The cover design process: an author’s perspective

As we get closer to revealing the cover for The Map of Bones (the sequel to The Fire Sermon), I thought it might be interesting to give a glimpse behind the scenes into the cover design process for The Fire Sermon, especially the paperback cover. So I’ve written about how the design process worked from an author’s perspective, and in another post the brilliant HarperVoyager cover designer Alexandra Allden has given lots more details about what it’s like from the designer’s point of view.

The Fire Sermon cover

It’s a very strange feeling, waiting to see your book cover for the first time. Months earlier, my editors had sent The Fire Sermon off to the cover design team. I felt hugely vulnerable and nervous as I waited to see what they’d come up with. We place so many demands on a cover: it has to be a visual encapsulation of a story that is itself (we hope) complex and layered. It has to suggest something to a bookshop browser about the genre and mood and perhaps age category of the novel. And, above all, it has to look cool.

When my editor, Natasha Bardon, had asked me about my own ideas for the cover, my thoughts were vague, and mainly focused on what I didn’t want. I knew I didn’t want anything too reminiscent of high-fantasy (‘NO LEATHER-CLAD WENCHES ASTRIDE DRAGONS,’ I repeated to Natasha– unnecessarily, given that my novel contains neither) because although my novel has fantasy elements it’s a long way from the high-fantasy of Game of Thrones et al. No close ups of a girl’s face, as was common in YA covers at the time –in fact no faces at all, because as a reader I always wanted the freedom to imagine the characters my own way. So I’d shared my thoughts with Natasha, who then briefed the design team, and I waited.

When I finally met with Natasha, several months later, to see the initial cover designs for The Fire Sermon, I was nervous. Nervous that I wouldn’t like it. Nervous that the designers wouldn’t have got the novel. And (in a way that suggests that I’m becoming increasingly British, after eight years in this country) nervous that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have the courage to speak up.

What a relief when Natasha unveiled the initial mock-ups for the hardback cover, and I fell in love with the stunning and iconic image. The designer, Alexandra Allden, had seized on the idea of the brand: in The Fire Sermon, all the mutated Omega children are branded, to differentiate them from their perfect Alpha twins. Out of the 400-plus pages of The Fire Sermon, Alexandra had pulled out a single image that was loaded with meaning in terms of the divided society that the novel depicts, and the personal journey of Cass, the main character. In the novel, the brand shows only the Omega symbol. The fact that the brand shown in the book’s cover image combines both the Alpha and Omega symbols was really significant to me, because what makes Cass unique (and dangerous) is that she never sees Alpha and Omega as separate or opposed. It’s not a literal interpretation of the brand described in the novel, and it showed me that the designers had really grasped the idea at the heart of my book.

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The Fire Sermon hardback cover

The process of producing the cover was also exciting: rather than just mock it up digitally, HarperVoyager commissioned a real blacksmith to create the brand itself, and photographed it in the coals of an actual forge. The cover reveal video shows some of this process:

At my book launch, Natasha presented me with a bouquet of flowers, and a wrapped gift. I was too excited, exhausted and (frankly) tipsy to open it there and then, and I slipped it into my handbag. The present was smallish and square and I’d vaguely assumed that it was a box of chocolates. I only opened it much later that night, and discovered to my joy that it was the real, iron brand, beautifully framed. It now hangs above my desk.

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The actual brand used for the cover – now framed.

For the paperback cover, I once again found myself waiting nervously as Natasha pulled out the new design. And once again I wasn’t only relieved – I was thrilled. The cover (again created by Alexandra Allden) was an eerie gothic dream – or nightmare: Cass and Kip’s silhouetted figures running through a burning forest. The use of paper-cut silhouettes gave the whole thing the effect of a woodcut print illustrating a fairy-tale. The rough-hewn font, with a hand-painted effect, evoked the novel’s technophobic society. The overall effect was both creepy and compelling – somehow both beautiful and disturbing. The more I looked at the image over the next few days, the more I found details to delight me further: the paper silhouettes are made from the pages of my novel itself, so the cover is a collage of the story itself. At a glance you might not notice that Kip’s arm is missing – his position means that somebody who didn’t know the story might think it’s just hidden behind him as he runs, an ambiguity whose significance will only be apparent to those who’ve finished the novel. And, my favourite touch of all: Kip’s body is the only part of the collage to be nearly entirely blank and free of words – a lovely stylised representation of the amnesia that has stripped him of his past and his identity. (In Alexandra’s post about the cover design, she reveals that the absence of text on Kip’s figure was in fact an accident – which seems to me to be a delicious piece of serendipity).

original cover (smaller)
paperback cover (original draft)

There were some minor tweaks that I requested. They were small – at a glance, the difference between the original and the final version might barely be noticeable – but still significant to me. The first was Cass’s arms. In the initial cover, her right arm was jauntily raised, as if she were skipping merrily through the forest, and her left hand was holding Kip’s in such a way that it looked as though he was leading her. I didn’t want to the hand-holding to foreground the novel’s romance – there is (SPOILERS AHOY!) some romance in the plot, but it’s certainly not a central focus, and signalling it on the cover seemed to send the wrong message about the novel’s concerns, as well as simplifying what is supposed to be a complex and gradually-developing relationship. Secondly, I really didn’t want Cass to be led. It’s so important to me that she is the novel’s driving force, and not just a side-kick, so I didn’t want the respective postures of the figures on the cover to suggest anything otherwise.

The second change that I requested was to the silhouettes of the trees. In the earlier version that trees were all rather elegantly shaped. They did evoke flames in a way that was thematically appropriate, but they didn’t quite have the gnarled, scorched grimness of the post-apocalyptic world that I’d tried to create in the novel. I sent a rambling email to Natasha to explain the kind of scorched, post-apocalyptic, slightly stylised Tim-Burton-esque image that I was after, and attached a zip-file titled ‘dead trees’, full of images of suitably gnarled images.

Alexandra promptly made the tweaks. Cass and Kip’s hands became more ambiguous: are they holding hands, or do their running silhouettes simply overlap? And a small tweak to Cass’s other arm changed her from skipping to purposefully sprinting. The trees sprung new and starker, more twisted, branches. On the suggestion of my agent, a few more flames were added too.

Final copy - small
final paperback cover

These were only tiny changes – Alexandra had already come up with such a powerful cover. But they were particularly interesting to me in terms of learning about the level of thought and detail that goes into the cover design; how author and designer can interact; and how small details can have an impact.

You can compare the original and final versions, side by side, below (original at left; final version on the right):

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I feel incredibly lucky to have had a publishing team who have worked so hard to create two totally different and equally striking designs for The Fire Sermon. The hardback cover is simple, iconic, and a powerful statement about the issues at the heart of the novel. The paperback design is swoonily gorgeous and atmospheric, capturing so much of the atmosphere that I tried to create in the book. I can’t wait to see what they come up for The Map of Bones.

(You can also read about post Alexandra’s account from the designer’s perspective -with lots of new pictures showing the creation of the font, the paper cut-outs, etc.).