Most authors have little, if any, control over how the covers of their novels will look—and that’s exactly how it should be. A glance at the covers of any number of self-published books is all you need to understand that this is one part of the process where an author probably shouldn’t have full creative control: knowing how to write a novel isn’t the same thing as knowing how to present and package it, and these days, the front cover and title, combined hopefully with decent bookstore placement, is the only advertising a novel may ever have. Knowing this, I’ve generally been content to leave the packaging of my own books to my publisher’s design team, and I’m always surprised on the upside—I’ve been lucky enough to get some beautiful covers, like the final front cover of City of Exiles pictured here.
That said, I’ve never hesitated to give plenty of advice. As I’ve noted before, for The Icon Thief, I sent my publisher a nine-paragraph email, complete with sample images and comparable covers, when asked for my ideas about cover art. That kind of detailed memo is an outlier, though: at the time, the look for the series was still up in the air, and I didn’t know how much guidance I was expected to give. The resulting cover not only eased all my fears, but it also provided a useful template for future books. The basic design—a cityscape with a few evocative images in the sky above—is a very flexible one, so the process ever since has been more streamlined, with most of the attention focusing on which locations and symbols best reflect the novel’s plot and themes.
As a result, when the time came to talk about the cover for City of Exiles, the memo I sent was only three paragraphs long, and my primary image reference was a page from the Book of Kells. Here are some of the highlights:
[W]hile The Icon Thief cover is built around a palette of red and orange, given the wintry setting of City of Exiles, it might be nice to cool down the colors a bit: a nearly white cover, say, with touches of gray or blue…In light of the novel’s title, my first impulse is to build the cover around the image of a city, probably London…As for other symbols, our obvious resource here is Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot…Alternatively, we could do something with the golden calf or celestial ox.
Needless to say, they nailed it: the final image is startlingly close to what I suggested, down to the wintry color palette, and I couldn’t be happier. Not surprisingly, then, when the time came earlier this week to submit some ideas for Eternal Empire, I kept it simpler—just a couple of paragraphs. And while the final result won’t be available for a while, I’m very excited to see it.
So what should you do if your publisher asks what kind of cover you want? In my experience, specific images are much less important than the overall feel of the book, which is why comparable covers can be so useful. As far as imagery itself is concerned, many covers these days tend to be assembled from existing images or stock photos, so the more easily obtainable the source, the better. (Personally, I prefer it when they put together a cover from existing sources, because original illustrations, unless you’re lucky enough to be writing for Hard Case Crime, seem like much more of a crapshoot.) Finally, don’t, as I was briefly tempted to do, put together your own version in Photoshop as a sample of what you might like. The design team won’t tell you how to write your novel, so if you’re smart, you’ll grant them the same freedom. If you do, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.