Cover Stories + Win-It Wednesday: Year of the Horse by Justin Allen
"What many readers don't realize about cover designs is just how little input authors officially get. Heck, most times we don't even get final say in the book's title. Really! That's true! By contract, the cover and title are both part of the marketing of a book, meaning that final say goes with the publisher. Authors get to cast their two cents in, and I suppose you could cry and stamp your feet if you REALLY hated something. But the design is mostly out of your hands. More often than not, that's probably for the best...
"The story behind the cover of my latest novel, Year of the Horse, is sort of unusual. Overlook Press went through 5 - count 'em, FIVE! - completely different cover designs over the course of a year, searching for exactly the right image to hopefully make the book just leap off the shelves. Did they succeed? Time will tell.
"A lot of what goes into cover design is determined by whose eye your publisher is hoping to catch. This is the first cover design for my book, right. It is all my fault, I'm afraid (see, maybe authors SHOULDN'T get too much say.) Overlook asked me what I had in mind, and I described a gunfight in front of a saloon. They took this image from an old painting. It is exactly what I asked for, from the title (pay attention to that title!) to the scene, to the coloring... Does it suck? Oh, Lord!
"Fortunately, in their infinite wisdom, Overlook saw that the book just COULD NOT stay like that! So, they hired an artist to fashion a cover image depicting the main characters. Now this is more like it! Depicted are the protagonist, Lu (he's the boy on the right), and his friends Jack Straw (the gunfighter at center), and Sadie (the girl on the left). As the drawing was coming together I made lots of observations. For instance, I mentioned that Jack wears a blue coat (it originally came out gray). I also thought it was odd that Lu was carrying a stick of dynamite, but that didn't actually bother me much. And to me Lu and Sadie looked a bit young - in the book she's 16, and he's 15 - though again this was not really a huge deal to me. I also asked whether Sadie's hair couldn't look more blond. All in all, the artist did a pretty great job, I'd say. Unfortunately, a new problem crept up on us - The Title.
"Imagine you're looking for a book, but want to find out more information about it before you buy. What do you do? Me, I google it. You too? Small world! Now, just imagine what happens if you google "Justin Allen The American." Do you think you'd get anything OTHER than my book? Go ahead, try it. We can wait. That's right, millions of unrelated hits. So another change had to be made. A NEW TITLE! We wanted something that would stand out just enough - without sounding completely made up - something that would refer to the main character's Chinese heritage, and hopefully add just hint of mystery. I suggested Year of the Horse. I suspect any number of you have seen the problem that was to follow. That's right, NO HORSE!!! You have a book called Year of the Horse, without a horse on the cover. Aiyeee! So, back to the old drawing board.
"Once again, a completely new cover idea was hatched. Saints be praised! Right? Right? There's the horse, right on top of that canyon. This is a fine image - and astonishingly, Barnes and Noble still features this image on their website, despite the fact that this is NOT what the book looks like. What's most astonishing about THAT fact is that Barnes and Noble is one of the reasons that this is NOT the cover of the book. For whatever reason, Barnes and Noble did not like this cover. In fact, they hated it. Maybe they didn't like the canyon, or the fact that the cover is mostly black. Maybe they were just having a bad day. I don't know. But I do know that they really hated this cover. I bet most of you out there didn't realize that bookstores have a say in all this, too... I know I didn't realize that. So why does Barnes and Noble feature the cover they hated on their website? I'll bet that even they don't know the answer to that!
"Do I like the final cover? You know, I really do. I have a poster-size image of it - one I used at some readings out west this winter - framed and on the wall next to my desk at home. I like that the horse is galloping, with streamers of dust behind him. I like the type-face and the teaser at the top. I like that the rider could be ANY of the characters, even Sadie. And I like the fact that the title is featured much more strongly than my name. I have always figured that a book, once bought, belongs to the reader. It's her imagination that will fill in the world, give life to the characters, and power to the words. The writer is no longer important at that point. It's the reader!
"Are there things I don't like about the cover? Well, let me put it this way. There are aspects of the book that this cover doesn't show. For instance, large parts of the book are actually fantastical in nature. It features sorcerers, fire-demons, a were-coyote, magical bullets, the headless horseman, and even the devil himself. But just imagine a book
cover that included all of that! I'm not sure it'd be on my wall.
"One last thing that has occurred to me about this cover, in the wake of Bloomsbury's white-washing fiasco of the past few weeks, is to note that the rider on my cover is race-less and sex-less. And you'll note that I LIKED that the rider could be ANY of the characters in the book, from the African-American Henry Jesus to the white Sadie MacLemore. I'm not sure what this has to tell us about covers, book sellers or book buyers, but I think it is at least interesting.
"I'd love to know what you all think about the cover. I bet Overlook would as well (This isn't rocket science, we can all learn more!). And if you have ANY pull at all with Barnes and Noble, and can somehow get them to switch to the actual cover of my book, 'Please! for the love of all that's holy, do so now!'"
Oh man, Justin makes me LAUGH! I really like his observation about how, on the final cover, the character could be anyone. How freeing! And I actually do think I like it best--there's action in the cover, but also a calm stillness to it because of the shadows.
Which cover do you like best? Leave your thoughts below and you're entered to win a signed copy of the book of 1000 covers, Year of the Horse.