Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for a Cover

Covers can kill – novels, that is. Nothing, studies have shown, is more influential in enticing a potential buyer browsing in a bookstore to pick up a book than an “attractive” cover – and nothing is more likely to put a potential reader off than a “bad” one. A good cover will attract readers that would never look for the book based on subject, title or author, and a bad cover will make the very people who would love a particular book scorn it. Covers matter!

But being “attractive” isn’t enough. A cover that is “attractive” in the advertising sense of the word may get a browsing bookstore customer to pick up a book and read the cover blurb, but if the picture has nothing to do with the content, they are likely to feel deceived and put the book down again. There is no point having a vampire or a half-naked model on the cover of your book, if the book isn’t about vampires or beautiful women in sexual situations.

The cover has to give some hint of what the book is about so that it attracts not for its own sake, but because it draws the attention of potential readers – in short, people who have at least a latent interest in the subject matter. Because I write historical fiction, there is no point in using obviously modern images on the cover. People who don’t like historical fiction might pick it up because of the cover, but they will seldom buy. Likewise readers of historical fiction will probably skip over a book with a modern image on the cover – in search of something historical. So the cover has to be “topical.”

When I started publishing my novels, I used to let the publisher design the cover, thinking they were the professionals and they would understand the market much better than I. Big mistake. When it comes to historical fiction, it is vitally important to immediately evoke the right time period because you discredit yourself instantly, if you get it wrong. Publishers, however, are not historians. They don’t know the difference between 11th and 16th century armor, or between a Spitfire and a Piper Cub. So I now “design” my own covers, by which I mean I select the overall thematic components, and then hire a professional graphic designer to do the fine work essential to make the cover look as good as anything a major publishing house can produce.

Right now I am working on the cover of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy. To be consistent with the first book of the Trilogy, I know I will place the image of a fifth century sculpture depicting a Spartan hoplite commonly identified as “Leonidas” on the spine and back cover. This will tell readers the book is about ancient Greece. But a marble statue alone is too “dead” for my novels. The whole point of my novels is to bring the ancient world back to life! To give color and movement, emotion and thought back to the monuments and legend that Leonidas has become.

For this reason, the front cover of the first book in the series, A Boy of the Agoge, is a color photo of the Spartan landscape. Sparta, the city and society may be gone, but the valley that cradled Sparta and the snow-capped mountains that dominated it are older than Sparta itself and as beautiful as ever. The photo I took of an olive orchard against the snow-capped mountains is thus a view that Leonidas too would have enjoyed. The last book in the trilogy will show the Pass at Thermopylae. But what about the second book?

The second book in the Trilogy is about Leonidas’ nearly two decades as an ordinary Spartan ranker – before he becomes king and before the first Persian invasion of Greece. It is the book in which he marries, is widowed and remarries. This is the book in which Leonidas rises through the ranks of the army - and raises a family. I want the cover, therefore, to evoke a domestic environment – the front porch of a house in a Greek landscape, an orchard, flowers on a terrace or outdoor stairway lined with flower-filled terracotta pots.

But finding such a photo-object, simple as it sounds, proved much more challenging than expected. Try taking a picture in Greece today without a paved road, a telephone wire, an electric light or a glazed window in it! I admit, however, it was fun looking! Modern Laconia, the territory that corresponds roughly to the heart of the ancient territory of Sparta’s Lacedaemon, is truly beautiful – mountainous but fertile, with rich green valleys, extensive orchards and well-tended, blooming gardens. I hope I got several shots that are potentially suitable, and as soon as Charlie, my graphic artist, has produced some proposals I will post them here and solicit your opinions. Meanwhile, I welcome any comments you have on covers generally.

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