How bad book covers happen: the sordid truth

Needless to say, publishers, editors and cover designers want each cover to be a thing of beauty that will delight the author and sell enough copies to rebuild the Great Wall of China. A lot of work and passion goes into these. People really do try to get it right, and much of the time, they do. Nevertheless…

This is what the author wants:

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This is what Sales thinks will sell:

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This is the designer’s artistic vision:

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And this is what the budget allows:

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Keeping all these different needs and expectations in mind, you rough out a concept and design that really works for the book and balances author feedback, budget and editorial judgement… and then you take it to a committee of fifteen people.

Cover meeting

Editor: So this book is about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers. We’ve gone for a football with a swastika on it.

Marketing: The swastika looks Nazi.

Editor: It’s about Nazis.

Publicity: We don’t want it to look Nazi.

Editor: This isn’t a pro-Nazi book. If this book was any less pro-Nazi it would be Simon Wiesenthal. It’s about Nazis.

Marketing: It’s got a swastika on it. It looks Nazi. Do something else.

Second cover meeting

Editor: So this is the book about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers, again. We’ve gone for an old-fashioned footballing image with some barbed wire superimposed over it.

Marketing: That just doesn’t say ‘Second World War’ strongly enough. It needs some sort of iconic Second World War thing, some sort of image that sums up the period…

Designer [very quietly]: Like a swastika?

Publicity: I don’t like those football shorts, they look silly, and it’s very old-fashioned. Isn’t there a sexier image?

Sales: Oooh. Can we use modern footballers, and do a sort of Instagram photo treatment to make it look old?

Editor and designer, in chorus: NO.

High-up person: Why don’t we do a photoshoot with a modern footballer, like David Beckham, in Second World War gear?

Editor: Because you gave me a budget of £250.

Publicity: Let’s see some other options.

Fourth cover meeting

Editor, slumped in chair: It’s the Nazi football book again.

[Chorus of groans]

Designer: I’ve done nineteen alternative treatments this time. This one has a montage of searchlights and barbed wire, these ones have every photo of a 1940s footballer available for free off Shutterstock, this one is entirely typographic, this is Wayne Rooney photoshopped onto the trenches of Ypres –

Editor, through teeth: Wrong war.

Designer: This one is a picture of a rose for some symbolic reason that the editor told me about, this one is a football exploding when it’s shot, this is a bullet being kicked into a goal…

High-up person: I like the rose.

Sales [carefully]: I don’t think a rose says ‘Nazis playing football’.

Editor: It has a thematic meaning in the context of the book.

High-up person: We should have the rose.

[All salespeople glare at editor.]

Publicity: The rose is pretty. It would look great on the shelf.

Marketing, desperately: What if we use the rose but put a football behind it? And maybe barbed wire over the top?

[Editor slumps further down into chair. Designer bites back a sob.]

Author phone call

Editor: I know… yeah, yeah… well, the rose has a thematic meaning in the context – No. No. Well, that’s what the cover meeting said. Right. I’m sorry you feel that way.

One year later

Marketing: This book hasn’t sold at all. Why did we use a rose on the cover? Surely it should have been much simpler. Something like… a football with a swastika on it.

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Warning Signs You Might Be Living in a Book

I was heading into work this morning, down a busy London street, when I noticed the footprints of a giant cat (bigger than tiger size) splashed in white paint across the road. I looked up to note that the digital temperature display ahead of me was reading -93°. At this point a man walked past me with a huge hawk on his arm.

I think it’s fairly clear I’m about to be an urban fantasy heroine.

So, while I’m waiting to develop my magic powers and pre-planning my sassy put-downs, here are some other warning signs that you might be in a book.

Warning sign: You’re walking home at night after working late, alone, your heels sounding loud on the street. A tramp holds out a hand, mumbling a request for money.  You ignore him, hurrying past with thoughts of a glass of chardonnay with your lovely partner and kissing your sleeping child.

Book alert: You’re in the prologue to a serial killer book. You are not going to make it to chapter 1.

Warning sign: You are required to marry someone you’ve never met before in order to conclude a business deal or satisfy an elderly relative.

Book alert: Check your surroundings. If you’re in a boardroom, fictional Arab kingdom or luxurious Italian villa, this should work out very nicely. If you’re in unflinchingly realistic India or China, you’re screwed.

Warning sign: You are called any of the following (capitals required): the One, the Lost X, the Chosen X. You have a mysterious scar, brand or tattoo. You don’t know your real parents. A sword may be involved.

Book alert: This is going to take anywhere between three and seven volumes to sort out. Bring snacks.

Warning signs: A lawyer summons you to his dusty office to reveal that an unknown great-aunt has bequeathed you her isolated old house.

Book alert: If you’re under 12, this should be brilliant. Watch out for the invisible servants and don’t trust the butler. If you’re a single woman of marriageable age, brace for the incredibly handsome yet horribly sexist asshat of a neighbour. If you’re a novelist suffering from writer’s block, don’t go.

Warning sign: People address you by your name in every second remark they make to you. You take an inventory of your features every time you look in a mirror, instead of just checking for jam smears. You find yourself thinking of people as ‘the tough-talking yet kind-hearted Irishman’ instead of, eg, ‘Jim’. You like to do a critical assessment of the art and architecture of major European cities while running for your life through them.

Book alert: You’re in a thriller of the [Famous Arty Dead Person] [Mystery Word] type. If you just accept that the villain is your beloved elderly mentor, like the readers are screaming at you to do, we can all get through this a lot faster.

If you’re an overworked magician falling for a gorgeous tattooed nobleman, you’re probably in The Magpie Lord, out on 3 Sept. Comment here before 7pm GMT on 24 Aug to enter the draw for a free electronic copy!

Playing with the past: some thoughts on historical settings

Friend: I hate the Victorians. They never had sex.

My first book, The Magpie Lord, is set in Victorian England (with magic). So, obviously, is the sequel. My WIP is a country house adventure set just after Victoria finally popped her clogs. I’m plotting out a long alternate-Victorian fantasy now. What, you may well ask, is my thing about the nineteenth century?

Well, I love it. I’ve guest-blogged about why the Victorians aren’t nearly as boring as they’re cracked up to be (widespread drug abuse, sex toys, eyewatering spiky devices…).  But, as well as being fascinating in itself, the era’s a boon for authors, which in turn makes it fun for readers.

Secrets and sex. Because if there’s one thing that’ll give you a plot, it’s secrets.  And if there’s one thing that people actually did in Victorian times – constantly, in private and public, in the weirdest combinations, and in a world bound around by social and legal restrictions of class and gender and sexuality, repression, secrecy and double standards – it was have sex. Check out My Secret Life, the eleven-volume pornographic diary of a man who could really have used some time in therapy or, preferably, prison. Much more enjoyably, try Sins of the Cities of the Plain, the classic gay erotica work (which includes fan fiction based on the real-life notorious Fanny and Stella sex scandal). Prepare to be surprised.

Grotesque social contrasts. The seething, filthy poverty of the darkest rookeries, the glittering jewels and swishing dresses of the balls. It invites melodrama at its finest.

A world of possibility. Just imagine for a moment what it was like to live in a period of accelerating change that makes ours look comprehensible. From horse and carriage to the London Underground in a handful of years. The invention of electric light, telegrams and telephones. The concept of evolution turning everything you ever knew on its head. Medicine triumphing over disease and pain. Of course this was when science fiction took off: the Victorians were living it. The world seethed with wonderful new ideas, the sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic, and anything seemed possible. This is why steampunk is Victorian: the explosive sense of the period that technology could, quite suddenly, do anything at all.

What I’m getting at is, my friend’s an idiot the Victorian era is not all top hats and the duller sort of corset, and you’re missing a trick if you think it is. It’s a wild blend of restrictions and indulgence, mysteries and possibilities, repressive laws and social change and the death of old certainties. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a hell of a place to visit.

The Magpie Lord is out 3 September. If you’re reading this before 24 August, go here and comment for a chance to win a free electronic copy. If you’re reading this after 24 August then either I forgot to take this paragraph down, or you’re a time traveller and should hop off to 1860 forthwith.

Promo post and free book giveaway

This one is all about my book! Which can now be yours! Before it’s even published!

The Magpie Lord is released on 3 September. I am very, very excited. So, here’s a free ebook giveaway. Please just leave a comment below and include your email and I’ll pick the winner at random on 24 August.

I love the stunning cover by Lou Harper:

MagpieLord-The

If you want to know what you’re getting into:

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude…and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.

I’ve already had a couple of reviews, a lovely one from the Fresh Fiction blog and this from Publisher’s Weekly:

Charles begins a new gay Victorian fantasy series with this short but colorful novel. Lord Crane suffers from suicidal impulses resulting from a supernatural curse. He hires magical practitioner Stephen Day, who solves the immediate problem but identifies a more dire threat against Crane. Sexual tension between the two men is sizzling, yet subordinate to Charles’s clever dialogue (“I never met anyone who didn’t want to die as much as you don’t”) and imaginatively creepy magic.

Which is nice.

More info at the publisher website, where you can order it if the uncertainty about winning is too unbearable.

  • To enter, leave a comment stating that you are entering the contest. Contest closes 7 pm GMT on 24 August 2013.
  • By entering the contest, you’re confirming that you are at least 18 years old.
  • Winners will be selected by random number.
  • You must leave a valid email address in the “Email” portion of the comment form.
  • If you win, please respect my intellectual property and don’t make copies of the ebook for anyone else.
  • This contest is open worldwide, ebooks are available in the usual formats (epub, mobi etc).

My Manifesto for Global Book Dictatorship

I would like to submit my candidacy for Global Book Dictator, with full responsibility for all book-related matters everywhere. Here’s what you can expect from my ruthlessly autocratic regime.

The following will be instantly banned

  • Rubberized covers. The ones that make your fingertips feel weird, like the book is wearing a condom.
  • The use of the following in sex scenes: rod, nubbin, turgid, pebbled, intimate fold, rosebud. The use of ‘turgid’ anywhere at any time.
  • Fantasy book covers with the woman managing to showcase both her bum and her breasts to the viewer. (If you haven’t read Jim C Hines on this, do so.)

tits ass

If you want to try this position, I accept no responsibility for subsequent physiotherapy costs.

  • Snide remarks about publishers or authors “just trying to make money”, like that’s a weird thing for businesses and self-employed people to do.
  • Pink or blue on the covers of children’s books. The use of ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ ditto. In fact, any gendering of children’s books whatsoever.

The following will be placed under a three-year moratorium to see what happens if we have to do something else

  • Books about shifters. There is now a werehedgehog romance out there. The madness must end.
  • The Regency period. I love a good Regency romance but there are now more fictional Regency couples than there were people alive in England at the time.
  • Novels about writers writing or failing to write novels. Novels by graduates of writing courses about being on writing courses. Novels by literary people who went to Oxbridge about… etc. Yes, they say write about what you know, but damn.

The following will be strongly encouraged, possibly with government grants

  • Three hours of free editorial advice for everyone writing their first novel, as long as they commit to putting the damn thing in a bottom drawer without asking anyone else to read it, and writing another book instead.
  • Either all interviews will comment on the author’s physical appearance and include a sultry picture, or none will. I’m leaning towards ‘all’ because I’d like to see George RR Martin forced to pout sexily by a lake, but I’d be happy with ‘none’ and never reading a journalist’s assessment of a female author’s body again.
  • The return of double covers with die cut, so you have a hole through which you see the picture on the next page, 1980s horror novel style. I want these for all genres, including literary fiction and economics textbooks.

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Just look how cool this is.

Vote for me as Global Book Dictator!

Anything to add to the manifesto? Comment away…