Book covers are a tricky business. This turns out to be especially true when you give readers access to a world that includes words, videos, audio files, and a video game interface accessed through an app. A writer and an editor is the usual scenario: a nice, cozy party for two. DARK EDEN was created and produced by me, which is to say I wrote everything, developed the team, and oversaw every creative decision. But the project as a whole was created with the help of a ten great actors, a director, a cinematographer, voice talent, audio and video editors, artists, programmers, writers, an editor, and a publisher. It was a big, complicated, monster undertaking. Everyone had and continues to have opinions about many aspects of the story and the way it’s being told, but in the end the most controversy hasn’t been about the game interface, the video footage, or anything else having to do with all the new ways DARK EDEN seeks to tell a story.
Nope, none of those fascinating topics having to do with what a book can be in the modern world are causing a stir.
Our controversy is about the cover of the book.
First, a primer in DARK EDEN cover lore:
1) The hardback edition of DARK EDEN was published with This cover (right). It’s a nice cover. I rather like it. But YA being what it is – a segment of the market that’s dominated by female writers and readers – I felt, and Harper Collins agreed, that a character-driven cover would draw more attention. And so…
2) For the paperback edition of DARK EDEN, along with the hardback of the second book, EVE OF DESTRUCTION, the decision was made to put characters on the covers of the books. This decision was also made for the mini e-book, DARK EDEN: PHANTOM FILE.
3) The complication with DARK EDEN is that I created, with the help of many creative people, the DARK EDEN app. The app contains a lot of video content. Tons, actually. The app tells the same story as the book, but the story is told through words, videos, and audio files. What that means is that we already had a visual representation of what the characters looked like. We couldn’t do what we might normally do: choose models, shoot them, and put them on the covers.
And now for the controversy – which actors were chosen for the covers of these books and why? And were all the actors asked to participate? If not, why?
Here we go with the numbers again:
1) It takes a long time to make a book. We decided on the cover for DARK EDEN long before the look of the app and the website had been developed. So by the time the first DARK EDEN book came out, I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to put the actors from the app on the cover, because they were also featured on the website, the Facebook page, and in our advertising. Harper agreed that this would be a good way to unify the look of all of the pieces of DARK EDEN and create a brand. And so, when the time came to develop the cover for EVE OF DESTRUCTION, Harper and I agreed that we would change the look of the two-book series by using the actors from the app as models for the covers. The paperback of the first book would be coming out at the same time as the hardback of the second book, so the whole series could be repackaged with the new look.
2) We couldn’t pick new models to include on the covers, because we already had actors who had played those parts in the videos (and very nicely, I might add!). So we–and by we, I mean my studio–provided Harper with contact information for all ten actors who worked on the project. Out of those ten, Harper decided on four they wanted to shoot for the covers of the books. They chose them for many different reasons and I’m not going to speak for them on this score. Either way, I was fine with the choices they made and the photo shoot was scheduled. The four actors showed up in LA at the appointed time; they were photographed; they went home.
When the covers began to show up for consideration by readers, some people thought they were great. Others thought they were okay. And then there were some who felt like we’d really blown it. There were a lot of comments, most of which were concerned with who was chosen, who was not, and why. Here is what I know:
1) Ultimately, it’s Harper’s call. They could put the book out with nothing but a cat on the cover if they wanted to and they would be fully within their rights to do so (for the record, there are no cats in DARK EDEN). They didn’t have to ask for my opinion (they did), and they didn’t have to check in with actors they did not choose (they did not). What they are required to do–and really, this is the hardest part– is to design covers that will sell books.
2) I misspoke in one response in one thread on Facebook that has since been removed. In that post I stated that one of the actors (Whitney Forrest) was contacted by Harper in order to invite her to the photo shoot. The truth is, after further inquiry, she was not contacted by Harper. We provided the contact information, but of the ten actors in the project, Harper only contacted four for the shoot. In the case of Whitney, she no longer lived in the LA area and Harper made an assumption (a fair one, I think) that she would not be willing to cover the cost of her flight to participate. It was not in the budget to fly anyone back and forth from the shoot. I made a mistake here and I’m sorry–I should not have posted a response saying someone was contacted before I was sure they had been.
There are questions to ponder here, questions I didn’t think of before the fact.
Was Harper required to contact each and every actor and invite them to the shoot? Legally the answer is surely no, but should they have anyway? And if so, how should that have been done? Can you say…awkward.
Was I, as the writer, obligated to fight for a cover that included different actors or characters? I rather like the characters that were chosen for my own reasons, but that’s me.
And what about Photoshop? There has been some commenting about that, too. News flash: all models are Photoshopped for covers of books, and the DARK EDEN actors received a light touch. I’ve reviewed the images, the videos, the actor head shots–the amount of retouching is slight, not heavy.
Do actors have the right to assert their opinions about the cover of a book? Certainly, in a public forum, they do. And what does it say about parents of actors, friends of actors, and the actors themselves when they make a lot of noise about not being picked, not being called, not being informed? If it had been me and I wasn’t picked, I probably would have expressed my disappointment. So there’s that. Still, it goes without saying that publishers are strapped for time and money as it is. Is it really their responsibility to make sure everyone is informed of every decision at every turn?
And finally, at what point does a conversation like this start to call us away from the task at hand: to introduce the amazing world of DARK EDEN to our friends, our families, and the wider world? We all worked very hard to create a new way to consume a story. It was a risky, difficult undertaking. We created something wholly unique and very powerful and we did it together. We told a story like no one has ever told one before. Download the free app, see for yourself. It took a lot of people to make this little miracle happen.
I hope you’ll think about it, send this post around so people can talk about it, and thoughtfully consider your contribution to the conversation. As writers, publishers, and readers, we’re all trying to strengthen the thing we love—books–at a time when a lot is aligned against us. Television, video games, movies, iPads, phones–you name it, they all require our free time. Books need to fit into that time. They need to be relevant. With DARK EDEN we’ve attempted to modernize format (see DARK EDEN app), but good old fashioned books are still my go-to medium of choice. We all went out on a limb to make DARK EDEN happen. I hope we can all rally behind it regardless of the cover that’s been chosen.
Good cheer and great success,