Thursday, 25 August 2011

Judging a book by its cover

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how my second novel, The Helper, went through the editing stage. Other things have happened since then. In particular, I've been considering the book's cover.

To me, and I guess to many authors, seeing the proposed book cover for the first time is one of the most exciting stages in the whole process of preparing a book for print. For the first time you get some idea of how the book will look on the shelves. It somehow becomes more real as a product that people will pick up and (hopefully) buy. It follows, therefore, that the cover is of vital importance in attracting customers, and so it has to be fresh and different and have huge visual impact. As the author, I also want to be sure that the cover accurately reflects the pages it contains in terms of theme and concept.

Having said that, the author does not get much say in the cover design. The publisher's arts department will generate a variety of visual ideas which are considered at meetings comprising a whole load of people, including editors and those from sales and marketing. The publisher will also talk to retailers about their views on what will look good on their shelves. The author is, I'm afraid, at the back of the queue when it comes to being consulted about the cover, and I would guess (although I have not had to do this) that it would be difficult for an author - especially a newcomer - to insist on major changes after all the deliberation that has already taken place.

In the case of Pariah, my first novel, the first version of the cover design that I was shown looked like this:

And this eventually became the following:

As you can see, the major elements are still there - the New York skyline, the man with the case - but there are some important differences. The steaming manhole cover has gone, to be replaced by the expanding shadow from the man, and the slant now goes through the top of the book title rather than the bottom. The original idea to have the figure of the man as the letter 'I' in PARIAH has also now been abandoned. It was felt that 'Pariah' was an obscure enough word in itself without adding further visual confusion (I'll blog about the saga over the title another time!). And of course, there is the addition of colour - that bright yellow that really makes the book stand out.

Other aspects of cover design also have to be considered. There is the 'shoutline' - the line of text that sometimes appears below the title to add further enticement to read the book. For Pariah, my editor came up with 'What if the biggest threat to those you love was yourself?' which I really like. Extracts from newspaper reviews and author quotes might also appear on a cover. Then there is the possibility of an author photo on the inside cover, perhaps accompanied by a short bio. Last but not least, there is the 'cover copy' - the blurb on the back of the book that tells the reader what it's about in a couple of paragraphs that, hopefully, grab that reader by the throat and don't let go. In the case of The Helper, my editor drafted the initial cover copy and then I made some alterations which (I think) have now been accepted.

At the time that Pariah was accepted for publication, there was only one book to think about, and so the cover could be designed in isolation. Now that I have a contract for two further novels, however, the situation has changed. The cover design has to be considered more as a branding exercise, with a theme that can run over a sequence of books. This means that when the mass market paperback edition of Pariah comes out next February, it will have a new cover that looks nothing like the existing one shown above. The cover for The Helper, which should come out about a month later, will fit in with this new design, but still look original and exciting. I have seen both of these new covers and I think they're brilliant. I'll blog about them here as soon as they are finalised.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

I am in Germany

Or rather my debut novel, Pariah, is in Germany. Or rather, Ausgestossen, as it has been titled over there, is now officially available, and has been since the start of the month.

It's a curious thing, being published in a foreign land. I still haven't held a copy of the German edition in my hands, and I wouldn't be able to read it if I did. (I was actually pretty good at German at school, but that was more years ago than I care to remember).

It's probably a good thing that I can't read it. It must be incredibly difficult to translate any novel, but one which contains a lot of slang and local dialect must be doubly difficult. For example, I often have characters say 'I wanna' rather than 'I want to', because it gives more of the flavour of New York speech. But is there an equivalent for that in German? Or in other languages for that matter? What about 'diddly-squat'? Or 'shit-for-brains' ? Can one translate those things and still retain authenticity? I worry, therefore, that if I were able to translate the novel back into English, I would discover that it bore little resemblance to the original.

But perhaps that doesn't matter. English-language novels and films get translated into other languages all the time, and generally you don't hear complaints about it. Clearly, though, there must be good translators and not-so-good translators. Fortunately, the German translator for Pariah is one of the excellent ones. Her name is Tanja Handels. I have never met her, never even corresponded with her, but I have heard great things about her work. She has translated works by Zadie Smith, Ann Cleeves, PJ Tracy and John Grisham, to name just a few. I also have a top-notch German publishing company. Rowohlt have published authors such as Kingsley Amis, Michael Crichton, PD James, Albert Camus, and Roald Dahl, so I feel honoured to be on their lists.

There is really only one way to discover how effectively Pariah translates, and that this is to see what the readers think. My first German review appeared recently, and you can see a roughly translated version here. As you'll see, the reviewer gives it a thumbs-up, awarding it 10 out of 10 'bookworms'. One thing I particularly liked about it is that the reviewer has me pegged as an American author! Even if the novel loses something in the translation, it's nice to know that it has some authenticity about it beforehand.