I’ve always had a nerdish fascination with book covers and the design-by-committee process through which they are made.

After all, a book doesn’t start out with a cover. It begins life as text, faceless to the outside world. Typesetting, fonts, embossing and finish – all that comes after, with much collective wrangling from the publisher, the designer, the sales and marketing team and, sometimes, the author. There’s those silent signals too, which, for better or worse, have become part of our literary lexicon – BIG BOLD CAPITALS for crime thrillers; pastels plus the lonely, cropped silhouette of a woman for so-called ‘chick-lit’; not to mention the bevy of pale-skinned torsos and limbs for imitators of the Twilight franchise.

When my first book, Cargo, was going through the production rounds, I knew relatively little about the design process, but, as a secret-wannabe-designer (oh if only I had the talent to match the will) and font nerd, I was rather excited to see what would come of it. At the time, I was largely concerned with two things:

1. How? As in how would they turn that mass of text into a Proper Actual Real Cover when I could scarcely imagine what it could look like myself?


2. How? As in how much of a say would I get in the process, if any?

Luckily, for the first question, I had the eternal wisdom of the Alien Onion bloggers to rely on. If you haven’t already seen their step-by-step introduction on how a cover is made (told in LOLcats), I suggest you take a look right now.

As for the second, my experience is pretty much limited to Cargo and what I know of the industry but, looking back, I’d say it generally depends on both the publisher and the author in question. Usually, most publishers will and do genuinely consult with the author on the cover. Sometimes this is even stipulated in the publishing contract. However – consult being the operative word – the final say goes to the big P. If an author utterly loathes their cover though, most publishers or editors would probably (reluctantly) change it. Although this isn’t always the case – cue Garrison Keillor and the cover of Love Me, released a few years back, which he still maintains ‘gives [him] a bad case of the yips’.

Anyway, to get back to 1, at least seven or eight months before the scheduled release date, Rod Morrison, who was at the time the publisher at Picador, sent me an email asking if I had any thoughts about the cover. I had billions, which of course, in reality, meant I had none, and ended up sending back a rather ambiguous email listing a few covers I just liked the look of. At the last minute I also chose to include one done by Leo Nickolls, a designer in the UK, for no reason other than the fact that his rendering of Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale remains one of my favourite covers of all time. Strange to think now how different Cargo might look had I not included that link, because Rod replied back immediately saying that he liked Leo’s work also, and would ask him if he might agree to do the roughs.

Several weeks later, I got home to discover these in my inbox:

Leo said later that the brief he received from Picador was relatively open.

This is one of those briefs where I could visualise the cover quite quickly, I knew I wanted to illustrate it, and I knew the illustration had to have an almost naive feel to it. The publishers also had requested that I try not to rely on stock photography, but more than anything the cover was realised (in my head) when I read this:

‘Out on the water, the boats cut back and forth across the skyline. Glassy light on the surface, everything the colour of abalone and motor oil. The world seemed caught, she held her breath.’

… After that it was a case of sketching, drawing, scanning and photoshopping until I could make everything work! I had tried to bring abalone (photographically) into the waves, but for one reason or another it just didn’t look right.

I’m wary of unadulterated raving, but I have to say that when I opened the images, I realised my biggest problem would be having to choose just one out of the three – they were all just so goddamn brilliant. In the end, I decided to put my vote in for the third rough by a hair, because I felt that Leo had perfectly captured the idea of inner turmoil, and a world caught, with those seething waves and bright, violent colours. I did ask whether we could scale down the title (so that it wouldn’t be mistakenly read as, gulp, ‘ARG’), and whether we could take out the shadowy cliffs in the background. Luckily, both Rod and my editor Joel agreed, and by the next round, Leo had the following refined roughs:

This was then shown at a big cover meeting with sales and marketing for final approval, where version two – the blue – won out. From there, it was just a case of refining, refining, refining. It’s interesting to think how even the smallest things changed along the way – from the use of the black stencils throughout to the colour of the boat and the amount of fading used around the waves. I wouldn’t change a thing about the final version, but another part of me, I think, will always have a soft spot for the versions that didn’t quite make it, floating around out there like parallel lives.

Jessica Au is a Readings bookseller and former Deputy Editor of Meanjin. Cargo is her first novel. Her website is www.jessicaau.com.