Pub Rants

When Cover Art Goes Bad—Guest Blogger Brenda Novak

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STATUS: Woot! Only 128 emails in the inbox. Two contracts on the verge of being finished up. Two projects on the verge of being optioned for film. Not a bad week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAILING by Christopher Cross

As you know, publishers are doing a lot of cost-cutting measures and belt tightening in this tough economy. I certainly understand that. One casualty of all this though is the disappearing cover flat.

It used to be that before any original trade paperback or mass market edition pubbed, the publisher would send out to the author and agent at least 6 to 10 cover flats (sometimes more) so we could review the final cover. Generally admire it. And for the author, use them for promo.

Those were the days. In the last year, I’m lucky if I get one (1) cover flat to review before publication. More often than not, I’m only getting a copy of the book with the final cover, hot off the press, about two weeks before pub.

Now if everything is sailing smoothly, this is no big deal. However, if there is a large snafu as detailed in the cautionary tale below, we’ve got a problem, Houston.

Author and agents always see a jpg of the cover early but as you can tell by Brenda’s story, just seeing a jpg can’t substitute for seeing the final cover art in the flesh so to speak.

So my advice for you published authors (and agents) out there? Make sure you see a copy of the finished book or a cover flat in enough time before pub to problem solve if that becomes necessary.

So, from NYT Bestselling author Brenda Novak….

What’s an author to do….

You work hard to write the best story you possibly can. You polish that manuscript through three rounds of edits. You give cover art and back cover copy input. And you partner with your publisher to put a marketing plan in place that is costing you both a substantial amount of money. At this point, you think you’re finished–finally ready for the book to be released. And this isn’t just any book. This book is the fulfillment of your fondest dream, the first to have “New York Times Bestselling Author” emblazoned above your name.

And then you get your author copies and realize that there’s a serious problem.

This just happened to me. My author copies arrived less than four weeks before THE PERFECT COUPLE was due out. Eager to take a peek at the real thing, my husband got to the box first and opened it. Then he held my eagerly anticipated book in one hand—and frowned. “Um, honey? Aren’t they going to put your name on this one?” he asked.

I think he’s joking. He’s color-blind, for one thing. I laugh and nudge him to get him to hand it to me. “What are you talking—” I start to say, and then I see for myself. It’s not because he’s color blind that he can’t see my name. It’s because the turquoise foil is so dark there isn’t enough contrast against the black background. Held in the right light, it glimmers and shines and shows up just fine. But place it straight in front of you, and you can’t read “New York Times Bestselling Author” (which is a bit ironic, isn’t it?), my name (even though it’s in a huge font—which would also be exciting if you could see it), or part of the cleverly done title (the “Perfect” part, which is also ironic, since it is anything but perfect). To make matters worse, my agent is out for several days to celebrate the 4th of July, and this book is the first of three to be released in consecutive months. If it tanks, the others could go down like dominos.

At this point, I pictured my career dying a sudden death. LOL Without the help of my agent (thanks to her vacation and the timeliness of this issue), I was forced to do what I could to salvage the situation, but my publisher hadn’t yet seen a copy of the finished book and didn’t even know there was a problem. I dashed off an email to my editor and started the hive buzzing…and buzzing…as they, too, went into panic mode.

Fortunately, I write for a great house and their ultimate decision was to reprint and reship, but I’m sure that wasn’t an easy call to make. It will cost someone (either the publisher or the printer) a fortune. And the process doesn’t happen overnight. Some accounts will respond to the recall, others will ignore it, just as they often ignore street date (I’ve been hearing from fans who’ve read THE PERFECT COUPLE as long as two weeks ago, even though it wasn’t supposed to come out until yesterday).

But will this debacle ruin my career? I hope not. I’m choosing to look at the bright side. Initially, there will be many more of this title in print and, as those with the dark, unreadable foil are collected and destroyed, any that survive…will become collector’s items? Yeah, that’s it. That’s the way to spin it. Everyone wants a book where you can’t make out the author’s name!

The original jpg of The Perfect Couple:

A shot of the unreadable cover next to one of Brenda’s previous books:

New York Times Bestselling Author Brenda Novak has three novels coming out this summer—THE PERFECT COUPLE (7/28), THE PERFECT LIAR (8/25) and THE PERFECT MURDER (9/29), all part of her popular Last Stand Series. She also runs an annual on-line auction for diabetes research every May at To date, her auctions have raised over $770,000. Brenda considers herself lucky to be a mother of five and married to the love of her life.

45 Responses

  1. MeganRebekah said:

    Seriously does no one else look at these? Who printed it? Who packaged it?
    I’m so glad for Brenda that they did a reprint. I can’t see how any other option would have been suitable.

  2. L. T. Host said:

    Wow; I can’t believe it could leave the printer like that without someone mentioning something! Crazy! At least they sucked it up.

  3. Brenda Novak said:

    Thanks for the commiseration, guys! LOL It’s unfortunate that someone didn’t catch it. I hate to think of the money this will waste (and the trees!) But I hope the situation ends well. I’m grateful to my publisher for standing behind me.

    And you should definitely check out the cover for the next book in the series. BEAUTIFUL! Probably my prettiest cover to date.


  4. Gerb said:

    Whoa. That’s kind of a huge mistake. Where is the quality control? My last book has an adorable step-back cover, but the printer forgot the trim the edge. We decided to let that first printing go out rather than push back the release date… but at least my name and title were clearly visible!

    Bet that dark foil lettering cover of yours is a collectors’ item now though… maybe save some for next year’s auction! : )

  5. Torsten Adair said:

    FUBAR: Foiled Up…

    Wow… a mass market recall. You have to reprint the entire book.

    I would say this is the designer’s fault, for not knowing how the foil would appear on the cover, and for not checking the proof from the printer. And for not sending you a flat of the cover for inspection or at least for your archives (or the cover artist’s).

    That is a cool effect, a cover with stealth lettering. It catches the reader’s eye…where’s the words?…and intrigues.

    I wonder what Chip Kidd has to say about this? And are you including a no-foil clause in future contracts?

  6. Torsten Adair said:

    And regarding street dates… I worked nine years at a HUGE Barnes & Noble in NYC, and we rarely had mass-market strict-on-sale titles, especially for a periodical series. (Green Mile is the exception.) By that, I mean titles where the publisher had planned specific media campaigns and publicity. (Not to dishearten you, but campaigns cost money, and the budget is smaller for MM paperbacks.) Chances are if your case of books didn’t have a notice printed on the side, it wasn’t “strict”.

    Of course, calling it strict and then letting it get shelved ahead of schedule does encourage fans to buy it toot sweet, as if it was a fluke, and to blog/tweet/text about it.

  7. carla said:

    It might be “cutting edge” with that oh-too-chic black and foil, but it is not functional. I suppose it illustrates the saying, “If you want to be on the cutting edge all the time, you must purchase your own scissors.”

  8. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Wow…even after reading the tale, when I got to the jpeg of the cover art, I couldn’t imagine any way the actual cover would be unreadable. Shows what a big difference there is between pixels and reality! That’s terrible and I can’t believe it wasn’t caught, but at least something was done to amend the situation.

  9. Tracy said:

    Yikes! What an ordeal! That’s great that they were willing to fix the problem for you. Good luck with the sales – I hope they’re through the roof!

  10. Jill James said:

    Wow, now I see why some of the books I read have typos. Even with everyone checking it out, some things still slip through. Glad you got it fixed, Brenda.

  11. Brenda Novak said:

    Okay–the author who got their book and it had the wrong author name on it definitely trumps my experience. Thanks for making me laugh.

    And Torsten, thanks for shedding some light on the “on sale” date. That really helps relieve my concern. I like your idea about a “no foil” clause. I wonder if they’d go for it…. 😉


  12. Brenda Novak said:

    Jill James–You wouldn’t believe how many times I read my own manuscripts and, like you say, somet things still slip through. It’s crazy. And I have a great editor, too!


  13. RCWriterGirl said:

    It’s an interesting situation Ms. Novak faced. And it was good her publisher was willing to accomodate.

    It’s the second cover controversey thing I’ve read about on blogs recently. Editorial Anonymous ( mentioned an Australian author whose story about a young black woman has a cover with a young white woman on it. The author is unhappy, and according to her blog, complained behind the scenes, but no one would listen (she said she felt it was unprofessional–and probably a good call–to grouse publicly, until several others started complaining about it).

    I’m curious Kristin, is it common to have serious cover issues, or are these abnormalities?

  14. Ivy said:

    May I ask, being an absolute beginner in this business, how much influence does the author himself have on the cover art?
    Thank you!

  15. Laura Herbertson said:

    You could try to make a game out of it. If any reader finds the Not Perfect covers and buys a copy, you’ll autograph it. At least the problem was fixed, so the best you can do is laugh it off. I’m glad it worked out for you.

  16. Anonymous said:

    It’s ridiculous that the problem wasn’t caught by the first person to see the cover come off the printer. Did they think no one would notice? There’s a lesson in this expensive result of cutting costs. As they say in construction, measure twice and saw once.

  17. Brenda Novak said:

    Hi Ivy–Your question might have been directed at Kristin, but I’ll take a stab at it.

    An author’s influence varies. A new author has very little say over her covers. She does fill out the art fact sheet, like everyone else, but her opinion isn’t the paramount consideration as the jacket is created. As her career grows, the publisher generally includes her a bit more. There are some best-selling authors who probably have cover approval written right into their contracts. So it really varies, depending on which author it is and which publisher is it. Even some best-sellers may not be able to sway their publisher if said publisher is really enamored with a certain “look.” Books are a product, and the publisher often feels as if they have superior knowledge about what will sell and what won’t (they do have people with great marketing experience–but that doesn’t always make them right).

    Hope this helps!


  18. Brenda Novak said:

    Hi Laura–

    I like your idea. I’ve been trying to think of a way to work it to my advantage. I’m already offering a fun Brenda Novak tote with signed bookplate and 3D bookmark (I offer free 3D screensavers at my Web site) in exchange for a receipt. I’m waiting to see if I go broke trying to fulfill that promise. LOL


  19. Brenda Novak said:

    Anonymous, it is a bit surprising that someone didn’t raise a red flag before it went so far. I’m thinking that they probably noticed but hoped it wasn’t so bad that they couldn’t let it slide.

    What do you think of the cover for THE PERFECT LIAR? For that I have received a cover flat, and you can easily read my name. LOL


  20. Anonymous said:

    This really isn’t a controversy like the whitewashing incidents of late, though I’m really sorry you can’t even read your name-that’s terrible! This is a situation where it helps to know a little more about who does what in the publishing industry.

    For those quick to blame the designer, understand that in most companies, the designer is not the print buyer or production manager (the person who oversees production of the book and interacts with printers). But it’s essential that the production manager communicate with the designer about materials and how they apply to a particular book’s design. They have a conversation about foils, lam, spot gloss, paper stock, color values, etc. They review samples of each of these materials (or at least ours do) so they have a better approximation of what the final product will look like. And it’s important that the production manager is communicating properly with the printer, telling them exactly what is desired. When we get cover proofs from the printer, our acknowledgment is necessary before the printer will run the entire printing. This is our last chance to see if we made a mistake on foil color or some other glittery option. No less than three people look at this proof for approval (prod manager, designer, editor). Then the entire run is printed. By the time we get the advances from the printer, it’s too late to turn back—the printing has already been completed. BUT if the printing quality is poor, or if the binding is messed up, or the jacket wrapped improperly (in the case of hardcovers), we can at least work with the printer to rectify the situation (usually a discount; choosing to reprint is seriously expensive). Perhaps most importantly, you can be sure we don’t send author copies until we have a solution or an explanation.

    Do bigger houses not work this way?

  21. Brenda Novak said:

    Hi Anonymous–

    You would think bigger houses would also work this way. It *is* seriously expensive to reprint and reship, so you would think that someone would be watching those controls very closely.

    I’m not sure how this happened. It sounds as if you have a lot more knowledge of the “behind the scenes” than I do. I guess it’s like the editorial part of a book. I read my manuscripts SO many times, and I have a great editor who also reads them, and yet the occasional typo or mistake slips through. Seems like it would be fairly easy to catch a problem like what happened to my cover (was instantly obvious to me), but maybe the bigger houses have so many covers flowing through that one can get missed?


  22. Paula Reed said:

    All I can say is thank goodness you requested a jpeg of my upcoming cover, Kristin. I’d have been too willing to wait and see. Where would I be without you?

  23. jo robertson said:

    Oh, Brenda, what a horrific experience. So glad your publisher made it right with you, but as you said they’re a great house to write for.

    I’m looking at it this way. The “damaged” book will be a collector’s item one day.

    Brenda’s blogging with me at Romance Bandits today, too, about Time Management, a timely topic since she’s guesting twice today.

    Pop over if you’re interested at


  24. Norma said:

    Brenda, I Emailed you the other day to let you know that I had purchased The Perfect Couple at a local Wal Mart before your scheduled out-day. I didn’t mention what I’m saying now, though.

    In the angle Wal Mart displays books, your name stuck out like a sore thumb because it’s so large, but “Perfect” and the “bestselling author” portion didn’t.

    I was just skimming books as I walked by that section, and was excited to see your name. I had to pick it up to read the full title and make sure it really was this one, since it was before the out-day. (I’ve not seen your books at any Wal Mart before!)

    Since you had previously mentioned the possibility of it becoming a collectors item, I snatched one right up, just in case the ones Brad will have on Sat are corrected!

    Hopefully this will soften the blow a bit about your name being practically invisible.

    Looking forward to seeing you at your signing Sat with my “oops” book … and to buy another one from Book Lovers!

  25. behlerblog said:

    As a publisher, this sort of thing sends me into a cold sweat. I ache for you and your publisher. I’m also doubly grateful that I’m the first one to see the covers, to verify everything is where it’s supposed to be. My authors and their agents also get an ARC – six months before the books get their final print run.

  26. Anonymous said:

    I’m dealing with the same issue right now. My publisher is incomprehensibly obsessed with what they call “metallic ink.” No, it’s not foil. It’s not anything so far as I can tell — not sparkly or shiny or anything more than regular old four color — except “expensive.” They keep mentioning that part over and over again.

    Upshot is I now have “expensive” “metallic” dark gray title against a black background that you can’t read from more than a few inches away. My entire cover looks like its hiding from something.

  27. Marie Force said:

    I buy printing for my company in the day job, and your story gave me hives. Glad your publisher did the right thing! Best of luck with this new trilogy AND congrats on that NYT Bestselling Author tag!

  28. Brenda Novak said:

    Thanks, Jo. I’m hoping you’re right. My editor definitely tried to spin it in a positive way, which made me smile.

    Norma, thanks for the reconnaissance. LOL I’m glad you were able to see my name. Maybe not being able to see the whole thing will make readers pick it up to figure out what’s going on. Ah, another positive spin! I’m getting good at this!

    Anonymous, I feel ya. 🙁 Dark covers can be tough. I hope it sells gangbusters. What’s the title and when’s it out?


  29. Brenda Novak said:

    Behlerblog–I feel the same. I shudder to think of the expense, even though it’s not my expense. I want my publisher to be successful, too. I hate to see them have to pay for something like this. But…maintaining a reputation for quality is so important that I feel as if they were smart to bite the bullet and do it. I hope they feel the same! LOL

  30. Irishspartan1775 said:

    First, I am very happy that things turned out well for you.

    I design newspaper centerpieces, and I know from horrible experiences that many times what one thinks will look great will turn out like crap. I only wish some of the egregious errors I have made in my career would have been caught by the printers before the papers hit the stands.

  31. Brenda Novak said:

    Irishspartan1775, I’m so glad you posted. It gave me a chance to see this from the perspective of whoever made the mistake. I’d be sick at heart if it was me, and I don’t want to make anyone feel that way. So…I guess we all make mistakes, huh? We’ll let whoever it is off the hook this time. LOL

  32. Brenda Novak said:

    Thanks for your good wishes, Marie. You were so generous with your donations to my online auction for diabetes research. I’m really grateful for that, too.

    And didn’t I see your book jacket somewhere recently? It was just in the past few days. Are you part of the Romance Bandits? I’ll hop over and check…

  33. Brenda Novak said:

    LOL I meant bigger than the tiny one you have posted. I went to your Web site or something, but now I’m having trouble remembering where I found the information on you. I thought, “Oh! That’s Marie, who always helps out with the auction!”

  34. Becke Davis said:

    Oh no, Brenda — how awful, on all counts. I’d heard there was a cover problem with your book, but didn’t know the details. Thank goodness your publisher made the decision to reprint with legible covers. I’ll make sure to run out and buy a copy as soon as it’s in stores. (Got to make it worth their while to reissue, right?) But I’m willing to bet those illegible covers are going to be collector’s items one day.

    And by the way, are you everywhere today??

  35. Brenda Novak said:

    LOL Becke! I’m trying to spread myself around. Is it working? (And not that I’m prodding you or anything, but THE PERFECT COUPLE is in stores NOW! LOL)

    Marie, that’s exactly where I saw it. I knew it was more information than just your little cover with your message.