When an editor sends the author their initial cover ideas, the editor usually writes some variant of, "We love it, and hope you do, too!" Quite often, though--I'd say about 90 percent of the time--the author doesn't love the cover, so here's how I ask my authors to handle things:
1. DON'T PANIC. Start by sending back a warm response to the editor (no matter how much you hate the cover), à la "Thanks so much for sending this - I'll get back to you shortly about it."
2. Sit down and carefully, systematically, identify what the problems are. Make a list of all of these issues. When you do that, you’ll often see that there are not as many problems as you first thought--that by switching the color from, say, puce to blue, everything falls into place. These could be any (or all) of the following:
a) Font: A lot of times it boils down to the author liking the cover but disliking the font that's used for the title, or the author's name, or the endorsements, etc.
b) Colors: Colors that are jarring, or detract from the message of the book, or seem somehow inappropriate, or are downright ugly.
c) Organization: Too much going on, not enough going on, title overshadowing the visual elements, or title too small; and so forth.
d) Specific elements: A stock photograph that doesn’t fit the message of the book, or too large, or too small; or odd graphics; or any number of specific components that set your teeth on edge.
3. Now that you’ve identified the problems, make a list of things that you liked about the cover (even if it’s only that they spelled your name correctly).
4. Contact me (i.e., your agent) with a list of your concerns, and incorporate my feedback into your list. (But please note that I tend to be a bit more hands-on than many agents; if your agent really isn’t involved in the process, you may have to work this out without him/her.) Do the same with your friends, colleagues, and whomever else’s opinion you trust.
5. Go to your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. (Really; make an effort to go to a real bookstore, not Amazon or BN.com. Physical book covers look different from virtual ones, and you want to spend some time and get this right.) Go to the section where your book will go, and study the covers of the already-published books.
a) Personal preferences: Determine what elements do work for you, personally, on those covers. Go through that list again in Step #3 and isolate the various elements on other covers that do work. Write them down.
b) Bestseller elements: Take a step back (always trying to stay within your genre, if at all possible) and look at the bestsellers. Do any of them have common elements?
d) Stay grounded. One thing I often see, with first-time authors, is that they want a full-cover photo of themselves on the front cover. “But look,” they’ll tell me, “Dr. Phil’s mug is plastered on his book, and Jane Fonda’s on hers!” Be realistic; recognize that face recognition is an important element to selling, for example, celebrity-driven books, but if your book isn’t celebrity driven, then it’s a different kettle of fish. If you don’t have comparable face recognition with the public, having your face plastered on the front of the book can actually be a turn-off to some readers.
6. Write a letter to your agent (or, if your agent isn’t involved in this process, I guess to your editor) along the following lines:
Dear agent/editor:Tthanks so much for sending the cover. I really like it--please thank the art department for all their hard work! I have a couple of minor concerns (or minor tweaks, or whatever) that I was hoping they could address.The trick here is to be grateful, completely nice, absolutely nonthreatening, and complimentary of the art department (no matter what you think of what they handed you). Downplay all of your concerns, no matter how many or how prevalent they are. Also, no matter how many people you’ve shown the cover to and who agree with you, keep it personal-- keep it to “I.” Don’t say, "I’ve shown the cover to my book club group / my entire town / everyone at Walmart, and all of us agree that this is the most revolting, inane, and morally reprehensible book cover in the history of the world."
b) Praise: Start out by listing, briefly, the stuff that does work for you (see Step #3). "But I want to start by saying that I really loved their use of vomit green on all the characters’ faces. It was arresting and bold, and really conveyed my hatred for the human race in general."
c) Problems: Here’s where you go in, as softly and as gently as possible (and, finally, this is your chance to use all those qualifiers that Strunk & White told you that you were never supposed to use as a writer: “a little”, “somewhat”, “slightly”, etc.), to list your concerns. Try to keep this section as short, clear, and nonjudgmental as possible. "However, I’m wondering if having all the human faces be that shade of green may be a little off-putting for some readers. I also was a little concerned that having the hearts dotting all of the i’s may send the wrong message to a few people, since this is a male-oriented, action-adventure novel."
d) Solutions: Keep in mind that the art department tends to think visually. If you just talk at them, you may be doomed. Here’s where all your hard work in the bookstore will pay off. "I was looking at some book covers the other day, and I noticed that most of the ones that really seemed to work all had characters with flesh-tinted faces – for example, XXX and YYY." Provide a few examples--even give links to the cover, or perhaps (but this is dicier) paste in a jpeg of the cover itself.
e) Conclusion: A warm ending, again repeating how much you appreciate all the time and thought that’s gone into the book cover.
7. Have your agent forward your letter to the editor, with a cover letter of his/her own. If your agent’s busy or not involved, of course, you may have to send this yourself. But I really like to be involved with this, and I think it helps the author’s case if the agent agrees with the author. (If your agent doesn’t agree with you, s/he’ll probably tell you, and that may be food for thought, as well.)
8. You may have to repeat this process several times; in each case don’t get frustrated, shrill, hysterical, or defensive. Be warm, lavish with praise (no matter how undeserving), and decide which battles are worth fighting and which are worth capitulating.
When should--and shouldn't--an author involve the agent with editorial or publicity problems?
When I sell a book, I sit down with the author and tell them that I suggest that they cc me with all their correspondence to/from the publishing house. I may not respond, but that way I can monitor what’s going on, and head off any potential concerns before they become bigger issues. (I realize that a lot--if not most--agents don’t work this way, so this is something that an author really needs to establish, very quickly, with the agent.)
So the long-and-short answer, for me, is that I want to be involved with any potential editorial or publicity issues way before any of the parties knows that there are even any issues, so I can help smooth things out for everyone. But again, I know a lot of other agents don’t work this way, so I’m afraid that I’m probably the wrong guy to answer this question. [Actually, he's the right guy!]