Telling a book by its cover

Kwela, 2022

The challenge for a book cover designer is that the cover has to say both “look at me” and “here’s what you can expect inside”. The design can succeed or fail on either or both counts.

Like everyone else, I have opinions on design, including the design of my own book covers. What I don’t have is the skill to design covers myself or the right to determine my own book cover designs. My author contracts make it clear: the publisher decides on the design.

Over the years, publishers have asked for ideas and often my input to help choose between different designs or refinements required on particular designs. On occasion I’ve simply been informed: “Here’s the cover for your new book.”

However, no contract binds me as to what I can say in my own blog, so here are some thoughts about my published works so far.

By way of background: I have a lifelong interest in design – graphic and, to a lesser extent, product design. (Why put pull handles on doors you’re meant to push open?) I’d like to think my aesthetic sense is not the worst, though I’d gratefully bow to the judgement of professionals.

Ekstra dun vir meer gevoel 

Tafelberg SA, 1989

This design was my basic idea, executed by GG Design, possibly by Herman Koch, though I am not sure. We were limited to a three-colour print job. I suggested the condom motif to fit with the title (“extra thin for more feeling”) and selected the painting to be used inside. I was art critic for Die Burger newspaper at the time, and liked a painting of the Cape Town city hall by Francine Scialom-Greenblatt and asked her if we could use a highly manipulated detail of it. The pink faded badly over the years, but the simple graphics endure.



Tafelberg SA, 1992

I convinced the publisher to use a painting by one of my favourite painters, Frank van Schaik, for this short novel about the leader of a rebellion in the Cape early in the 18th Century. He did this mixed media work specifically for the cover. It hangs right above the desk I’m using now!




Nobody Dies

Random House NZ, 2004

This design was my idea, executed by my erstwhile colleague Malcolm Dale, possibly with interference from me. Apparently it didn’t do much for book sales, but I love it. It makes sense to me conceptually and also conveys the tone of the book well. One of my absolute favourite covers.





Say Books NZ, 2013

For the later self-published e-book, another former colleague, Stephen Woodman, did an illustration meant to be seen at small scale on Amazon, etc. Since I can only complain to myself on this one, I won’t!





Say Books NZ, 2011

Stephen Woodman also did the illustration and design for this self-published book. Strong graphics! Again, the final decision was mine. This was meant to be the first book in a series of commercial “Jules Dijkstra” mysteries, but the idea died halfway through book 2.




ʼn Ander mens 

Kwela SA, 2018
Kwela SA, 2013

The Afrikaans translation of Nobody Dies has a far less impactful cover than the original Random House NZ book. I had no real input into this one, and have no real opinion on it either. The publisher decided to push the Namibia angle with this touristy library pic of Sossusvlei. Design by Michiel Botha. The reprint was adapted slightly to use the consistent visual styling of my name the publishers had come up with later, and to add the award it had won.

Half of One Thing/Halfpad een ding

Penguin SA, 2014
Penguin SA, 2014

My suggested cover idea for this Boer War tale of divided loyalties was a closeup of a Boer jacket on one side buttoned onto a British tunic on the other. I somehow see that seed in this striking design by the late Michiel Botha. This one still impresses me as perhaps the classiest of all my covers.


Hochnamib trilogy

Kwela SA, 2018
Kwela SA, 2018

Because I was so impressed with his previous design, I suggested that we use Michiel Botha for the first book, Parts Unknown/Die Vertes In (2018). The result was too bitty for my liking – I’d prefer one strong image. Both the soldier’s face and the female figure are not images I would have chosen.



Kwela, 2021
Tweegevreet (Kwela, 2020)

I suggested a leopard for the cover of Tweegevreet (literally two-faced, English title The Two-Legged Leopard) and the bold way Michiel used this makes this my favourite of the three covers in the series. Michiel’s declining health precluded him from doing the cover of Een of Ander Held (English: Some Kind of Hero) and it was designed by Mike Cruywagen of Nudge Studio, following the established style for the series. I found a good historical reference photo that Mike expertly manipulated for the cover.

This series is my proudest achievement as a writer, but sadly the style of these covers just doesn’t appeal to me. To my mind, it creates the expectation of a Wilbur Smith-type story – which these books aren’t.

Ek wens, ek wens

Kwela SA, 2019

My suggestion was to somehow use a Rubik’s cube and an angel on the cover. Designer Dale Halvorsen (“Joey Hi-Fi”) took a leap into the stratosphere instead, delivering this fantastic design. It not only has shelf impact, but also conveys a sense of the book’s tone, and even literal depictions of scenes from the book! I could not wish for something better. Another favourite.




I Wish, I Wish

Cuba Press NZ, 2020

The English version of the above delivered yet another appealing cover. I like the graphic simplicity and retro look of Meg Hamilton’s design. It reminds me a bit of the great designs Black Sparrow Press did for Charles Bukowski’s books.





Die onsigbare pou

Kwela SA, 2022

The title refers to an invisible peacock. Initially, I was taken aback by the bold approach from designer Russell Stark of Publicide. The visual impact is immediate, but it took a while longer to appreciate how subtle and smart this design actually is. The aesthetic is perhaps more 1970s than the two following decades when the book events take place, but I love it all the same.


I had a police station in Africa, at the foot of Gamsberg…

Gamsberg dominates the landscape in my Hochnamib trilogy.

In 2013, I started with an idea for a miniseries about a policeman in German Southwest Africa. Eight years, three books, 819 pages, 270,000 words later, as I end this project, I cannot help but reflect on this era.

(I’ve been at it longer than any job I held, two thirds of the total years I spent at school. So, yes, an era.)


Just about the first thing I wrote down back in 2013 was a brief to myself. This hangover from my advertising days helps to crystallize my thoughts and keep me on track. I often refer back to it during the many months or years of writing a book – sometimes amending it, mostly simply reading it to remind me of my original aims and to help me achieve the right frame of mind.

Below is part of the brief I wrote to myself when I embarked on this series:

In the first place, this must come across as a real story about real people in real circumstances. It has to be a juicy story, languidly told, but full of incident, a throwback to 19th Century novels, an exotic adventure crime story, but told by Turgenev or Babel.

This is a book about Romantic dreams versus reality […]

Siegfried Bock is like a Romantic hero from the European novels of my youth, a Nabokov character. He is vain, just, uncompromising, self-possessed, well-meaning, sympathetic to the underdog, sometimes sentimental. He dreams of becoming a real man, a hero […]

There is also a sub-theme of empowerment. The weak and the strong, about ways power is exercised and how power is taken, how the weak takes power.

Looking at it now, I am struck by the literary antecedents I brought up: three Russians whose abilities, frankly, intimidate me. As they should. Turgenev and Nabokov are already canonised. And Babel may just be my favourite short story writer, a master of the craft.

To what extent I have achieved what I had set out to do, I’ll leave for others to judge.


The creation of such books can be separated into four components:

  1. idea
  2. research
  3. writing
  4. editing.

For some reason, readers tend to be most interested in the first two. As far as I can tell, the questions writers get most often are: “Where do you get your ideas from?” and “What research did you do?”

The question about ideas is hardest to answer – there isn’t a magical formula, no hotline to the muse. It’s different every time. The shortest, most accurate answer is: “I don’t know.” Of course, there is more to say about it, guesses to hazard, perhaps an inkling to share, but I won’t attempt it here. Perhaps some other day.

But I can answer the second question, about research.

To be able to write these books, I had to learn to read a new language, as so much of the research material was only available in German. My knowledge of Afrikaans helped me to find my way with this language, as they are relatively closely related, but it was still a tough task and I never quite mastered German to the extent that I feel I can make grammatically correct sentences in the language, let alone speak it. My hearing comprehension is also too patchy to be really useful. But I can get the gist of a written text.

I ended up reading at least 30 books on Namibian history – a few in Afrikaans, more in English, most in German. This included a facsimile edition of Hans Rafalski’s seminal history of the Landespolizei, Vom Niemandsland Zum Ordnungssstaat. This one is in blackletter font too! I had to make myself a cheat sheet to identify some of the more arcane letters.

The hours of online research I cannot begin to quantify, the time poring over maps and looking at every historical photograph I could find. Without these photographs, there probably wouldn’t have been a book, as they provide wonderful detail and feel.

Having done all this research, I tried to hide it in the text. A novel is not a history book, but a story set against a historical backdrop. Where history had to be conveyed to make sense of events, I tried to weave it into the flow of the narrative, to the best of my ability.

I also undertook two trips to Namibia – not so easy if you live in New Zealand, but I tacked them onto book-related trips to South Africa. Besides, I love it there, in the country of my ancestors, birth and early childhood.

As to the writing itself, for me it is a rollercoaster ride of slog and exhilaration – the most deeply satisfying thing I ever get to do. I appreciate that, while the art and craft of writing occupy my mind much of the time, it is not something I can expect others to appreciate. So, instead, I will simply quantify it: I have written many, many more words than the 270,000 that appeared in print, with all the wrongheaded drafts, abandoned storylines, etc.

And then there is the editing . . . When you’ve reached the end of the story, you’re halfway with the book.

My approach when I write is not that I am putting down the words that will appear in print, but that I am creating text for editing. (That helps keep the incapacitating demon of self-doubt at bay.) Many sentences and paragraphs make it to print unscathed, but as many do not.

You find stylistic problems in a cold rereading of your work, sentences that had lost their way or that jar against their neighbours in an unproductive manner.

There are cul-de-sacs you discover in the editing phase, potential storylines that didn’t pan out. The paragraphs that paved the way for them are now redundant and have to go.

And then there is the repetition. There are all the things you say more than once. You find that you have repeated things in different ways. (See what I did there?)

More worrying, you find discrepancies. In the last book, the Nama warrior Jager suddenly had two canteens, and I couldn’t work out where the second one had come from. It had to be surgically removed in a number of places fairly late into the final preparation of the text. A novel is a conglomeration of so many facts over so many months or years that it is a challenge to avoid contradictions in the text. Across three books, it’s even harder.

On the last book alone, in the home straight before publication, I cut 10,000 words. A few darlings were sacrificed, but it was better for the book. And I saved readers 40 or so minutes of reading time!

An unusual thing that happened in the third book is that while reading the proofs, I realised that there was a significant story detail in my head that I had never put down on paper… To accommodate it in the text at that stage, we had to cut the same number of lines elsewhere on the page, so we didn’t cause a domino effect on subsequent pages.

(This is the only irksome part of editing: Once the book has been set, you cannot do anything that changes line counts. Also, you sometimes have to cut a line simply to help with the flow of text across page breaks. It’s not all aesthetics – the physical medium can affect the text people get to read.)

For me, there is a fifth phase as well: translation. I translated all three books back and forth between English and Afrikaans too, in the hope that I’ll find an English publisher sometime. (Full disclosure: There is still a bit to do, so I’m not quite done with Siegfried Bock yet – the English version of the last book has fallen behind the last rewrite in Afrikaans.)


Was all of this effort worth it? one may ask.

The answer is a resounding YES in some respects, in another not, and part of it I leave to readers to decide.

The NO part has to do with the most readily quantifiable measure: money. If I had spent all those hours doing paid commercial work, my bank balance would be much healthier, no doubt. But financial gain, while it would be a welcome bonus, is not the point.

Writing the Hochnamib trilogy gave me purpose for many years, the joy of being creative. I explored a land and history I love. I discovered unsuspected complexities and learnt a lot about colonial history, languages, writing, and myself.

I also encountered many capable and well-meaning people who were willing to help me. Some of them have become friends.

A special joy was falling in love with the characters. For a few, such as Klawerjas, Eva and Mesuvere, I have stories in my head that never made it to paper. Others surprised me, none more so than Doctor Pitzer in the first book. He was supposed to be a villain, but his weaknesses won me over.

More than anything, I like the way the books turned out, how they all ended up being different, able to be read independently of each other, but hanging together in an overarching narrative.

Readers may, of course, decide that not only had I wasted my time on these books, they’re not going to waste theirs reading it. Fair call – there are many books I choose not to read.

But whatever happens to this series of books out in the world, however others respond to them, I will cherish them, and my time with Siegfried Bock and his neighbours in the wholly fictitious settlement at Hochnamib, where I lived off and on for the past eight years.


The importance of being Ernest, or Joe

Some characters introduce themselves to you by name. Others you have to christen, and it’s a vitally important job, because the name is by far the most common label your character carries, far more than being dark-haired, brave or devilishly handsome.

The name has to suggest the right kind of personality.

Sometimes the writer or reader carries baggage, remembers a particular person in a certain way, and using their name evokes remembered feelings. It is, for instance, a temptation to name a villain after a person you dislike. I tried it in Parts Unknown, giving a villain the name of my high school principal, but fortunately I walked away from the idea later. Those subjective names aren’t great, because readers don’t share your feelings. They have their own likes and dislikes, of course, but there is nothing the writer can do about it. Best is to pick names with more public associations, so that they might evoke the desired emotion in readers.

I think Siegfried Bock, hero of Parts Unknown, was one of the characters who told me his name straight up. In the earliest story notes I could find, from 2013, his name is there. I liked it from the start.

This is all after the fact – I had chosen the name instinctively – but if I have to analyse it, I’d be able to find reasons why the name worked so well for me. Sieg + fried is German for the victory of peace, which fits nicely with the story. There is Siegfried from the Medieval myth, slayer of dragons. It also has links to my own name, which is a uniquely South African mangling of Siegreich. His surname, Bock (which I probably nabbed from the German field-marshal Fedor von Bock) makes a contrast with the lofty first name, bock being the German for goat. It might also suggest a sacrificial goat.

Mordegai Guruseb is also named in that initial scribble. Mordegai is Biblical, and hence realistic for the time and culture. The first syllable has an echo of death. His surname suggests guru, which isn’t a bad association.

Lisbeth Löwenstein’s surname was taken from someone I knew in my younger days. I wanted something distinctive and Jewish. Her married name, Kamke, was taken from a German tennis professional I’ve seen play. I chose it because it seemed neutral without being bland.

The doctor’s name, Albert Pitzer, was a mangling of Albert Schweitzer and a combative Springbok hooker from my youth, Gys Pitzer. Pit suggests something dark and untoward.

I devised Alvaus Luipert’s name by simply taking the first name of one of a list of historical Swartboois and combining it with the surname of another. Luipert is leopard in Afrikaans (slightly misspelled), so there’s that connection. And the name Alvaus is quite outlandish, suggesting a singular man.

Apart from suggesting personality, names also have to help the reader tell characters apart. If there is something memorable about the name, it can help, especially for minor characters. You don’t want characters to have similar names, especially if they only appear a few times. I even get nervous if names start with the same letters. (I have written elsewhere about how confused I get with some character names in books by the highly rated Australian novelist Philip Temple.)

In writing Parts Unknown, I was taken with the historical fact that there were Finnish missionaries in Namibia at the time, and wanted to use a Finnish name, especially one of those quaint ones with a double i. I considered the surname of an old schoolmate, Wiid. (Annalise, who had success as a gospel singer, sadly died in mid-2018.) Eventually, I settled on the, from a Southern African perspective, more exotic Viitanen. The missionary’s daughter got the name, Isa, of another girl who was a year or so ahead of me at school.

The point is not the origin of these names, but the emotional content they suggest by association or even just their sound. To me, for instance, Adendorff sounds like a more cultured fellow than Grajek.

As a writer, you hope readers will also have these instinctive emotional responses to names, that they will agree that Heidi is more wholesome than Morgana, Norman less confident than Victor, Fred funnier than Benedict. And so on.