(You will find a much longer and less solipsistic feature about book covers in the September issue of Mslexia)
Here is what real North Shields herring girls looked like in 1898, painted from life by the artist Winslow Homer at that time: wind-scuffed and bundled up in ungainly layers – dressed for the job, in other words.
The cover of my novel Herring Girl (below) bears no resemblance to these women, nor to any character in the book. But the editorial and marketing team love it, the book shops love it – and it does show a young woman in a long frock vaguely adjacent to the sea. But she certainly doesn’t hail from 1898 and I doubt she’d know one end of a herring from the other.
Does it matter? Yes and No. Yes, because I think herring girls deserve to be recognised for what they were – feisty no-nonsense workers – and I’m not sure my cover image does them justice. But also no, because a book cover isn’t there to provide a faithful depiction of a book’s contents. A book cover is a there to communicate what kind of book this is, so that busy book buyers (including you, hopefully) can home in on a book they’re likely to enjoy as quickly as possible.
Using a well-established marketing code, here’s what this cover design is intended to convey:
- long clothing: historical setting, date unspecified
- face averted: possible mystery involved
- dark cloak: a hint of the paranormal; this cloak recalls the red-hooded figure in the film Don’t Look Now
- woman standing alone: possible sad romantic content
- photoshopped sea image (as opposed to naturalistic photo or paint job): possible literary writing style
- use of ‘girl’ in the title: possible romantic content; also suggests an affinity to the intelligent bestselling thriller Gone Girl, so hinting at some intelligent thriller content
- use of ‘herring’ in the title, plus proximity to the sea: possible fishing industry or other social issues context
Would a Winslow Homer image have conveyed all this? Or would it have identified the book immediately as a ‘clogs-and-shawls’ romance? So after a half-hearted whinge (‘She looks like she’s going to the opera’), I gave in.
A similar issue arose with the cover of my previous novel, Hungry Ghosts, about an infertile woman’s obsession with the mysterious carpenter she hires to renovate her Greek village house. The woman in question is a rather obsessive and tormented 30-something scientist who dresses only in black and white.
Below on the left is the cover image the designer suggested: a hippy teenager in flimsy turquoise layers and red flip-flops. ‘But Sylvia would never dress like that,’ I objected and requested a more representative image – and they let me have my way. But Waterstones didn’t like the cover I wanted, and refused to stock the book. The hippy flippy-floppy image was eventually used on the cover of Body Surfing by Anita Shreve, widely available at most branches of Waterstones… Suffice it to say, I learned my lesson.