Michele Gorman Talks Covers
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an indecisive glutton. In bookshops I stand paralyzed before the walls and tables of delightful tomes. When I see a tray full of cupcakes, I want one of each, please. I risk meltdowns at sample sales, my head spinning at the sight of so many lovely clothes to choose from. In short, I suffer from too-many-optionsitis.
So I’m in big trouble when it comes to designing book covers.
It was lucky for me that when Single in the City (my debut) was published, Penguin UK took care of all the details. My editor asked me for ideas, and I bombarded her with them. Then I waited and wondered and waited some more, until the day I received the cover draft from the designers. The decision was out of my hands. I could love or hate the end result, but I couldn’t influence it. Luckily I loved it.
The process was very different for Single in the City’s sequel, Misfortune Cookie. I was in the driving seat. When I thought about all the decisions I’d have to make, I really wanted to hand the keys over to a designated driver. But there were no volunteers. I was behind the wheel.
For me, publishing independently doesn’t mean doing it on my own. I surround myself with the finest professionals I can. My agent does the content edits. I use a copy editor for line-edits. So it made sense to hire a superb designer for the cover. Nellie Ryan was the genius who illustrated Single in the City’s cover, and she accepted the commission for Misfortune Cookie. Rather than terrify her with a rambling mind dump when she asked for the brief, I enlisted the help of my agent, Caroline to discuss some ideas. We knew that a few things would be critical: setting, subject and tone. This was the brief.
Subject: A girl’s figure that reflects the story
Tone: Chick lit/women’s fiction
We gave Nellie our ideas and after several rough sketches and tweaks, this was the result. It was my idea, the Hong Kong cityscape, the table, the cookie and the thoughtful girl.
It ticked the boxes, and was elegant and beautiful, but a little thought niggled. Misfortune Cookie is a fun book, the kind you take on holiday or read on your commute to take your mind off the real world. It’s a fish-out-of-water adventure in high heels, with a sassy heroine, light and funny.
The cover just didn’t reflect that. So we started to change it. We pinkified it. We shaved down the mountain to highlight the title more clearly (apologies to Hong Kongers for making a molehill out of your mountain).
It was better, but something still bothered me. It hit me as I scanned the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list of books that sits on every book’s Amazon page. I’d forgotten the cardinal rule when selling on Amazon. Book covers have to be clear and eye-catching when very very small. And those covers are teeny.
Looking at the books listed with Misfortune Cookie in this section, dear reader, I was struck with envy. Cover envy. Mine didn’t look like all the others. It didn’t sing, “I’m a fun book. Go on, give me a chance.” And it didn’t look anything like it’s sister, Single in the City.
So we went back to the drawing board.
I’d made a very common cover design mistake. The cover was too busy. It drew the eye to several parts of the illustration without highlighting any of them clearly. “Don’t be afraid of white space”, someone way cleverer than me once said. “Less is more”, my mother always admonished (usually when assessing my teenage makeup attempts, but the advice applied here too). So I started with white space, and carefully layered in setting and subject. I toyed with three design options: just the girl, girl with cityscape, or girl with cityscape and Star Ferry (an icon in Hong Kong).
The first font looked a big wonky, and dark because of its bevelled effect. The second was a bit too magic-marker-y, and the third was too skinny, but I liked the flow of that one best. I figured I could probably fatten it up.
The boat was too domineering but I liked the idea, and I also liked the idea of including a tag line (i.e. a snappy one-liner). We just needed to figure out how to get both in there without cluttering things up. We also changed the font on my name to soften it.
Almost, but still not quite fun enough. So I asked for readers’ opinions, and a few suggested making the cover look more Chinese. Hand-held fans or chopsticks-in-the-hair were out, because they couldn’t be seen clearly in the little thumbnail image. So I tried this.
And by George, I think we finally got it! I loved the sweep of the tag line that draws your eye in, and the umbrella that caps the figure, making it work really well in the foreground. The cityscape is light enough not to clutter up the middle of the page, and it’s easy to see in a small thumbnail. I fattened up the title font, and the cover perfectly fulfils our brief: Hong Kong-y, girly, chick lit-y fun. I love it. I hope you do too.
It was a long process but it taught me a few very important lessons. First, the cover has to reflect the tone of the book as much as its content. That’s as true of the fonts (which I still have nightmares about) as it is of the illustrations. Second, clutter is as unhealthy for your book cover as it is for your closets. Mom was right: less is more. And third, each cover competes with thousands of others for readers’ attention. It has to say, with a cheeky nod and a wink, “Come on over and have a look”. That’s its purpose, it’s raison d’etre, to give the book a chance to be read. If the cover doesn’t engage and excite curiosity, readers won’t even click on it to see what it’s about, or read the first few chapters for free.
I’d love to know what you think of the cover. Does it make you want to know more, and click Look Inside on the Amazon page to start reading? And how do you sift through the thousands of options out there to choose your next book?