I suppose it’s just as well that Mr. Gillette started to put his blades in those little plastic cartridges because once they’ve read this week’s blob, more than a few publishers will be reaching for razors. You see, I have a confession to make. When I intimated that I liked the covers you put on my books, I lied. I’m sorry. I often go out of my way to not hurt other people’s feelings to the point that I make myself a miserable wretch. I know I didn’t exactly say the words, “I like it,” but I may have been too free with expressions like, “It has a certain unrestricted simplicity”, or “It’s rather interesting”, or, “It’s orange”.
I need to begin this confessional by pointing out that, unless you’re somebody with literary weight (my own weight being merely flab) your publisher won’t send you a cover and say, “Tell us what you think and we’ll make all the changes you recommend.” Heaven forbid that they should ask you to design the thing in the first place. They actually have first and final say on the cover. They have a little trick. They tell you that everyone at the publishing house (including the tea lady and the man who cleans the drains) and the marketing department and ‘the industry’ all love it. Then they’ll say, “What do you think?” Of course you aren’t going to tell the truth after such a build up. You aren’t going to alienate an editor who has probably put several minutes into the selection of stock photographs and gone down the Dulux paint chart to find a colour for the title that matched. She’s the expert. (Notice I didn’t put that in inverted commas cause editors pick up on little details like that.) With one or two very rare exceptions, I have hated the covers they put on my books. They’re either twiddley, arty, flowery McCall Smith look-alikes that make those not-in-the-know believe Colin Cotterill is the nom de plume of an ageing lady horse rider with pink hair from Sussex, or they stick on Asian postcard pictures, irrespective of what country they’re taken in. Of course the photographers and artists have produced beautiful work but I don’t want their pictures stuck on the front of my books any more than they’d want my prose plastered across their living room walls. They aren’t how I see my books.
“So”, you ask, “how do you see your books, Colin?” Good question. The two words that come to mind are, ‘dark’ and ‘funny’. My novels describe gruesome murders and tortures; gore with a whimsical twist. I don’t want to be responsible for giving some chronic heart patient that final push when he picks up a book with bicycles and flowers on the cover and comes across a man’s head being split open against a tree. No, I’d go the black humour route. You remember the photos in the movie: The Others, with Nicole Kidman? The photos of the dead, dressed up and posed? In the Victorian era they used to go to all kinds of extremes like having their dead sister in her best party dress propped up on an unseen wooden stand in the family group pic. Professional morgue workers used to come along and draw on smiles and paint open eyes on the departed’s eyelids. I think that is extremely cool. So my covers would feature an obviously dead – preferably beginning to rot – body, shot from above, perhaps in a grass-lined grave or a coffin completely filling the cover. There would be some comedic element to the photo like the corpse playing a guitar in death with a pick between his teeth, or listening to a walkman and wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
Which brings me to my next point. The kinds of books I’d buy because of the cover are probably not those selected by the vast majority of readers. This, I grant you, might have an influence on the marketing department. The only covers I’ve been moderately attracted to were those produced by Random House Canada. They looked like real books, not cut and paste primary school art projects. They were quirky and colourful and had my name in big type just like the ones you see in the shops – and four books into the series they dumped my arse because nobody was buying them. Unceremoniously hacked. Could I be wrong about covers? I self-published a book of short stories recently with a ‘different’ cover I’d put together myself. I loved it. iUniverse sold four copies. Despite that, it was picked up by a real publisher and the first thing they told me to do was change the cover. They let me paint it myself but to their specifications and I still don’t like it so it’ll probably do very well.
But my taste bodes ominously for the cover you see to the right of this blob. It’s book seven, LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE, the final book in the Soho version of the Dr. Siri series (Although they have the option to buy the continuing series from the UK) and it’s as close as they’ve come to my taste. A stark, black mysterious cover that leaves the buyer asking, “What stark, black mystery lies within the pages of this book?” I’m tempted to think they’re trying to scuttle me. “We’ll teach him for fleeing to England” they think. We’ll do him a stark mysterious cover and show him just how many Goths waste their Edward and the Squashing Little Fluffy Animals CD money on cozy crime novels. So, I guess it’s time to start going through the sits-vacant ads. I’ll see you all on the street sometime. Or, alternatively, you could all prove me wrong and arrest my decline by rushing out and buying the book.