“But you are resolved to pursue it right now. Are you ready to gamble on your career, going boldly where no one else cared to go before?”
“You paraphrased the wrong movie. I’m neither the first nor the only one who seeks the origins of dark energy. A more adept one-liner would be ‘trust your feelings’.”
Initial Conditions, T. K. Flor
Yes, T. K. Flor is me, and Initial Conditions is the name of my first novel. The allusions are, respectively, to Star Trek and Star Wars. The excerpt is from a conversation between Jonathan and Danielle. As most of you haven’t met them yet, I’m going to make the introduction, and also tell the story of my novel’s cover.
A disclaimer first. Initial Conditions isn’t science fiction, nor fantasy. Even though the quest to find the origins of a mysterious dark energy plays an important role in the story, dark energy is not an evil force stalking in the darkness, waiting for a reckless protagonist. So what is dark energy? Actually, no one knows. This enigmatic energy permeates all of space (even here on Earth). It pushes physical objects apart, but its menacing effect is measurable only at length-scales much larger than a galaxy. Even with a hyperdrive, such mind-boggling distances would be unmanageable (read why).
Back to the story, and its leading characters. The protagonist is a physicist, whose field of research is cosmology. Danielle is twenty-seven, headstrong and ambitious. Even though her boss disapproves her intuitive leaps, and her boyfriend tries to dissuade her from taking unnecessary risks, she follows her dreams, and inadvertently opens a personal and professional Pandora’s Box.
Initial Conditions is a contemporary mainstream novel. Genre-wise, that means that (a) it is set in the last few decades (actually in the years 1999-2000), (b) it doesn’t fit into a specific genre (not a science fiction, a thriller, a mystery…), and (c) its tone isn’t literary. As so many very different books fall into this category, the common ground between them is usually what they aren’t about.
Since I already wrote about lab-lit and science in fiction in a previous post, I focus here on the book cover. According to every self-publishing guide I’ve read, it is a must to have an appealing and relevant cover. Here is what Self-printed: the sane person’s guide to self-publishing (3rd edition), by Catherine Ryan Howard, says:
Say it with me, people: genre is a shortcut to sales. Whether it happens subconsciously or consciously, pushing your book into a genre and then creating a cover that makes it look at home there is cutting by half the distance between your book on sale and a copy of it sold. Don’t be precious. Be smart. Start by identifying which genre your book belongs in.
To give potential readers of the novel a better idea of what to expect, I intended to put on the cover an image of a galaxy, or of a sky studded with stars. Then I learned that while illustrated starry-night was okay, a realistic image might not be such a good idea. People have certain expectations about book covers, and a photo from outer space might mislead them to think that Initial Conditions is science fiction. Unexpectedly, I was faced with a dilemma. I felt there should be a reference to space on the cover. But how much risk was it worth to take?
One day, while looking at pictures from NASA, I found an image that I really liked:
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) (link).
The original caption released with image, said:
Resembling sparks from a fireworks display, this image taken by a JPL camera onboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows delicate filaments that are sheets of debris from a stellar explosion in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.
To me, the filaments look like a face of a woman, made out of exploding stars. I stared at it for a while, left it, and came back to stare more. The image fitted the story as if someone had designed it after reading the entire book. It also appealed that the picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Maybe it’s irrational, but it means something to have on my work of fiction an image captured by Hubble. To put it in context, here is some background:
Hubble has shown us some of the universe’s earliest galaxies and defined the limits of their age. Its vision has uncovered evidence of black holes and discovered the mysterious, unexplained phenomenon called dark energy.
… two teams initially began their Hubble observations of far-flung supernovae to measure the deceleration of the universe due to the pull of gravity. To their amazement, they found the opposite; the universe was expanding at an ever-faster rate. Astrophysicists have hypothesized that an unknown phenomenon, called dark energy, is causing the acceleration. The discovery, first announced in 1998, is one of the biggest surprises in science and has earned Riess, Perlmutter, and Schmidt many accolades, including the Nobel Prize in Physics.
How can one pass such an opportunity? On the other hand, I’ve invested years writing (and rewriting) Initial Conditions. I didn’t want to make a wrong impression that might drive away potential readers before they start reading. Good grief! It dawned on me why trad-publishers rarely involved their authors in decisions concerning the covers of their books. It also clued me as to why some book-cover designers do not like to work with first-time indie authors. Since I have already contacted Keri at Alchemy Book Covers and she did ask for my input, I sent her the link to the image, and asked whether she could retouch it to make the face more woman-like. I also asked whether she could use it for a contemporary-mainstream-fiction type book-cover. She emailed me back, saying she would look at it.
And she did.