As a newbie crime author the excitement of my first book deal, delivering the manuscript, making it through the editing process, consumed my attention for many months. Then it was job done, on to book two and back to the keyboard. Or so I naively thought.
But choosing the right cover, I soon learnt, is as crucial as all the words printed in between when it comes to persuading picky retailers to put the book on their shelves. And my input was required, which is how I ended up in Putney on a pleasant May morning headed for my first photo shoot.
In my previous life as a television scriptwriter I’d had plenty of experience of seeing actors stepping into the skin of my characters and lifting them off the page. On the best occasions this became an interactive process with performance informing the writing. However screenwriters have to be team players, the script is just a template and, as William Nicholson pointed out, often your job is to solve everyone else’s problems.
Authors – even the name sounds more grand – have a degree of control over the story they’re telling that most scriptwriters envy. It’s your subjectivity, not the director’s or the actor’s. They remain your characters. You connect directly with the reader through the words you select. After twenty-five years in telly, when I sat down to write my first novel, this was the buzz for me, and the challenge.
Before that can happen though you have to persuade them to buy your book, which was why I was in Putney being presented with two stunning models who would provide the faces for my main characters. Their artfully arranged pose had to tempt the reader to pick up the book, read the blurb and buy. It also had to fit the retailer’s notion of a product they could sell and in the case of the supermarkets this concept seemed pretty specific.
Having gone from television to the solitary world of the novelist, I found myself back in a team. Producing a book cover that is original enough to stand out, but signals some similarity to books the reader has already purchased and enjoyed, is an art form in itself and also a collective enterprise. Art director, photographer, models, make-up artist, editor, even the lad who made the coffee, all had more experience of the process than me. But they listened attentively to my brief outline of story and characters and pitched in with questions and ideas.
As the camera shutter clicked, poses were struck, wind and smoke added, hairstyles adjusted, clothes changed. And with a time lapse of only seconds each shot popped up on the computer screen to be analysed and discussed. The models were soon ‘in character’, inhabiting their parts with as much skill as any actor. The photographer moved them this way and that, coaxing a range of expressions and emotions from them. The art director lobbed in suggestions. By the end of the morning the number of shots taken must have reached triple figures. I had no idea how the art director would choose between them.
However choose he did and a week or so later I received the ‘low res’ images by email. As well as the book cover, he’d photoshopped the images of my characters on to a tube billboard and a bus shelter. This stopped me in my tracks. I realised that soon Kaz and Joey would be out there, the tale of their nefarious doings being read by people on buses and trains. The process was definitely a thrill, but now, after this inspiring excursion, I’m on my own again and it is back to the keyboard…