover.  I thought this would be a good thing and that I would have much to add.  It was, after all, my novel.  Who knew it better than I did?  Who better to guide the hand holding the (bloody) paintbrush or mouse?  (Computer mouse!)  More fool me.  I wasn’t aware at the time that Mercier contracted Emma at Snowbooks for the job.
            Some months later, after corrections, re-drafts and galleys, an email arrived bearing the draft cover for Peeler.  This would be the first time I saw a visual representation of my work.  This would be the painted face to the corpus of my words, the image by which anyone (please God) who stopped to think of my work for even a second would remember it by.
          And what I saw was good.  But Mercier had asked for my opinion and by God I was going to give it.  Too much blood, I thought.  Though I was as aware as any writer of the importance of a book’s cover and its relation to sales, and that as a crime novel Peeler needed to be seen as such from one look at the cover, I was concerned that the cover made the book look like something it was not.  It is a (hopefully) serious historical crime novel; it is not a serial killer/slasher type of book, not that I'm in any way against such a thing.  The brutal murder that sets my novel in motion happens off-stage.  There is bloody violence in the book; it is intended to be brutal and sudden and shocking, like violence tends to be in real life.  But does this cover, I asked myself, present the image of Peeler that I want? 
Too much blood?  Not by half?
            Thus I asked Mercier if it would be possible to tone down the splattered claret.  'Ummm, sure,' they said.  'We’ll get right on it.'
            All of which is to say, they shouldn’t have bothered asking me in the first place.  I know nothing about marketing books nor do I have any knowledge of which colours attract a book buyer’s eye and why or why not.  I think Emma might have toned down the blood splatter somewhat but I’m not actually certain she did.  Mercier might have said, ‘Hey, Emma Barnes is a pro.  This is a great cover and will sell books.  Ignore him.  He’s a writer.  Let him stick to writing…’ And they would have been right to do so.
            This came to me some months later when I was asked to go to Mercier’s distribution warehouse out in Sandyford Industrial Estate to sign a stack of books for shops.  While there, I got chatting to the distribution manager, a great guy whose name I can’t for the life of me remember.  I asked him how he thought the book was selling.  ‘Great,’ he said.  ‘We’ve had a good few re-orders and Eason’s have upped theirs.  The cover, apparently, is selling it.  According to the shops, buyers are picking it up, checking out the cover and heading to the tills.’
            Wayne, no doubt, will have the same experience with Fever. The moral of the story: listen to the writer when it comes to writing.  For all else, there’s someone like Emma Barnes who really knows what she’s doing. 
            And good luck to Wayne with Fever.  I haven’t read it yet but it looks great and if it’s half the book Flu is, he’s onto a winner.