Friday, 6 May 2011

Cover story

I have spoken before about the tricky issue of covers for an author. We tend to be shown covers at a stage when the concept has already been decided on by a committee involving the mighty forces of marketing and sales. 'Marketing love it,' we are told. 'The sales department is very keen.' In effect the dress has already been bought, it is being worn and the taxi is waiting outside. The 'How does it look?' is not designed to kick-start a frank exchange of opinions.

This is made all the more difficult when the author has been to art school, as I have. It requires a diplomacy that I'm not sure I have always quite managed. I like to think that the times I have decided to speak up have been valid and produced positive changes, but I have also spoken up and been roundly squashed. Which is fair enough, of course. A knowledge of art and design does not make me right any more than a lack of it would make me wrong.

At the top of the posts are two covers for my book Jail-breaker Jack. It was published by Hodder and is sadly no longer available. It is a book I am very proud of. It was a response by Hodder to the boom in narrative non-fiction for adults, but children's booksellers seemed a little mystified by a non-fiction book that had the narrative drive of a novel. Also, it did not tie into any of the areas covered by the history syllabus for the given age range. Ten year-old British children know a little about Victorians, the Tudors and WWII but they know nothing about the early part of the 18th Century. It would have been better to write a novel - which is effectively what I did with my Tom Marlowe books, in which I used all the research I had done for Jail-breaker Jack.

The book is copiously - and I mean copiously - illustrated throughout by my good self. It was very early in my career and I was lucky to have a fantastic editor in Anne Clark (now at Piccadilly Press). She was just the right combination of exacting and encouraging. I learned a lot from Anne and we made a couple of really nice books together.

I had completely forgotten until I did a clear out of my office the other day, that I had originally done the cover too. The one at the top is the one I did, the other is the one they decided to go with in the end.

The cover Hodder chose is perfectly elegant in its way but I don't think it is a book that the age group we were aiming at was ever going to get very excited about. I don't think mine is great - but I certainly think - as I did at the time - that it has more appeal to a ten year-old. And - as well as being an art trained, I was also - a long, long time ago - a ten year-old boy.

I did two books at Hodder. The second was Witch Hunt, an exploration of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Though I had been told - a little preposterously - that one of the reasons my cover did not work is that marketing felt that covers with faces looking out did not go down well (!!), the second book (for which I did not even attempt to suggest a cover) featured an attractive girl (almost) looking out at us and seemed to be sold as fiction (I certainly found it in the fiction section in shops). I never once saw Jail-breaker Jack in a single shop.

But the horrible truth is that there seemed to be no appetite in children's books for narrative non-fiction and certainly no appetite among booksellers. Neither books sold. Would Jail-breaker Jack have sold with my cover on it? Maybe not. Probably not. But that's the problem with covers. We all agree they are important, but we can never know how important.


  1. Dear Chris,

    I'm going to send a letter to Philippa, but I thought I would comment on your blog just in case you check the comments. First of all, I would like to say how my I adore your "Tales of Terror" books and your books have really inspired me to write as a 14 year old girl living in Hong Kong. I'm writing a young adult fictional novel for a Personal Project that I have to do at school and I was wondering if I could conduct a short interview with you. I'm visiting London during the summer holidays and I would love to have a chat for my project. It would mean a lot to me.

    If this is possible, please email me at

    Thank you so much,
    Alison Lui

  2. Hi Chris,

    This is a great post.

    I'm an illustrator and a former bookseller and I loved Jail-breaker Jack! I hope it will please you to know that I sold plenty of copies, back when I used to work in a specialist children's bookshop. I think it's a real shame that it's no longer available - the fact that it was so heavily illustrated was one of the selling points for me. It's sad that a book like that couldn't have been pushed more. If i remember rightly it had quite a bit of comic book narrative going on in it too, which is being borrowed by most children's book publishers these days.

    glad I found your page. I shall check out your new works : )

  3. Thanks Sam. It still causes me pain to be honest, but that's publishing. And yes - it did have a strip picture treatment when it got to the famous escape. It's nice to know someone appreciated it!