Cover Story

by Barbara Ross

I’ve gotten such great feedback on the covers for my Maine Clambake Mystery series I thought some you might be interested in how these covers come about.

Clammed Up

CLAMMED_UPI signed the contract for three Maine Clambake Mysteries in March of 2012. The first book Clammed Up was due December 1, 2012. In August 2012, I got an e-mail from my editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio.

Hi, Barbara!
Quick request.
Can you email me by next Monday any/all cover ideas you might have for the first mystery?

And I e-mailed back–

Hi John

The central image in the book is the empty Gilded Age mansion that belonged to the protagonist’s ancestors. It sits on a hill on the Maine island where the clambakes are held and is described as four stories high with dormers, made of stone with a slate roof. Size-wise I sort of modeled it on Edith Wharton’s The Mount.

The victim, the best man at a wedding, is found hanging from its elaborate staircase.

All that being said, people who know better than I say the best way to market all things Maine is with “lighthouses and lobsters.”

I’ve developed some Pinterest boards your people may find helpful as they work.

So happy to be asked for ideas!

As you can see, they went the “lighthouses and lobsters” route. That in itself is a bit of a story. Paul Doiron is both the author of the absolutely fabulous Mike Bowditch mysteries about a Maine Game Warden (and if you haven’t read them you should) and the former editor of Down East Magazine. He once said, rather cynically, “You can do focus group after focus group, but no one wants to see anything of Maine but lobsters and lighthouses.” He meant rather despairingly, I think, that no one cares about the poverty or the vast North Woods or the cities or lakes or mountains. But when I, a new author with a new series a no reputation, was asked for cover input, all I could think was, perhaps even more cynically, “Why would I swim against that tide?”

When I got the cover for Clammed Up, I was a little taken aback. Why were there crabs and bread at a Maine clambake? Which shows what I know, because the book went on to be a B&N in-store Mass Market paperback best-seller for five weeks. I get constant compliments about the cover.

Boiled Over

Boiled Over front coverI handed in Clammed Up on December 1, 2012 and started in on Boiled Over, due September 1, 2013. The request for cover ideas came in April. here’s what I wrote.

Hi John
If Clammed Up was a book about the island, Boiled Over is a book about the town. Therefore, I’d love it if the cover of Boiled Over could include an iconic Maine harbor town.
I’ve created a Pinterest board I hope can provide some inspiration. (Note: Though I’ve included photos from every season, Boiled Over takes place at the height of the summer season.)
Also, I don’t know if you’ll have the same illustrator, but I also think it would be cool to have something that was a bit of a motif from cover to cover.  The lobster boat on the cover of Clammed Up is a possibility. Or, the platter with the lobster, corn and clams from the bottom left corner of the Clammed Up cover.
As always, you guys are the experts. Thanks so much for asking.

And got this reply.

Thanks for sending!

What kind of food plays into this book?
I’m not sure if Sales is going to want to carry the food theme over. If they do, my worry is having the cover of book two looking identical to book one.  Even though the titles are different, trust me, readers sometimes get confused.
So, are there any desserts featured in this new book? Types of fruit? Different types of seafood?  Clams? Any sort of summer drink (lemonade?) or cocktail?
Best, John
P.S.  Yes, it will be the same illustrator.

To which I thought–argh, argh, argh–because I didn’t have the recipes nailed down yet. But I did know there was a picnic at the beginning of the book, so I wrote back

Still working on the food for Boiled Over, but there definitely is a picnic, overlooking the harbor, so perfect for the harbor town scene (and fireworks–just saying–I know this is sounding overly complex). Deviled eggs, which I think this illustrator would be great at. The other foods are lobster salad and potato salad which don’t seem particularly pretty and blueberry pie which does. It’s blueberry season and they feature prominently in the book.

eggpeepsAs you can see from the cover, I got exactly what I wanted. I think you can even see the influence of the Pinterest board. The little deviled egg chicks were a surprise, but everyone remarks on them. Boiled Over was also a B&N in-store mmpb bestseller, so by now I was really feeling in good hands.

Musseled Out

MusseledOutFrontcoverI handed in Boiled Over, and started work on Musseled Out. The request for cover input again came in April, which makes sense because Musseled Out will be published a year after Boiled Over.

I was ready by this point. Here’s what I wrote.

Thanks so much for asking me about cover thoughts for Musseled Out, Book 3 in the Maine Clambake Mystery series.

Musseled Out takes place in the fall. For an image, I am picturing one or two empty adirondack chairs on a beach or dock, looking across a body of water to the hills on the other side which are decked out in a riot of fall foliage colors. It would be great if we could have a lobster boat floating in the water as we have had on the last two covers, as that is part of the story.

I have put together a Pinterest board with cover ideas/inspirations.

For food, this book includes a bowl of mussels (of course). The lobster recipes are scampi and also hot lobster dip. The dessert is pumpkin whoopie pies (state snack of Maine). Other appropriate food would include apples, apple pie, squash, pumpkin and a baguette.

Let me know if you need anything else. Will it be the same artist? I get such great feedback on the covers so far.

This time, as you can see, I got everything I dreamed of.  You can strongly see the influence of the Pinterest board.

I finally asked John about the identity of my cover artist. He’s never credited in the books, but I wanted to put him in the acknowledgments of Musseled Out. He is Ben Perini, a fabulous fine artist/illustrator whose portfolio is worth looking at here. I wrote him a fan letter through his website, but so far haven’t heard back.

So thanks to all of you who hung in during this rather long post. What do you think of the covers? Do covers in general influence your decision to buy?

26 Thoughts

  1. I’m one of your many cover fans and, despite also being a Kensington author, I confess a bit of cover envy. Suffice it to say that my experience has been very different from yours!

    I do think covers can play a part in if I pick up a book or not. I can scan bookstore or library shelves and almost magnetically home in on cozies, or at least mysteries by women, which is what I prefer to read. After that it depends on the description and other factors whether I’ll actually pick it up.

  2. Barb, I am happy to know my cynicism was your inspiration! Actually I came to a certain acceptance during my time with “Down East,” realizing that people’s yearning for a simpler, better Maine was an altogether understandable impulse in such a difficult and dangerous world. As a reader, I am drawn to cozies for the same reason. For books about murder, there is something reassuring about them.

    1. Sheila Connolly (who posted below) talks about a “New England of the Imagination” which is, I think, the simpler place you’re talking about. Those of us who really live here live with with all it’s complexities, but that New England is a nice place to visit sometimes.

  3. Wonderful website for your illustrator. Love the backstory and the covers – they make me hungry! I am now in the middle of The Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron and I agree with your assessment.

  4. Wonderful detail on your covers, and they “feel” authentic. I’ve found that in any large bookstore, you can usually recognize a cozy from across the room, most often from the color and the wealth of details (and often a cat, dog, or both). This makes marketing sense, because the cozy reader will make a beeline for those shelves. (Of course, not all that long ago you could recognize a Chick Lit book–remember those?–because they were all pink with some kind of stiletto on the cover.)

  5. Thanks for giving us a behind the scenes look at how your beautiful covers were created. I love the idea of communicating your idea with a Pinterest board!

  6. Love your covers as well. And I wasn’t aware you’d been on the BN bestseller lists. Congrats!

    A cover that catches my eye might make me pick up a book, but it isn’t any more important to me than title, word of mouth, and plot teaser. Okay, as I typed that, I realized if the cover was bad, I would pass it by, but those are usually the self-published covers. The traditional houses have enough great cover artists that it is hard to get a bad one from them.

    And I enjoyed hearing the stories behind the covers. Can’t wait for the next one!

  7. Barb, another reason why your covers are perfect is because they appeal to men as well as women. More men are discovering the cozy market these days and what guy doesn’t like the Maine seacoast and great food?

    1. Interesting that you say that, Ang. I’ve been amazed at the number of male readers the Maine Clambake mysteries have–both in contacts through my website and in comments on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s very gratifying.

  8. Barb, lobster is my weakness, as are clams, but whoopie pies ooze Maine. So… yes, I look for clues on the cover. No danger with your books, of course, but I think it would be awful if there were nothing in there about Maine. I’m trying to visualize what reinterpreting the covers for Marblehead would look like. Clam shells would be a little whiter. There’d be a stack of old wooden lobster traps of a certain shape—and buoys. The whoopie pies, though, would have to be replaced with Joe Froggers. No one but Headers would know, but…

    I love your long article. I could read about these things forever, Barb.

  9. Barb, Love all the Maine Clambake covers, and have always been attracted to books by their covers. I know Ben Perini does several authors covers, and he is the best!!! I’m happy to hear that authors do have a say in their cover art.

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