I used to pick up books off the shelves in stores and stare at the models on the covers. I always thought about how they resembled the characters in the book, from the color of their hair to their eyes. I imagined my own work on the shelf, too -- books with my name on them.
I never thought I would be sitting on the shelf as a book cover model.
A lot of people ask me how I got into book cover modeling, and it was really a combination of timing and luck. I dabbled in portrait photography while attending university as a way to distract myself from the rigor and tedium of homework and tests. I photographed friends and family members, and when I felt inspired and spontaneous, I took self-portraits and posted them to the internet.
At the time, I loved taking portraits with dark themes, all heavy shadows and uncanny eyes and very, very dark make-up (also a product of boredom!). The images were vampire-esque, at a time when there was an explosion of paranormal literature on the market. One of my photos caught the attention of a cover designer for Mills and Boon Australia, who asked about purchasing the rights to use it for a book cover. I received so much spam about my photos, so I gave her the contact information for the agent who represented my work and I forgot about it.
Until a few months later when I saw the result.
I had no idea what author the cover was intended for, or that it would be one I was already a fan of. I also didn't expect for cover offers to just keep coming after that. Three more initially after the first. A dozen the next year. Dozens more after that.
In the last five years, I've been on nearly 100 book covers internationally. Some I haven't seen, others I have. Some in countries I've never been to!
Sometimes cover designers will message me with a description of the book and the character I'm supposed to emulate, and I go onto the Internet and learn whatever else I can about the book. I plan for shoots to capture the mood of the book through lighting and emotion. After the shoot, I send the images to the designer, who changes the photo in post-processing to suit the cover look they're going for.
It's a strange thing to walk into a bookshop and see my own face staring back at me from the stacks. I'd say the most rewarding thing has been when I'm on the covers for authors I love and admire and grew up with. They're the ones who influenced me to write my own stories.
I was a writer long before I picked up a camera and became a cover model. I suppose that's why I was always thankful to be on covers -- because I love books. When it was time for The Falconer's cover to be created, I finally saw the process from the other side: as the author of the book.
It was such a unique experience for me to give input on an image I wasn't creating myself. For my UK cover, I shared ideas for the tone and look I thought would work perfectly for the book, and my editor sent the description to the photographer. It was the kind of cover brief I had seen before in my own work. For the U.S., the cover was a surprise; I relinquished creative control entirely and waited to see what they came up with. The process for both publishers was different, and the end result for the covers are astoundingly distinct. The UK cover (that I had more input on) has my main character Aileana in her explosive position as fae-huntress, engineer, fighter. And the U.S. cover is the more subtle view of Aileana, the well-dressed aristocrat and liar with a blade at the ready.
Both covers are the perfect contrasting views of how Aileana is in the book. One shows her her fae-hunting night self, and the other view is the daughter of a nobleman, keeping her murderous secrets. They are both spot-on representations of the same character, from different perspectives.
Now I get to experience the flip side of things: the excitement of seeing a cover model as my character, and of seeing the character in my head come to life in a photograph. And I get to see my name on the shelf next to authors I admire, instead of my face.
Elizabeth May is the author of The Falconer (Chronicle, $17.99).