If you were watching social media over the past couple of weeks, you will have seen that author, Isabella May, released the covers for her two upcoming books, Bubblegum and Blazers and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bar, which will be released in July and September respectively. I am always so impressed with the covers of Isabella’s books that, when I saw the latest two (which might be the best yet), I asked her to write a piece about their creation to share with you.
Unique Covers: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Isabella May
I was honoured to be asked to write a feature on the subject of covers for ‘A Little Book Problem’ blog recently. I’m often praised for my striking foodie and drinkie book covers, I even tongue and cheekily dub myself the ‘Queen of Covers’. A strong and instantly recognisable brand is something I am passionate about. I believe a cover should be as individual as the story inside the book.
When I signed up with Crooked Cat, the publisher of my first three romcom novels, I was encouraged (and this is incredibly rare among traditional publishers – more’s the pity, I think) to be an integral part of the cover selection process.
But that didn’t mean I had any idea what I was doing! Far from it. My very first attempt at a brief for CC was a terrible felt-tip pen sketch of Glastonbury tor (much of my debut, Oh! What a Pavlova is set in Glastonbury) with a woman seated at a table at the foot of the hill, awaiting a date as she eyes up a berry-topped pavlova. Unsurprisingly, my publisher sent me back to the drawing board with a sample of possible alternatives, and the link to some good quality stock image libraries.
The David Bailey seed was immediately planted and I began to get excited.
This is in no way to discount the utterly fabulous illustrated romance covers in our corner of the fiction world. There have been some gorgeously colourful, unique and exquisitely dreamy examples of those of late: Julie Caplin, Holly Martin, Zoe Folbigg, Emma Jackson, and Daisy James are some of my favourite romance authors who immediately spring to mind.
That said, why shouldn’t a photographic dessert-laden romcom book cover have similar appeal? What about breaking the mould with a broken pavlova and some Jamie Oliver-style splattered strawberry jus? It would certainly befit the title, as well as the subject matter. Despite the love elements of the story, there is a domestic violence weave. And so it began… I turned myself into a photography scout, shortlisting contenders and sending them to my publisher, who worked some magic with the font and layout, and voilà: Oh! What a Pavlova’s mouthwatering, dramatic and intriguing cover was born.
My publisher asked me what I was working on next. As it happened, I’d started to pen a story called The Cocktail Bar, for which I’d already screenshot a vibrant bank of photographic possibilities. And so the theme continued as thoughts raced ahead to book 3 which I wanted to be set on the Costa del Sol, where I live: foodie focus churros!
This ‘art-directing’ involvement in my three first books was as much fun as the writing of them. But it was easy to get things hideously wrong: case in point being the first cover that almost got signed off for The Cocktail Bar, before a writer friend spotted the rather phallic-looking cherries on the stick in the cocktail glass… and their positioning right next to the beginning of the word ‘cocktail’. One of those dreaded once-you-see-it-you-can’t-unsee-it moments. I’m massively relieved that she did!
So there are many things to take into account. Backdrops shouldn’t be too busy (but then sometimes you see an image and you fall in love with it and you’ll move heaven and earth to make it happen – that’s definitely been the case for The Chocolate Box!), colour is key, food and drink need to look utterly snoggable, and at thumbnail size on Amazon, the text has to be legible. So, you know, it’s not quite as straightforward as diving headfirst into a stock library and taking your pick…
Once I have downloaded the watermarked image and had a little play around with the font and positioning myself on the Canva website (and once I have set that cover next to my existing ones to see if they are on brand), I brave it and buy the high resolution image! As soon as that commitment has been made, I contact Sam, my designer with a brief. He is amazing, professional and very patient as there are often numerous tweaks to be made. The next step is uploading the pre-order to Amazon… and only then will I truly know if the cover is right – if that all-important thumbnail size version of my cover works for potential bookworm buyers.
Most of the time that’s a resounding YES. Sometimes though, it’s a case of quickly taking the image down before anyone has seen the disaster, and starting afresh with a plan B. That was the story with my Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bar, although in hindsight it was worth the money, time, and tears of frustration. I did my cover reveal recently and this new one is getting some awesome comments. Roll on September the 21st.
Ultimately though, having complete creative control of your covers as an author is incredibly liberating and rewarding. There can be nothing worse for an author than spending years writing a book, only to have to stand behind a cover that will never float your boat. I don’t think the creativity ends with our words; a book is an entire product, Kindle or paperback. The cover is an extension of our art and the world we have poured our heart into.
After book 3 with CC (and a change in direction for their list, which started to go darker), and after many heartbreaking rejections for book 4 et al via agents and publishers – common theme: ‘your writing is great but your stories are trying to do too much’ – I decided to take my destiny in my own hands and self-publish. A number of my author friends were hybrid or publishing independently and gave me so much support and encouragement. Meanwhile, I could see I had the beginnings of a true USP – in no small part thanks to having such different and perhaps daring covers in a romantic fiction world full of illustration.
Alas, there’s no sugarcoating such a bold and ‘rebellious’ choice; from a marketing point of view it makes everything 100 times harder! That’s when I momentarily berate myself and wish I could stop being so stubborn; a star-shaped peg trying to fit into a round hole is not the best recipe for selling books. Readers have to be able to find you.
The publishing world likes to pigeonhole. The publishing world often needs to pigeonhole – and Amazon, bargain books newsletters, Bookbub and its cousins are no exception there. Romance, in all its guises, tends to favour tried and tested illustration, or it tends to favour photographic shots of half-naked cowboys and muscly, oiled-up hunks… I mean when we think about the covers that are typical of genres, romance is rarely represented in photographic form. That’s for crime and psych thrillers, it’s for non-fiction and biography.
From that point of view, promoting my books is not always a picnic. My mutinous covers don’t follow The Rules. In other words, I make a rod for my own back by not conforming to a love heart strewn illustration whose promise of a HEA could set the sky alight, whose blurb doesn’t need to be scrutinised to double check that it is being advertised in the correct category.
Fortunately, I have always prided myself in quietly breaking the rules, even if it is much to my chagrin and I sell fewer books as a result of my obstinacy. I have also always been better at taking photos than drawing. My 43-year-old self is still rooted in the stick person phase.
So, I think perhaps this whole photographic cover business is – unwittingly – an extension of me and my goofy personality. In my defence though, sometimes there really is no substitute for The Real Deal and even if you show me the most arty-farty and indisputably talented drawing of a cupcake, I’m going to plump for the edible photo version every time!
Thank you for that, Isabella, it is fascinating to hear about the process. I think the cover for Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bar is my favourite yet and it definitely makes me want to pick up the book, so I guess that’s job done!
About the Author
After a degree in Modern Languages and European Studies at UWE, Bristol (and a year working abroad in Bordeaux and Stuttgart), Isabella bagged an extremely jammy and fascinating job in children’s publishing… selling foreign rights for novelty, board, pop-up and non-fiction books all over the world; in every language from Icelandic to Korean, Bahasa Indonesian to Papiamento!
All of which has fuelled her curiosity and love of international food and travel – both feature extensively in her cross-genre novels, fused with a dollop of romcom, and a sprinkle of magical realism.