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Tuesday 29th May 2012 saw the latest event in the SCBWI London's 2012 Professional Series at the Theodore Bullfrog pub near Embankment Station. Tonight's event focused on The Book Cover and the panellists were:

- Eleanor Updale, the multi-award winning of the MONTMORENCY SERIES and most recently JOHNNY SWANSON;

- David Fickling, the man behind David Fickling Books; and

- David Dean, the illustrator behind the paperback and hardback covers of JOHNNY SWANSON, together with a host of other excellent covers.

The focus of the evening was in the process behind the design of the covers for JOHNNY SWANSON and specifically the reasons why there are different covers for the hardback and paperback releases.


David opened proceedings by saying that Eleanor and David both make brilliant things and that the publisher's role is to help each of them to produce their finest work. He described Eleanor as one of the finest children's writers around who has a tone that children respond to, which is why David is thrilled to be her publisher.

Books work when they get into the hand of readers and the main job of a cover is to get children to pick them up. There are no rules with regard to covers and David's approach is to let illustrators like David Dean produce something that they think works.

With the JOHNNY SWANSON covers, David Fickling asked Eleanor what she thought the book cover should be like and then looked for an artist who could represent that, which is why he turned to David Dean.

Like all publishers, David Fickling Books provide cover designers with a brief. Sometimes the brief is very tight (i.e. sets out precisely what the publisher wants), sometimes it's very open (i.e. gives more guidelines to leave the artist free to create).

Briefs are not generalised across the publishing industry and they tend to be individualised to each publisher. David Fickling Books likes to keep things simple but that can be difficult to achieve.

David said that publishing's currently at a juncture with the rise of the Kindle and iPad but the technology's still primitive compared to what it will eventually become. He pointed out that the key issue is how you set the text and the cover such that someone will pick it up. Physical books have a tactile quality, which encourages people to pick them up. Electronic books lack that quality.

David Fickling Books wants covers that will hold the book in the marketplace, which is why the typography is also ver important.

The main point that David wanted to make is that you have to trust people to do their best work.


Eleanor said that she loved the hardback cover for JOHNNY SWANSON and had no idea why David Fickling Books decided to change it for the paperback release. She stressed that she didn't have a problem with the paperback but she felt that the hardback cover had worked very well.

She said that she believed that publishers were too focused on cloned book covers, i.e. they were all trying to pick up on what types of books are selling and then mimic those covers. However, a lot of the time the cover image doesn't actually appeal to the reader.

She's fascinated that the international publishers for the MONTMORENCY SERIES all used different covers that were aimed at the specific markets they were interested in targeting. However she pointed out that children hate to be seen with the wrong kind of books - particularly books that are perceived to be for children younger than them or books aimed at a different genre.

She concluded by saying that tag lines and elevator pitches have taken over publishing and as a result originality has been sidelined in the acquisitions process.


David took the attendees through the process of designing the two covers for JOHNNY SWANSON. He said that David Fickling Books are one of his few clients who are willing to take a chance on doing covers differently and he likes the fact that they generally write really open brief.

With the paperback cover for JOHNNY SWANSON, he was asked to put in a scene from the book to make it seem more like a murder detective mystery. He provided David Fickling Books with 3 examples of the type of cover they were looking for, all of which were variations on a theme.

With the hardback cover for JOHNNY SWANSON, his brief was to produce a newspaper style of cover but to include colour. This was a problem because JOHNNY SWANSON is set in 1929 so any newspapers from the time would have been in black and white. To incorporate the colour that David Fickling Books wanted, he made the cover look like someone was reading a newspaper, so there were items like biscuits and pens ons on it.

David showed the attendees the rejected covers, which was really interesting.


There followed a question and answer session, which included the following points:

- Eleanor described the process of producing the hardback cover for JOHNNY SWANSON as a collaboration, whereas the paperback cover was presented as a fait accompli. She found this to be rude.

- David said that ideally the book cover should be done with the author's collaboration. However book covers are not designed to please the author and so some covers can go too far towards pleasing the author (who tend to want a scene from the story) whereas that might not draw in readers.

- Eleanor was a judge on the 2011 Costa Book Awards and she said that the book covers of the nominees did make an impact on the judging process. Those books with illegible covers (e.g. white writing on a turquoise background) were put to one side.

- Eleanor said that book blurbs usually give too much of the story away so that they're basically a synopsis of the whole plot. She asked the audience what they wanted from book blurbs and the answer was split between audience members who wanted to know about genre and those who wanted less information. David Dean said that a lot of the time he only gets a book blurb and so doesn't get to read the manuscript (which he prefers to do). He had read JOHNNY SWANSON and with the hardback he wanted to condense the story into a graphic form whereas the paperback cover was specifically designed to sell books.

- David Fickling wants covers to provide the tone of the book.

- When asked about the white-washing of covers, David Dean said that it depends on the brief and if you get the manuscript but usually he tries to represent what's in the book regardless of the ethnicity of the characters. Sometimes he will get a sketch from the designer. Usually he tries to read the manuscript and does a lot of background research.

- David Dean said that the cover artist usually doesn't get a say in the final finish of the cover (e.g. special varnishes, effects etc).

- Eleanor said that there's an increasing sense in publishing that books aren't being allowed to grow their own identity. David Fickling agreed and said it's because people are anxious and worried about books being a success so when something goes wrong they decide to change the cover rather than allow the book to establish itself.

- Eleanor repeated David Fickling's point that all publishers are different. She said that the best relationships are the old-fashioned one-to-ones where it's more like a friendship and that's still more common than you might think. However publishing is a high churn industry and people leave all the time, replaced by others who don't know who you are or what your book's about. You as an author have to keep an eye on what's happening to your book. Having a good agent can help but you should make sure that your agent is respected in the industry because if you have a rude, aggressive agent then it can work against you if things are going wrong as the publishers are less likely to want to listen to and work with them.

- David's advice to new writers was to find someone who understands you and recognises what you want and love your book. Different people will always have different opinions so not everyone is going to be a good match for you. It's personal. Sometimes books just don't sell and there's a shaky connection between what sells and what's good. Find the publisher you trust.

The meeting concluded with a reminder of the London SCBWI's next Social Event on June 26th at the Young Vic, where guest of honour will be the mighty Philip Ardagh and his mightier beard of awesomeness.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Amanda Lillywhite
May. 30th, 2012 06:06 am (UTC)
Gosh you were quick!
This is a great summary of the event and you've caught me smiling at Jackie Marchant's book cover (it is very good).
May. 30th, 2012 08:11 pm (UTC)
It's a great cover, isn't it? I don't get why they changed it.
May. 30th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks for blogging about this - I really wanted to be there. interesting that someone asked about white washing - David took pains with my new cover to make sure the character was not the usual.
May. 30th, 2012 08:12 pm (UTC)
Without banging my drum, I raised the white washing question because it's a massive personal bug bear of mine (to the extent that I'm now naming and shaming publishers who do it). I did tell David and David that I liked the Tall Story cover (which they had out on the table) specifically because it showed diversity on it.
Sue Hyams
May. 30th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
Book covers
Sounds like an interesting evening. Sorry to have missed it so thanks for posting this!
May. 30th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Book covers
It was a really good evening. Any chance you can make it to the Social next month? The BEARD OF ARDAGH will be there.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline Hooton

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