It should be one of the best days of the year: when you first see the cover for your new book. The package that people have been working on for months, just out of view, to make sure that your story gets the best possible advantage on the shelf, designed to woo Your Reader over and entice them to lay on hands (and lay out cash).
And then it comes and you open the envelope, or click the file and you think…
”Oh my God the cover is AWFUL! And dear God, who wrote this copy? The copy is ALL WRONG! ”
Sometimes – in fact, most times – it’s really not that bad. It may not be the way you envisioned the character [Jerzy, in FLESH AND FIRE, was supposed to be a scrawny Low Steppes redhead, but the artist didn’t like to paint redheads. Or apparently, scrawny kids], but that alone doesn’t make it a bad cover.
Or, more to the point, it doesn’t make it a useless cover. Some of the most commercially viable covers have been ones I personally disliked… but sold the book effectively.
Therefore, my first piece of advice – my most important piece of advice – is that you remember the cover is a sales piece, not an illustration. So put aside whatever you had hoped for, and look at the cover as dispassionately as you can.
1. Does the cover catch the eye?
2. Is the image clear to the reader, so that the type of book (romance, SF, historical) is apparent?
3. Is it technically accurate? (the right number of limbs on the characters, the correct type of weaponry or backdrop, not smaller details like hair color or specific clothing)
4. Does the copy convey the feel of the book, without giving away plot details or spoilers?
5. Is your name spelled right?
If those five things are met, stand down a little. It may not be the cover you wanted, but you don’t have enough ammo to storm the publishers office [not and win, anyway]
If, on the other hand, your Epic Fantasy Hero is holding a weapon that is clearly of the wrong era/style, your PI is a white male instead of an Asian, your romance heroine has three arms* or the copy gives away the whodunit in the first line- then it’s time to contact your editor.
However, here is where you need to remember three things.
1. The package is NOT your book.
2. Your editor is on your side.
3. This is a business relationship.
The right way to handle this – the way that is likely to get any possible changes made – is to call directly, and say “yea, I got it, x and y are great, but is there time to make a couple of changes? Because….”
If you’re looking at a cover flat, it’s highly unlikely that the art can be changed significantly. Copy, however, can still be fixed without much fuss.
If you’ve been sent a preliminary sketch, there’s still time for errors to be corrected. But be polite, and remember that your editor is your ally, not your adversary. Give her the best argument you can come up with why it should be changed, so that she in turn can walk it down to the hall to the publisher and make the argument to the person who has to okay the expense. Because it is an expense, and that’s how the publisher will see it.
If they make the changes, remember to say thank you not only to your editor, but to the folk who made it happen. If it isn’t changed, or you’re still not happy, say so, in writing, to your agent and editor, and request that you be allowed to see the preliminary sketches earlier next time, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again**. If you’ve established that you can retain a professional tone, they are that much more likely to agree.
And during your next contract negotiation, try for cover consult. “Consult” doesn’t mean that they’ll listen – but you will get a say.
So, writers – do you have a packaging horror story? How did it turn out?
*yes, that happened once. Apparently the artist’s model changed positions and the sketched-in arm didn’t get entirely erased. VERY embarrassing for all concerned
**if you’re not already seeing the copy before it’s finalized: ask. Generally that’s the easiest thing to get a finger on
Coming up in Week 12: Refilling the (creative/emotional/physical) Well.
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.