OK, so I wanted to write about book covers. And, specifically, my book covers. Largely because I’m not really in a position to comment on how other book covers get chosen (obviously). But also because I’m hoping that insight into issues I had with my cover images may bring into sharp focus wider issues we have with book covers for female writers, or those with female lead characters.
My first book, Banking on Burlesque, was a memoir of a period in my life when I worked by day as an investment banker in the Square Mile, yet also sheltered a little hobby I had at night – performing as a burlesque showgirl on stages across London.
Quite a juxtaposition; quite a contrast. And a lot going on in terms of ‘world of men’ vs. ‘world of women’, and hyper-masculinity vs. feminine sensual expression. (And a hell of a unique story to tell.)
As you can imagine, there was a lot of interest from publishers in this book. Especially as this was no ordinary slushy tale. Not only was I working in some of the biggest investment banks in the world – and at the time the Credit Crunch hit – but there was also that magical ingredient of my banking employers threatening to dismiss me for disreputable behaviour when they found out about my burlesque hobby.
Ooh, bad bankers! All the hypocrisy, all the sexism, crystallised perfectly!
So, what happened?
Well, the fear of libel certainly poured a lot of cold water over many hot publishers. Investment banks have huge legal teams. But, worse, I also wanted a say on cover image. In fact, for me, this was imperative. And this would ultimately sabotage any chance of a great book deal.
What was I thinking? I know, I know. It seems crazy to many, even now. There was significant interest from big publishing houses and here was I – a lowly writer – drawing a line in the sand, saying ‘No, I really, really want approval on the cover image.’
Because in this instance, cover was everything.
I think my agent at the time, and possibly the publishers, thought this concern came from an emotional link to this being my memoir. Not at all. I am surprisingly heartless (maybe not that surprising given my career in investment banking) and there had been something rather cathartic in the years of writing, editing, and painful examination of this period of my life. Actually, there was little emotional attachment left (other than the fact that I felt strongly that this was a story that needed to be told).
My concern was, simply, that one poorly chosen cover image would betray the toughness of the material and, instead, box it in as light, fluffy and non-threatening. And this book was anything but.
‘But let’s just shoot some ideas around,’ they said. And everything I feared materialised. Burlesque showgirl in front of the Gherkin… Silhouettes of City Boys with one City Girl in accentuated sparkly heels… Bright red lipstick on a City Girl face… And, of course, ‘something pink?’
I do not doubt there is a market for readers craving a fantasised portrayal of life as a woman – and as a burlesque performer – but it would be one hell of a disappointed reader who picked up a copy of Banking on Burlesque on the basis that it had a pink fluffy feather boa on it, only to hit chapters on credit default swaps, the housing market bubble in the US, trader fraud, employment discrimination legislation, bad experiences with burlesque audiences, issues with self-esteem, off-stage struggles, and – to top it all off – a complete absence of any love interest. (A romantic subplot? With City Boys??!! Oh, please. Give me some credit.)
A hyper-feminised, saccharine, sickly sweet book cover would have killed this book stone dead. It would have missold the book, undermined its intellectual punch, and would be guilty of perpetuating tired stereotypes of both female writers and readers.
All publishing deals are two-way. They have to be. I know we all struggle as writers – we all do. It’s crap, it’s hellish and we suffer for only the remotest chance of ‘success.’ So any hint that there is a deal on the table and we are anxious to not rock the boat.
But for me… This book was a hard-hitting account of profound sexism and discrimination in the toughest of industries crystallised through contemporary events and touchpoints.
There were so many themes I wanted to explore… Sexism, hypocrisy, the moral and actual corruption in investment banking, the glass ceiling, how woman have to adapt in a man’s world, the lack of sisterhood in male-dominated environments… All of these remain critical and relevant themes.
I didn’t want these watered down. I was adamant that this book should explore this tough stuff – and I was adamant there was a market for this. I remain adamant on that too. But the publishers said that book cover approval was not possible. Why would they give that exception to me, after all? I was given a choice and I turned the opportunities of a book deal down.
I know. Big call. BIG. CALL.
In the year or so after the Credit Crunch, there was a small flurry of City Girl memoirs and, yes, those covers looked familiar. Silhouettes of women in skirt suits in a line-up of men, pink high heels accentuated against a monochrome background, women using a mirror in their handbag to put on lipstick…
I had a lucky escape.
Banking on Burlesque instead hit the market with a book cover I did want. One that blurred the two worlds. It is a very stylised image, a very stylised cover. The intense monochrome look you see occasionally on other books – Look Who’s Back pulled a similar visual – but it’s very modern. Contemporary.
But did it work though? Well it didn’t work wonders. The book didn’t make any bestseller list despite significant media coverage. And I don’t doubt that sales would have been way, way, way higher with the marketing nous and budget of a big publishing house to support it.
I was disappointed. Really, really sad. Of course I was. It’s a good book but it just didn’t find its market. Like so many other good books, it drowned, lost in the ocean of publishing. One of many. My sad story of a book not reaching its potential is not an isolated one. All writers have such a story!
There was a sense of regret, sure. But by this point I saw the book as a first stepping stone in a longer career and so I felt sure that I had done the right thing with regards to setting the tone of everything that would follow.
Concern over representation of women and female writers through their book covers is now quite a lively subject. One that gets quite a bit of attention on social media and in the wider public. So I thought, my new book, Darkness, would get a smoother ride. A more progressive ride.
How wrong I was.
Now I was pretty sure that this book – a work of speculative fiction on female terrorists destroying the remnants of the patriarchal state – would leave little room for manoeuvre or opportunity for hyper-stylised femininity.
When the first set of book cover designs came back, I went pale. We had silhouettes of women with long flowing hair and trim waists, comic-book style visions of perfectly manicured hands gripping AK-47s – a flash of red nail varnish accentuating the image. Pink AK-47s. Pink. PINK! And all the female figures had lily-white skin.
Christ. Where to begin?
I took a deep breath and said ‘No. I can’t have any of these book designs. They’re borderline offensive.’ *another deep breath* ‘We need to get another designer.’
‘That’s not protocol’ came the reply. And I agreed that the designer would be given another opportunity. But when those designs gave us nothing, I again requested we change designer.
The eyes narrowed – they weren’t impressed. ‘We are leaving this very late in the day, Victoria,’ they said. I wanted to argue, ‘well, how is that my fault?’ But again, what latitude do you have as a writer? Very little. They agreed, I said ‘thank you,’ and prayed to whatever god exists that the second designer would come through.
And I was lucky – very lucky – because she did. And terrifically so. Gender-neutral, dynamic, colourful, giving enough of a hint of the explosive subject matter…. However you want to define the final cover, I am so proud (and relieved).
So, what does all of this mean? Well, obviously if you’re a publisher, I’m not putting myself in the best light right now as a willing collaborator. You might think, ‘Christ, she’s hard work.’ And I feel that. I feel that, as a writer. I feel like a troublemaker. When we have a deal, we hand over what we have written and it’s questionable how much of a final say we get on marketing points like this.
Maybe that alpha-female in me is impossible to switch off. It has cost me, but I’m ever-hopeful that this will come to my rescue at some point. Maybe it already has. I can only imagine the backlash if either of my books had gone out with their original cover images. I would have taken criticism for that, for sure.
But what I want to draw attention to is how tired stereotypes are still proving hard to leave behind, and how little say writers like me at the bottom of the food chain get in our marketing. So please don’t blame the writers if the cover image doesn’t fit. There’s only so much we can do. And those like me who speak out, well, as you can see, we risk a lot.