Ceara Elliot, Designing the Paperback Cover for Swan Song

Ceara Elliot, Designing the Paperback Cover for Swan Song

Good: publishing a book. Better: publishing a book that garners acclaim. Best: going paperback. Paperback means people can’t get enough of you. Paperback means give me that story. Such was the success of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, a historical novel based on writer Truman Capote’s relationship with a group of society women he dubbed his ‘swans.’ You can read my take on Lauren Wakefield’s cover design for the hardcover edition of the novel here, but today we’ll explore how designer Ceara Elliot both echoed and augmented the original cover of Swan Song for its new paperback version. You’ll find the paperback cover borrows just enough of the late-1950s motif to create continuity; all the while, Elliot’s cover design stands on its own. It will also stand out on bookstore shelves, as all good paperback covers should.

Ceara Elliot lives in London, where she works as a Senior Designer for Penguin Random House. Elliot admits that Wakefield’s stunning hardcover design for Swan Song made her task of creating a paperback design intimidating at best. “The hardback cover for Swan Song is really something beautiful, which made the idea of designing the paperback, that little more daunting.” Nevertheless, she persisted. As all good designers do, Elliot meditated on the project brief, which demanded she “Create a narrative, that echoes the collective voices we hear throughout the novel, and that captures the glitz and glamour of the era, whilst also having that contemporary feel.” Elliot turned the words of the brief into the elements of the cover design, incorporating a photograph of midcentury women in the throes of sharing some thrilling secret. “I focused on the words ‘voices’, ‘glamour’ and ‘era’,” Elliot said. “I do also remember that at some stage, the word ‘summer read’ was being thrown here and there, which is why a few of the rejected covers are far more sun-kissed.”


As is the case with era-based creative projects, Elliot and her team devoted themselves to hours of research into the world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans.’ After some hefty picture research sessions (load shared by pic researcher Heather Vickers) I came across the photographer Peter Stackpole, whose photographs have previously been used on the cover of LIFE magazine, back in the day. The tone of them seemed perfect, they had the glamour that I was looking for but also a sense of scandalous and sneakiness and although some are staged, seemed quite raw & managed to tell a story,” Elliot said. “The editor had expressed how she thought a group of women rather than a single woman would be ideal, this would also help communicate the ‘voices’ that had been specified in the brief. Keen to link the hardback to the paperback, we opted to keep the original typeface, turning it a shade of lemon yellow to jazz it up and welcome summer.” Ah, lemon yellow. A welcome hue. A celebratory pop.


Now that the final product has been revealed to the world, Elliot is grateful that the final cover turned out authentic, captivating, and true to the story inside. “Looking now at the final photograph, I thought the smoking would be an issue, as it’s a little controversial to have smoking on covers these days, luckily others agreed with me that it just aids the authenticity of the cover & its relationship with the story it packages. I really liked how the three women are all looking in different directions, each with their own thread of gossip, I suppose,” Elliot said. “I certainly had my doubts and predicted this particular cover would fall flat in terms of approval. Therefore, I have been reminded again to never assume a ‘favourite’ and, where possible, design whatever feels right to you at that moment in time . . . Worst case scenario, you’ll have a healthy bunch of killed covers to dip into further down the line.”


Elliot’s attitude toward the arduous process of cover design reveals what makes a successful designer: patience, a love for the process, and a knack for approaching problems from several different angles. So, Swan Song lives on. “It was lovely to receive a big thumbs up from the author, Kelleigh, and I wish Swan Song a successful publication,” Elliot said. If you are looking for a summer read--or maybe a thrilling literary respite from winter’s last stand--give Swan Song a go. Word on the street is the story is just as riveting as the cover. Still available in hardcover, soon available in paperback.


Final Cover


Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.