In her series of columns Lizzie Damilola Blackburn, debut author of Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? (Viking), reveals all about the reality behind the dream of being published.
Aside from publication day, I think the moment that we, authors, reveal our cover is one of the most exciting stages of the publishing journey. It’s like doing a baby gender reveal, only a bit more nerve-wrecking. The reason why I say this is because, regardless of whether a couple is having a boy or a girl, they are guaranteed to get a chorus of ‘Aww.’ Seriously. Think about the last time your pregnant friend/colleague/sibling told you what they were having. How did you respond?
But when it comes to doing a cover reveal, aside from the obvious reasons, it’s a totally different ball game. Mainly because the outside of a book, unlike the inside, is not creatively spearheaded by the author, but rather by a team of publishing experts across design, marketing and sales.
Before I got a book deal, I had no idea how a book cover came into being, which is funny because I'm the kind of person that googles everything. So, when my editor told me back in February (yes, that’s how long this process has been going on for), that in publishing, the general practice is to show the author when it’s nearly a fait accompli, after googling the French word – which I later found out was Latin – I was surprised to discover what it meant.
Fait accompli: a thing that has already happened or been decided on before those affected hear about it.
Wait, does this mean what I think it does?
“The reason for this,” Katy had gone on to explain, “is that covers are much more about knowing what works in the book market and with different retailers, than being a literal representation of what’s in the story. Far often, writers are too close to their work to be able to judge objectively.”
To be honest with you, after reading Katy’s email, my heart didn’t plummet to my knees. Yes, I’m good at jazzing up PowerPoint presentations, and I got an ‘A’ in GCSE Art, but that hardly makes me a qualified designer. Besides, I trust my team. I mean, have you seen the books Penguin publish?! And from my experience of planning my wedding, I’ve learnt that sometimes, it’s best to just let the experts do their thing as opposed to having your fingers knuckle-deep in every minute detail, which can stifle creativity or, worse, greatness.
Which is why, when the weeks turned into months, and I didn’t hear about any cover updates, I remained chilled as lemonade. I trust my team, I chanted.
I chanted this mantra when my family and friends asked for its whereabouts; when I heard real-time stories from fellow debut authors who had cried – sadly, not tears of joy – at the sight of the first version of theirs; and while offering words of encouragement and a virtual hug from afar.
I trust my team. I trust my team.
Besides, I had some good news to latch onto. During this period, my US team was also working on their cover (because of the distinct markets, generally the jackets are different), and despite a sudden change in creative direction, and a few back and forths, we finally got the perfect look. I say ‘we’ because their process was slightly different. I was able to have more sight of various versions at different stages and offer my feedback. Like Yinka, I’m British Nigerian, and so the team wanted to ensure that the cover reflected her culture and they appreciated my insight.
With an amazing US cover in the bag, this gave me reassurance. The UK team will also nail it. But, unfortunately, the summer period (as I later discovered) is a rubbish time to work on a cover. Put simply, many people are on holiday, and this contributed to the delay. My agent (bless her) did her best to keep things ticking along, until finally, we received word that the cover was “nearly there”. A term, if you’ve ever received a call from a friend who is late and tells you that they’re five minutes away, you know, darn well, is relative.
Still, I trust my team. I trust my team, I continued to tell myself.
Then one day, we had a breakthrough. During my catch-up with my editor, she asked me to list the three most important things that I wanted the cover to evoke.
1. Celebrate Nigerian culture
2. Show that this story is about a young Black woman’s quest for love
3. Convey a universal message that this book will appeal to fans of warm, funny, relatable fiction
She made note of my feedback and promised me a sneak peek soon. And boy, oh, boy, did she deliver. When she sent me the email with the attached cover versions, I was blown away. The covers were everything I wanted and more: eye-catching, warm, feelgood, and bold. Love at first sight is an understatement of how I felt about a particular one. I was infatuated. So much so, that when my editor told me that it still needed tweaking – feedback from a few staff members was that the one I loved could be a tad less busy – I was more anxious as I waited for the updated cover this time round than I had been in months!
I needn’t be. The final version was absolutely glorious. No amount of emojis in my email reply could get across my excitement, as I reeled thanks and praise. The team, as I later found out, had considered over one-hundred visuals to nail the final look. I’m still heartened by their efforts.
So, thank you, Richard Bravery and Julia Connolly, and all the other wonderful, hard-working people who helped with the cover. Everyday I’m in awe that I get to bring my book to life alongside equally passionate individuals who love and adore Yinka.
I mentioned earlier that my mantra is, I trust my team. But these days, my mantra is, I bloody love my team. I wouldn’t want to work with anybody else.