Cover Story

Like most writers with a string of books in print, I’m often asked about the covers.

Does the author get a say in them?  Sometimes.

How important are they?  Very.

And like most writers, I’ve seen my share of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Three truly wonderful covers.  One disaster.  Lots of in-between.

The Good:

Depending on the publisher, and almost always with a big New York house, the author has little or no control over the cover.  My 2011 novel, The Art of Saying Goodbye, was published by Harper Collins, which could have left me out of the design process entirely.  But my editor, Carrie Feron, sent me each rendition, including the first one  . . . an impressionistic painting of two women, one with her head on the other’s shoulder, being comforted as they sat on a park bench in floaty summer dresses, with a soft-focus white building in the background.

My daughter said it was pretty but looked like a lesbian love story in set World War II – not, as was actually the case, a contemporary novel about a group of 40-something women in an upscale suburban neighborhood, struggling with the illness of a longtime neighbor.

Even before I’d had time to object, Carrie rejected that first cover. She jettisoned several more.  She ordered some fine-tuning.  The final product was remarkable.  A drawing of three women in jeans walking through a lovely but somber fall landscape, it captured perfectly the serious, powerful, graceful journey at the book’s center.

The novel got good reviews.  It was chosen as an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.  It was nominated for SIBA’s annual book award.

How much did the cover influence that?

Hard to say.  But experience tells me there was certainly some.  Years before, my novel Festival in Fire Season had come out with a dust jacket featuring colorful azaleas, a hint of fire, and the word, “Sizzling” from the Publishers Weekly review – visuals so intriguing it was hard not to pick up the book.  The novel became a Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club Selection, important in those days.  Later, my novel Riggs Park featured three girls holding hands, hair flying as they ran through a summer landscape that perfectly conveyed happy friendships long past. The novel was selected to help launch a new line of women’s fiction

The Bad:

The Activist’s Daughter is about a girl from DC who flees her mother’s embarrassing civil rights activism by going to college in North Carolina (The South! oh no!) in the fall of 1963.  It was published originally by a small, well-respected feminist press.  I had no say in the cover, but a warm, pleasant-looking version was sent to me while the book was in production.  Imagine my horror when the final copies arrived, all black-and-white and drab tan, with an illustration of a woman with her hair in a bun (in the ‘60s?) and an outfit (floral blouse, straight skirt) from no discernible era, being dragged off by what look like storm troopers.  Above that is my name and the title of the book, nothing else. On the back cover, in tiny type, there’s a long plot summary, an excerpt, and some reviews but no hint that this is a novel – much less by a fiction writer whose earlier work, Safe Passage, had been made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon – a film many potential readers would know.

When I started finding copies of the book in the social studies sections of bookstores, it dawned on me that people thought the novel was a memoir.

Happily, the print run soon sold out and the rights reverted to me.  The reprint has a beautiful cover (in which, yes, I did have a say) featuring the Old Well in Chapel Hill where the book is set, placards to suggest the civil rights movement, and the words “A Novel” prominently displayed.  Over the years, The Activist’s Daughter has become a perennial reading group selection for readers interested in the ‘60s.  I’m convinced the new cover helped.

The Ugly:

Most book covers are neither beautiful nor disastrous, even with glitches that can be maddening for the author.  The protagonist of Over 50’s Singles Night is named BJ Fradkin – except on the cover, where she became BJ Franklin.The pastel pink cover of Raspberry Sherbet Kisses features lovers kissing while standing in an oversized fruit bowl – so sweet that one reviewer said the novel is light but not that light (about a woman trying to hide the fact that she sees music and tastes shapes – as some people really do).  The sales impact?  I’ll never know.

If a book is a big seller, the publisher will sometimes correct errors on the next printing.  But if sales are low and the writer is unhappy?  In today’s digital environment, most books are also e-books, which can stay “in print” indefinitely at little cost to the publisher, which generally opts to hold on to rights rather than reverting them.

Often, the best a writer can hope for is an editor sensitive to the visual journey readers take before deciding whether to open the book and embark on the literary one.  It makes a huge difference.

The Value of Kindness Takedown Safe Passage Culture Clash The Activist's Daughter Holiday Miracles Daddy and the Pink Flash Festival in Fire Season
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