No Whitewashing! Author Input! – A Good Cover Design Story
To celebrate Regeneration’s US cover reveal, I thought I’d tell you a story. A true story this time, and like many truths, one that confounds conventional wisdom – in this case, the oft-repeated tale of woe in which an unapproachable and unaccountable publishing behemoth slaps an unrepresentative (or just boringly generic) cover onto a book and sends it out into the world, insensitive either to the text or to the opinion of the person who wrote it.
Here’s the thing: while this may be often (and appallingly) true, it’s by no means universal; and it does a disservice to the publishers who do work with and listen to their authors to tar them with the same brush. Despite being neither famous nor best-selling (yet, they insist, just not yet), my publishers have always shown me my covers as works-in-progress. They have always asked for my feedback, and I’ve never been ignored. It’s been my experience through six covers now: the UK and US editions of Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, published by Quercus Imprint, Jo Fletcher Books in both markets (although the two series wound up looking quite different to each other).
Never has this spirit of enthusiastic, respectful collaboration been more evident, or more important, than in developing the US cover for Regeneration. It was the first time that I found myself not just suggesting tweaks to an image that I was basically OK with, but having to explain what was wrong with it and asking for it to be significantly reworked. Now that the final happy result has been revealed to the world, I want to share the story of its evolution from that somewhat shaky beginning. I pitched the idea to Quercus, who have very kindly agreed. We both think it’s important to demonstrate how things are done when they’re done well. And to tell more than one kind of story.
The following is lifted largely from our email correspondence, with some additional context from Quercus on how they approached the cover and responded to my comments.
Designing the US cover for Regeneration, the final book of the ®Evolution trilogy
The US covers for Gemsigns and Binary
Quercus’ original idea:
We were lucky to have the same cover designer, Daniel Rembert work on Gemsigns, Binary and now Regeneration. We have been very conscious of wanting all three covers to be coordinated so that the sense of a trilogy would be recognizable. There are several dynamic plotlines to pick from, but we chose to focus on the gillungs’ story – as it directly reflects the progression of the gems from chattel fighting for their rights, to better integrated members of society, to community leaders and innovators. We wanted the image to be underwater but to convey the idea of the quantum battery technology and its use as a power source.
Quercus initially approached Stephanie with the below first cover ideas for Regeneration:
Stephanie’s original thoughts:
“These are beautiful as a picture, but: why is the central image of a naked nubile female? And: who is she supposed to be? The only teenage gillung woman in the text is Agwé, and Agwé is black. So if it’s meant to be Agwé it needs to look like Agwé, which means properly dark skin and CLOTHING. But much as I love her — and believe me, my soul would soar at the sight of beautiful black Agwé with her glowing green hair and cherry-red bodysuit as the cover image — she’s very much a secondary character, so I’m not sure why she’d be the cover? That suggests a YA novel. And she certainly wouldn’t be in such a passive pose, none of them would. If we’re going to do a gillung underwater against a turbine they should look more engaged, more dynamic.
“I think part of what’s thrown me as well is that this composition is such a departure from the Gemsigns and Binary covers, which had been developing a motif that I really liked: the raised arms/ fist, the crowd of people, the sense of an engaged urban community. Regeneration continues that whole theme of the collective and the communal, and brings it to a climax with the intersections of family, friends, workmates etc.
“(I’ve lost a bet with myself; I thought it might be an underwater viewpoint, but looking up through the water at the quayside crowded with people and the huge egg-shaped Thames Tidal building rising up alongside. Something that, when the reader got to the penultimate chapter with Gabriel desperately trying to get people to leave, they’d look back at the cover and go ah-ha! …Not saying it should be that, mind, it just seemed like it would be an obvious continuation of the motif.)”
Quercus’ cover design team went back to the drawing board with Stephanie’s suggestions in mind.
“Stephanie provides fantastic, detailed feedback and we went back to the designer with it. We have been back and forth with the designer about these covers from the very beginning, so it’s no surprise that the first interpretation wasn’t quite right.
Featuring a gillung is essential, we agree, and I think the color palette here is good—figuring out how to pull off the composition in a way that captures the same sense of dynamism and community focus as the previous cover designs is just part of the challenge. We were not feeling 100% about the main figure (if we were to use her, our designer would definitely need to finesse some of the detailing with the wet suit and the skin tone but we really loved the general composition/direction.”
“I too much prefer the overall direction of this composition, and in general I like the first image, with the central figure rising vertically and purposefully, best of all. The background figures are better in this as well; in the others it’s not clear whether they’re swimming or drowning, but in the first one it’s pretty evident they are all in their element. However I also like the fact that more of the topside buildings are visible in the second image; it sort of contextualises the swimmers. So I don’t know if it’s possible to maintain that general upward thrust of the figures in the first image while having more of the buildings from the second image as well? (I realise part of this also has to do with where the title sits on the cover, and the designer will no doubt play around with that far more efficiently than I can visualise it!)”
“As for the central figure, yes she’d need to be a bit darker and more detailed. I’d love her to be a teeny bit curvier and her hair a bit more cloud-like. The main thing to remember about the gillungs’ physicality — apart from skin tone — is that they are powerful people. This is a very subtle thing; I don’t mean to suggest that they should be large or blocky, but if you think of any aquatic mammal from otters to whales, there is a sort of muscular solidity about them.”
“You said you’re not 100% certain about the main figure; are you thinking about alternatives? Who/ what would you use instead? Because it does need a strong central component, I think, and at the moment she’s it …”
“We are always grateful for Stephanie’s very helpful and comprehensive feedback. Our designer has incorporated some of these tweaks. The differences are subtle but effective.”
“I really like this, and I think it does the job well — it’s both attractive and accurate, if you know what I mean. Holding the earlier two covers up to look at all three in a row, it’s clear that although the images are different from each other they are thematically related, having a sort of family resemblance — the altered human figure against a crowded urban backdrop, the sense of energy and urgency. I like the cover itself, but also the sense of a continuum.”
The final cover:
Available in bookstores and online, May 2016!
Daniel Rembert's design work can be found at danielrembert.com