Guest Post - David Barry

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I suspect this is not meant to be taken literally and is probably a metaphor for some greater truth, instructing us to admire another human being’s inner beauty rather than going on just looks. With books it’s a different kettle of fish.  Of course people judge them on their covers, because people in bookstores have to be attracted enough by the design to pick them up in the first place. Half the battle is getting a potential customer to pick up a book, turn it over and read the blurb on the back. 

My first novel, Each Man Kills, was published in 2002. It’s a thriller located in south Wales, and after many rejections with large publishing houses in London, I decided to approach a small Welsh publisher. They liked it, and a year later it was almost ready for the printers. I had had good experiences with this publisher, the editor was friendly and approachable, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about my book. I was asked for suggestions for the cover design. So far so good.

The plot of my thriller hinges on Celtic mysticism, and an escape following ley lines and ancient druidic stones and monuments. I suggested a black and white photograph of an ancient stone, surrounded by atmospheric mist on a gloomy day, and a red trickle of blood running down the stone, the only colour on the cover. A bit like Schindler’s List, which was shot in monochrome, but with occasional and unnerving glimpses of a would-be victim seen in red. My publishers seemed to like the idea, and said they would soon be in touch with a proof. But a proof never came. As the launch date of the book drew close I was presented with a fait accompli; the book arrived in the post one morning and on the cover was a rather unsubtle photograph of a hooded man grabbing a woman from behind with a knife to her throat. My initial reaction was negative. But, as it was my first published book, I became impatient to see it released and pushed any doubts I had about the cover to the back of my mind, convincing myself that I liked it. Months later a friend of mine lent her copy of my book to a friend, who read it and said she was surprised at how good it was. I was told that had she not known about me, and seen the book in a store, she wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up because of the cover. I knew then I had made a grave error, and should have trusted my first gut reaction. I had been too eager to become a published writer to form an objective opinion about the design.

My second book, Flashback, an autobiography about my life as an actor, I self published. Because I was paying to get it published, my attitude was very different. It was costing me money, and I knew I had to get it right. As soon as the proof of the cover design arrived, I decided I would market research it. I went out into my local pub, showed customers the design, and asked them if they saw it in a shop would they be tempted to buy it. It got a negative response. Then one of the pub regulars, I discovered, used to work in PR and advertising, and I was fortunate enough to get some free advice.

I suppose, if a writer is already famous and has a huge following, the book cover is not so important. On the other hand, many years ago, when I was a young man, I saw East of Eden by John Steinbeck in a bookshop. It had a ghastly cover: a badly drawn picture of a half-naked woman in the arms of what looked like a western saloon gambler. But I had already read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Grapes of Wrath, so the cover didn’t matter to me. I bought it and loved every page of it. But supposing someone who had never heard of Steinbeck bought a copy of the book, thinking every page had steamy sex scenes as promised by the book cover?  Perhaps the opening chapters and their descriptions of the Salinas Valley in California might prove to be a huge disappointment, however evocative and well written.

The other advantage of self-publishing and electronic books is the obvious one of it never going out of print as happened with Each Man Kills. When my thriller reached sales of 800 copies of the 1,000 print run, and didn’t appear to be selling anymore, it was remaindered. Flashback on the other hand, which I published back in 2006, and on Kindle in 2012, has had a resurgence in sales because I wrote a great deal about touring with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and for some reason there has recently been renewed interest in the actress’s career.

In 2008, I was about to have a children’s novel published by Libros International in Spain, a company founded by two writers. A chance meeting with the director of a small advertising agency director in Tunbridge Wells where I live resulted in the book design for The Ice Cream Time Machine. The MD of the company said he would love to design the book and all he wanted in return was two signed copies of the book for his children once it was published. But less than a year after the publication of the book, Libros ceased trading, and I thought that was that. But in 2011 I was fortunate in finding a way of publishing this through AUK, and it is now available as a POD paperback and in e-books.

Now as I am about to have my tenth book published, I look at all the various designs of my books, and I think my favourite is for my children’s book, designed by someone as a favour to me, and costing the publisher nothing. But maybe I’m biased. One of my favourite jobs ever was working as Writer In Residence in Aberdeen on the Reading Bus in 2007, a sort of colourful mobile library for children that visited various primary schools, and classes would climb aboard for creative writing sessions. Around that that time I was writing The Ice Cream Time Machine, and I used to read children extracts and was able to find out what worked and didn’t work. For that I was eternally grateful to children in certain areas of Aberdeen, which was why I dedicated the book to them.

Editors addition: David's new book Muscle is out tomorrow....


Chris Longmuir said…
Nice post, David, I agree with everything you say, and I like your covers. From my own experience I find that publishers are autonomous in their decisions about book covers. An author may be shown the cover and asked their opinion, but at the end of the day the publisher decides. That is one of the reasons I prefer to be an indie, the decisions are all mine.
Nick Green said…
A bad cover can totally kill a book. It did with my debut. Faber hired a guy who'd never done a jacket before. He was a good artist, but inexperienced, and his dominant colour scheme of brown rendered the book highly unattractive except at very close quarters, and all but invisible from across a shop.

Years later I got The Cat Kin republished with a new coverm, by a bona-fide genius (Lawrence Mann). If I'd had that cover first time around, the book would have done much better.
Nick Green said…
Coverm? I must mean cover.
Lydia Bennet said…
I've enjoyed your post David and your ice cream time machine cover is especially fab! I've been very lucky with my published books that I've been consulted on the covers and had a major role in designing them. but I've read much sobbing and wailing on facebook of authors whose publishers have killed the book, and their pride and pleasure in it which is so hard-won, with crap covers. I did a blog post on this and in one I posted a link to the worst-ever covers. There are some hilarious ones, though in some cases the author won't be laughing.
Dennis Hamley said…
Years ago, back in the 70s, a book of mine was licensed by the hardback publishers to another publisher for a paperback edition. The paperback pulisher, without consultation, produced a cover of such gross ineptitude that my hardback editor wrote to them saying that if the book didn't do well it would be entirely their own fault. It didn't, so it was. But generally I've been well served here, though sadly one or two bad covers were shown to me first and I enthusiastically approved them, so I've no-one else to blame.

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