Thursday, 1 January 2009

Take cover!

When I first began writing, I thought that content was by far the most important component of a book. The story, the words, were the thing, weren’t they? I took what I hope was an enlightened interest in the jackets of my books but did not worry too much if I felt that, perhaps, they fell a bit short of the mark. They were the responsibility of my publishers. They must know what they are doing.

And, of course, they did. The cover of “The Horns of the Buffalo,” my first novel, was produced with original art work, showing the young Fonthill thrusting his bayonet on the end of his accurately drawn Martini-Henry rifle at a Zulu over the mealie bags at Rorke’s Drift. The covers of the next three books in the series, however, reproduced paintings of the famous actions depicted in the story. They were good, strong reproductions, recording fragments of the battles…but reproductions for all that and, somehow, pictorial clich├ęs. But I didn’t make a fuss. I was a writer, not a designer.

Then, blessedly, Headline decided that we needed a change. For the paperback edition of “The Guns of El Kebir,” the hardback cover of a Victorian painting was dropped and replaced by a stark symbol of a khaki coloured, cloth covered pith helmet, with a bullet tear in its front, against the background of a British trooper on a camel in the far distance, atop a sand dune. You could smell dust and the heat of the desert. The cover of “The Siege of Khartoum” is equally iconic: the face of a Mahdi Dervish – or is it Fonthill in disguise? – swathed in his headdress, with only the cruel eyes showing, while in the background a British redcoat kneels, his rifle at the ready. Too early to say what effect this cover has had, of course, but sales of the paperback “Guns” have undoubtedly leaped. Who said you can’t tell a book by its cover?