The Business of Beautiful Covers
The first time I lifted the young adult novel Twilight off the shelf I was already familiar with it. Not the novel itself or the premise of the story, but with the cover. I had seen that image plastered across the windows of nearly every bookstore as the momentum around the series reached a fever pitch. The ghostly hands gently cradling an apple in their icy embrace was easily distinguishable before I had ever thought to give the series a backwards glance. The cover was visually stunning, and even if you’ve never read the novel, surely you can identify it. No doubt you pick it out from the crowd swimming with other young adult novels even if that isn’t your genre of choice, even if it holds no personal appeal.
And that, briefly, is the business of a book cover.
Since the cover of Twilight went viral, others have seemingly joined the bandwagon of the minimalistic approach — right down to the color scheme of red, white and black. But Why? Why not strike out for independence? Why be so similar?
Well, it’s actually kind of brilliant why other authors and publishing houses are following a trend so closely that it hedges on becoming a uniform.
The short story: it works.
The long story: because the ambiance Twilight evokes in a certain reader is the feeling of already having enjoyed a similarly themed novel. It encourages a willingness to take a chance on another book from a different author because of the visual commonalities — what that feeling cultures in a reader translates into book sales.
The business of creating beautiful covers is a booming one, and there is a real science behind the conception and execution of it. While I am decidedly not a Young Adult author, I write Literary Fiction, and we too have a near-uniform when deciding to what works on the covers of our novels as well …
My designer, Renu Sharma, is brilliant when it comes to rooting down to the heart of a novel; to capturing with pictures what an author bottles up with words.
“As I am working for an author, I need to be able to understand what exactly she has in mind for the cover of her book. Capturing the essence of the story is most important; whether it be an important scene or character from the book or something conceptual and not so literal. At the end of the day, I should be able to convey the writer’s feelings and words behind the story in the form of visual art.” – Renu Sharma, cover artist
A book cover is the door step to a story. It is a readers first impression of a novel, an invitation to learn more, to sit down and explore what lies within. As an independent writer that engages the publishing process on my own, I’m in an interesting position. I have my fingers on the pulse of my story, whatever goes out to the public belongs to me, it’s the sum of my hard work. I have the final say.
What’s interesting about the business of book covers is the way particular genres lend themselves to certain imagery:
YA (Young Adult) novels have seen a shift towards the Twilight-esk darkened themes and isolated images.
Horror tends to be grittier, haunting almost with it’s grunge washes.
Sci-Fi tends give readers a glimpse of the world the book is written in.
Romance often finds it’s characters mid-embrace, generally shirtless.
Chick-Fiction is usually fun, sometimes featuring a caricature and a little kitsch.
Literary Fiction tends to be less about literal and more about a soft play on images, generally there is a character (or maybe not) in soft focus, and a hint of what may be going on in the story.
Biographies tend to feature the author staring pensively out a window or at an object out of frame.
There has become almost a recipe for designing an genre appropriate cover because, like I mentioned above, readers identify with what they have known and enjoyed in past.
The cover of The Milestone Tapes, as it is today, was a notion of Renu’s long before she or I knew it would become the face to my story. She was inspired to toy with the idea of the girl half hidden by an autumn leaf all on her own, changing the atmosphere of a photo to reflect her personal design style. I happened across it and was haunted. In it, I saw Mia. I saw the shift in the seasons, and fall of leaves, I saw a November day and the essence of my story. Although, at that point I already had a cover in place that I had collaborated on, I simply couldn’t let this one go.
Covers can be literal beasts. I call this the “everything and the kitchen sink syndrome” — it’s where a writer strives to capture, not a moment, but the entire story in the frame of their cover. Covers can also be nothing more than covert message. With Twilight, Stephenie Meyer has said that apple is a message to her readers — the battle of temptation, the notion of good versus evil. In the subtleties of these covert covers, the heart of the story rings true.
The cover on The Milestone Tapes is a soft literal. It’s not as cloaked in secret meaning as some, but in the same breath, I’m also not giving everything away with a glance either. I felt, when the finished product arrived in print on my door step, that the face of my novel was exactly what I had always hoped it would be … enough without being too much.
I’m going to leave you now with a question … what is your favorite book cover of all time?
THE MILESTONE TAPES
By Ashley Mackler-Paternostro
Jenna Chamberland never wanted anything more than to be a wife and mother. That is, until she realized that her life was ending after a three-year battle against breast cancer. Now, all she really wants is more time.
With 4,320 hours left to live, Jenna worries for her loved ones and what she knows awaits them on the other side: Gabe will have to make the slip from husband to widower, left alone to raise their seven-year-old daughter; Mia will be forced to cope with life without her mother by her side. In a moment of reflection, Jenna decides to record a set of audiocassettes — The Milestone Tapes – leaving her voice behind as a legacy for her daughter.
Nine years later, Mia is a precocious sixteen-year-old and her life is changing all around, all she wants is her mother. Through the tapes, Jenna’s voice returns to teach Mia the magic of life, her words showing her daughter how to spread her wings and embrace the coming challenges with humor, grace and hope.
THE MILESTONE TAPES is the journey of love between a parent and child, and of the bonds that hold them when life no longer can.
With much determination, Jenna willed her fingers to press the record button. She couldn’t allow herself to think about how silly she felt speaking the paramount words to only herself and a small tape recorder in the dark of her office, years and years before they’d even harbor an inkling of truth. Or, how heartbreaking it felt to know that eventually she would be finished recording and the silence left behind would speak volumes.
She had no notes, no frame of reference and no way of knowing exactly what her daughter would need to hear when she finally, in time, came about pressing play. All she had was a list, a list of milestones and a corresponding blank tape.
The fear and utter sadness of that enveloped her like an inferno, burning her, buckling her heart and breaking her in a million ways that would remain unseen, as so many other breaks did. She would never really know if she got it right, of course. She’d. Never. Know. And, if she were being honest now, that realization had been the driving force behind the recordings to begin with.
Hadn’t that knowledge pinged her so many months ago, while the quiet of the morning and darkness of her home gave the illusion of peace and rightness, and did nothing more than make her think.
But even more than that, wasn’t the unknown what she’d been fighting all along. Trying to somehow rally against what the doctors told her was inevitable, trying to be the exception rather than the rule. Jenna knew that she had fought hard, battled with every moment, with umpteen doctors, with every drug, every needle or pill or hope. The fighting had never been the problem; it was simply what she was fighting against. That thing, so bound and determined to win.
So now she was left with the unknown. All of the things that couldn’t possibly be known. It was no longer a question of science, medicine and time. Now it was a matter of fate, faith and the natural unfolding of things. Jenna had resolved that, although everything moving forward would be unknown, she would plan and prepare and hedge her bets like a mother would, she would bet on her daughter, and leave behind her voice.
She knew her little girl now. She knew the determined expression that would cross her face when they worked together side by side in the expansive kitchen she had designed for family time and togetherness. She knew the jubilant smile that would never fail Mia’s face when she huddled over her English homework, letting her unique brand of creativity roll off in waves, limited only by what she could spell and express at seven years old. She knew the tell-tale face of a fib or half truth, Mia’s mouth dropping open just enough, as she tried not to smile and tried harder to convey honesty. She knew the way Mia’s lower lips would tremble as she departed the bus when the kids had been less than kind, running for the security of home and the comfort of her mom, running to the place that would nurture and welcome her budding individualism rather than shy away from it.
Jenna knew Mia better than she knew herself in every single way possible; she was her mother. From the very beginning, her baby girl had been the epitome of a miracle in Jenna’s eyes and remained steadfast in that role forever after. Mia was Jenna’s sole reason for the death match that spanned out behind them now, defining holidays and birthdays, along every other ordinary day. Mia was reason and logic, hope and heartbreak; she was Jenna’s dream personified. The prose of that would have made Jenna laugh, had the thoughts and feelings ambushed her in a normal life. But in her life, their life as a family with their singular child, the emotional turmoil was highlighted and hung from their only child. Jenna knew she could never, even if words flooded her, really say enough about her daughter.
But who would Mia be when these tapes became relevant?
Suddenly the unknown crept in again, playing around, twisting two or five or a million different landscapes. Landscapes Jenna would be absent for. Would Mia be analytical and thoughtful, living a life of logic and reason, a breathing echo of her father? Would her love of words bloom into a love of numbers? Or would she hold fast, stay true to her dreamy and creative nature?
Would some of these tapes be left, unheard, in their little plastic casings because they didn’t apply to Mia? And if they didn’t pertain, why not? But, if they did, and Mia needed them, and Jenna failed to push the worry aside, then what? What if Mia carried the responsibility, all the joys and all the burdens of life alone? The stark thought of that was enough to cripple Jenna.
Jenna pressed her finger firmly against the flat button with the red circle. She thought about the laughter and tears, the piles of homework, the family trips, the snuggles and hugs and kisses and fights. She thought about her husband, trying to understand the enigma that was the teenage girl. She pictured her daughter, grown up with a life, maybe even a family, of her own. And she felt courage; these tapes were not expectations, they were hopes— her hopes. And with all of that floating around in her head, she began.
“Mia … I love you.”
Ashley Mackler-Paternostro lives on the outskirts of Chicago with her husband and their three dogs. The Milestone Tapes is Ashley’s first novel.
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