Friday, May 6, 2011

Novels Covers & Answering the Question: 'What's it about?'

'What's it about?'
Last post, I wrote about drafting a back cover blurb for my forthcoming fantasy novel, The Light Heart of Stone. The funny thing about back cover blurbs is that they tend to talk up a couple of opening incidents in the book, but don't really tell you what the story is all about.

When a friend posted that exact question, 'What's it about?' I opened up my files to cut and paste my existing synopsis, but found I didn't like it at all. I'm hoping this new version is does my story justice:

The Light Heart of Stone is a fantasy novel set in a speculative world and tells the story of the Stone Body, a continent on which plants and animals need human companions in order to thrive.

For more than one thousand years, the Companionaris and the Indidjinies have lived side-by-side on the Stone Body. The colonising Companionaris control the talent for growing plants and breeding animals. The colonised Indidjinies own the land. And so, it would seem, some sort of balance has been achieved. But what balance there is, is about to be shattered.

The story opens at a time when the companionship system is failing and vast areas of land have become barren, causing localised famine and fracturing relations between the two peoples. Crisis looms when someone begins murdering Indidjinies in a ruthless attempt to generate a renaissance of the companionship prowess.

There are three heroes in the novel. The youngest is an Indidjiny girl named Fox who is forcibly adopted into a Companionari family. The next, an Indidjiny rebel named Mica, believes he can hear the desires of stones and can find the meaning of events in the Indidjiny story-telling rituals. The last, the Oak Companion, heads the family that controls the continent's oak and cork trees.

These three overcome traditional enmities and personal wounds to uncover the killings. Together, they discover an old form of magic that has the potential to avert disaster and will certainly reshape relations between the Indidjinies and the Companionaris.

The speculative themes in The Light Heart of Stone reflect a number of contemporary Australian concerns, including the inherent risk of relying on finite resources for prosperity, the precarious nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations, the possibility of revisiting historical narratives, the risks to agriculture posed by genetically modified flora and fauna, and the vulnerability of Australia's fragile biota.

Novel Covers
I've been incredibly lucky to have skilled help with some of the more specialised tasks that all self-publishers need to do. Helen Hunter has been working on the copy edit of my manuscript and Michele Winsor has been designing a cover for me. 

I suspect that getting the right cover is one of the most important tasks in publishing. If you are browsing in a bookstore, a good cover will prompt you to read the back cover blurb, which should then prompt you to buy the book. For a self-publisher like me, it can signal the difference between vanity publishing and commercial self-publishing. What's the difference between the two? Having readers and not having readers. In an interview with ABC's Jennifer Byrne, Lee Child said of any book, 'First it's written, then it's read, then it exists.' I agree. So, being read is incredibly important to me.

When Michele offered to help me with my cover, I decided to do some research so that I wouldn't waste her time being unclear about what I was after. I began the process by thinking about the work a book cover has to do.

The cover needs to attract your attention, tell you about the genre, and indicate whether the book is literary fiction or commercial fiction. It should also appeal the right age group and stand out from the crowd - without being unrecognisably avant garde. And if the book is going to be offered for sale as an e-book, the cover will need to be able to be 'read' as a black and white thumbnail on the small screen of a reader.

I began by looking at the books on my shelves, looking at my favourite novels and paying particular attention to the ones I'd first discovered because of their covers. I realised that my taste in art influences my reaction to covers and that I hate the awful covers many fantasy novels seem to have even though I'm a dedicated fantasy reader. Unfortunately, lots of fantasy novel covers are turgid, overdrawn, corny, and embarrassingly dramatic. There are too many long-haired warriors and maidens in misty, classical scenes. I knew I didn't want that sort of cover art, but I needed to be careful to ensure that fantasy readers would recognise my book as fantasy.

Next, I visited some book stores and talked with booksellers about covers.

There was the usual awful overwrought artwork in the fantasy/sci-fi section, but the shelves were also full of Eclipse look-alikes: black backgrounds with bright coloured text and bold, eye-catching images. The bookseller told me that bookstores hate these black background covers that have been so popular in the past few years. Apparently, large black areas print badly and damage easily and customers don't want to buy blemished books. No black backgrounds then...

The bookseller then showed some new editions of the Harry Potter and Eclipse series that had stark white backgrounds with bold and colourful cover art. The covers looked good, but we speculated that this stark whiter-than-white look could be dated by the time my novel was released.

Soon after my bookstore visits, Michele and I sat down and talked about covers, showing each other books we liked. I'm incredibly lucky that Michele and I have similar taste in covers and that Michele has read The Light Heart of Stone and loves the story - even though she isn't usually a fantasy reader. A shared understanding and sensibility meant that we also shared a language when talking about how to represent the characters and drama.

We decided to begin by focusing on some of the themes and imagery from the story and narrowed this down to: rocks and stones, handwork (sewing and embroidery), agriculture, oak and cork trees, and a fox (to represent one of the main characters who is named Fox).

There was one other aspect of book cover design I discussed with Michele: the size and position of my name. Last year, website designer Patrick Bonello suggested I watch Best Sellers and Blockbusters, an interview by Jennifer Byrne with a number of best-selling authors: Bryce Courtenay, Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey and Lee Child. I was impressed with those writers' unabashed and serious approach to their commercial image. I decided then, that I would emulate their cover presentation by featuring my name as though my name was something to be proud of. I wanted to convey that I was willing to own my work - for good or for bad.

These are Michele's first draft designs, which feature the original novel title, which was The Oak Companion:
Concept 1 - Hiding a rock behind a lace handkerchief

Option 2 - Variation on Option 1

Option 3 - An oak tree on a stony ground

Option 4 - A fox in front of an oak tree

Option 5 - a darker version of Option 4

Option 6 - The sewing and embroidery theme

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