A couple of years ago, when my first novel was in production, my ‘book designer’ asked me to go to a bookshop and look at covers. ‘See what you like,’ he said, ‘and what will make people want to buy your book. Then we can give Kevin the cover designer some direction and criteria.’ So I looked, and felt that most of them were anodyne and boring. Nothing about many of the covers made me want to take the book off the shelf, never mind hand over any money for it. I wanted to be struck by the cover image, engaged, intrigued – some reaction. It wasn’t about liking or not liking, more about curiosity.
The first book ‘A Good Liar’ played safe: it combined three images, all of them aesthetically attractive, which collectively gave the reader a sense of what lay within. The second book ‘Forgiven’, looking back on it now, played even safer. It was a beautiful image of a green valley and distant a distant snow-capped ridge, and in the foreground a gorgeous granite stone wall which epitomises the area where the books are set. We had tried to create a cover image using photos of pit wheels and women with children, but it was too fussy and nothing was working. The running theme of the book was ‘forgiveness’, and in the end I felt that the distant peek of light in the sky symbolised that feeling, but it was a bit of a stretch. Basically it was just a beautiful image.
Now we’ve had to make a decision about the cover of book three, ‘Fallout’, which is set against the calamitous event of the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, in Cumberland in 1957. It’s a tough time for my heroine Jessie Whelan too – no more details! – and I wanted a sense of anxiety in the cover, nothing too soft or bland. A beach scene this time, I decided, to complement the view of fells (that’s a Norse word meaning ‘hills’ that’s commonly used in Cumbria): one of the wonderful west-facing beaches that we enjoy in this region. But it had to be a special beach scene, and we found one, with a red sky, beautiful but threatening too. Still I wanted more: among the photographs I’d found of the reactor fire was one of a group of workers in their anti-contamination suits and helmets, looking like spacemen. The clever cover designer imposed this image on the beach below the red sky and the cover of ‘Fallout’ stared out at me. I loved it: as intriguing as I had hoped for and authentic too.
I made a poster and took it round the local bookshops to alert them to the forthcoming publication. One buyer at a local attraction flinched and literally stepped away from the image. ‘We can’t sell that here,’ she said. ‘It’s too frightening. Not the kind of thing for this shop.’ It’s not a proper bookshop, granted, but other crime fiction books on the shelf have quite graphic images. I was surprised by her reaction and I should have asked her to explain it, but I didn’t. Later she confirmed to the books’ distributor that she wouldn’t be carrying copies, even though the first two books in the trilogy sell well there. Nothing I can do about it, I suppose. It was never my intention to upset anyone, but then the line between curiosity and aversion is notoriously thin. I wanted the ‘Fallout’ cover to convey the danger that threatened my heroine and her community, and clearly it does that effectively. But I think there’s more to it: most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll. If people’s reaction to the ‘Fallout’ cover starts some conversation about this dichotomy, that’s a good thing. It may cost me some sales, but maybe not. I’ll have to wait and see.
By the way, you can see all the covers on the books page of my website www.ruthsutton.co.uk. Have a look and see what you think.