Thursday, January 08, 2009

Cover Power

After thinking some more about the Idea So Huge It Gave Me a Headache, and after finally writing it out and then bouncing it off Mom (who agreed that it was probably the best way to take the story, once she was reassured that it wasn't who she was afraid it was), I think that's the way I'm going to go, so now I need to re-outline the whole book with that in mind. The headache is mostly gone, so now it's more of a ghost of a headache. Note to self: In the future, avoid frowning in intense concentration for long stretches of time. Now I'm okay as long as I stay warm. The moment I get cold again, I guess I tense up and the headache returns. But ballet starts up again tonight, and that will either cure me or kill me. It's warm in there, and the movement will be good, but it also requires concentration. I wonder if we'll get our regular teacher back or if we'll still have the Ballet Nazi whose role model is Dr. House.

I have a follow-up to yesterday's post, another question from the same reader that wasn't specifically about the writing process, so I'll tackle it now.

How much influence does the author have over the cover, text on the cover, etc.?

The short answer is, it depends on the author, the editor, the publisher and sometimes even the book itself, and that applies to the cover, the cover copy (that text that tells you what the book is about), anything else on the cover and even the title. The only things my contract says I have absolute approval on are the photo of me (which I had taken and then sent to the publisher) and my bio.

An author who has more power -- one where the publisher needs the author more than the author needs a publisher, since every publisher in town would love to get that author's books -- is going to have more control over things like cover, title, and all that. If Stephen King doesn't like a cover concept, they're probably going to say, "Yes, sir, Mr. King!" and adjust it right away. On the other hand, an author in my position, where I need the publisher more than they need me, has very little control.

At my very first publisher, I got zero input. The first time I saw the cover and anything written on the cover was when I got my author's copies of the books. At my next publisher, they had a multi-page cover input questionnaire, with questions about physical descriptions of the main characters (hair color, hair style, eye color, skin tone, facial features, body type, etc.), tone of the book, setting, any key scenes that would be good to depict on the cover, and so forth. And then they promptly ignored it all and did whatever they wanted to do. The first time I saw anything that went on the cover was when I got the printed cover flats -- the actual cover that would be wrapped around the book, but still flat. By then, the covers had already been printed, so it was too late to do anything about it if I hated the cover. With one book, the cover copy misspelled the name of my main character, and it was easier to change it in the book than on the cover, so it got changed in the book. With my latest publisher, when I sold the first book in the series, my editor and I had a long chat about how we imagined the cover looking, and she asked me to send her links to pictures of book covers I liked. I was the one who suggested the white background, and we agreed that we wanted something fun and cartoony. They e-mailed me the artwork long before it was set in stone. I loved what they did, so I don't know what would have happened if I'd hated it. I did ask for a minor tweak on the second book (the fairy's feet were way too huge -- they still are, but you should have seen the first draft), and then on the third book my big fuss was that originally the title was in a pale teal color that I thought looked totally washed out, so they sent me several other options and I picked the purple. On the foreign editions, I pretty much have zero input (but I'd love to meet the Japanese cover artist because there's so much detail from the books on the covers that I get the feeling the artist has read the entire book).

With my latest publisher, I've had a bit more say on the cover copy. I pretty much wrote the cover copy on the first book when the first draft they sent me didn't work at all (but my "real job" career was in marketing communications, so they knew I knew what I was doing). I think I made only minor changes on the next two books, and then on the last, I edited what they sent me, then my editor edited what I sent back to her, and then I edited that, and then we finally had something we all liked. They treated that as a collaborative process. I came up with the "Hex and the City" tagline on the cover of the first book, the publisher came up with the "Fall in love, just for the spell of it" one on the third (which I argued about because I thought it misrepresented the book, and I lost), and then I edited the one on the fourth to make it more alliterative and to fit the book.

With titles, I never really was crazy about the title Enchanted, Inc. My working title was Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc., which I admit wasn't brilliant, and I expected the publisher to change it, but I didn't like what they changed it to, and I sent pages of other suggestions, but they were pretty much set on that. I thought that at least the Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc. title sounded like a company name, even when you said it out loud, and it also fit the comedy rule of threes, where you set up an expectation, then twist it, so we have three things that sound magical, then throw in something associated with business. Meanwhile, their title sounded like you were talking about magical writing fluid (enchanted ink), and I found myself constantly having to explain it when talking about the book. Besides, it wouldn't be "Enchanted Inc." as a company name, it would be "Enchantments, Inc." And there's nothing about either an Enchanted or Enchantments Inc. anywhere in the book. I still don't know who was really "right" about that (though it does seem like the most criticism I've seen in reader reviews about that book tends to hinge on the fact that there's no Enchanted, Inc. in the book so the title is wrong). But it was my first book with that publisher and I didn't think it was the time or the place for an all-out diva hissy fit. The publisher came up with the title for the second book when we found out that another book with the same title I'd been using was coming out right before my book, and the new title has grown on me. The last two titles were my ideas, and the publisher loved them. So that's also a collaborative process, with the publisher getting the deciding vote.

But I'm sure this process varies widely by publisher, and even the previous publishers I worked with may be doing things differently now. It also does depend on where the author is in the pecking order, how much of a control freak the editor is, whether the author can intimidate the editor or even how powerful the author's agent is (a powerful agent who's well-connected with the higher-ups at a publisher and who also represents that publisher's star authors can sometimes pull strings for a less powerful author).

But you know who the real power people for book covers are? The major chain or Wal-Mart buyers. If the buyer for Barnes & Noble likes the book but says the cover won't sell, that cover will be changed in a heartbeat. If Wal-Mart is considering carrying a book but says they won't put that cover on their shelves, that cover will change. The sales force within the publisher also has a lot of say. I had a friend whose cover got vetoed by the sales force when they said they wouldn't be able to sell that cover, based on results they were getting at the time with similar covers. It's possible that even a big-name, bestselling author wouldn't be able to trump the say of the store buyers, or possibly even the sales force (and it would be pretty stupid of an author to try to do so, since it would be a purely ego-driven move).

Yet again, I'm sure that's more than you want to know.

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