I have a long history of heartbreaking book covers. I’m optimistic the heartbreak is now over because my publishers have come up with something rather fabulous for the book I’m currently finishing – I’ll unveil it very soon – but the subject of cover design is still guaranteed to get me going. That’s why I was very interested to read about Polly Courtney.
Polly is published by Harper Collins, but not for much longer. Yesterday, at the launch of her new novel, she told them goodbye. She can’t take any more of the fluffy, frivolous way they market her books. Well! Go, Polly, go! This caused me a twinge of regret because I had one of those moments with HC years ago. The difference is I didn’t have the nerve to walk. Here’s what happened.
I had had quite a commercial success with The Future Homemakers of America, packaged in what was then a fresh new look: a hand-coloured Thirties photo of four girls on a beach. Blue skies, golden sands. It was taken at Blackpool, though you’d never guess it. The trouble with a successful package is that publishers feel they have to repeat it. I should have understood this. My next novel, The Unfortunates, was set in Manhattan, Paris and rural England, but I was destined to get another cover with sand dunes and a blue sky. Obviously.
Actually, the dunes were the least of my objections. I asked why there were three women in the picture. They said it was a feelgood image. Fun, friendship, sand between your toes, you know? I pointed out that The Unfortunates is about a woman who doesn’t have any women friends. Not one. She doesn’t even like her sister. Well, they said, a cover didn’t need to be too plonkingly literal and anyway, everyone at Harper loved the design (subtext, even if you don’t, you miserable, clueless writer person) and it was just sure to fly off the shelves. The very words used to try and mollify Polly Courtney. Fly off the shelves. I hope it will be truer for her than it was for me. My guess is this exquisitely timed public spat will do more for her sales than the dumb jacket.
The Unfortunates wasn’t my worst cover but it’s up there. Readers have often complained to me about the look of my books and been amazed to learn that an author has very little influence over the way she’s marketed. In the business there’s a perception that designers are hip and innovative and writers are sadsack hermits who don’t know a pig’s patootie about image. But au contraire. The most cursory inspection of a book store reveals that designers are herd animals. Pastels for one, pastels for all.
Sometimes though, a good thing comes along. Like the design for the Bulgarian edition of Life According to Lubka. Bulgaria, as we all know, is still hauling itself out of the ruins of Communism and is so many years behind the times their book designers, poor things, don’t know they should be using pastels and little Fifties-style stick figures. That’s how they managed to come up with this perfect image for a story about a cocaine-sniffing train wreck.