Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
March 2011

On Titles and Cover Art

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if I illustrated my own covers, or if I got to choose my covers. The answer for almost all authors, even big names, is no. We do not control cover art. And mostly, we do not want to control cover art. What you should understand about the publishing industry before you go into it is that the cover art and even the title of your novel are largely going to be controlled by the marketing end of your publishing house. And this is to your advantage. I am not saying that you should always agree with the marketing directors' decisions about your cover art. But I am saying that you might want to listen to their business acumen. And the same goes for title. Ultimately, it belongs to the author, but be flexible enough to listen to other opinions.

I will say up front that I have been blessed by fabulous cover art on all of my books. I suspect that this is mostly sheer luck. It is also because I have had editors who have cared enough about my books to make sure that they watched over the book every step of the way. Having an editor who cares deeply about your book is a huge advantage, and not just when it comes to titles and cover art. What can you do to make sure that you have an editor who cares deeply about your book? Well, you write the best book that you can. And then you make sure you have an agent who makes a personal connection with an editor. Sometimes you will choose an editor offering less money who is a better fit for you. Still, you won't have total control over this, as editors sadly move from house to house; and even if they love your book, they may be forced to do this so that they can continue to have a job. If your book is orphaned, even the new editor will likely be trying to do the best by you and for the house. Yes, I have heard horror stories of four and even five editors leaving a book. And of editors who seem to care nothing about books. And that situation probably needs an essay all its own.

I have had six books published, and have four more under contract. I am going to do a quick run-down of the title situation for each. The Monster In Me, my first book, was published in 2002 by Holiday House. I originally titled the book The Monster IS Me. In my correspondence with the editor before it was accepted, she misread the title. I ended up keeping her misreading simply because it seemed more natural. My second book, Mira, Mirror, (Viking 2004) was originally titled Mirror, Mirror. I was innocently typing my title into Amazon.com about nine months before the book was due to come out when I discovered a book coming out by Gregory Maguire nearly the same time, with my title, and it was already in the system. It happened soon enough that we were able to discuss title changes. I think it was actually my editor (or someone at the publishing house) who suggested Mira, Mirror, but it could have been me. I don't remember anymore. This is one of those cases where a forced name change was a huge bonus. Mira, Mirror is far more memorable as a title than Mirror, Mirror, though not necessarily easy to distinguish with some accents.

My third book, The Princess and the Hound (Harper 2007), was my title. No one ever suggested a change, though the book is actually written from the viewpoint of the prince. I think marketing rightly assumed that the book would sell more to teen girls than to teen boys, though I have had some teen boys who are flexible readers who enjoyed it. The title rightly gives the feeling of the book, which is medieval German-ish never-never land. It also hints at the central mystery, which is why Prince George cannot speak to this one hound of all the animals in the world he can speak with magically. And it hints at magic and romance. My publisher described this book from the first as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Looking back on the story, I can see the hints of that fairy tale deep down. But I wrote it as a new fairy tale, intending for readers to feel like they should know this fairy tale, but that they had never heard it before. I think the title does a good job of hinting at that, as well.

I think it was Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) who once told me that a good title should have an element of traditional fantasy in it, and then a twist. One of his examples was War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. Also his own The Runelords. I suppose The Princess and the Hound mixes two elements of traditional fantasy (royalty and talking animals). I don't know how much of a twist it gives, but maybe a little.

The second book in that same series (my fourth) was originally titled The Hound and the Bear by me. I intended the third book in the series to be The Hound's Daughter. Not inspired titles, I'm afraid. I tend to give rather literal titles to books. And to me, the series was tied together by the hound as a character who was in all three books. She wasn't the main character in each book, but her concerns were part of each plot and theme. The whole question of what it is to be human came from her. However, the powers that be (Marketing) felt strongly that the book should be title The Princess and the Bear (Harper 2009), because "princess" was a word that marketing felt drew teen girls in. I argued that there was in fact, no princess in the book. There was a hound who married a king and became a queen. I suggested The Queen and the Bear to no avail, because queens are too old for teen readers. I still sometimes get in a mood about this title and will sign books to readers "There is no princess in this book." But the book did well with that title and I've never heard a reader complain about it. I did not change anything in the text of the book to make the hound into a princess.

My fifth book (Harper 2010) was the third in the Princess series and was eventually titled The Princess and the Snowbird. This is, in the end, a much better title than The Hound's Daughter, and I admit it. By this point, I knew the marketing department well enough that I changed the book slightly to make the snowbird a more important character than it had been in the first draft. This might have happened without the title change, and it improved the book in more than one way.

My sixth book (Egmont 2011) is Tris and Izzie. This was my original title for the series. Again, it is mostly literal. It is a retelling in a contemporary setting of the old German epic Tristan and Isolde. I thought using those names in the title would make it sound old-fashioned and vaguely Wagnerian, which I didn't want. I wanted to make sure the book could be enjoyed by anyone, not just those who had seen the 2006 movie or had read the original in one of its various forms. Also, the character who tells the story is Izzie, and she has been told she has no magic. Her name fits with contemporary high school, as does the name Tris, for the male lead who is disguising himself as a non-magical high school senior transfer student.

The series under contract with Harper was originally titled Two Princesses, Two Magics, Two Queens. My literal titling is apparent here again. It is about two princesses in a kingdom with two magics, who eventually become queens of their respective kingdoms. But the editor and I have talked a bit about titles and at this point have decided on A Crown of Diamonds and Sapphires as a more evocative title that allows a more interesting cover. The other two books of the series will likely be variations on that, with Sword and Flute in the titles. We'll see. As for my last book under contract, I don't have a firm title for it yet. The working title is Magic and Misapprehension, and it's a sort of Regency fantasy/romance. The title it supposed to hint at Jane Austen, though the book isn't Austen at all.

The title of a book is really the first part of your book that a reader sees. It is more important than cover copy. It is more important than the first line or first chapter of your book, which are very, very important. I suppose it doesn't help much to stress out about having the perfect title, but you want to spend time thinking about it. You can spend that time while you are working on your novel, while you are reading other novels and thinking about good titles (or bad ones) that have been used. But spend time on it.

Twilight is an interesting choice in terms of cover and title. It is an abstract concept, and the cover is abstract, as well. A lot of paranormal authors in YA have had similar covers. Take Aprilynne Pike's Wings as an example of the abstract cover and title. Many also have a red color scheme and a model on the cover like The Dark Divine by BreeDespain. I compare this whole genre to, say, The Hunger Games. A very literal title, but the cover is abstract. And a lot of other dystopians have similar covers, abstract and dark. James Dashner's The Maze Runner or Bumped by Megan McCafferty.

Now, on to covers. I have had very little say in covers, and this is true of most authors.When you sign a contract with a publisher, you keep the copyright to your work. You are selling to the publisher the right to publish a particular edition, and you grant them the right to market the book as they see fit. You don't tell the publisher what ads to run or how much to spend on book placement in a bookstore. Likewise, you don't choose the cover or the copy on the cover. (Occasionally I have been asked to look through it, but I have never written it.)

Mostly, I get the cover art with the ARC (about 4-6 months before publication) and I can choose to either love it or ask my agent to go to bat to get it changed. With The Princess and the Hound, I was actually allowed to have some input on two separate cover ideas, with different models in different green dresses. I voted for the cover which is on the book, though I don't know that my word was final. I was surprised because I liked the other dress better in some ways, but I liked the model facing away from the reader. It seemed to fit her character. I wrote into The Princess and the Bear the red velvet dress that the cover model is wearing and was absurdly pleased when my vision of the cover came mostly true. I have all three of my first three novels' cover art in original form (where available, or a signed print) up in my front room because I think they were good art as well as good covers, though there is no reason that this has to be true.

With Snowbird, I was frustrated at the initial cover because the dress on the model was not the dress I had described in the book and the snowbird in the background was obviously a brown hawk. In my book, the snowbird is a magical creature that is hidden against snow because it is so white. I felt strongly the cover needed to be changed, and in fact, I did this without asking my agent to step in. I simply described in a short email to my editor what I liked about the cover (first) and then what changes I felt were needed and why. The editor was very professional, took my concerns to her committee, and came back with a compromise. In the end, I changed the description of the dress to match the cover art, and the artist whitened the wings of the bird. I was very happy with this. I felt like I had handled things professionally, and that the publisher had, as well.

For Tris and Izzie, I got to see the cover almost a year before the book came out, but I had nothing to say. I loved the cover without reservation. It had the right romantic feel, and as I keep saying when people ask -- what could be bad about a hot guy without a shirt on? It works for the Twilight movies, right? Why not for my book? Seriously, though, I also loved that the skiff that I describe in the book ended up on the cover. That was one of the unique images from the novel and the designer was able to find a stock photo that fit it well. I also like the fact that the girl is looking into the eyes of the audience. She is the one telling the story, so that worked. The cover gives the immediate information that this is a romance, but not an ordinary one. I think that is all that it needs.

OK, a couple of examples of cover art not on my own books. One recent book that came out and that did, from my understanding, better than expected perhaps in part because of a genius cover was Zombies vs. Unicorns, an anthology edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbelestier. Holly and Justine are both well-known writers in their own rights, and they got some big names to contribute to the book. But anthologies don't always sell well. The cover on this book, a black cutout over a strange, colorful pastoral scene with zombies and unicorns is perfect. There are dark stories in this anthology, and the cover hints at that. There are also lighter stories.

Another cover I love is the one from Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice. Clearly, a lot of money was spent on the cover, and the illustrator is John Howe. Beautiful, fantasy art that fits the book perfectly. Naomi Novik's Temeraire books are more of the abstract variety, with an icon of the cover rather than a picture. I like them a lot.

Now on to some examples of covers I think are wretched. Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books have had almost universally terrible covers. I suppose that they are fairly standard Baen, but the one on Brothers in Arms, which was rumored to have been made for another book and cut and pasted for this one, has been replaced, thank goodness. The latest ones are a little better, and they have the virtue of selling books to a male audience though the author is clearly female. They are new Space Opera, and without these more standard covers might not have sold as well, so even these bad covers have a certain reasoning behind them that makes sense. I suspect Bujold doesn't love them, but she accepts them as a necessity for selling books.

Another cover I don't like at all is Shannon Hale's The Actor and the Housewife. I am only picking books I love here, and if I haven't said it elsewhere, this is one of my favorite books of all time. I love Shannon Hale, but this is a special book about Mormons and being a housewife and a writer and it appeals to my soul in a way it may not appeal to everyone. Nonetheless, the figures with their heads cut off feel creepy to me, and the housewife is cheesy and Brady Bunch-esque. Yet there is a reason that marketing chose this cover. Obviously, they thought it appealed to the audience and was a short-hand of what the book was about. It is about a housewife and a famous actor in a funny story that isn't quite romance. I think they didn't want Mormonism on the cover, so it's not there.

What it comes down to in the end is that the author gets neither the credit nor the blame for cover art. An author might possibly consult on the cover art. The title is often the author's creation, but not always, and might be changed several times. This is why authors tend to be cautious giving out titles before the book is actually printed. It's always in flux. As an author, think twice before complaining about a cover. But once you have thought twice, if you can be professional and calm and reasoned about your problems, don't feel bad about discussing them with an editor or agent. Probably there will be some compromise found, and in the end, you will be very happy about your book's cover and title.

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