The publication of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in 2013 felt very stressful, or at least that’s how I remember it. I felt it was better than the first one ‘A Good Liar’ and had certainly been easier to write, taking a year rather than the previous tortuous four year process. But I underestimated how long it would take to get the final stages of the publication business sorted out, and wanted to get it out into the shops as early as possible in the Lake District visitor season, when probably I should have taken decisions more carefully. Patience was never my strong suit.

The main frustration was about the cover. The cover of ‘A Good Liar’ had taken quite a while to put together and consisted of three parts: a old photo of schoolchildren to place the story in its time; an atmospheric picture of Wastwater to reflect the setting; and a profile of a woman to indicate that the protagonist was female. As one of the booksellers told me, ‘It’s a good cover because it tells the reader about what’s inside.’ When it came to part 2 of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ I struggled first with the title, which doesn’t give much away, but did pick up one of the themes of the book, and I quite like one word titles. The setting was mainly west Cumbria and the town of Whitehaven in the immediate post-war years, with a family of coal miners at the centre of the action. The cover we ended up with was a gorgeous photo of the local landscape in spring, from a photo taken at about this time of year, when the valley floors were bright green with new grass and there was still snow on the fell tops. A lovely image, but it told the reader very little about the book itself. 

From the outset, this book has sold less well than ‘A Good Liar’ and when the third in the trilogy was published the following year, that one sold better too. I began to wonder whether one reason for this might be the enigmatic title or cover of ‘Forgiven’. If the author’s name is well-known then I’m not sure that title and cover matter very much. But I’m expecting visitors to Cumbria to pick this book off a shelf and be interested enough in it to buy it, and why would they, really? They don’t know me from a hole in the ground. They need more at first glance than ‘Forgiven’ could offer them. For ebooks the cover matters less, but for a book on a shelf, competing with others in the reader’s view, the cover matters more.

If I’m right about this, I’m asking myself whether I should approach the reprint of ‘Forgiven’ as an opportunity to ‘re-brand’ it with a new cover. The title is fixed and unchangeable, but changing the cover would be easy and there are many precedents for doing so in the traditional publishing world. As a self-publisher I have absolute discretion about how my work should look, and this could be the time to exercise it.

So, I’m back to the age-old question, what makes a good book cover? The bookseller I referred to earlier takes the functional approach: the cover should indicate what’s between the covers. In that case I might need some reference to winter, hard times and to the pits, and perhaps some images of people of the period. In other words, I could use the same formula as we used for the first cover. Or I could use a more striking image, such as the one I chose for book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, and enjoy the mixed views that followed. The cover of ‘Fallout’ was designed to surprise, if not shock, the reader and succeeded in that intent, for good or ill.

I’ll have a few months to think about it as there are still enough from the first print run of ‘Forgiven’ to see us through this summer’s busy season. Is a picture of an old coal mine a turn-off for the largely female readership my books attract? Should I hold out for an image of the screen lasses, the remarkable women who worked on the surface sorting and grading the coal, despite the copyright issues that we ran into last time? It’ll be interesting to start again and take longer over the design than I did last time, and even more interesting to see whether a different cover affects sales. 

The beauty of writing historical fiction is that it doesn’t have a limited shelf-life: it can be as relevant in ten years’ time as it is now. But the down-side of that agelessness is that it can’t burst upon a waiting world as something completely of its time, new fresh, contemporary. Within the historical fiction genre I’ve tried to avoid the Catherine Cookson cliches, and romanticising a past era that was challenging, complicated and fraught with ambivalence. The cover could reflect some of that at least, rather the rather bland if beautiful image it has at present.

Writing this post has made up my mind. I’ll start thinking about the cover of ‘Forgiven’ now and give myself, and the cover designer I work with, more time to make the best choice. And my new crime fiction book which is due out in November will need a brilliant cover too, which should be ticking over in the back of my mind from now on, while I’m still writing the first draft. Not for the first time, I realise that turning thoughts into words – written or spoken – helps me to pin down what I’m thinking about. I’ll be another year older this week, and beyond the age when my mother’s Alzheimers started. I keep looking for signs that my brain is seizing up, but for the time being, thank heaven, ‘cogito ergo sum’.