The Two Covers of Discovery of Desire
Back in May, I joined a panel of historical romance authors to participate in a Q&A regarding our writing lives. Someone asked the question: How much control do you have over your book cover?
The answer is, a little.
I've got a little, the creative director at my publishing house has a little, as does the photographer who shoots the models, the retoucher who composites a background behind the characters and finishes the image with a beautiful, painterly effect, and the cover designer who assembles the art with the wording.
I assume my editor has a little, perhaps even the sales reps. In any case, A LOT of people put their two cents into the cover.
The process starts months before the first draft of my book is even turned in. I provide my publisher with cover direction. Things like descriptions of the characters, the essence of the book, the time period, and notable scenes. Here, below, is a screen grab of what I sent. My book begins with my London Explorer and his heroine arriving by ship in Bombay (now called Mumbai), before they return to England.
So you see the reference images I sent: steamships, a social club for East India Company men living in Bombay at the time, Victoria carriages and a scene of a marketplace.
But romance covers have to work to sell a book. All genres (erotica, paranormal, small-town contemporary, etc.) deal in a sort of "visual shorthand" for readers. For historical readers, that shorthand involves stuff like satin, draping fabrics, voluminous gowns, and jewel-like colors. And because my story is set outside of England for a time, my cover gives a nod to India.
Here is the absolutely gorgeous cover art I received for review. At the time, I LOVED this cover. The models were beautiful, and even if the gown is not in the style of the 1850's, and closer to 1880's, I was thrilled.
In my day job, I work at an advertising agency where my job for the past decade or more, has been to produce art for print (photography, CGI, illustration). I scrutinize images daily, and therefore have become extremely fastidious. If I had 100% control over my cover, I would've made over a dozen changes to the color and brightness, the cropping, and the models clothing and hair.
But art is subjective, and my publisher has experience in the book industry I don't have. There's a legendary advertising man, Bill Bernbach, who reputedly kept a piece of paper in his pocket with 'Maybe they're right' written on it to remind himself to keep an open mind to other people's suggestions.
Maybe they're right. Maybe my publisher is right in designing my cover this way–in a way I didn't completely agree with. I sent some of my suggestions to my publisher, the ones that I felt, objectively, should be fixed, and could be fixed with little time and effort. In art collaboration, where so much is subjective, you have to let things go. I wasn't going to fall on my sword over all the changes.
The one thing I didn't think of fixing was the Taj Mahal in the background.
And there was the biggest problem. My characters don't venture anywhere near the Taj Mahal. I knew that immediately on seeing the cover art, but I thought the temple was beautiful and evocative of India, so I looked right past it. So did everyone else who had a little say in designing the cover.
Back to that day in May, when I was asked about my cover and I proudly showed everyone the art, there was an Indian-American in the audience who let me know that she found the use of the Taj Mahal offensive. She likened it to having a book set in, say... California, but showing the Empire State Building in the background as representative of all America. Thereby, ignoring the unique cultures of California or Florida or Ohio. I was blindsided by the comment, and was extremely upset by it–because I instantly knew she was right.
It didn't take long for me to understand that depicting the Taj Mahal to represent the whole of India smacks of exoticism and Orientalism, and is a micro-aggression that perpetuates stereotypical thinking. Some won't agree with me.
Many didn't agree with me when I was a student at the University of Illinois in the '90s protesting the use of Chief Illiniwek as the school's mascot. The great majority saw nothing wrong in the use of an icon that they felt only honored Native American culture, and instilled pride in them. But I protested at the football games because I had doubt, and doubt is all it took. In truth, back then, I wasn't wholeheartedly against the mascot. The first time I saw the mascot's dance at an Illinois football game was pure theater for me, all excitement and thrills.
But I had doubt knowing the use of that mascot upset Native American people. If I couldn't articulate at the time that Chief Illiniwek, in his exotic headdress and rousing dance across a football field culminating in a stadium of Illini fans chanting 'chief!' and swinging their invisible tomahawks, was serving to turn a whole race of people into 'the other,' making them separate and exotic and different from me, I had enough doubt to at least know something was wrong.
There was enough doubt to think: maybe they're right.
So on this recent May day, when I arrived home, I emailed my agent and told her that I wanted to fix the cover. She immediately emailed my editor, and my editor and the publishing house jumped to see what they could do. They didn't question me, they acted, and I'll always appreciate them for that. The cover hadn't gone to print, though it was awfully close, so the situation was much easier to resolve. My publisher went back to the cover artist and gave me a beautiful new cover that I can look at again.
I realize some of you will not fully believe there was any issue to correct, but I hope if you've read this long post, you'll take a moment to consider that in asking to change the cover, maybe I was right, too.
I welcome your comments, and would be happy to share them and respond to them. Thank you for reading.