The Last Word
What's on your cover?
The saying goes: you can't judge a book by its cover. Of course, the saying is an axiom friends tell friends when setting them up on blind dates. Long ago when books were leather-bound with gold leaf titling, presumably you could judge the contents of the book by the quality of the materials comprising it. Marble endpapers, calf-skin bindings, gold leaf embossing: all betokened a worthy tome. Since the invention of the printing press, authors have been trying to get the attention of the reading public, and it couldn't have been easy when all books looked alike.
At some glorious point in publishing history, the book jacket was invented and a whole new art form took shape. Covers now were meant to attract the eye, inform the reader as to probable genre, and broadly ("Salem's Lot," Stephen King) or obliquely ("The Brief History of the Dead," Kevin Brockmeier) reference the story. The component parts of modern book jackets continue to be title and author; brief synopsis of the story on the front flap; accolades from known and unknown writers and critics on the back; and, usually, a flattering photograph of the ageless author with a short bio on the back flap. There is nothing thoughtless about what appears on a book jacket. It is a heated topic of conversation almost from the moment a manuscript is picked up by a publishing house.
Advertising, good reviews, a book tour and multiple interviews on radio and TV are part of getting a book out there, but the consumer, particularly as the buzz dies down, needs to be attracted to the work like a hummingbird to a bloom; in the parlance of marketing, it has to 'pop.' If your name is Toni Morrison, it's enough to have "Beloved" and your name on a stark white cover; if it isn't, then it's useful to the potential reader to have your book jacket catch the eye. It's no coincidence that 'chick-lit' covers have a certain brightness and distinct typography; so, too, the covers of certain 'best-selling' authors. You know without reading the words that Janet Evanovich has a new book out, or that Sue Grafton is on another letter of the alphabet. Their books and others heavily into genres - like gothic, romance, and thriller - are packaged like any product on the shelf, easily recognized by the consumer as the product of choice. Mainstream fiction, works that don't have recurring characters, murders or formulas, depend on their jackets to help convey the theme within.
My first book, "Beauty," took elements from the fable, Beauty and Beast, and, after a couple of false starts that were perfectly ghastly, an artist named Jim Davis created a painting of a dying rose, a symbol that tied the two stories together. I was blessed with Hawke's Cove to have the brilliant Wendell Minor take the assignment and create a picture so completely perfect to the book, right down to minute details, that I thought he'd read my mind. He hadn't, but he had read the book and one of the plot elements, World War II fighter planes, happened to be a passion of his. He was the first, and so far only, cover artist I've had a chance to meet and thank. Lightening struck twice as Wendell Minor also did the cover for "Cameo Lake," once again capturing the essence of the book.
I've always had a vote on what my covers look like - a vote, but not veto power - and the first pass at the jacket for "The Fortune-Teller's Daughter" was a lovely cover, but the artist had drawn a garrison colonial house whereas the haunted house in my book was a saltbox. I actually drew my version of the house and faxed it off. The imagination is potent and it just didn't do to be wrong about that detail. Ultimately I got a house that sort of represented what I had imagined, but it was the Polish version of the book, "Córka Wrózki," that got the house right.
For a writer, what it comes down to is this: you want the best face on your work, the most attractive and genuine representation of the words therein. A good cover is one where the artist has portrayed the essence of the story, where thousands of words have been condensed into a visual shorthand that asks the all-important question: Is this a book you want to pick up? And only the reader can be the judge of that.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.