Thursday, 17 April 2014

Guest Post: Mark Alder Talks Son of the Morning Covers!

Son of the Morning is published today, April 17th, in the UK, and it sounds AMAZING. It's had a 5/5 star review in SFX magazine and is garnering great reviews from fellow readers and bloggers. I loved the sound of it as soon as I knew about it, and I was even more excited when I heard it was Gollancz who were publishing it. If you're not sure what I'm on about, here's a synopsis:
Edward the Third stands in the burnt ruin of an English church. He is beset on all sides. He needs a victory against the French to rescue his Kingship. Or he will die trying. Philip of Valois can put 50,000 men in the field. He has sent his priests to summon the very Angels themselves to fight for France. Edward could call on God for aid but he is an usurper. What if God truly is on the side of the French? But for a price, Edward could open the gates of Hell and take an unholy war to France . . . Mark Alder has brought the epic fantasy of George R.R. Martin to the vivid historical adventure of Bernard Cornwell and has a created a fantasy that will sweep you to a new vision of the Hundred Years War.

I've always been fascinated with book covers and the evolution they go through before reaching the finish line, and Son of the Morning has a fantastic cover journey. Mark has very kindly written a piece on the cover design, and has included some very interesting images. Hope you enjoy reading this and extra big thanks to Mark for taking the time to write it for me!


Covers Are Tricky
by Mark Alder

Covers are tricky. People judge a book by them. Getting the cover right, even in these days of ebooks, is essential to any novel.
If you hit the wrong note you can alienate readers or make them believe you’re just another ‘me too’ product, a candy coloured chick lit novel or just a standard fantasy with a mysterious figure in a hood staring out at you from the bookshelves. Being seen as a standard genre novel might not be all that bad. The first aim of a cover is not, whatever we may want in an ideal world, originality. It is to say to the reader ‘this is the sort of book you like to read’. So packaging something generically – a moody shot of an underground car park for a thriller, say – is not a mistake per se.
Likewise the titles. The author may have wanted to call her detective novel ‘Among the Narcissi’ as a sign of her love for the poet Silvia Plath and a clever hint at the self-regarding nature of the fashion world where her story takes place. However, the publisher might insist on ‘Dead Season’ or ‘Perfect Bodies’ or some such because the literary reference will be lost on most people and even alienate some. “Narcissi?’ Who’s that then? I thought he played for Chelsea.
Ideally with covers you are looking for something very similar but strikingly different to other books in your field. The problem with a cover that announces ‘you’ve never read anything like this before!’ is the reader might think ‘yes for good reason’.
An example of an excellent cover that really sold the book was my friend Sarah Rayner’s One Moment One Morning. What, exactly, did the tea cups say to the largely female readership at whom the book was aimed? I’m not exactly sure – they appear to be behind some rain spattered glass. Companionship? Respite from pressures? Friendship in the face of adversity? Whatever it was, it’s regarded as a seminal cover and immediately spawned a host of imitators. It’s not really the sort of thing you can plan. You know it when you see it.
Marketing a novel to the fantasy audience is hard. There is a huge audience for, for instance, Warhammer novels. These covers, featuring fantastic beasts, strange weapons and extravagantly armoured heroes, while they appeal very much to the fantasy nut, are very unlikely to gain the novel a wider audience. That’s OK, by the way, a large slice of a small readership can be bigger than a tiny slice of the mass market.
So, when we set out to brief on Son of the Morning, we were certain that it had to be definitively a fantasy cover. Let me point out, when I say ‘we’, I mean that the editor does the brief but is kind enough to include me in the process. If the publishing company wants to it can put a picture of a giraffe eating a hot dog on the cover and there’s nothing I can do about it. Some publishers don’t really give their authors much of a say about what goes on the cover. I’m lucky in that mine do. I actually only want a say up to a point. I have no talent for visual art at all and would much rather give responsibility for the cover to someone who does.
Anyway, the main aim of the cover is that reader knows what they are getting. This means we have to define the book clearly. It’s a fantasy, it’s set in medieval Europe, contains plenty of action, lots of intrigue and backbiting and a slightly skewed cosmology where angels, devils and demons trade pacts with humanity and can end up fighting on the same side. There is a fair bit of fighting in the novel, a lot of daring do but also a detective story, a sort of a romance and – believe me many authors share this delusion – a mildly literary aspect.
We don’t want to sell on the literary aspect – fantasy puts off many serious literature types and literature puts off a large number of other people. So, something stirring and striking. The first idea was for an angel on a horse. This is what the Gollancz art department came up with.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing, per se. If I wanted to quibble, I’d say the angel’s armour is anachronistic, the horse’s armour too. The angel’s garland looks a little ‘plonked on’ but apart from that, it tells people what the book’s about –even if it does emphasise the action in the novel over the other aspects of the story. It’s quite an exciting image and it’s OK. However, we’re not looking for OK, we’re looking for ‘wow!’, so we asked the artists to come up with some other ideas.
It also struck us that the image of the angel on a horse was a bit odd when we actually saw it on the page. If he’s got wings, why does he need a horse? The brief to the art department was for something slightly less literal. We sent them a number of historical book covers we liked, along with a more detailed account of the story. This was version two.

 Click to enlarge.

I liked ths more. This version tells the reader that the book is more than simply an action story. It’s ‘classier’ – which is not always a good thing – and it says, essentially, that it’s set in the medieval period and contains supernatural elements. However, putting it bluntly, I didn’t like the central image of the angel. To me he looks a bit fat and not very distinct. So back to the drawing board again. This time my editor suggested we try a more symbolic approach. The references we gave them were the Game of Thrones covers – the book is similar in its mix of intrigue, magic and action – and the Boudica covers of Manda Scott. It was important that the reader realise that they’re getting a lot more than a hack fest. Is it cynical to position the book alongside such successful works? Not at all – it’s as straightforward as saying ‘if you liked that, you might like this’. This was the final cover.

We loved this. You can see it actually does retain some elements of the original cover – the corner squiggly bits are the same but now it says exactly what we want it to say – it’s exciting, medieval, fantastical and also, new. The trick is to show that a book fits into a certain niche but also to convey how it differs from the books in that niche. I think this cover does that perfectly. How? Well, that’s the difficult bit. What you are trying to say only comes out by this trial and error process and it takes a talented cover designer – and a robust one – to infer what you are driving at as much by what you don’t like as by what you do. I’m very glad the art department at Gollancz was eventually able to interpret my comments along the lines of ‘it needs to be a bit more “ooooohhhh!” and a bit less “grrrrrrrr!”, though still with “grrrrrrr!” in it, to come up with something so striking.


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