Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book covers--my horror story and some good news

There's been a lot of discussion recently on Sisters in Crime about how much input an author has on cover design--or, more precisely, how much he or she doesn't have. I have loved all my covers from Turquoise Morning Press--three in the Kelly O'Connell series and the first Blue Plate Café Mystery.
But I do have horror stories. The worst was the cover on my 1994 novel based on the life of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife of George Armstrong Custer of Little Big Horn infamy. Libbie was a good-looking woman for her day (1850s-1860s) but never as sultry as the woman pictured above who, as one friend told me, looks like Madonna in nineteenth-century dress. She stands knee-deep in a lush field of prairie grass--Kansas, perhaps--next to a barbed wire fence. If you're a history student you spot the problem right away. Barbed wire was first demonstrated at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio in 1876; Custer died at Little Big Horn in 1876. No way was Kansas fenced before Libbie left the West and went east to build her husband's reputation as a martyr hero.
Besides, this is the ubiquitous West. If you have Kansas in the foreground, you have Arizona in the background--bare red earth. Trouble is though, there's a stockade fence. Forts in the West notably did not have any kind of barrier around them--Libbie wrote in one of her books how alarmed she was to realize the fort they were sent to was merely a collection of buildings with no perimeter fortification. If there had been a barricade it certainly wouldn't have been the sturdy log fortress pictured. There weren't enough tall, thick tree in the entire West to do that.
Libbie was my first book to be published by Bantam and only my second from a New York major house. I felt like a newcomer and, yes, I was cowed, so I said nothing. By the time I decided to say something, it was too late--publicity was done and production had been started. I guess it wasn't serious because the book sold well. (Can't resist a plug--it's now available, with a more suitable cover, in the Real Women of the American West series as an e-book only).
Two books later, I complained again to Bantam and got results. The first cover picture they sent for Cherokee Rose (based on the life of the first Wild West Show trick-roping cowgirl, Lucille Mulhall) showed a sultry cowgirl (again more sultry than Lucille ever thought about being) with a horse's head over her shoulder. The trouble was the horse had no body--it was, as it were, disembodied--only a head. I mentioned this problem and the horse disappeared.
My current publisher, Turquoise Morning Press, made it clear, by contract, from the beginning: the publisher has final say over the cover, though the author may have some input. It's worked well so far. The first cover she sent for Skeleton in a Dead Space had a full, stark white skeleton against a black background with bright touches of red--wait, this is a cozy and that didn't fit the mood of the book at all.
I wrote and said so and the publisher agreed. She herself came up with the cover that I still think is terrific.
But it's true--it's the lucky author that gets any meaningful input, and I feel lucky. 

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