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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