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“Man in a hood,” an editor once remarked.  “You can’t go wrong with a man in a hood.”

There have been occasional inquiries on this blog about the covers of my books, which I have been classically rubbish at replying to.  And while this is my attempt to at least brush the topic down and give it a quiet talking to in a back room, you’ll still find me, I’m afraid, shuffling round the topic of my own covers out of simple good manners.

Let’s talk, therefore, covers, in rather more general terms.

I have no power over my covers.  Well, occasionally I’m asked my opinion, and even more occasionally I offer it, but I don’t yet know of a correlation between these events and anything much printed.  To be honest, it’s not really my business.  Well, it is my business in the sense that I damn well do care how my book is packaged and produced, but in that I am not in fact a graphics designer and wouldn’t know where to even begin in terms of jacket design, it’s really none of my business.

When I first started out, and wrote Mirror Dreams, my editor at the time took me into a file room and showed me some of the pre-jacket proofs that had gone before, mostly, I think, to impress me with how relieved I should be by the final product.  “This is my favourite,” he explained, waving it in front of my nose.  “It’s the giant alarmed camel that I love.”  I nodded and smiled and was indeed, very relieved that the giant alarmed camel under debate had not, in fact, been wrapped lovingly around my camel-free text.

“Oh god,” exclaimed my agent.  “They started the series in purple – let’s hope they don’t do the sequel in green.”

“Why green?” I asked, innocent 14-year-old that I was.

“Green is a death colour,” she proclaimed.  “Green is the colour of remainders.”

Several years later, when the packaging for the Neon Court came out, I remembered this dire warning.  Was that it, then?  Was Urban Magic 3 destined for the bargain bookstore simply because its cover was emerald green with a picture of a moody looking man on it?  Surely, but surely the moodiness of the afore-mentioned dude on the front would count for something?  Surely it’s literary qualities would shine through.

My agent drew in a long, slow breath between her teeth.  “Seen worse,” she concluded.  “It’s green… but in a good way.”

“Man in a hood,” repeated my favourite ever editor as we sat drinking hot chocolate and eating cake – in the name of literature, naturally.  “Glowing swords are bad.  Men in hoods are good.”

Well, we at least agreed on fifty percent of that sentiment.  Glowing swords are, indeed, bad news, and harken back to a not-so-far-away time when American-style fantasy covers were swamping the UK bookshelves.  Hardly a paperback went by without a picture on the front cover of three people – a wizard in white, an elf with a bow and a Hunky Hero with a glowing sword – stood on various different levels of a craggy outpost with a castle framed by lightning in the back, looking wind-swept and moody down at an approaching blackened hoard.  It was not fantasy’s finest hour.

If you escaped the elf-in-green look, then there were other glowing-sword traps waiting to happen.  Lone heroes in ragged clothes brandishing glowing swords aloft, was quite a popular one.  Or, to my immense frustration, heroines wearing far too little in the way of protective clothing doing the same with a wide range of weapons, of which battle-axe was quite popular.  Windswept goes well with big hair and swirling cloaks, it seems.  In science fiction covers, you had a very similar theme to fantasy, only for ‘glowing sword’ read ‘big gun’ and for ‘elf in green’ read ‘skin-hugging body armour’.  Curiously, faces were always quite clearly defined, the features obvious and clearly meant to be someone, which is to my mind a terrible trap in any jacket cover.  The last thing you want or need is a cover telling you what your main characters look like, as it takes away all the joy of your own imagination – not least because the cover will frequently get it wrong.  Dark-haired characters will come out blond; weedy nerds will end up staring out from the front cover with a strong-jawed look of manly determination, and before you know it, there’s letters to the editor and earnest discussions of How To Package Better, and no one wants that.

Then at the opposite end of the spectrum, you have entirely interpretive covers, which attempt to tell you nothing about the story at all and go for sheer striking visual impact.  For anyone who’s been watching for a while, Iain M. Banks’ covers are an interesting example of the species.  From quite defined visual images in the past, they’ve now been adapted to vaguer, almost hallucinatory images, though still keeping the very strong colours of the previous proofs.  I personally think it’s quite a clever look, though the danger is, of course, you end up with a cover that has so little to do with the text inside that it loses the point entirely.

All of which brings us back to where we began – men in hoods.

“They’re great,” exclaimed the editor.  “They’re vague, they’re distant, you can’t see faces but you know they’re looking moody.  They’re mysterious, they’ve got big staffs and swirling cloaks, you can put them on any background you like, they scream tortured heroism without giving away the colour of their hair – men in hoods are the way to go.”

“Yes, but isn’t there a danger they’re the new glowing-sword-cliche?”

“Sometimes cliche is good!” she exclaimed.  “Sometimes cliche is reassurance.  It says ‘this is what you’re getting so enjoy’.”

I hemmed and hummed and sucked in my lower lip.  For all I can see the appeal, I have not yet had the privilege of a man in a hood staring out from the front cover of any of my books.  And to be honest… I rather hope I won’t for a long, long time…