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So after telling you about the process of writing a novel, I promised to talk about cover art. How does a publisher get that sucker all spiffed up and ready for the bookstore?

Oh, so carefully. Most publishers have an entire dedicated art department whose sole purpose is book design–the image, the fonts, endpapers, you name it.

Back when I was self-publishing, I designed my own.

bringing you bad books since the age of 8

bringing you bad books since the age of 8


Art was not my forte, clearly.

Book cover art is the topic of endless and passionate debate among writers and people in publishing.

Because it matters so freakin’ much. It’s the reader’s first glimpse of your work. You’ve got a split second to grab her attention. And in that split second, you have to convey that a) this is YOUR kind of book and b) it’s a particularly great read and c) she should just ignore all those other books on the shelf nearby that are vying for attention.

How does a book get from the mess on my living room floor…

Barkis is bored. He just doesn't get it.

Barkis is bored. He just doesn’t get it.

…into the reader’s hands?

Buy a book from Wendy!

You need not just a beautiful cover, but the RIGHT cover. For example, this cover is beautiful:

Where's the romance?

Where’s the romance?

…but it doesn’t scream “sweep-you-away-historical-romance” the way this one does:

Sexy tiiime!

Sexy tiiime!

The Drifter reissue

They’re all nicely done, but guess which one sold the best? Yep, the one that looked the most romantic, dramatic and compelling to the reader most likely to enjoy that kind of book.

After the original edition of The Drifter was published, the art department took another look at what my books were about and what my readers love–romance, fantasy, passion. So my next book, THE CHARM SCHOOL, went through a major transformation. Here is the cover-in-progress:

I sent my editor a little thumbnail image from a book of clipart. I just thought it was pretty. The main character was a bookworm with a rich fantasy life, and this image made me think of her:

Clip art that inspired The Charm School cover

Thanks to my very smart editor, she got this sketch out of the art department, and I knew we had a winner on our hands:

sketch for Charm School cover

I was hoping it would turn into a pink valentine of a book because, well, we readers love pink valentines. And Lo:

Now, THAT's a cover.

Now, THAT’s a cover.

Flowers, purple foil, generous endorsement from iconic romance author. It even had a peek-a-boo window with a glimpse at the illustration inside. And although the real Isadora looked like this:

Isadora, the main character of THE CHARM SCHOOL

Isadora, the main character of THE CHARM SCHOOL

…she got a makeover for the cover art. This image is inside the front cover. It’s known as a “step-back.”

ready for action

ready for action

I’m proud to say, The Charm School was my first national bestseller. The book got good reviews, won some awards, made some best-of lists, but I credit the sales to the right cover on the right book. 

Oh, and here–with apologies to the redoubtable Erik Larson–is my nomination for the worst book cover ever. On one of the best books, ever.

Foreign edition of Erik's iconic work, Devil in the White City, with unfortunate cover art.

Foreign edition of Erik’s iconic work, Devil in the White City, with unfortunate cover art.

wonderful book, awful cover

wonderful book, awful cover

[Synchronicity–CNN is talking about book covers today, too! ] As we all know, I am endlessly fascinated by book cover art. I’ve talked about it here, and here, too.  A story in Publishers Weekly illustrates the power of a great package. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney was one of my favorite books of 2008. The novel garnered rave reviews, incredible word-of-mouth, excellent foreign sales…and a disappointing sale of 6000 copies in the US. Guess why?

Need I say more? Where do I begin? With the pale re-use of an iconic image from a previous bestseller?,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_.jpg With the undistinguished font? The murky colors? The ambiguous imagery and mixed message? No wonder readers overlooked this poor book.
But this is why I love book people. When their passion for a project kicks in, there’s no stopping them. According to Publishers Weekly, the book’s publisher stepped in and had the book repackaged in trade paperback format, with a thoughtful and intriguing new cover: featuring an irresistible blurb from Augustin Burroughs. Oh, and a new price point, don’t forget that. The result? Sales leaped up to 185,000–making this book a legitimate bestseller and giving the author the happy ending she deserves. 

Need I say more? Where do I begin? With the pale re-use of an iconic image from a previous bestseller?

wonderful book, cover that did it justice

wonderful book, cover that did it justice

 With the undistinguished font? The murky colors? The ambiguous imagery and mixed message? No wonder readers overlooked this poor book. A wonderful novel deserves better, don’t you think?

But this is why I love book people. When their passion for a project kicks in, they’re willing to regroup and try again. According to Publishers Weekly,  the book’s publisher stepped in and had the book repackaged in trade paperback format, with a well thought-out and intriguing new cover and an irresistible blurb from Augustin Burroughs. Oh, and a new price point, don’t forget that. The result? Sales leaped up to 185,000 (and counting)–making this book a legitimate bestseller and giving the author the happy ending she deserves.

Soooo…I will try to post my summer reading here, but I’m very lazy about broadcasting what I’m reading, because I read so much! 

But this is a novel you won’t want to miss. Heartbreak and redemption and a little-known (to Americans) bit of WWII horror. A must for book clubs!

Ah! Success!

Ah! Success!




















The Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin feature asked me to name a book I’ve bought for the cover. Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style by Richard Torregrossa. I’m staring at it right now. 

Come on, people. I really don’t need to spell it out for you, do I?


totally swoon-worthy

totally swoon-worthy

Your turn! What book cover has grabbed your eye in the bookstore?

We all know I love book cover art and the whole process of dressing up a novel to be released into the wild. With Fireside due to hit stores any day now, I can’t wait to see its smiling face! Here’s something interesting– another guy who likes book cover art has showcased his faves on his blog, Book Design Review with Joseph Sullivan. Check out his picks here. He has a very distinctive aesthetic that could NOT be more different from my own. Just goes to show you how subjective this all is.

What are some of your favorite book covers of 2008? Here are a few of mine:

best YA far

best YA far

gorgeous cover, excellent book

gorgeous cover, excellent book

haunting image...intriguing book

haunting image...intriguing book

Im a sucker for handwritten lettering.

I'm a sucker for handwritten lettering. And this layout is genius.

Look-alike covers:

The one on the left is a sci-fi bestseller by the Twilight author. The one on the right is the Bible. Go figure. Sometimes similar images seem to get into the zeitgeist. How many times before it’s declared a trend? Is this one called the “ominous, upward-looking eye” trend?

(Alison Kent has a good post on cover trends here.) Click here to enlarge the cover image

And finally, last but not least…It’s probably not polite to pick yourself, but this has nothing to do with me. My publisher found a fresh and eye-catching image for the book and I really love it. And it’s not just me. For the first time in 30-something covers, I’ve had readers contact me to ask where they can get a poster of the image! As my agent said, “It looks like a day at the beach.”

okay, so Im biased

okay, so I'm biased

One of the most-asked questions of a writer: Where do you get your ideas?

I rarely know; my novels are stitched together with bits and pieces like a crazy quilt. By the time I finish, the inciting idea has morphed and changed so much that it’s virtually disappeared into the fabric of the story.

Not so Isadora. She appeared full-fledged before me, demanded her story be told and refused to morph. I don’t recall why I was paging through an ancient book about Boston, but I came across this illustration:

And…voila! Isadora was born. I knew she was miserable and smart and repressed, and had a fine story to tell. When I finished writing The Charm School, I sent a copy of this portrait to the publisher because in their art questionnaire, they wanted to know what the main character looked like. >>sound of art director howling with laughter<<

Here is Isadora in the illustrator’s imagination, along with a toothsome Ryan. It’s a before-and-after Extreme Makeover. Also note the butterfly, mentioned in yesterday’s post. It’s visible through the die-cut window.


And finally, in stores now, is the 2008 Isadora. She’s looking very fit indeed, Ryan is as flamboyant as ever, and I kind of like that their facees are left up to the imagination.

 What about you? Which cover do you prefer?

So there I was, putting the finishing touches on my revisions, when the carrier John Stennis came steaming home.

Stennis going to Bremerton

Welcome home, Navy guys! This closeup gives you a perspective of its size. Note the 200-car Washington  State Ferry in the background:

carrier detail

In fact, seeing how tiny and vulnerable the people on deck look was the inspiration for the mishap in one of my books.

Barkis took it in stride…

Barkis & carrier

But the show wasn’t over. Along came a shiny new yacht, with a helocopter hovering overhead, apparently filming or photographing it.

helo & yacht

I put up a slide show of the whole business. And here I thought living on the water was supposed to impart a zen-like calm….

Judging by the page views on my previous cover art post, it’s a topic of interest. Here is my 9780778326175_fireside_fc. My friend Karen posted a question about cover art on my web site message board.

“Why doesn’t an author have more input? ….it’s YOUR work and I would think…the author would know best. “I’ve passed over books that had terrible covers on them before…only to have them sent by a book review club that I belong to. Authors and books that I NEVER would have read because of a cover…were GREAT! So? What’s the mindset?”

I gave a talk at a library recently, and we touched on this in the Q&A. Covers matter to readers. We writers might wish that it’s all about story and voice and our unique view of the world, but readers are quick to say that reading a book is about more than words on a page. And so often, the writer’s preference isn’t the best choice for the book. One case in point is the Lakeshore Chronicles covers. I favored a really contemporary, more graphic look for the books, but my publisher kept coming back with this peaceful, nostalgic retro scene. And they were right. The look fits the books, and it draws the eye of the reader most likely to enjoy this type of story.

Sometimes the writer isn’t always the best judge of what her book should look like. I’m not saying she shouldn’t get to voice her opinion, but ultimately, it’s a packaging and marketing issue. I’m not a marketer. There are things I understand about marketing, but I feel better knowing it’s being handled by professionals.

On the other hand, authors can be really influential–and boy, can Hummingbirdthey ever be right. A famous example is the great LaVyrle Spencer, so hugely popular in her time that she was able to influence her cover designs. She wanted to be rid of the embracing-couple look on her books, because she knew that what went on in the bedroom between her characters was not the most important element of the story. It rarely is in romance novels, despite what critics (most of whom have never read one) like to think. [Note: My own books average around 400 printed pages. The sex scenes take up maybe five pages of that. ]

You could see LaVyrle’s covers change Hummingbird reprintas her popularity grew. She went from a classic bodice-ripper look to covers completely dominated by her name, which was the main selling point, anyway. Ultimately, Hummingbird reprintLaVyrle’s publisher found a great look by giving her a bouquet of flowers, with the illustration of the couple on the inside. These were among the first “step-back” covers and readers loved them–a romantic outer cover on the outside and a picture of the characters on the inside. LaVyrle has always been one of the smartest authors in the business.

The degree to which the author is involved in her cover design process varies a lot. Some of us have “cover consultation” specified in our contracts. However, “consultation” can mean anything from major input to simply receiving a picture in e-mail and being asked, “How do you like this?”

An author might be granted the right of “cover approval” in her contract. This might sound desirable, but do you really want to take ultimate responsibility for book design? In my case, no, not anymore than I want an art director telling me how to write my book.

I can think of one writer who would probably disagree with that–James Bernard Frost, a first-time novelist, who caused a bit of a kerfluffle when he publicly and vociferously objected to his cover art. It so happens that his publisher, in my opinion, creates some of the best artwork in the business. According to his blog, he was so hugely unhappy with the art that he took matters into his own hands.

original artre-designed coverauthor's version

The original version (above, left) was beautiful and evocative. I might have picked it up, but according to the author’s blog, he didn’t care for it. I understand that every author has a vision in his or her head of what the finished book will look like. In my case (and apparently in this author’s as well), it’s a collage of images from the story. Well, guess what? These images don’t always add up to the perfect cover. Sometimes, you have to allow that, in a crowded market, a single, stark image will make your book stand out. If that image doesn’t literally nail the book’s content, so what? That is not the goal. The goal is to get the book into the hands of the reader most likely to enjoy your book.

The second version of the Frost book, created in response to the author’s objections to the first, didn’t appeal to me, but I might not be the reader for this kind of book. Finally, the clearly frustrated author had an illustrator create a sticker to cover up the publisher’s art. I wonder how that’s working for him. The tagline of his blog says “The life and opinions of an agentless novelist.” Agentless? Maybe that’s a clue. My literary agent has extremely good judgment when it comes to things like cover art.

On the other hand, this author’s blog post about the whole kerfluffle shows passion and commitment on his part. In the hopes that this dramatic flair will come through in his fiction, I submitted a patron purchase request for his book to my local library.

To read a series of articles with in-depth information about book covers, please visit author Laura Resnick’s web site and click on the link to “A book by its cover.”

[COMING UP: How does a good book wind up with a bad cover? Check back for more in a future post.]

Ask almost any avid romance reader which book got her hooked on the genre, and she’ll likely name a title by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. For me, it was Shanna, which held me mesmerized behind my college math and poly sci textbooks and was a revelation to the budding writer in me.

Millions of readers were saddened by Kathleen’s passing. I was privileged to know her, having met her when she opened her amazing antebellum home to a group of writers who had come to Alexandria, Louisiana for a workshop. She was soft-spoken and gracious. You’d never know, to meet her, how vast her influence was on our industry. She was incredibly humble. To meet her, you’d never know she’d taken the publishing world by storm. My favorite room in her home? The Shanna master bath. It featured the original painting from the book cover and was done in the same lush color scheme.

I gave her a copy of one of my books, which she read and later told me she enjoyed it a lot. (I still have that letter in a special place, tucked into a signed copy of The Flame and the Flower.) Later, I’d get the occasional e-mail from her, letting me know she’d read my latest and giving me glimpses of her journey from Minnesota homemaker to blockbuster author, the likes of which publishing hadn’t seen since Grace Metalious or Jacqueline Susann. According to Kathleen, there were few expectations attached to her first book. She told me the initial print run target was about 30,000 but the actual number was a great deal higher–600,000. Although the book was not an immediate blockbuster, her next one, The Wolf and the Dove, hit #2 on the New York Times list, and a phenomenon was born.

Here’s a snippet of the opening of Shanna, the book that started it all for me and so many others. The writing speaks for itself. Even now, decades later, she takes me away, to another time and place. She was a true original.

Shanna“Surely, madam, you jest. To propose marriage to a man about to hang? Upon my word, I cannot see the logic in it.”

” ‘Tis a matter of some delicacy.” Shanna presented her back to him as if embarrassed and paused before continuing. She spoke demurely over her shoulder. “My father, Orlan Trahern, gave me one year to find a husband, and failure shall find me betrothed to whom he wills. He sees me a spinster and wants heirs for his fortunes. The man must be of a family privy to King George. I have not yet found the one I would choose as my own, though the year is almost gone. You are my one last hope to avoid a marriage arranged by my father.” Now came the hardest part. She had to plead with this filthy, ragged colonial. She kept her face averted to hide her distaste. “I have heard,’ she said carefully, “that a man may marry a woman to take her debts to the gallows in re turn for an easing of his final days. I can give you much, Ruark–food, wines, suitable clothing and warm blankets. And surely my cause–”

At his continued silence, Shanna turned toward him and tried to see his features in the gloom, but he had carefully maneuvered their positions until she now was presented full to the light when she faced him. The wily beggar had moved so stealthily that she had not been aware of it.

Ruark’s voice was somewhat strained as he finally said, “Milady, you test me sorely. A gentleman my mother tried to teach me to be, with good respect for womanhood.” Shanna’s breath caught as he stepped nearer. “But my father, a man of considerable wisdom, taught me early in my youth a rule I’ve long abided.”

He walked slowly around her, much as she had done with him a few moments before, then halted when he stood at her back. Scarcely breathing, Shanna waited, feeling his nearness yet not daring to move.

“Never–” Ruark’s whisper came close to her ear, stirring awake a tingling of fear in her. “Never buy a mare with a blanket on.”

Shanna could not suppress a flinch as his hands came over her shoulders and hovered above the fasteners of her cloak.

“May I?’ he asked and his voice, though soft, seemed to fill the very corners of the cell. Ruark accepted her silence as consent, and Shanna braced herself while his lean fingers undid the velvet frogs. He drew the cloak from her, and though lacking splendorous trimming and fancy laces, her deep red velvet gown enhanced her beauty divinely. She was the gem, the jewel of rare beauty which made the dress more than a garment but rather a work of art. Above the hooped panniers which expanded her skirt on the sides, the tightly laced bodice showed the narrowness of her waist while it cupped her bosom to a most daring display above the square decolletage. In the golden glow of the tallow lantern, her skin gleamed like rich, warm satin.

Ruark stood close, his breath falling softly against her hair, his head filled with the delicious scent of woman.

My author copies have arrived. I even know when Dockside will appear in stores, because there is a sticker on the packing boxes:

Dockside street date

The label says, “This box contains Dockside by Susan Wiggs. DO NOT DISPLAY until July 24, 2007.” I cheated a little. Sent an early copy to my mom and Carly Phillips’s mom.

I’m marking my calendar. The idea behind the street date is that the book will go on sale all over North America on the same day. Very smart move by my publisher.

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