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Yes, judge a book by its cover – but which one?

Today we sent the proof copies of The Hopkins Conundrum to be printed – which was an exciting moment because it meant we had finalised the cover design.

This is something we’ve been working on for about two months, with discussions going back and forth between the publisher, editor, other members of the team at Lightning Books, not one but two designers – and myself.

It’s been a fascinating process. Once the book is published the cover defines it, but throughout its pre-publication existence – years of gestation, writing and editing in my case – the front and back could be anything you like.

For The Hopkins Conundrum – a deliberate mash-up of literary biography, maritime tragedy and modern satirical comedy – choosing the cover illustration entails a decision about which aspect to major on. Should it be a shipwreck? Or something literary and Victorian? Or should it attempt to pull together the ragbag of stories and give the reader a steer on the predominant mood they can expect?

We’ve gone with that last one, but we tried the other two as well, and it’s clear if you put the respective designs side by side – maybe I’ll show you one day – we could have ended up not just with three very different-looking books, but three very different books, full-stop.

On one level that’s obvious. It’s why we talk about the text or manuscript as a separate thing from the book itself – they are different items. But it’s still a bizarre discovery for the writer that the thing you’ve laboured on for years could have a very different existence depending on the choices made by a designer who hasn’t read the book and the people briefing them.

Check out this montage of Harry Potter editions (made by Kid-Bob at Deviant Art). Here are very different designs aimed at very different audiences. I assume they did the set in the top row after they realised adults were reading the books. It would be fascinating to know what the relative sales of the different editions were.

I’ll never know whether The Hopkins Conundrum will sell better or worse with the cover we have or a different one, because you can’t reliably compare the actual world with a different possible one.

Suffice to say I love the one we’ve chosen – and I’m grateful to Anna Morrison for pulling out all the stops. And I’m prouder of the book we will have with this design than I would have been if we had gone down a route that seemed like a good idea until someone had a better one.

One other thing: I gather it’s pretty unusual for the writer to be involved at this level with cover design. An author friend with a couple of novels and a shelf of biographies to her name tells me enviously that she had never had any say in any of her covers.

I’ve never known any different because getting the author very involved is crucial to the way they/we do things at Lightning. It has been so enjoyable, and makes such a huge amount of sense creatively, that I can’t understand why anyone would want to do it any other way.

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