Tuesday, March 19, 2019

4 years later, I still can't get over this one.

Having covers rejected is a normal part of working on book covers. In my experience I'm happy to say that rejections have been rare, and if they happen it's only usually at the rough stage, when your first ideas need whittling down to the strongest ones. Out of hundreds of covers, I can count on one hand those sad little covers that were not used at all in the end and remain in the dark of my archive, never to see the light of day unless I write about them in a blog like this.
(Note, illustrators: you should always be paid for the work you've done to get them to that stage!) 

This one, however, has burned gently away at me as a miscarriage of justice; an error of judgement, a possibly panicky reaction, and an art director bending to the opinions of an author. Traditionally, authors get very little input on their covers; this is not out of any sort of meanness or desire to cut them out, but because a team comprised of experienced editor, marketing team, designer, illustrator and art director will have a far stronger collective experience of creating 'covers that sell' than the author, particularly a first-time author. And an author wants their book to sell! Writers have been known to hate their finished cover at first glance, because they've lived with their version of scenes, characters, atmosphere and even colours and shapes during the writing process, only to fall in love with it after spending some time with it and unfurling its relationship to the story. This isn't to say authors' comments aren't integrated into their final covers - they often are, just further along the creative process.

I try to build a relationship with 'my' authors from the moment I'm commissioned; social media has made this easier, but dropping an email off to the person whose Magnus Opus you're about to try and interpret with pens feels only polite. I admire them all, for their tenacity and creativity in getting a book written in the first place, and for having the balls required to get it to a publisher and see the process through. Brave, creative people. Some of my authors want to know nothing about the cover process at all, preferring to wait for a surprise; others are keen to see work in progress (not always possible) and others chip in with an idea here and there. More often than not, though, they put their trust in the experience of their art director, and in turn, me. What I've done on occasion, long after publication, is share with an author what 'their cover could have looked like', when the conversation is there and the opportunity feels right. Most are enthralled, have never been shown them before, and are a little sad that they couldn't use EVERY cover that was created for them!

This one was fascinating.

The Girl With The Ghost Eyes is about Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist and a young widow burdened with 'yin eyes' - the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father, and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford. Set in 'a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity', it's packed with non-stop martial arts action, ancient spirits, gangsters, soul-stealers and sorcerers, with Li-Lin's sidekick being a wisecracking eyeball who lives in her pocket.

Enough to go on? You bet. The brief contained very specific direction not only about these wild characters and the setting but about Li-Lin's origin too, her look, her very particular eyes, and their unique power. I was most excited to create a strong character for this cover, and the rich ingredients of the location and the magical aspects were all there to be integrated into it. 

After a few ink-washy ideas in a sketchbook, sent really for context, I started sketching a character-led cover. For this bold YA novel with such a magnetic lead character, it felt like no other approach would be quite as strong. I'd been working with collage and layered, inked papers, a way of working that's continued since and appeared on several covers. I sketched out my Li-Lin with careful reference to her geographical and ethnic origin, but gave her an intense, warning stare and riveting eyes. Young and slim, her pencil-straight hair became a fierce frame, and the no-nonsense title state within her pale throat. Her outfit featured strong, stylised shoulder pads made of folded and cut, ink-washed paper.


Finally, flanked by golden dragons, smoke and stars, she was ready to submit. I was thrilled with the cover even at rough stage - and maybe I'm guilty of getting too attached, as I'm experienced enough to know that when you feel like this about a cover, it can spell trouble.

I couldn't have predicted the response that came back. Rather than a request to go ahead and work it up a bit more, or make the tweaks to colour or titling or that I'd expected, there came the response that the author thought my illustration was 'racially insensitive'. I distinctly remember blinking at the screen, thinking I'd misunderstood something. Me? Racially insensitive? It was absurd. I'd paid so much attention to the character's origin, as directed by the author himself, that I couldn't see what on earth he was talking about. She was Chinese, I'd used a big pile of photographic references, and observed his notes, and those of the art director. She was stylised, yes, but she wasn't a caricature - I'm terrible at those - and she wasn't doing anything cheesy or stereotypical. Just...breaking the fourth wall, with those eyes that had the power to see spirits.

I protested, of course. I was aghast - and a bit cross, if I'm to be honest - and asked for the comment to be expanded on. The art director told me the author's wife was Chinese, but I'm unsure whether or how this played a part in his reaction. I knew his life had been spent immersed in Chinese culture, so I removed the author's name and sent the cover to a few colleagues I trusted - two of whom were Chinese too - and ran the feedback past them, keeping the publishing company's name out of it. They unanimously expressed bewilderment, and laughed gently at the accusation of racial insensitivity - one in particular telling me how many times she and a Japanese chum in the same trade swapped examples of terrible unintentional caricaturing - reassuring me that this was robustly not that.

But the author wouldn't budge, and the art director was beholden to his comments. A first-time author, and a highly-knowledgable, vastly well-read expert on Chinese culture with a degree in Mandarin and Chinese Buddhism, I was hardly going to argue (even though I felt I had the equivalent knowledge when it came to book covers!) so I let it be. I still did the final cover, but it was a pale shadow (literally) of the ones I'd created before it. You can see the red cover it was published with below. 

In addition to the covers, I'd also created an illustration of an inky night-time Chinese street to be used inside the book; this I loved making, and regretted that it wasn't incorporated into the pages. Having said that, maybe it was - I never did receive a copy of this one.

As I was recently collating all my books for a report I had to submit earlier in the year, this one came to mind again and I still wonder whether I'd have been the centre of a career-ruining Twitterstorm had the cover been published, or whether it would have been the roaring success I hoped it would and the book would have sold three times as many copies. We'll never know. The author has written another book since, for which I didn't do the cover, and I note Ghost Eyes has been re-covered with a photographic/digi-collage approach. 


Sometimes you have to fight for a creative idea, sometimes you have to let go. Despite all your creative instinct telling you something is right, when it comes to commercial publishing, that instinct sometimes has to be pushed aside. It's painful to do it, and one day all of my Lost Covers will be the subject of their own little show somewhere. But for now, in my archive they lurk; original art in the plan chest, final files on the backup drive, awaiting their moment in the sun.

What do you think? Was I so pleased with my collage that I overlooked something obvious? I've remained curious about what others' reactions might be, and part of me hardly dares to ask. Either way, I've done a great many covers since, including some for the same publisher, so I chalk this one up to experience. I bear neither the author nor the AD any ill will, of course - it's just business, after all - but my Li-Lin will return, as another character in another form, on a a future cover...

Read a review of the book here.

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