Wednesday, 28 September 2011

How the worst book cover in history helped kill my writing career

That excellent blogger Laurie Graham recently wrote a post entitled “Hat Tip to Bulgaria” which began “I have a long history of heartbreaking book covers”. You and me both, Laurie! I still remember, with a mixture of rage and shame, opening the envelope containing the cover design for my penultimate horror paperback, You’re Next! 

It was so badly conceived, so ineptly executed, so gormless, so cosmically unfrightening,  so much designed to ensure that the book would be remaindered before it even hit the shelves (or a shelf in the publisher’s reception area – I couldn’t imagine any bookstore actually wanting to pollute their shop by displaying it) that the world, as they say, almost dropped out of my bottom.

I knew – just as surely as someone standing on an exotic beach, watching a 60ft tsunami thundering towards them – that it was all over.

I phoned my editor to complain, but somehow all the keenness of a few weeks before had evaporated: it was as if I’d imagined all those promises of heavy selling into W.H. Smith and John Menzies. I was so comprehensively dead in the water, she could barely be bothered to argue with me: I’d already been consigned to the publishing equivalent of the Chiltern Hundreds.

Luckily, the freelance job I’d been doing at the BBC had just been advertised as a permanent post, and I’d been havering about whether to go for it, in case it interfered with my writing career. As my publisher had effectively signalled that that career was now officially over, I positively raced into work to hand in my application.

Writers hate to admit it, but, back in the days before multi-channel TV and VHS tapes and DVDs, when uneducated people lapped up the sort of genre pulp fiction I used to write, the Cover was King.  Genre fiction didn’t used to get reviewed (apart from crime), so unless one of those companies whose job was to review everything (“This book is sort of alright” Kirkus Reviews ) stomped up a decent snippet, or unless you could squeeze a nice quote out of a more successful novelist, there was nothing for the reader to go on other than the title, the cover, and the blurb on the back (which, in any case, I’d already taken to writing myself). 

The first two books I wrote (under the pen-name Alexander Scott) were D.K. Broster-style 18th Century
Highland flings. They were meant to be the opening salvos of an immensely lucrative series entitled Highland Rebel, (starring Sean Connery in the film versions, naturally) and, as I was writing them, I’d imagined covers featuring a huge, hairy Scots berserker roaring out at the reader with his unfeasibly enormous claymore clasped menacingly above his head, preparing to wreak mayhem on a bunch of effete English poofs. What I got was a beautifully painted pastoral view of a sea shore with a cluster of little figures of indeterminate gender doing Highlandy things while a ship sailed away in the distance. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on a tin of “Haste Ye Back!” Highland shortbread.

Unsurprisingly, both books stiffed.

By way of contrast, I was very lucky with my first horror novel, The Cats, an unashamed rip-off of James Herbert’s hugely successful gore-fest, The Rats. The cover was dead simple, consisting of nothing but a moggy snarling out at the reader. It sold copiously.

My next novel, The Scourge, featured one of the most revolting covers in the history of the horror genre. Even I was appalled. (Sainsbury’s had started selling paperbacks around that time, and complaints from customers led to the book being withdrawn from their stores - I just hoped they hadn’t put the book rack near the meat counter!). Inevitably, it too sold quite splendidly.

Meanwhile, the same titles were doing vaguely okay in the States, where horror covers at that time were strangely anaemic. When it came to my fourth novel, though, things changed. The Surrogate was a fairly quiet, rather creepy little ghost story. The Yanks gave it a nicely gloomy, atmospheric cover – and, with the help of a great quote from that very generous chap, Stephen King – it sold really well and ensured I could go on writing for another few years. The UK cover was a crude, cartoony imitation of the original – and here the book did all right, but no cigar.

But covers can’t buck the market. My last book, Steel Gods –probably the best-plotted and best-written of the lot  – had a great cover, and a nice quote from James Herbert, but didn’t trouble the bestseller charts. By then, the bull market in horror had turned distinctly bearish. When the public decides a genre needs to go into hibernation, the greatest cover on earth can’t help (although a better title might have). 


  1. EX-KCS
    Oh dear. The cover of You're Next really is wack. I can only think of what Brian Wilson must have thought when he saw the Pet Sounds cover, except that he had his feet so far in the sandpit that I doubt he knew what was happening. Was it more like that scene in Spinal Tap when the " none more blacker" cover arrives?

    You did the back cover blurbs, so why not insist on doing the covers? I seem to recall your having an artistic bent, an imaginative composition entitled "Erection in Waterloo Station Waiting Lounge" being a memorable piece of its time. I am sure it would have sent sales g8oing forward.
    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 - 02:21 PM

  2. If you do ever consider a complete re-branding please consider the undersigned.I too used to draw/paint variations on the 'Waterloo' theme relying heavily on innuendo-ok smut then-to re-interpret past Art 'o'level papers.
    You may recall the sort of thing:"you have two hours to paint one of the following;"
    1.Something Nasty in The Woodshed.2.Inspection Day.etc etc.
    .Very little escaped my juvenile imagination.
    Friday, September 30, 2011 - 06:27 AM

  3. SCOTT
    That’s a cruel suggestion, Ex-KCS – if I had offered to do the designs, it would have deprived the Art Director’s “special needs” five year-old son of the minutes of harmless amusement he derived from doing the design for “You’re Next!”

    I hate to deny being the artist responsible for the evidently extremely memorable “Erection in Waterloo Station Waiting Lounge”, and may very well have been responsible for it – but I mainly confined myself to pen and ink renderings in the margins of our French text-books (one of which, I seem to remember, was called “Ici Paris” or somesuch, and had a silhouette of a young chap on the cover, who appeared to be hung like a stallion and who was apparently in a state of extreme tumescence). No, I think you may be mixing me up with someone with the initials “PS” or “ST” – or it could have been both of them! An artistically talented bunch, the year ahead of us, I remember. I suspect it’s the artist formerly known as Jodrell Bank!
    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 - 09:54 PM