Introducing a monthly column, Debut, Tanwi Nandini Islam’s behind-the-scenes look at being a first-time novelist.
Most writers aren’t visual artists who whip up the pictures to go with our stories. We only know what feels good when we look at a cover we love. Good covers are evocative, a little provocative. They’re beautiful, either as simple illustrations or complex works of art. Some of my favorite book covers from recent memory: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, Trace by Lauret Savoy and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Each one is a perfect marriage between the cover and the story inside. The best ones tell a story themselves.
For the cover of my debut novel Bright Lines, I knew I wanted something abstract, geometric, bold, and iconic. What I didn’t want to see on my cover: mangoes, saris, boats, the colors green and red, or stock photos of sad-faced-sexy-faced brown women. I didn’t want cultural tokens to be stand-ins for nuanced, beautiful artwork.
Think of all the books from South Asian or African writers that use the cliched imagery of veiled brides or the acacia tree by sunset. There’s no justification for slight variations on the same tired themes, since every book by a writer of color that features South Asian or African characters and settings is not telling the same story. Recycling familiar figures or vistas to depict our stories is a disservice to the complexity of our books. But what exactly is the best approach for creating a book cover that attracts readers?
“When the hardcover of Island of a Thousand Mirrors came out, my publisher gave it a classic, non-ethnic cover that I loved,” says Sri Lankan-American author Nayomi Munaweera about her debut novel. “It didn’t sell. For the paperback, we put on a much more clearly ‘ethnic’ cover and it’s selling. So sometimes it’s the buying public of the U.S. that wants something recognizable.” Munaweera acknowledges that it’s impossible to know whether it’s the new cover or the price of a paperback that appeals to new readers.
Despite our desire to stray from tried and true, oft-stereotypical book covers, especially for writers of color, is it good for our books to stray too hard from what’s expected? While Munaweera’s cover has no mangoes, saris, or anklets, the lushness of Sri Lanka—with a woman’s silhouette superimposed—is evocative of the verdant world in her novel. And if it’s selling, isn’t that good for everyone?
When I received the first cover artwork for Bright Lines , there were no mangoes, saris, or stock photos. There was a brown girl on a bicycle, with youthful pastels in the background. Despite the literal connection to the book—there’s a lot of cycling to and fro in Brooklyn—I knew I wanted something different. Would they listen to me? I wondered, debating if I should say anything, when I wasn’t even sure of what I wanted. It’s an intimidating prospect, to delay the process when you’re so close to the finish line. The first stage of a book cover’s design is similar to a first draft—a few passes are required to fine-tune things. I’ve never been one to keep silent, and this wasn’t the moment to start. Not when it came to my first novel’s cover. So I wrote to my editor, who sent me warm and receptive response, inviting me to contribute what I envisioned. Now, the ball was in my court: What did I want?
I wanted the book to be something folks would read on the subway, or leave on their bedside table, coffee table, and in the bathroom—wherever books are seen. I suggested something graphic or related to biological and botanical illustrations, as well as the bright-line spectrum. My dream book cover would hint at the stuff my novel is made of: the colorful, vivid worlds of Brooklyn and Bangladesh, psychedelia and hallucinations, radial bursts evoking lineage, history, evolution and expansion.
Vision boarding is one of my beloved New Age pastimes, akin to a fashion designer’s mood board, and I knew that one of the classic tenets of good storytelling—show, don’t tell—was going to help convey what I wanted.
I debated whether or not I’d like to keep the figure of a young woman on the cover. Didn’t I want something geometric and abstract? Didn’t I want to pull away from a gendered or racialized figure? After mulling it over, I sent them my vision board. My ideas were a part of the dialogue with the designers in Penguin’s Art Department, a collaborative blueprint to help set the visual language of Bright Lines.
I realize many authors have perhaps agreed on a cover based, in part, on their publishers’ reluctance to change the artwork. There are many things to consider, such as a cover’s appeal to readers, which affects sales. Art departments are entrusted with designing enticing book covers; detailed input from the author about what they do or don’t want is generally not a part of the discussion. But the strategic use of pink or a pair of stilettos on the cover can potentially transform a book from serious literary fiction to summer beach read. It’s sensitive territory—the author’s happiness vs. what makes for a saleable book—so I was ecstatic that the Art Department agreed to give my book cover another pass.
“I knew what the cover should definitely not be, but couldn’t articulate what it should be,” says Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the forthcoming novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, 2016). “I lucked out in that my publisher was open to a back and forth. I’m a writer, not a visual artist, so at first I was unsure about how helpful could be.”
The book’s recurring themes and motifs ultimately helped create her cover, which features abstract artwork that recalls the pattern of leaves. “It came down to looking at my own words,” says Greenidge. “I seem to mention nature and light and leaves a lot, so maybe that should be a cover theme. I love my current cover. It captures so much about the book without being overt, without trying to pin anything down.”
Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill , wrote about getting her dream cover, the painting “Too Much Makeup” by Barbadian artist Sheena Rose, for Literary Hub :
“There was the thrill of recognition upon seeing a black girl on the cover...The cover of my book features one face, but also many: there’s mine, and the face of my sister, my cousins, my mothers and my aunties, and all the women who I’ve yet to discover and put on the page.”
When I received the final iteration of the cover for Bright Lines, my heart was ready to beat out of my chest. When I clicked open the file, I gasped. The girl was there. Yet this time, she was in silhouette, her hair or hijab flying back, bicycle hitched upward on a hill in haunted ascension. This graphic pulled away from the literal and moved toward the mythic. The psychedelic hallucinations burst forth as a radial of infinite color. The abstraction of the phrase “Bright Lines” was captured in a vivid, accessible way. There was so much spoken in the artwork without giving anything away.
I loved it. The Art Department captured what I was unable to articulate—the feeling of ascension—by tilting the bike and silhouetting the image. This cover felt like Bright Lines. I immediately wrote to the artist and thanked him for imbuing the cover with all I wanted, if not more.
A book’s cover is the pictorial gateway into the world you’ve been crafting for years. It’s hard to speak up for your cover as a debut author, because most of us are pinching ourselves, thrilled that we’re in this position of having our books published in the first place. But we owe it to our fictive worlds. If we offer honest, concrete ideas, without fear of having them rejected, we might just be able to work with our publishers. We have the agency to craft book covers that bring the wild and secret worlds inside of our pages to life.