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a sketch of an artist's easel surrounded by a bust sculpture, various scrolls and books, and a large coin with a man's head in profile

Image: Old Book Illustrations

What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite writers to reflect on an element of the writing and publishing process that they wish they’d known when they were first starting out, and share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned throughout their publishing journey. In this instalment, writers reflect on book covers and cover design.


Sophie Gonzales, Only Mostly Devastated and more

I wish I’d known we could recommend illustrators! For my first few books, I was able to provide some general thoughts and ideas, character descriptions, and requests, but I had no idea we could request potential illustrators we loved.

Of course, this by no means guarantees the illustrator will be selected, but I have friends who requested theirs, and their covers were so in line with their personal style and aesthetic—love!


Julie Koh, Portable Curiosities

When my short-story collection Portable Curiosities was published in 2016, I realised I could use the cover design to draw attention to the book in fun and unusual ways. Josh Durham’s cover for the book featured a neon light in the shape of a cat playing with an ice-cream. I originally wanted to make a real neon light based on the design as a thank you present for my publisher but, being a university press, they weren’t able to accept extravagant gifts. So I decided to have the light made anyway and put it on display at my book launches at Readings Carlton and Kinokuniya Sydney. Then I approached bookshops and asked if they’d be happy to feature the light in their window displays. The sign ultimately hung in the windows bookstores in Sydney and Brisbane, before ending up at Muse in Canberra, where it remains to this day.

I also posted a copy of Portable Curiosities to in New York. They took a great photo of an ice-cream smashed onto the cover, and published it on their website and Instagram account. Another idea that a friend had was that I should turn the cover design into a ‘book jacket’. So I had the design embroidered onto a bomber jacket, which I wore for public appearances. At the start of the pandemic, I told fellow UQP author Ellen van Neerven that I was writing a will, and Ellen asked for first dibs on the jacket. So that’s where it’ll end up when I die!


Wayne Marshall, Shirl

What I wish I’d known about the cover design process is this: it’s so much fun, and not to be feared. Writing is a hugely solitary thing, but here you get to collaborate. The key is being fortunate enough to work with the right people for your book. In that respect I was blessed. I’m not sure how many publishers, for instance, would have green-lit my editor Coco’s vision for the Shirl cover, and Guy Shield’s perfectly disturbing realisation of it. That I was allowed the final say in which direction we took was also a surprise, given the stories you hear. Lastly, I’d never have guessed the extent to which the cover comes to stand for the body of work in your mind. That’s to say, when I think of my book now, I think of the cover. Which is symbolic, I guess, of the weird but cool story of having a book published: what was yours alone for so long, gives way to a larger collective vision. And that’s definitely something to be embraced.


Laura McPhee-Browne, Cherry Beach

I wish I had known that a book cover for an author is a test in patience, a test of faith, and a smoothing down of the author’s aesthetic ego that can be very worthwhile, if you can keep your nose out of it! I was lucky enough to have the talented Imogen Stubbs of Text Publishing design the cover for Cherry Beach, and she loved the book and took the time to source an absolutely beautiful piece of art that she then placed and adorned with skill and care.

I have an interest in art and design, but I am not an expert, and I am learning how to let go and trust the knowledge and vision of others. This experience was the perfect way to remind me I don’t have all the answers, and that a published book is much more than just the work of the author.


Cath Moore, Metal Fish, Falling Snow

Being a debut novelist and having had many knockbacks before acquisition, I delighted in every process and relationship involved in birthing a book. What I didn’t know at the time was that my publisher (Text) had a very talented in-house designer (Jessica Horrocks) who brought a wealth of knowledge to discussions. Although I never met Jessica face to face, it was a strangely intimate relationship, both trying to speak a similar language using different materials. I learnt how reductive your mindset must be, reflecting the heart of the story and author sensibilities through a carefully considered arrangement of symbolic references and visual clues. You must also understand how colour evokes emotion. Jessica reminded me just how important the hand motif had been in the story; she managed to embody the parent/child subject matter but also the wonder that magic realism provides. I do wish I’d been privy to her working process, mainly because I am completely bereft of the technical skills required to masterfully create an intriguing entry point into the world that lies beyond the cover.


Fiona Murphy, The Shape of Sound

A memoirist warned me of the unexpected difficulties of having her face featured prominently on a book cover. ‘Strangers will begin to recognise you,’ she said; ‘that level of intimacy can begin to feel intrusive. You need to decide whether you want that or not.’ I wasn’t aware that writers had a choice in cover design. I began to worry about my face and lack of taste.

I lucked out—W.H. Chong created a cover that deeply resonates with my book. He says: ‘The hands form or perform a kind of shape. It doesn’t mean anything but suggests a lot of things. (Eg: touch, warmth, intimacy, searching, an ear, ear canal, cradling, allusions to Auslan etc etc).’ Unexpectedly, the image has become a sign for the book. Strangers have sent me DMs saying that they’d forgotten both my name and the book’s title, but used their hands to replicate the cover to booksellers. This gives me inordinate amounts of joy.


Ellena Savage, Blueberries

When I was writing Blueberries, I made my own working cover. I scanned an image from an old art book of a naked Greco-Roman athlete statue and I cropped him at his waist. What was left of him were his ripped legs, butt, and a small, dangling penis. It’s an old, grainy image which I think looks very moody. It’s artsy-fartsy and masculine, blustering and silly—qualities I tend towards in my writing. It also takes a classical object as a point of desire, which is a form of conservatism I long to wash my brain of, but can’t quite. Look at its butt, though, and the image is stripped of reverence.

I had no intention of suggesting my Roman derriere as my real book cover. I knew that Bluebs, like any book by a young-ish woman about ideas not stripped of their lived consequences, which included some violence, would probably only, or mostly, be read by women and queer people, and so the cover would aesthetically suggest those readers. I also knew that a title like Blueberries would mandate a lush colour scheme, which my butt lacked. Both Text and Scribe make indisputably gorgeous covers, so I felt in safe hands. My only hope was that I would not get a Sally Rooney cover or one of those floral wallpaper covers with white text which individually look okay but are going to age horribly due to ubiquity. I think a good cover is original, striking, and mysterious. My Text cover, by Jessica Horrocks, is all three. It’s like an invitation to the abyss. My Scribe UK cover is—I wouldn’t say mysterious, but is striking and original, and I adore its rich colours.

Covers are part of a broader marketing strategy, which invite or prioritise certain readings of a book over others. I love my covers, and I think both invite the kinds of readers who might connect in some way with the book. But, with the wisdom of posterity, I also now understand that a female-coded cover can invite certain readings of a book in a culture that sometimes understands women and queer people through their bodies and their pain and their imagined humourlessness. There were several times during the publicity phase of the book where I was asked to be a kind of spokesperson for MeToo and sexual violence more broadly. I was unprepared for this and disappointed, because while it’s something I care deeply about, and I am indebted to the writers who are strong enough to take such positions, I thought I had written a book of idiosyncratic and iconoclastic essays, some about violence but mostly not. I flapped about answering such questions, for which I had no good answers. This felt like a failure on my part. Or that I was delusional. Which was possibly true. Had I written the book I thought I had? Was I high on my lockdown farts? Or were these demands on me part of a broader symptom of the media and festival industries running on the fuel of hot-button topics? Hm. Still, I have designs to frame both covers and hang them somewhere secret.

Kaya Wilson, As Beautiful as Any Other

Book covers are wild! When you start looking you realise how subject they are to vagaries and trends. Just look up ‘book covers of women in period dress facing away.’ They’re a mashup of marketing, trending themes and sometimes incredible art.

Before I was published, everyone seemed to say it was a sign of a naive author to think they could have some influence over their book cover, but in the end my experience was quite collaborative. I love my book cover and it definitely helps that it stands out.

Want to learn more about the ins and outs of the publishing process? Check out Getting Published with Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, or any other of our Online Writing Courses, available to complete in your own time, at your own pace.

Check out the previous entry in the series, on what writers wish they’d known about being edited.