Thursday 22 April 2010

The London Book Fair Day Two: It's the UK against the world in book cover design

The talk was meant to be about international perspectives on cover design - there were to be two British publishers — Patrick Insole from Walker Books and Jon Lambert from Templar — and Christine Baker from the French publisher, Gallimard Jeunnesse.

But we lost the French publisher due to the transportation chaos - Antonia Pelari, rights director of Scholastic stepped in at the last minute.

Patrick, Antonia and Jon

Despite the exotic sound to her name, Antonia is as British as the other two speakers making the 'international panel' thoroughly UK led. But I thought the resulting event - though not what it said on the tin - was revelatory about the UK market. Illustrator John Shelley blogged very perceptively about it today.

Jon of Templar showed the evolution of this Eragon cover with the author Christopher Paolini very much hands on - changing the key image up to the last minute. But this is an aberration rather than the rule. The author may be consulted but the opinion that counts the most would be "the client". Who's the client? The bookseller.

Patrick of Walker showed the evolution of international covers for The Savage by David Almond and illustrated by Dave McKean. Candlewick, the American arm of Walker, felt that the original cover (on the right) was too "brutal". So McKean came up with the cover on the left which is the US cover.

It just goes to show that violence is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's the French cover - very chic. Said Patrick, "Even though internationally the covers (of The Savage) look different, there’s a family likeness to all the books."

"Sometimes when authors see the covers of their foreign editions, they are a bit taken aback," Antonia said, because the international interpretation may be so far from their own. "What they need to realize is that those international publishers create a cover that will work within their market and nobody knows that market better than they do."

Antonia showed these covers of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and illustrated by David Frankland.

On the left is the UK cover by David Frankland and on the right is the Dutch cover. Indeed this Dutch edition didn't do well. The rights have now reverted and been picked up and the cover on the left is now what bookstores are stocking in the Netherlands. "They don't always get it right," Antonia said.

With the British book market contracting slightly in the downturn, overseas sales have become so important to UK publishers that appealing to all markets has become very, very important.

The problem for picture book illustration in the UK of course, as pointed out by Sunday Times critic Nicolette Jones, who hosted the panel, is that we might end up in a "generic place".

She cited as an example picture book illustrations which show cars with the steering wheel in the middle. "We could end up with a generic picture book land where things look a particular way and not at all like real life."

All this talk of covers made me wonder if my own book TALL STORY (out in May ...  pre-order here - I am not ashamed to beg but please don't make me do it too often) could jump through all the hoops mentioned by our panel. So here are some things that were said and how my cover stands up to them.
It is incredibly hard to make children not look sinister and disturbing. 
Hmm. The child on my cover is eight feet tall. But he doesn't look too sinister.
Tall Story Cover
Illustration David Dean. Cover design Alison Godsby
A luxury space like the Barns and Noble in New York (would have room to display your book cover). But the majority of bookstores cram them in – a lead title might be face out but everything else will be spine. 
Tall Story spine:
Yay! I love that the girl with the basketball points toward the cover as if saying, "Check out this book!"
For the sake of the international market, we avoid putting things on the cover that might be too specific - like a big red double decker bus.
Tall Story back cover

It's all not necessarily so of course, the panel said. There are really no rules although it might seem like it.

Getting the cover right is - like everything in the book business - all about balancing risk with doing the best you can - Jon Lambert summed it up beautifully:
What we are trying to sell people is a common goal not to exclude anyone from reading a great book. 
An aside about the cover of Tall Story: I LOVE it --  it's so ... 3D! It's so full of story, whether you're looking at the flaps, the spine, the back or the front. And I especially LOVE the big red double decker bus. I'm sure the Philippine Department of Tourism loves it too! Thanks, David and Alison! You rock!


  1. Candy, you rock! I'm actually in the midst of writing an essay about cover art and was so bummed to miss this talk at the LBF. So thanks so much for blogging it!

    By the way, also have to say, I LOVE your cover. And how exciting to have your Filipino character, obviously not white, right on the cover. Along with the the vibrant setting details and the bright colours... LOVE IT!

  2. Thanks, Candy, for the blow-by-blow. I also love the cover, and how interactive it is. No white washing here, either! Can't wait to read the book...

  3. Perfect example of excellent rule breaking :O)

  4. thanks for posting on this - very interesting. My favourite covers at the moment are the capuchin Classics...

    Happy Thursday evening


  5. Very very interesting. I always love the UK vs US cover comparisons that some bloggers feature. I love the cover for Tall Stoy, and the spine is brilliant.
    Did they talk at all about the many lookalike black and red covers out at the moment?

  6. keren - hah! yes they did talk about the look alike black and red covers - i was just in a hurry and didn't include that. i'll do a quick shortie about that.

  7. TALL STORY is a great story with a great cover!!

  8. laura - interesting that you should mention whitewashing. originally, the character on the spine who is mixed race was as brown as the character on the cover. i requested that the illustrator lighten her skin - there is a quiet message in the book about the politics of mixed race ...

  9. Gosh, I don't think anyone has said I "rock" before, so thanks for that. Rest assured, Candy, Tall Story rocks too and I'm sure it will do very well regardless of the cover.

    Sounds like that talk on children's book covers was very interesting.

    I had to laugh at the "oops" in regard to the red double decker bus! Fortunately it's on the back cover so hopefully may not be too much of an issue. David Fickling Books do always seem to be prepared to take a risk with their covers and do something different - I've done three covers for them (and Alison) now, including yours, and whilst none of them are particularly ground-breaking or daring, I don't think they could be accused of being just like everything else out there. The trick is coming up with something that is eye-catching but not so different that nobody will pick it up, which is why a lot of publishers probably find it easier and safer to follow an established trend. Which is fine, but it leads to some very boring bookshelves.


  10. hey david! i loved your covers for lauren st john way before DFB picked me up! i think it's a big statement when a publisher chooses a cover that isn't like anything else on the bookshelves and your cover for Tall Story isn't like anything out. Very proud of it! Thank you!

    PS i was happy with the original drawing you did of me on the back flap.

  11. So interesting - was talking covers just this morning with a friend. Thanks for sharing, Candy!

  12. And to think I almost didn't attend this one!


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