Cover story: ‘This Beautiful Life’

I know I’m biased, but my new novel, ‘This Beautiful Life’ has one of the most beautiful covers that I have ever seen. It is arresting, uplifting, and features a paper model made by the amazing artist Malena Valcarcel, of the tree, bench and headphones that mean so much to my main character Abi in the novel. The book starts with a letter that Abi writes to her husband and son when she is diagnosed with bowel cancer, and the model on the cover is made from print-outs of those very words. It ties together so beautifully with the book’s themes of regrowth and love and music and here is the woman who briefed it, my editor Emily Kitchin, to tell you all about her approach to giving a book the right cover.

When do you first start planning a book cover? When you get the synopsis or when the manuscript is delivered?

Ah – it all depends! If the book is one I’ve received on submission, I’ll start thinking about the cover brief as I’m reading it, as part of my excitement about the prospect of publishing it will come from the thought of seeing it as a finished package. Once the book has been acquired, briefing the cover should be one of the first things an editor does, as it’s so key to their publishing vision for the book. If it’s for a book which is already under contract – e.g. an author who’s already been published by Hodder – then the cover brief will likely be part of a wider, more long-term strategy for that author, in which case the brief will probably be done at an earlier stage, on the synopsis.

How do you come up with that first image?

The million dollar question! Some editors, including colleagues of mine, have very visual brains, and so it may be that they come up with the exact image they’d like to use on the cover themselves, and can brief that direct to the Art department. An old colleague of mine used to sketch her own covers. My brain doesn’t work in this way, so I’ll brief the cover according to the tone and impact I want the cover to have, where I feel it sits in the market, and which sales channels I feel will be key for the book’s success (for example, a book for which the key retailer is Waterstones will have a very different brief to a book for which big Kindle sales are the main objective). I’ll provide a list of the book’s themes and important figures or objects, and I’ll say whether I want the cover approach to be typographic, illustrative or photographic, and I might specify whether I want it to be figurative, symbolic, scenic and so on. The key is to give the designer all the tools and information they need to bring the cover to life, but without being overly prescriptive, so that they still have creative freedom.

How much involvement does the author have?

If the author has a very strong idea about the sort of cover they’d like, or particular images they’d like to be on the cover, I will certainly take that into account. No one is as familiar with their own book as the author, which can be really helpful. On the other hand, sometimes an author is too close to it, and won’t necessarily have an objective distance, in which case I might not end up taking all their suggestions on board. The author will be fully involved in that I’ll show them the cover brief, and then show them designs and images as the cover progresses and invite their feedback – the idea it’s that it’s a very collaborative process. Of course, if an author really doesn’t like a cover, we won’t go ahead with it. The best feeling ever is when an author loves the cover!

What’s the hardest thing about finalising a cover?

I find that getting the smaller details right can be the hardest thing. Getting the concept and design right is such a major triumph that making fiddly decisions – which finishes should I use, where should the shoutline sit, should the figure standing beneath the tree be closer to the tree or not? – is often what ends up holding up the whole process!

How important are covers in creating an author brand?

Absolutely crucial. To build an author as a brand, you need a recognisable cover style which communicates the elements that author’s brand stands for. The covers can be adapted over time to respond to changes in the market – and often brand authors are given a fresh new look and their entire backlist is rejacketed to match – but consistency, confidence and recognisability are key.

How much difference does a cover make, both in selling into retail or book fairs and in selling to customers in shops?

An enormous difference. The cover is the biggest sales tool for the book, and with so many books being published, if the cover isn’t ready or it isn’t right, that book might be passed over in a heartbeat for another one. The ebook market is a very interesting one to look at: unlike picking up a book in Waterstones or WHSmith, readers are looking at a small thumbnail – and that’s it. There’s no back cover; there aren’t any finishes to contribute to the effect. So legibility and very clear communication of the book’s genre are very important.

Who is involved in finalising a cover i.e. sales/marketing/you/…?

Everyone! The cover brief will initially be signed off during our Covers meeting, which consists of the head of Art, various designers, our Head of Sales, MD and various other important sales people. Then the designer and Editor will liaise together until they have an image, or shortlist of images, which they’re happy with. Those images will go through the Covers meeting once again, and if the team is happy, those images will then go to the author and agent for feedback and hopefully approval. If the author and agent love the cover and everyone is happy, the designer will add the cover copy and start artworking it, and it’ll then be proofed and circulated in-house. If any problems arise, then it might be back to the drawing board! For some covers, we might invite a retailer’s feedback, too, especially if there’s one key retailer whose support we feel is crucial to the book’s success.

How many people work in the Hodder cover team?

They’re known in Hodder as the Art department, and there are about twelve, plus freelancers. They are an extremely nice team and they have to put up with a lot, dealing with fussy editors!