Interview - Take Ten With Lauren Willig by Linnae Crady
Author Lauren Willig gives Cover Cafe
her take on romance book covers!
1. What was the first book you remember reading? Can you describe the cover of the book and did you like the cover?
My favorite book in my pre-reading days was a large, illustrated edition of The Three Musketeers. I couldn’t quite make out the letters yet, but my father had read it to me so many times that I could recite the text word for word. (I only found out later that my father had made some edits and alterations.) But it was the pictures that really carried it, large, glorious illustrations of glamorous women in flounced dresses and dashing men in plumed hats engaged in all sorts of intrigue and skullduggery, all in children’s picture book size with a minimum of text. Bizarrely, I can remember a number of the internal illustrations very vividly, including one of D’Artagnan eavesdropping (until my father explained the metaphorical meaning of the word, I was very concerned about eaves conking him on the head), but I can’t recall the cover at all. I’m assuming it must have been equally brightly colored, featuring D’Artagnan in some variety of dramatic pose, but it didn’t make that much of an impression.
2. Have you ever purchased a book because of the cover alone? If yes, which one and why?
Paul Murray’s An Evening of Long Goodbyes. I was browsing my way along the new arrivals table in the bookstore in the Copley Mall and the cover caught me. It was a stylized illustration of a very Bertie Wooster type guy sprawled out in a red arm chair. It immediately evoked images of that era, of the wit of P.G. Wodehouse and the sharp satire of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. Unlike historical fiction, romance, or mystery, which I tend to pick up based on blurbs, regardless of cover, this wasn’t a book I would otherwise have purchased, being a quirky satire set in modern Ireland. It was cover and cover alone that made me take that purchase plunge, and I wasn’t disappointed—I loved the book, all the more so for being something I wouldn’t ordinarily have read.
3. When did you first know you were destined to be a writer?
The great revelation occurred at some point in the kindergarten stage. Before that, I had entertained ambitions of being either a princess or a ballerina (I’m all about the tiaras), but as I looked at my crayon illustrated “novel” in its construction paper covers, I had one of those blinding moments of epiphany. Not that I would turn down the whole princess gig if someone were to offer it to me, but this was it: I was going to be a Writer and have my name on books. And here I am! (We will not discuss the number of manuscripts (and rejection letters) that piled up in the interim.)
4. Who gave you your first break in publishing?
Life works in funny ways. Although I had interned in a publishing house, my first break came, not from anyone in the publishing world, but from an old grade school friend who happened to have a friend who was an agent. He worked at a very snooty literary Literary house, so I was quite certain he would want nothing to do with me and my madcap romp about flowery spies during the Napoleonic Wars. They represented a bunch of my Harvard professors in the History Department—they weren’t going to want me. I told her, sure, send my manuscript along, and went about my regularly scheduled task of making lists of agents who I thought might be more my speed. When I got that call from my agent, I was so shocked that I pressed the wrong button on a coffee maker and doused myself in a shower of tepid brown liquid. “Uh, this is Lauren?” he said, as though he were rather hoping it weren’t. I hastily wiped the coffee off my face, assured him it was, and made an effort to sound like a coherent grown-up human being, instead of a walking coffee fountain. There was coffee in my hair, coffee down my shirt, coffee dropping off the tip of my nose—and I couldn’t have been happier.
5. What was your first published book and what did the cover look like? Did you love it or hate it and why?
My first published book was The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which came out in 2005. There’s a funny story about that. Pink Carnation is primarily set in 1803, during the Napoleonic Wars, but there’s a modern framing character, a Harvard grad student pursuing her dissertation research in England, who stumbles upon a cache of never-before-seen family papers (and their dishy, if hostile, owner). When Pink Carnation was in production, chick lit was in its heyday. You couldn’t walk past a new books table without encountering a row of candy-colored covers and new chick lit imprints mushroomed like mushrooms. The original cover of Pink Carnation, the one that went out on all the review copies, featured a glamorous modern woman with long, red hair, wearing a white Burberry quilted coat and carrying an extremely cute bag, from which protruded the corner of an old, leather-bound volume with a pink carnation on the cover.
It was a gorgeous cover—and I was having nightmares of angry readers coming after me, shouting, “But this is historical! I wanted chick lit!” But it was my first book, and I figured my publisher knew best. As long as I repeated that to myself, it would all be okay. In the end, the problem was solved for me. The market changed on a dime. One day chick lit was hot, the next it was dead. In between review copies and actual publication, I got a call from my agent, telling me the cover was being changed. Within two days, the amazing Dutton art department had produced the now iconic image of a historical woman in a pink dress holding flowers, with a parchment band across with the title of the book. That cover set the tone for the rest of the books to come and created a whole “look” for the series.
6. Do you believe a cover can increase or decrease the sales of a book? Have any covers affected the sales of your books?
My books are strange beasts. I’ve been alternately catalogued as fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, and chick lit. Because of that, it’s a real challenge coming up with covers that accurately reflect the nature of the content. I believe that covers have a deep impact on sales, for a number of reasons. Covers send subtle (or not so subtle) coded messages to us about the sort of story we’re about to receive. By that same token, we also use them to send messages to others about our own identities as readers. For example, someone who identifies as a historical fiction reader may not be happy being seen with a cover that looks like romance, while a reader looking for romance may not want to pick up a book whose cover sends out historical fiction signals. I find it all fascinating, but I’m as much at a loss as anyone when it comes to figuring out what really sells and what doesn’t.
7. What has been your favorite book cover from all of your releases and why?
I’m pretty fond of most of my covers (the Cover Fairies have been good to me), but my favorite is the most recent release, The Mischief of the Mistletoe. It’s not a coincidence that it won Cover Cafe’s 2010 Holiday Favorites contest. The Dutton art department outdid themselves.
The book is a light-hearted holiday romp, involving a hero named Turnip (think Bertie Wooster in breeches),messages smuggled in Christmas puddings and guest appearances by Jane Austen. The cover perfectly catches the tone of the book, featuring a historically-garbed female in a winter scene,with a sprig of holly on her fur muff, surrounded by Christmas greenery, with the title on a gold band that looks like the wrapping on a present. That band is a special stroke of genius on the part of the art department. All of my books, being somewhat a la Scarlet Pimpernel, have the title on a parchment band with a wax seal on the side. In this case, the band is a gold ribbon, and instead of the seal,there’s a red bow. The perfect mix of Christmas and espionage!
8. What trends do you see in book covers currently and in the future?
Currently, the trend seems to be towards a sleeker, more photo-oriented look. Historical fiction tends to feature a photo of a woman, either a head or three quarters body, while anything literary tends towards the enigmatic object or a person with an obscured face. As for romance, the photo trend seems to be holding sway there, too. What strikes me in all of these is how little the central character is integrated into any sort of background scene, as opposed to some of the older covers where the scene itself was very much the focus. I’m not sure where we’re heading next, but what does make me curious is what the impact will be of the kindle on both cover choices and cover importance. Currently, covers play a key role in our reading choices; what happens when we—and the people around us—no longer see those covers? Does it change the way we think about the content of the book? And will it change the way publishers think about covers? That’s all still open territory.
9. What has been your least favorite cover from all of your releases and why?
My least favorite cover is my upcoming release, The Orchid Affair. (Sorry, Orchid!) My previous books were all fine art covers, but, apparently, fine art has gone the way of the dodo, so Orchid Affair got a live model photo shoot. And then another one. It was a long, hard haul to a final cover, dotted with lots of missteps along the way, including an unexpected brush with Tudor costume and a mini-mutiny on the part of my readership, who very emphatically reacted against one of the intermediate covers. (For those who are curious, I’ve written about the long, strange journey to a cover at greater length on B&N’s Cover Stories). For what it is, the final cover is quite pleasant (and has some neat features, like secret writing on the sky), but I do miss the old fine art covers.
10. When is the infamous Orchid scheduled for release? Please give us the details and a peek at the cover, too!
The Orchid Affair, is a January release and will be hitting the shelves in just a few days. I call this my “Sound of Music” meets James Bond book, since it’s about a governess turned spy. Laura Grey joins the League of the Pink Carnation in the hopes of getting away from governessing. Sent to Paris for her first undercover job, Laura is placed in the home of Andre Jaouen, right hand man to Napoleon’s sinister Minister of Police—as a governess. As plots and counterplots swirl around them, Laura discovers there’s far more to her employer than meets the eye.
Update: Lauren's next release is scheduled for February 16th, 2012. Say hello to the cover for The Garden Intrigue.
Thank You Lauren!
Linnae Crady () (January 5, 2011. Updated June, 2011)
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Author image, and covers are displayed with permission from author.