Wednesday 31 October 2012

Some covers that work

Some covers that work

It goes without saying that we like our own covers: we would never have accepted them if we didn’t. So, I’m not going to talk about ours. I’m picking a handful I like by other publishers.
I heard someone imply the other day that self-published books showed by their covers. I don’t completely agree with that. Sure, full-time publishers know a lot about marketing and may incorporate subtle messages into their designs. But in terms of just being aesthetically pleasing, there are actually some very good ones produced by self-published authors and some very bad ones produced by mainstream publishers.
As a reader I find an attractive cover important. It needs to reflect the style of the book and show me that the book is something I would enjoy.
I’ve used the Amazon Associates images so that you can click though and find out more about each book.

The First Night
This cover is beautifully mysterious and fits the content of the book very well. The blue night-sky background to a scene of nature is exactly fitting as this is where the action takes place. This cover symbolizes the combination of real life and another dimension that makes the book so fascinating.

The English German Girl
(Small press)
This is obviously a book set in the 1930s and 1940s. The red lettering in the title shouts out a warning and is perhaps reminiscent of how red is used in the film Schindler’s List. The cover has a sepia tint and there is an old steam train in the background, almost as a watermark. The little girl holding her suitcase symbolizes the Kindertranpsort child. It promises and delivers an exploration of this puzzling time.

I love the greenness of this cover. The pages of the book itself are edged with black and this adds to the mysterious appearance. The claws and the claw-like hand suggest some horror. Just right for this time of the year.

And not just because of the name “Michael Morpurgo” on the front cover though that of course will recommend a good read. The dog is very realistic and extremely cute. The shadowy helicopters suggest war but there is a soldier holding hands with a child. So, Morpurgo, a dog, and a gentler side of the military. Yes, worth a read. The cover did not lie.

The Mortal Instruments 2 City of Ashes
I confess I have not read this book. But I am attracted by the title. The girl in the sky intrigues me – probably because two of our books are using a similar technique on their covers. The title suggests something dystopian and although there is a lot of that around at the moment, each take on what might happen is different and some interesting futures are being developed. This cover invites me to read.

Please Mrs Butler
Now that I read most books electronically, I’m beginning to collect children’s picture books. You just cannot replicate electronically the experience of holding a picture book and sharing its pages with a child. An App on a tablet just does not deliver in the same way. I could probably include all of the books by Anthony Browne, Allan Ahlberg, Debi Gilori and a dozen nor so others here.
I’ve chosen this one because I like the busy-ness of it. It suggests the book will give us some fascinating glimpses of everyday life. It also reminds me a little of a Lowry painting.   

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Some thoughts on book design

There is so much more to producing a book that just writing it, even if the writer is the most important contributor to the process: without writers there would be no books at all.
Yet after all of the editing and rewrites there is still much to be done.
The cover
Books must have a great cover even if they are only being sold electronically. The title must be right too – it must not give too much away but it must entice. The title and the cover are the first two prompts towards a sale. They must attract the reader but they must also represent the contents of the book honestly.
The designer has to make decisions about how and where to include the title, both on the front cover and the spine, and how to integrate the blurb on the back. Even where to display and how large to make the barcode that gives the bookseller information is the designer’s decision.  
The size
This may also be partly an editorial and marketing decision. If the book has a lot of words, a slightly bigger format is recommended. Print costs tend to be per page so using a taller and wider book format keeps the costs down. Plus, a fat stubby book is often physically difficult to read – especially when you are near the beginning or the end.
House style issues
Each publishing house has its own preferences about whether to use single or double quotes for speech and how to express thoughts. Each text must be consistent with itself and with other publications. Many publishers favour Chicago style.
Formatting issues
Most texts are submitted as Word documents. They will be double-spaced, ragged right and all but opening paragraphs will be indented. The published book needs to be single-spaced, the text must be blocked and the indent, even in bigger texts, will be smaller than the Word default of 1.27 cm. Usually it is quite easy for the designer to do this conversion. However, occasionally the writer has used some very strange formatting and the designer has to format the book manually. Forced indents and manually inserted footers and headers can cause havoc.
Because of the blocking of text, some words will be hyphenated across two lines. The designer can set this to a minimum but that in turn can cause some weirdly spaced lines and create widows – singles lines on a new page. The designer has to adjust this manually.
Special fonts
Most publishers use one of the standard fonts.  Times New Roman and Arial are popular and 12 point is normal. Occasionally a text will need an alternative font – perhaps to portray a change of voice or point of view or to include an excerpt from a letter or a magazine article. The designer may not be able use the unusual font the writer has chosen as this may not convert easily to the printed format or indeed may be copyrighted. The designer must make the decision and does have some insight into what works graphically.
Also a text might have a different size font and different spacing – for example a children’s book may have a14 point font and be double-spaced.
Paper weight and colour
This will affect the feel and the look of the book. Normally a publishing house has a house style for this but occasionally a text may demand something else. For instance, a book about death might have black-edged pages or a facsimile of a war-time diary might require thicker sepia-tinted pages.
These decisions are often made between editorial and design staff.

It is clear then that the role of the designer is really important and that the writer has to step back at this point.

Monday 8 October 2012

Responding to editorial suggestion

It is a tough call: you have polished your manuscript as much as you can. You’ve shared it with a critique group and you’ve passed it around amongst beta readers. You’ve responded to suggestions. You’ve applied your own stringent editing process. You are too close to your script now to be able to see it clearly. And now the editor at the publishing house wants more changes. Sometimes this is before it is accepted and sometimes afterwards.
Publisher seem cruel sometimes
It probably seems incredibly cruel when an editor says “We’d be pleased to see your script again once you have addressed this issue but at this point we can make no guarantees.”
You might make all that effort. Your novel may still not be accepted. And it is after all only one opinion.      
However, most of the time the script will improve at this point. Once a major fault is corrected you may be able to see other problems more clearly as well. The amount of time this process gives you also allows you to gain some distance from your script.
What’s in it for the publisher
For the publisher, asking for a rewrite without a guarantee of publication serves two purposes:
It helps the editorial team see how well an unknown writer can respond to editorial comment.
It enables the editors to see whether there are faults beyond this more obvious one.
It happens to us all.
Case study 1
One well-known writer reported that she was told that the ending of her first novel was weak.  She strengthened that. Then there was a problem with the opening. She worked on that. Then, as you might expect, the middle was faulty. It’s probable that the improved ending made the opening look weak, which was then in turn improved leaving the middle still at an inferior quality.
Case study 2
I am also a published author. I was asked by one publishing company to add another story strand into a children’s novel. I completed this but then that publishing house stopped producing children’s fiction. Nevertheless, I then managed to find another publisher. It’s possible that the extra story strand helped.   
It’s probably not the most satisfying part of our writing lives, but we do need to embrace editorial work. The publisher is on the writer’s side. Both writer and publisher want every book to be the best it can be. It is sometimes actually quite difficult and we don’t always know immediately how to make the changes asked for. Yet if we are to be professional we need to take note of editorial commentary and act upon it. Often we have to find a third way: what we have produced isn’t yet right but what the editor suggests isn’t quite suitable either. What needs to be written is a text that is better than both suggestions.