In just the past few weeks, Woodwalker has gone from a word document still undergoing edits to a finalized product. The final copyedits are done, the text has been formatted, and the thing has a COVER!
Let’s be honest—people judge books by their covers. We can’t help it. A good cover draws us in, piques our curiosity. A bad cover makes us pass it over for something else. It’s a critical part of any book, and one I hoped would turn out right for Woodwalker.
Several months ago, when I began telling people that my book had been picked up for publication, the most frequent question I got was, “are you going to do the cover?” At that early stage, I could truthfully say, “I don’t know”—I wasn’t sure how involved I was going to be in the process. And, in a way, I didn’t mind if I wasn’t allowed to work on the cover. Like most artists, I have a delicate relationship with my artwork. I’ll finish a piece with immense satisfaction, sure it’s going to be the crown jewel of my portfolio, only to come back to it a few days later and realize with dismay it’s nothing but the same crap I produce week after week. There’s one storybook I wrote and illustrated for my girls that I try to avoid reading at all costs, because the illustrations nag me so much.
In that respect, I didn’t want to illustrate the cover and then have it hanging over me for the rest of my life, knowing at this point next year I might barely be able to look at it. I looked forward to what another artist might dream up for the design. And because it’s such an important part of a book’s appeal, I felt more comfortable leaving it up to industry professionals.
One of the first things my editor asked me to do upon signing our contract was put together a Pinterest board of book covers I liked, so the art department could have some starting points (you can find that board here, if you’re interested). I did some research and a whole lot of pinning, and I realized I was drawn to artistic covers with stylized elements, rather than photos or ultra-bold graphic designs. Here were some of my favorites:
But then, me being me, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I sketched up a few drafts of what Woodwalker might look like with some of these elements.
I sent the pin board and my sketches to my editor and the art director, thinking they would either take my designs and run with them, or they’d discard them for something else. I wasn’t too beat up about it. The only thing I knew for sure I wanted to avoid was a Photoshopped image of a white girl in a prom dress staring into space.
To my surprise, they sent me back one of my sketches and said they’d like to see another draft. It was the cover inspired by The Visionist and featured a shot of Mae marching away from the reader, overlaid with a foliage design. Their suggestions were altering the colors to make Mae stand out a little more, and to be sure she came across as a woman by changing her hair and clothes.
So I got back to work.
When I illustrate Mae, I almost always put her in green or brown and put her hair up in a knot (she hates having it loose). But I made myself stretch her design a bit to meet the recommendations of my art director (if there’s one thing I’m learning about writing, editing, and publishing, it’s that industry professionals are usually right). After a little more back and forth, we ended up with this draft:
My art director emailed me back saying it was great and he would take it from there in terms of adding the text and other elements to the front and back covers. Several weeks later, I received two drafts from my editor with the title and additional elements added.
I have to say, I was caught off guard at first. Cherry red accent color? Heavy, gothic font? On a book about an unpretentious treehugger and her Lothlorien-meets-Appalachian homeland? It was... not entirely what I had expected. It felt a little out of date to me, like it belonged in between my ‘90s copy of The Lost World and my ‘70s copy of The Hobbit.
But I made myself wait, live with them for a day—like I said, industry professionals are usually right about things like this. By the next day, I had decided I could maybe live with the second, but it hurt me a little inside. It just didn’t have the organic, artistic feel I wanted, and it wasn’t something that would capture my interest in a bookstore. But I also didn’t want to be needy or demanding or, worst of all, make a decision that would negatively impact my book.
Compounding my angst was my own experience on the artist’s end of these types of projects. I’ve had clients who commission a design or illustration, only to hate whatever I come up with and request changes that I think are detrimental to the design—ultra-detailed logos that don’t read at a small size, abysmal color choices, fonts that induce vertigo. I’ve reworked products to create something much less visually appealing and usually try to scour them from my portfolio afterwards. I didn’t want to do anything like that here—project my own preferences onto the book cover to the point of negating the expertise of my editor.
At the eleventh hour, I also realized another thing that was bothering me—Mae didn’t look like Mae. This was my own fault—in trying to make sure Mae read as a woman, I somehow lost some of her character. At the time, I think I dismissed this as me being too closely tied to my own character design—what cover ever really manages to capture the protagonist? I have three different cover suites on my copies of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series—one makes Gen look like a Mediterranean twenty-something, one makes him look like my dad, and one makes him look like a white twelve-year old. None of them impacted my enjoyment of the books. No big deal, I thought.
But ack, now it was a big deal, especially with the uneasiness I felt with the rest of the design. Hastily I pulled up my original illustration and began reworking some of it (by this point I was losing sleep and the patience of my husband). I took away Mae’s billowy sleeves and replaced them with a design I often use when drawing her—a separate shirt under her tunic, with the sleeves rolled up. I felt much happier with that look—to me it conveyed a sense of readiness and action. This was also well after midnight, so I was probably approaching delirium anyway.
At the advice of my agent (and my husband, who was getting irritated with my drama), I told my editor the cover designs didn’t feel quite right to me, and I asked if we could do a few variations with other fonts and colors. I sent him the revised illustration and some examples of other books I liked. After some back-and-forth, he sent me an updated set with some different variations. While the font and red drop shadow didn’t change, other elements did, and ultimately they felt a lot better to me than before.
After another day of waffling and polling my agent, beta readers, and daughters (“Which one do you like?” “Oh, a moon!”), I settled on the fourth one. I was drawn to the simple design, and the title font didn’t feel quite so out of place to me.
And so we have the final product.
The good thing about revising the illustration at the last minute is that it resolved some of my original fears—that a few months down the line, there would be things I couldn’t stand about it. In the months since I first drafted it, I’ve learned a lot about bounce light and color balance, and I was able to improve some of that with the revision. Lesson learned—I’m going to illustrate the cover for the second book now, so I can revisit it in a few months and make it better.
Ultimately, I’m happy with how it turned out, and in the end, I’m so, so thankful I got to do the illustration myself. I’m grateful to my editor and the art department for working with me, and to everyone who gave me feedback during the process. I’ve had time to get to know the font and color and make friends with them. I love Mae’s purposeful forward march, which I think communicates her confidence and drive. I think the leaf overlay lends an eye-catching graphic feel that will be recognizable on the shelf or as an online thumbnail. And the design lends itself well to the rest of the trilogy—each book can have its own variation, making it nice and cohesive.
So! That’s that. Woodwalker has a cover. It has a title page, a dedication, acknowledgements. It has a summary on retailer websites and a variety of genre categories. It has a publication date.
All it needs now are readers.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator