Not its contents, of course – I would never suggest that the quality of someone’s writing or their ability to tell a story can be fairly assessed by how the book appears; but do judge the book as an object – by how it looks on the shelf or feels in your hand – because a lot of effort went into making it that way.
When my middle-grade novel Malamander (Walker Books 2019) was being prepared for publication, I was eager to do the cover art myself. I am, after all, an illustrator, and my first published piece of illustration – straight out of art school – was the cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury 1997) by J.K. Rowling. Indeed, I’d doodled and sketched right through the process of writing Malamander, so I was ready to go. But that’s not what happened.
Selecting the right visual match for your writing and storytelling is a complex business, and one the publishers will definitely want to be in control of. Art directors bring enormous expertise to this process, as well as the contact details of some of the best cover artists and designers in the industry.
When you have a publishing contract, you may get some say in the look of the book – probably further down the line, once the work has essentially been done. But this is likely to be a polite request for comment, rather than an invitation to send the designers back to the storyboard… an author may have strong feelings about how the book should look, but their preferences may not marry up with current trends or other marketing factors that could be crucial to a book’s success in a highly competitive market.
This process has become more intense since my own experience of producing the cover art for Harry Potter back in 1996, due not only to ever-increasing competition in children’s fiction but also to the rise of digital platforms. For example, the question of how a cover will display as a thumbnail is more important than ever, because that tiny postage-stamp-sized image that scrolls down an iPhone screen in a second may be the book’s only chance to connect with potential readers. For similar reasons, the spine of a book – so often overlooked – might be the only side of your work a browsing reader sees as they scan the shelves.
They say a good cover tells you how it will feel to read the book. So alongside the practical considerations of text hierarchy – the relative graphic importance of the title, author’s name, and straplines and quotes – there are other, less literal design components at play. Photography, painted or decorative elements that conjure a sense of the story for the reader and entice them in, are complex considerations and easy to overdo. Clever font choice can straddle both of these fields, clearly communicating key information, whilst also hinting at the regional or temporal flavour of the story or summing up that elusive ‘feel’.
I didn’t do the cover art for Malamander in the end. I quickly became overwhelmed by how complex the process was, and how much editing and writing time it would take away. It was genuinely a relief to pass the task over to George Ermos, whose gorgeous art adorns the cover now – subtly suggesting the tone of the story within and how it will feel to read it, whilst also making a splash in a bookshop window. And yes, thanks to George, it also looks fabulous in an Instagram post.
This is an abridged version of an article taken from the Children's Writers & Artists' Yearbook 2021, which is available now from Bloomsbury.com
Thomas Taylor is an author and illustrator. He has illustrated and contributed to dozens of books, and has also written and illustrated four of his own picture books, including The Loudest Roar (2003) and The Biggest Splash (2005), both published by OUP. His most recent books, in the Legends of Eerie-on-Sea series published by Walker Books for middle-grade readers, are Malamander (2019) and Gargantis (2020). For more information see www.thomastaylor-author.com; follow him on Twitter @ThomasHTaylor