Several years ago my ‘portfolio career’ led me by chance to become an illustrator. This wasn’t such a leap, given that I had trained at Central St Martins and worked as a textile designer. I went on to become an illustrator, with an agent, a portfolio and various commissions from illustrating recipe of the day for the evening newspaper, City Limits; À la Carte; the cover for a feminist education journal (whose title escapes me) an album cover, the stars for Woman’s Journal (all twelve months – very handy fiscally) manufacturers and the occasional book jacket. Then I moved away from London, in the days prior to the Internet and sending images down the line, biking my work to the likes of IPC became impossible so I altered career tack once again.
In issue 63 of Mslexia there is a very interesting article by Debbie Taylor about the process and similarity to others of the cover design for her novel Herring Girl. Those who don’t write often assume that the author has some say over the cover that a publisher commissions for their work. Taylor states ‘…the subtext of Porter’s email came through loud and clear: “We’re committed to this image. Please don’t make a fuss.” And when pressed. “we prefer not to have an author’s input in the early stages.” My own thought being that by the time you reach the latter stages it will be too late.
What I have noticed, with dismay, is the parlous state of cover design. If you scan the supermarket shelves, where many book buyers source their reading material, you will be met with a depressing row of generic covers. Taylor’s article goes on to show cover clichés (and they are legion), for a novel set in Africa, and here she shows seven examples, you get an enormous yellow sun — usually setting, so lots of red — a tree, and occasionally a lone figure in shadow. Certain covers denote genre and allude to the novels of other successful books such as Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life, this particular look Taylor states denotes “Literary, commercial historical.” Fonts also express genre, historical fiction has complex font, lots of loops and medieval looking flicks; here we are in quill pen land. Taylor goes on to list ten cover clichés, here are two: faceless woman (headless, averted from behind) = literary, for female. Woman, legs only, bright pastels = contemporary romance; or what you and I would call Chick Lit. Of course what lies behind this plethora of lazy mediocrity are sales. Publishing is a business not a charity and books are a commodity and marketing departments have cleverly trained the book buying public to know a genre immediately through the image on the cover.
I find this lack of design choice immensely depressing, especially when you think back to the nineteen eighties, something of a heyday for innovative cover design by talented illustrators like Griselda Holderness and Chole Cheese, who has a wonderful illustration for Cheknov on her website www.cholecheese.co.uk Occasionally there is a glimmer of hope as small imprints and even sometimes larger publishing houses commission an illustrator who has made a name for themselves as an artist or printmaker, I’m thinking here of the nature inspired prints of Mark Hearld (Gods Own Country by Ross Raisin) and Angie Lewin (Salt by Jeremy Page.) Dan Mogford designed the cover for The Book of Silence by Sara Maitland which is beautiful in its simplicity, textured and with inverted commas indented, it is restrained and perfectly matched to the content.
Hope lies with self–published authors, small indie publishers and competitions. East Anglian Writers have sponsored a competition The Book By the Cover for the best cover design to be voted on by its members from the books shortlisted for the annual East Anglian Book Awards http://www.edp24.co.uk/east_anglian_book_awards_2014_2_17469
Also take a look at www.hilarycustancegreen.com and the alternative covers for her novel Borderline, the second (the result of a competition) with the figure, is beautifully resolved and intriguing. I got to redesign my e-book cover for Gene Genie— given how important it is to have a clear image when it will be so small — I am pleased that the refreshed design met that brief.
My Word of Mouth recommended read for November is:
Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson published by Sort Of Books. London.
An idiosyncratic, magical memoir. Also a beautiful book to hold, with photographs of the author, her family and her childhood — with a bright red cloth spine — great design.