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The Author's role in Cover Design: Active or Passive?
Judging from the content of their critically-acclaimed first novels (existential quest on the one hand, crime noir on the other), one might think it odd that Alan Warner and Jason Starr would appear in the same article - ah! but not so if we are talking about the covers that surround the content. There are some interesting similarities between the two books: both titles are made up of two words with the second being almost identical - Movern Callar and Cold Caller; both the covers of the UK release featured a single person looking cold and wet; both covers have a similar layout with title, author's name, etc. below the picture. Of interest here though is not the immediate similarity in visuals but the authors' differing attitude towards the say and control of their bookcovers: Warner wanted, and now gets, total artistic control on his covers (see: Bookcovers 2 ), but Starr sees it all very differently:
"Basically, I think that unless a writer has a very good reason for hating a cover he or she should leave the cover decisions to the publisher who knows their own market. And if you're a first novelist it's definitely not a good idea to interfere. I wasn't consulted for any input and I didn't really think I needed to be consulted. Anything I had to say would probably have only confused the artist and it would probably have been irrelevant anyway. I think that a cover is just one interpretation of a book, just like a music video is one interpretation of a song. The cover is designed to sell the book, not necessarily represent the exact vision of the book that I had while I was writing it." Not that an exact image was on his mind at the time: "As Cold Caller was my first novel my primary concern was writing a book that was sellable."
I had read the advance copy of the novel in a simple white dust cover and when a rough of the intended UK cover came up on the Internet in The Richmond Review some time prior to publication, I was impressed but rather surprised at the stark, brutal image. Starr was extremely happy when he was shown a proof copy. "I thought it was a striking, arresting image that appealed to the darker, horror elements of Cold Caller." When Starr visited London to promote the launch he met the photographer, Tim Simmons, a commercial photographer who does ad campaigns for companies like Nike. Simmons told him the photo used for Cold Caller was that of a friend of his taken underwater with some experimental colouring process added later.
"I knew that No Exit was planning to market the book as a dark suspense novel and I thought that the somewhat frightening image would fit well for this. But even if I hadn't liked the cover I would have given No Exit the benefit of the doubt. I'm not a cover designer and even if I were a cover designer I don't think it would be my business to get involved . The publisher is investing the money to publish and promote the book and as a writer I have to trust that they will choose the best image possible to appeal to their market. I think this is especially true for foreign markets. I might think a cover for a Spanish edition looks hideous, but what makes me an expert on Spanish book covers? Maybe the Spanish cover would do great in that market."
It was the marketing strategy across the pond that was influential in the American cover's design and in the possible creation of a whole new genre. In the early version of the the menacing UK cover, the words "A Psychological Thriller," appealing to the darker, horror elements of the book, put Cold Caller squarely in the crime market. The US decided to market the book somewhat differently. Says Starr: "my editor appended the term 'A White Collar Noir' to go with the strategy of marketing the book as 'Jim Thompson with an MBA'." To visually portray this, for those with black and white monitors, the cover is a photo of a yuppie in shirt and tie, with bright pinks and oranges that echoes the colours used on noir/pulp novels of the 40s and 50s combined with a 90ish typeface that also echoes bright colours used in today's rave/club culture. The triangle design holding the title worried me at first, but a certain claustrophobic feel comes across when you see that it forms a corner of a room where the man is being backed into -- which, incidentally, nicely sums up elements of the novel.
But does a novel's cover really need to change? Album sleeves are international and don't seem to need much, if any, change or cultural tweaking and the artists become well known with 'coffee table' books and posters made of their works (Roger Dean from the 70s springs to mind). So why the different approach, the cultural sensitivity, with bookcovers? Jason Starr offers some answers: "Perhaps it's because music is an international medium, with no cultural barriers, whereas books always have to overcome the barrier of the language in which they are written. When a book is published in another language it needs to be translated so it seems fitting that the image that represented the book might need to be translated as well. But since music doesn't change its form when it's marketed to other cultures, then the album covers don't have to change either. Also, I think most bands are much more concerned about their "image" than writers are (I think in many bands, such as The Spice Girls, image is more important than music) so a particular band might be more inclined to "fight for" a cover design that they think represents their work than a writer should. I don't think even Steven King (who I'm sure has a lot of say in his cover designs) would say that the image of his work is as important to him as his writing."
I was about to mention that Cold Caller didn't need translating from the UK to the US, then answered my own question: culture and language go hand in hand and the UK and the US are without doubt very different culturally. Even though we appear to be speaking the same language at some point it will need "translating." A very quick example: 7.4.98. To an American that's Independence Day, but to a Brit and the rest of Europe it's the 7th of April - hell of a difference. And with translation, as Jason Starr argues, comes the right, if not a certain necessity, to change elements of the cover, or the whole cover, to attract that culture's book buyers.
Jason Starr is lucky. His first novel came out in two countries with covers and
marketing strategies that he liked. In my opinion both Norton and No Exit have done well
and given some thought on how to target the market for a new author. As a reader and book
buyer I think both covers work and without doubt I would be intrigued by any book that had
"A White Collar Noir" on the blurb -- remember: when someone picks up a book in
a store some element has attracted them and the author is one step closer to a sale. As
the novel is being marketed in different ways, it would be wrong to try and compare
covers, but if compared in terms of relation to the contents, the US cover with the
telephone headphones and the being-backed-into-a-corner motif comes closest to a literal
reading, though I personally wouldn't have made the man so afraid. Still, if pushed, and
call it cultural bias - I am English - the balance for me tips towards the dark and
arresting UK cover.
© 1998 The Barcelona Review
Blurb comes of Age.
Those wonderful notes on the back of books that seem to have one of two functions [1) To give away the plot, or 2) get it so wrong it could be a different book] came of age with the recent release of Laura Hird's short story collection. The blurb for Nail and Other Stories seems at first to head down familiar territory "...a dark and disturbing collection"... we even have the cliche.. "a roller coaster ride" but that is instantly followed by "...into the heads of the ordinary, fucked-up citizens of normality..." Deep Joy.
Most UK newspapers, even weekly rock magazines write f____ and Time magazine had b___j___ for presidential sexual favourites, so publisher Rebel Inc. (Canongate) by using the f-word on a bookcover blurb strikes a b___ for some kind of freedom.
Routes, from Nails and Other Stories, appears in this issue of The Barcelona Review
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