The three best-designed trade novels of mine (so far)1 are Stay, Hild, and Spear. They are all very different, but what they had in common was a smooth publication process, an efficient, transparent workflow overseen by editorial, design and production departments working in tandem to make the story and the package it is presented in match in terms of seriousness and heft. And the most important part? Communication: everyone knowing who is doing what and when, and consulting every step of the way.

When I sign a contract the first thing I tell an editor is that what makes me happy is information. An informed author, a consulted author is a happy author. I tell the editorial, publicity, marketing and sales teams—I rarely have contact with production, sadly—that I need information. All the information—the buzz, the scuttlebutt; the yeses and nos; the good numbers, the bad numbers—and, most of all, a workflow calendar. This really matters to me: I need to know schedules for copyedits, proofs, ARCs, bookseller letters blurb deadlines, finished copies… All of it. This is important for any novel; it’s doubly important for huge, linguistically complicated novels like Hild or Menewood.1

Why? Because I need more planning time than most writers: I have MS. Disability and chronic illness are in and of themselves part- to full-time jobs. Add to that the lack of energy reserves and I simply can’t always just turn a copyedits/proof/publicity plan around in 5 days. I need to plan my energy expenditure. And the last two years I also have another part- verging on full-time job: family responsibilities.2 The math barely works with careful planning; with no planning all is chaos.

For the last two decades I’ve worked with one editor, Sean Macdonald. We’ve moved together from Nan A. Talese to Riverhead to Farrar, Straus and Giroux (and now FSGxMCD). I know what to expect. Mostly. (No relationship is perfect.) But Sean did not think he was the right editor for Spear, so he suggested an unusual editorial/production partnership with Macmillan sister imprint Tordotcom: One of his new MCD editors, Lydia Zoells, was a historical fiction and Arthurian geek so she would edit, and Tordotcom would handle production and publication.

I was a bit wary—”Change is, of course, to be deplored”3—but also aware that this was an opportunity to finally bring together the two parts of my writing life: the SFF of Ammonite, Slow River and every piece of sort fiction I’ve ever published, and the novels I’ve written in the last 25 years. I was cautiously optimistic.

And it turned out brilliantly. I had my first meeting with Lydia and explained my optimal work environment: give me everything, all the time, immediately, good or bad. And—wonder of wonders!—she believed me. Within a week she was passing through to me all the info I needed. Then I had a meeting with Tordotcom—one of those meetings where there are so many people you can’t get all the tiles on your screen at once—and, again, wow! they listened!

It was great—just as it should be. I was consulted and informed every single step of the way. No one had to get grumpy at anyone about anything because there were no surprises. (Publishing is like surgery: You never, ever want to hear someone say, “Uh-oh…”) As a result Spear (like Hild, like Stay) is an integrated whole whose exterior packaging reflects the story within. And the marketing hit exactly the right tone. It worked beautifully. As a result, Spear is a beautiful book. (Let me be clear—though I love Spear and think I wrote a fine book—from her on when I talk about the beauty and fabulousness of Spear I’ll be talking about the physical object, not the words inside.)

Spear is a very handsome book. In the design department it punches way above its weight. Obviously it looks fabulous—and I’ll talk more about that—but what really struck me when I first picked it up is how it feels in the hand. The jacket has a seriously matte, tactile feel, with a little process on my name and title—not a lot; it’s subtle, just enough to feel substantial. But what’s really lovely is the size and weight.

When I was a teen I preferred reading library hardcovers; paperbacks were okay but they felt flimsy. Over the years, though, I’ve found my preference changing to trade paperbacks and I realise it’s a size issue. Many modern hardbacks are massive and heavy, too unwieldy for comfortable reading unless you have big hands, which I don’t.4 This book is perfect! I could hold it for hours—which of course no one needs to because it’s only 184 pages long. Given its length I worried the book might feel too thin, but look: it’s beautifully proportioned. And the spine of the jacket is very attractive. (Whenever I hold it I just want to stroke it.)

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover but, hey, we all do. (The cover art is by Rovina Cai and design by Christine Foltzer. I talk about the cover in the cover reveal here and at greater length in a discussion of its conception and execution here). But I can tell you, this book just gets better and better the more you explore.

The front flap is nice—nothing massively special but nice. Ditto the back, and here I’m pleased by the colour coordination: Black and white photo with black end papers; red titles to match the red title and author name on the front. And of course the flaps make perfect bookmarks when you pause mid-read:

But it’s when you start to take the jacket off that you start to get a sense of the glories within:

Just look at that foil stamping—see how it glows! You can see the individual rivets on the shield. The spine is shiny, too, but I couldn’t get as good a picture of it.

Then there are the interior illustrations by Rovina Cai, five altogether: the perfect moody complement to the text. I’ve put them in a slideshow in the order in which they appear in the book:

The whole book is a design delight, exactly what a hardcover should be. The ebook also looks nice, of course—and the audio sounds good (even if I do say so myself)—but for me there’s nothing like the tactile, memory-evoking joy of a real book: the heft of it in my hand, the sense memory of where a particular moment appears on the page, and the specific weight in one hand vs the other that tells you how far through the book you are when it happens. Plus, of course, you can get physical copies signed by the author.

Tordotcom did a beautiful job with Spear. If and when there’s another installment in the lives of Peretur and Nimuë I hope that comes in just as lovely a package.

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[1] Hild and Menewood between them are longer than The Lord of the Rings—and uses at least as many languages, and those languages are changing all through the text. The way a word is used at the beginning of Hild is not necessarily the way it’s used at the end. Do you have any idea how much time it takes to get those copyedits right? AndI don’t count And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, my memoir, because that design is a whole other, amazing thing: a signed and numbered limited edition boxed collector’s set. I don’t count And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, my memoir, because that design is a whole other, amazing thing: a signed and numbered limited edition boxed collector’s set. And of course Menewood is yet to come…

[2] My sister in the UK has serious mental health issues; emergency phone calls and consultations in the wee hours are not unusual. Kelley has two sets of ill and ageing parents who have no one else to rely on. And of course we have two cats who have both already nearly died twice 🙄

[3] Zen and Thunderbirds

[4] This, apparently, surprises people. Perhaps because I have big shoulders and muscled arms people expect big shovel hands at the end of those arms, but, no; my hands are small.