Birth of a book cover: a case study

To paraphrase Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is a truth universally acknowledged in the publishing industry that an author has little say in the design of the cover of her book.

I was aware of it and believed that the best way to make my voice heard was to be proactive. For months I trawled the internet and my collection of art books for paintings suitable for the cover of Mistress of the Revolution. I looked at works by Watteau, Greuze, Vigée-Lebrun and many less famous artists. I must have overwhelmed Julie Doughty, my editor at Dutton, with all my suggestions.

Then one fine morning, I found in my inbox an email from Julie, titled Book Cover, with this attachment! The designer had found a lady with the blond-reddish hair and grey eyes of my heroine, Gabrielle de Montserrat. However I was concerned because this particular hairstyle, with tufts of ringlets on each side of the lady’s forehead, dates from decades after the time of my novel. And that is a long time, considering how dramatically fashions changed during the Revolution. Also I found that the mix of green, red, white, red and blue in this cover, though intended to evoke the three colors of the French flag (and in fact reminiscent of the Mexican and Italian ones as well) was a bit too much.

I racked my brains for book covers I loved in historical fiction, and soon thought of The Crimson Petal and the White. I looked at it carefully. No wonder I had been taken by it. It was a detail of Le verrou, The Lock, a Fragonard from Le Louvre.

The Petal cover put me on the right track. How could I have overlooked Fragonard, one of my favorite painters? And he had been active in the second half of the 18th century, the right time for my novel!

So I tried to find a different detail of The Lock that I could use for my own cover, but it just did not work. Then I looked at another Fragonard, Le baiser à la dérobée, The Stolen Kiss. I immediately knew that it should be the cover of Mistress of the Revolution.

Fragonard The Stolen Kiss

I emailed the painting to Julie. She agreed that it was indeed beautiful, but could not see how it could fit my book. She had a point: the young man in the painting did not look like any of my male characters, and the atmosphere was too sweet and sentimental to fit the mood of my novel.

So I suggested cutting the young man out of the picture, which led to this new version of the cover (left.) I liked it very much, but the lacy white label, with its unbecoming central bulge, was still there, cutting across the young lady’s waist, and only a small detail of The Stolen Kiss had been used. It seemed to me that the painting’s wonderful sense of immediacy and the grace of the lady’s movement had been lost.

Mistress of the Revolution Catherine DelorsThen the designer had a great idea: reverse the image. We, in Western culture, are used to thinking from left to right, because this is the way we write and read. In the Fragonard, the young lady is being held back by her suitor. In this new version of the cover (right) she is moving forward, as if fleeing. This was much more like Gabrielle’s story. The designer also found the beautiful M font I love.

Now only details remained to be decided, such as the color of the title. I was thinking of a dull gold, but Julie sent me this vibrant blue title (right.) I was reluctant at first, but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. Finally Julie put an end to my hesitations. She told me the sales staff preferred a beige tone for the title because it would stand out better in a bookstore. Obviously marketing concerns are of paramount importance, for the publisher and the author alike. The blue title was in fact used later, for the trade paperback edition.

Then it was time to design the full jacket. The whole painting is used. It wraps around the jacket. The staid ladies playing cards in the background appear on the back cover. The young man is still there, somewhat hidden on the front flap.

When Julie sent me the jacket (below) I was worried the kiss might appear, depending on where the staff at the warehouse folded the jacket. We discussed whether to airbrush the young man out of the picture altogether, but Julie remarked that it was a pity to mutilate a beautiful work of art. I agreed. I liked the idea that some things are unpredictable.

It turned out that a hint of the kiss was visible on the front cover, and I was happy with it. I feel that, thanks to an ongoing dialog with Julie and Dutton’s openness to my suggestions, we reached a very satisfying compromise – an appealing cover that is also historically accurate.

Mistress of the Revolution Full jacket

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22 Comments to “Birth of a book cover: a case study”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. The book cover is lovely and it’s nice to hear that a publisher was so amenable to an author’s suggestions.

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    At the bottom left of the footer. There is a link to him.

  3. Bret Kamke says:

    I would like to setup a blog like this. Any chance you could email me the webmaster’s info?

  4. Miss meldon says:

    Again great posting Catherine. your all articles are great and informative.

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  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Ninon! I must say I have never had any second thoughts about my Fragonard cover.

  6. Ninon says:

    An excellent choice! I love Fragonard too, and this painting is one of my favourites. I often love the covers of historical ficton books, and it was really interesting to read the story behind this one.

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  10. The curse of the headless heroine: more discussion of book covers at Writing the Renaissance

    Here is the link to Julianne’s post. Funny how book covers bring up such interesting discussions.It inspired me to design this book cover for Julianne’s novel, The Measure of Silence. See: no face!As Sheramy of Van Gogh’s Chair commented, “[t]he point of much historical fiction is to give faces and voices to women of the past, and then the covers take their faces away.” I agree. For me, a headless cover transforms a heroine into a generic female in fancy clothes.I am very grateful to Dutton, my publisher, for taking my wishes into account in this regard. At all …

  11. Thanks for directing me to this entry Catherine. As you know from my review, I was disappointed about the man being cut off the front cover. It certainly makes sense in the context that he matched none of the main characters from the novel. Perhaps I am too attached to the beauty of the artwork to have first appreciated the absence of the man on the cover.

    It is a truly beautiful cover either way and captures the essence of the book very well.

    Best of luck. I look forward to your next novel.


  12. It all started with book covers: a discussion with a Robespierriste reader

    This exchange exceeded the iron-clad 3,000 character limit for comments, set by my blogging software. Yet it seemed a pity not to publish Suzanne Levin’s remarks, which I found most interesting. I certainly look forward to reading her historical novel when it is completed.********************************Suzanne’s continued remarks regarding my prior book cover post (I recommend that you first read the comment trail there)Your explanation of why you chose the cover image you did, seems to me entirely reasonable, and it is surely no less appropriate for your book than the others, especially not with the modifications. It only seemed a curious …


    Thank you, John. When great minds come together…

    Seriously, to answer your question, I think that if you protagonist is too nice, you are going to bore your readers silly. Your character won’t feel real, you will lose much of the dramatic tension. I am writing a movie review of “The Red Violin” for Historical Novels Review right now, and I just realized how unpleasant the Samuel L. Jackson character is. Yet I root for him the whole time!

  14. John Michael Bolzano says:

    Kudos to you and Julie Doughty! I enjoyed reading about your journey in producing the cover to Mistress. The result of your collaborative effort is impressive. The cover is beautiful.
    You clearly like Gabrielle and enjoyed spending a lot of time with her, both when you were writing and when you were searching for the right visual representation.
    I recall reading that you initially had some reservations about writing explicit sex scenes, but did you have any concerns or doubts when you wrote about Gabrielle’s role in the arrangement between her and the Baron, her husband, involving other girls? I would be happy to hear your thoughts about your experience with Gabrielle’s less sympathetic moments because I do not find Guido Bontalenti, whose story I am currently writing, particularly sympathetic and have had some concerns about it.


    Please don’t apologize for the rambling, Suzanne. I find
    your comments most interesting.

    About the cover, I was not aware of the fact that The Stolen Kiss had
    been used by either Margerit’s La Révolution or Alleyn’s A Far Better
    . Truth be told, I have read neither. I realized, though, shortly after
    we picked this cover, that the Fragonard had been used for an English edition
    of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (kiss included) et for Emma Donohue’s Life
    (faces covered by a red band). I discussed this point with Julie at
    Dutton, and that did not deter us from keeping it. We felt that those images
    were sufficiently different from my own cover to avoid any risk of confusion.

    I was not trying, in this post, to claim that the use of The Stolen Kiss
    for the cover of Mistress of the Revolution was a new or strikingly
    original idea, but simply to recount how this particular cover came to be.
    Indeed this painting is in the public domain, and it is deservedly popular, so
    I am not surprised to learn that it has been used repeatedly for historical
    fiction covers.

    As for the substance of my novel, I certainly wouldn’t dare compare my work
    with Hugo’s  Quatre-vingt-treize, which I read in high school and
    loved. I have read neither A Tale of Two Cities (due to my inability to
    plow through more than a few pages of Dickens) nor The Scarlet Pimpernel.
    I saw the beginning of a television adaptation of the latter and gave up after
    twenty minutes. I found it inaccurate, poorly acted and strongly francophobic.
    This is, of course, no reflection on the literary work, which, again, I do not

    Regarding the choice of a noblewoman as my heroine, and of a bourgeois as my
    male protagonist, I claim the creative freedom awarded any novelist. Apart from
    personal reasons, the personal nobility-bourgeoisie conflict seemed a good way
    to illustrate the tensions of pre-revolutionary society. However, I have no
    intention of limiting myself to characters hailing from the upper classes. In
    my second novel, set in 1800, the hero is the son of a rabbit-skin man turned
    tavern keeper.

    You have an advantage over me, in that you are obviously much more familiar
    than I with historical fiction related to the French Revolution. That makes
    your opinion of my own novel all the more valuable. I look forward to hearing
    it once you are done reading the book.


    Thank you, Pam. Indeed I have had a lot of positive feedback (with the exception of one reviewer, who regretted not to see the kiss on the cover.)


    I believe it is, Julianne. It is a lot of fun too…

  18. Suzanne Levin says:

    It was my intention to save any comment I might have to make until after I finished reading Mistress of the Revolution, but when I saw this post, I felt that I could no longer refrain from doing so.

    As a student of the Revolutionary period, and thus as someone who is familiar with probably just about every major novel ever written on the Revolution (I hope, at some point, to write one of my own) I could not help noticing that yours is the third I have come across with this particular Fragonard painting on the cover. The others are the first volume of Margerit’s La Révolution (or, at least the reissue for the bicentennial), and Alleyn’s A Far Better Rest. From the beginning, I could not help wondering whether you were aware of this, though I did reflect that authors are not always able to choose their own cover illustrations.

    I must admit, when I first read the description of Mistress of the Revolution, as a novel (to paraphrase) of “aristocrats in the Revolution,” especially one written in English, my first reaction was to suspect that it would be another in the everlasting succession of Tale of Two Cities and Scarlet Pimpernel-esque fantastical novels. Nevertheless, I try never to judge books based on they’re descriptions, which I’m also aware are written by publishers and not the novelists themselves.

    So far, I have been pleasantly put of my first (admittedly prejudicial) idea of the novel, and would rank it, from what I’ve read so far, among the best I have read in English, at the least. (In French, there are, of course, classics with which no modern author could compete, such as Hugo’s Quatre-vingt-treize, and somewhat more recently, Margerit’s series; that said, I realize that the scope of Mistress of the Revolution is entirely different, and that it cannot be compared to such works in any case.)

    Many authors choose to write about aristocrats because they find them “glamorous,” but it’s clear that you chose your protagonist for more personal reasons, which I can respect. Quality and accuracy are the only important factors in writing historical fiction, and I hope to read more of your novels in the future.

    (Apologies, by the way, for the rambling. I can see that it leaves the main topic of the post behind, but I hope you’ll forgive me.)

  19. pam sheppard says:

    Discussions about jacket design are always my favorite insider details. The refinement of this jacket design is a delightful glimpse of the commitment all of you have had to getting the details for this book RIGHT. Well done!

  20. Thanks for sharing this, Catherine. It’s so interesting to read a specific instance of how the design process works. Your end result is beautiful!

    I was thinking I should be on the lookout for paintings suitable for my own book. Now I know that is in fact a good idea…


    Thank you, Elena. I had seen the face of the ringlet lady on other book covers, but had no idea who she was. I am glad you agree: apart from the obvious anachronism, it was not how I pictured Gabrielle.

  22. The Fragonard cover is lovely! The other is actually a portrait of the first wife of Berlioz, an Irish actress- oh, it would not have done at all!

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