The Unspoken Cover Story

I was once asked by a lovely lady at a convention what getting a cover felt like.

‘Well,’ I said after a pause. ‘It’s kind of like someone coming up behind you in a dark alley. Maybe it’s a friend who you’re going to be delighted to see after the moment of terror passes! And maybe… you’re about to get mugged by a stranger with a rusty blade and a broken bottle, and a menacing expression.’

Now, I have already told the tale of how I a) met Mallory Loehr, Editor Extraordinaire, in my underwear and b) somehow cozened her into buying Unspoken.

I already wanted to sell Mallory the book, because a lady whose edits are ‘Let’s make this more like Diana Wynne Jones’ is an editor I want to work with.

But Mallory did another wondersome thing during the auction of Unspoken. She sent me links to the work of a dozen different cover artists she liked, and I really liked them too. Quoth I to myself, ‘Sarah, this lady has taste. She will give you a very fine cover.’

And covers, as we all know, are the number one reason books sell. We say ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ for the same reason we say ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ – people always do. I am an inveterate poultry-counter and cover-judger myself.

Plus, one wants ones baby to be kitted out in beautiful clothes.

So, the auction came to a close, and I was with Mallory, to my extreme joy. And then Mallory did another amazing thing. She let me pick the cover artist.

We both liked her. We wrote up what we’d like the cover to look like. I was introduced to my cover designer, Jan Gerardi, and we all talked together.

It was deeply confusing.

MALLORY: Any more ideas, Sarah?
SARAH: Are you sure you want to hear my ideas? Are you sure? … You do know I’m the writer, right? I don’t count!
MALLORY: Yes, we are sure, crazy though you currently sound.
SARAH: Um, well, I did think. The Lynburn Legacy books are about nature a lot, right? Because the setting is important, and the woods and the countryside play in, and so I was thinking…
MALLORY: Speak on.
SARAH: An autumn cover, a winter cover and a spring cover?
JAN: Great idea, Sarah! Let’s start with an autumn cover. Something gold, or perhaps red!
SARAH: Why are you listening to me? I don’t understand…

They continued their mystifying behaviour, and we had a rough cover, and everything was going pretty great, I thought!

And then disaster struck.

MALLORY: Sarah, I hate to tell you this, but our cover artist disappeared.
SARAH: What do you mean?
MALLORY: She doesn’t answer the phone when we call. She does not answer emails, or letters.
SARAH: That is not normal behaviour!
MALLORY: No it is not. Our current theory is that she murdered someone and is on the lam.
SARAH: How will we get my cover now?
MALLORY: We’re going to have to start from scratch and get a totally new cover.
MALLORY: … Sarah? Sarah, did you pass out?
SARAH: … Maybe yes.

My cover artist disappeared into thin air. This does not happen to everyone. It was clear to me: I was cursed.

Mallory was awesome the whole time. ‘Now we can get a super unique cover!’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Let’s talk concepts!’ I sat in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth and muttering ‘the mirror crack’d from side to side, the curse has fallen upon me…’

When I was not rocking back and forth, I sent Jan and Mallory approximately 180 pictures attached, and we had many conversations. I was still confused about being included in these conversations, but I did make many suggestions.

And then the curse fell upon me again.

First let me explain what stock art is. It is art already done, which publishers can buy for book covers if they like. Less expensive than a cover shoot (if your cover’s photographic) and often extremely pretty. Twilight‘s cover is stock art. We were all three of us discussing artists and photographers and looking for stock art at the same time.

MALLORY: I’ve found this great stock art that will be perfect for the covers! I’m sending it to you now! It’s all set and everybody loves it.
SARAH (quietly, to herself): … Oh no I hate it.

I knew what happened when an author hates the cover everyone else loves. What do writers know of covers or art? Writers are not art departments. We shouldn’t get to choose, and mostly, we don’t.

Nevertheless, good to register a token protest. I emailed my agent and asked her to call and register our non-love for the cover. This is part of why one has an agent: so you do not have to yell at people yourself. Agents can talk calmly and professionally while you run around in circles crying ‘WOE!’ to the ceiling.

So I was gloomily straightening my hair and getting ready to go see a play, when my phone rang.

SARAH: … MALLORY WHY ARE YOU CALLING ME? This is all supposed to happen with me… not involved… My plan to scream ‘Woe!’ at the ceiling is ruined if you are on the phone!
MALLORY: Do you hate your cover?
SARAH: Hate is a strong word.
MALLORY: But do you?
SARAH: … Strongly accurate. Yes I do.
MALLORY: Then it’s gone. That cover is off the table.
SARAH: You’re kidding me.
MALLORY: I’m not.
SARAH: Are you high?
MALLORY: … I am not…

I may have slightly scandalised Mallory with that question, but you must understand that that was a bizarre thing for her to do. Writers much, much more successful than me have hated their covers long ere this, and publishers have said unto them ‘Too bad.’ I have tried to get covers changed before, and it has not happened.

This was a stunning thing for her to do. I was very happy, and even more surprised.

So, it was time for another phone conversation about What On Earth We Were Going To Do.

JAN: So I still really like Sarah’s seasons cover idea, we have to keep that, so we need nature.
MALLORY: What about architecture? Architecture’s very Gothic.
SARAH: Silhouettes, what would we think about silhouettes? Shadow selves, and the shadows of the past…
MALLORY: And we want it to look romantic.
JAN: And mysterious.
MALLORY: But Kami has to look active on the cover. No swooning or fainting or even running away. She is not like that.
SARAH: This is all hopeless, hopeless, we will never have a cover, I am cursed… cursed… the curse has fallen upon me…
MALLORY (who by this time was used to me): …I’ve just had a brilliant idea.

The next day, Mallory asked me if I’d heard of an artist called Beth White, who worked in cut paper, and did an amazing job with architecture and nature and silhouettes.

Cut paper is literally what it sounds like–art created by cutting black paper with a knife, into images.

An article on the lovely and talented Beth White, showing some of her art.

SARAH: Great idea! She seems amazing! I’d love to have a cover done by her! But I’m cursed. So it’ll all go wrong. She’ll probably get kidnapped. Or abducted by art-loving aliens…
MALLORY: … I’ll go describe the book to Beth White and see if she’d like to do this thing.

Beth White, amazingly, seemed as if she’d like to do this thing. And so I waited, in fear and trembling, for the rough sketch.

It arrived when I was in the airport in Atlanta. I looked around in terror lest I was about to lose it.

OTHER PEOPLE WAITING TO GET ON A PLANE WITH ME: I wish that tall girl didn’t look quite so shifty.
SARAH: Oh God oh God I can’t look but I have to look right now because I have to get on a plane!
SARAH: looks
SARAH: It’s… so beautiful…
SARAH: bursts into tears because of the beauty
AN OLDER GENTLEMAN: Are you okay? Are you… homicidally upset?
SARAH (through her tears): This is mine!
OLDER GENTLEMAN (looking at screen): Oh. You’re a very talented artist!

It was an understandable misunderstanding.

I think everyone on that plane thought I was a maniac. And then Beth White made the final Piece of Art, and sent said giant piece of art to Random House, and then the art was sent out to be photocopied in a HUGE PHOTOCOPIER, and I spent all my time certain the art was going to be stolen. (‘By art-loving aliens?’ asked Mallory, having by now a firm grip on my mental processes.)

But the cover wasn’t stolen. And it was sent to me in rose red and gold.

And it became clear to me that I wasn’t cursed. For it is perhaps my favourite cover, perhaps of anyone’s covers at all, let alone mine, perhaps of ALL TIME.

The full jacket (it has art on the front AND the back, because I am the FANCIEST) is going to be revealed on the Booksmugglers blog tomorrow, and you will all see how lucky I am.

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