Transforming The Mystery of Edwin Drood
#TransformationTuesday by Gracie Carver
About 50% of our design work involves redesigning book jackets for new editions of previously published books. For independent authors, this is usually because they attempted to design their original covers and now realise it’s not doing the content of the book justice (see my previous blog post on the ‘Top Five Book Jacket Design Mistakes in Self-Publishing‘). For publishers, this could be because they’re re-launching the book, or because they’ve rebranded and the old cover represents the old brand. No matter the reason, redesigning a cover for a book is a great transformation.
‘Little by little, I introduced change to every aspect of jacket design.’ – Louise Fili (1951-)
I try and tell authors all of the time that there is no shame in not being able to design your own cover. You wrote it! Your talent is in the writing, you’re not expected to be a designer as well. Some people can, but the majority cannot. And that’s okay, that’s what we’re here for.
I thought it might be of interest to see how a cover transforms from old to new, from start to finish. As an example, I’m taking a cover I’m finalising at the moment, which is the epitome of old to new: Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel.
I was asked by Unthank Books to redesign their best-seller, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, completed by Sir David Madden, original cover by Ian Nettleton, the second edition of which will shortly be going to print.
Sir David Madden was a member of HM Diplomatic Service for 34 years, and retired after serving as British High Commissioner in Cyprus and subsequently British Ambassador in Greece. He was then Political Adviser to the EU Peace-Keeping Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, before returning home to Oxford. He now divides his time between writing, a little lecturing and much animal welfare: he is a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, working on the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare; a Trustee both of The Brooke Hospital for Animals and of Compassion in World Farming; and a patron of the Voice for Ethical Research in Oxford. He is also an accredited mediator with ADRGroup. – Unthank Books
It was not only an honour to be asked, but an exciting project in and of itself and the end result may be exhibited at the official Charles Dickens museum in Holburn.
It didn’t take me much time to have ideas flying about the place, possibly helped by the fact that Stephen, my husband and Senior Editor for Green Door, is a specialist in Victorian literature (view his biography here).
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE TRANSFORMATION
The idea of old to new was there from day one. Sir Samuel Luke Fildes illustration from the second volume of the original serial from Chapman & Hall (May, 1870) caught my eye immediately. I wanted to take Fildes’ illustration and modernise it to suit the 21st century reader, while keeping with the essence of the original. I briefly considered a modern graphic along the lines of Kevin O’Neill’s illustrations for Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, merging into the Filde’s original to symbolise David Madden’s half of the text. This was ultimately abandoned in favour of retaining the Victorian illustration, using colour to indicate the modern completion.
THE RE-DRAWING PROCESS
COLOUR – BRINGING NEW TO THE OLD
My original plan for adding colour was to do a loose wash using watercolour to represent the colour engravings of the day. In the end it started to develop a bit differently, becoming much more detailed than I had intended. But, as any artist will tell you, sometimes you just have to see where a project will lead you.
I usually work in inks and acrylics, but I’ve recently rediscovered a love of watercolour, a medium I had to use for another cover I’ve just painted (See Where’s Sailor Jack? by John Uttley). This seemed right for a colour Victorian image, being both vivid and subtle. Thus armed with a pile of books on 19th century fashion I started to add colour.
THE COLOUR PROCESS
THE TITLE IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE IMAGE
‘Typographers are masons of the printed word.’ – Alan Fletcher (1931 – 2006)
Typography can make or break a cover no matter how perfect the image. This is where many authors who decide to take on the design aspect of their book fail. Again, I hasten to add, this is not something to feel ashamed about. Why would you know?
I knew I wanted to keep an authentic Victorian feel but the original wording, as you can see, was very rough. Conceptually I can see that the illustrator developed a typeface that integrated the feel of the binding thorns that united all the images, but the end product still felt a bit messy, recalling Thackeray’s words when he saw a similarly creative font on Ainsworth’s hit novel The Lancashire Witches. ‘When I first saw it,’ he said, ‘I thought I was drunk.’
This was my challenge: maintain the essence of the original work but make it clean and legible.
Over 80 hours went into drawing, painting and designing this cover and therefore I cannot show you the development step by step, as we may be here for another 80 hours if I did. This is one of the most detailed covers I’ve ever done, and one of my favourites. The beauty of book design is that each new cover is an adventure and a challenge, and however challenging it is the best part of my job.
Finally, although The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a cover with custom art, don’t think you have to take that route for your book. Here is a redesigned cover using an art print for people working with a more modest budget.
When I went public with this cover last weekend, a ‘fan’ on Facebook remarked that, ‘Dickens would be proud.’ As his first illustrator, Robert Seymour, committed suicide in the wake of Dickens’ constant criticisms of the artwork for The Pickwick Papers, I am not so sure, but I’m kind of hoping that Sir Luke would not have been disappointed. And, if I say so myself, I’m certainly happy with the way this cover has turned out.