Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Of Hopes, Dreams, and Book Jackets

Before I get into this post let me get something out of the way. The whole book jacket issue thing makes me crazy. I have been on all sides of it as an editor, agent, and customer and my personal take on it is that it’s a big, fancy wank job. Has a book jacket helped in catching my eye? Yup. Have I bought a book based on the jacket design alone? I am pretty sure I have. Have I been let down by a book with the coolest jacket around? Hell, yeah. However, the whole business is just too fucking annoying when you are part of the process. Authors, agents, and advisers all think that the cover is the be-all, end-all of a book’s success and far too many authors, agents, and various and sundry advisers believe that they know best as to what the cover of a book should look like. To that end The Awl.com ran a piece on Monday about six writers discussing the book jacket design process and what it meant to each of them. I hated it. It just made me cringe. It took me back to my bad old days in Boston publishing.
"Writers by definition spend a lot of time on the inside of books, which is why what happens on the outside—namely, cover art and blurbs—can feel precarious and daunting. Often these elements are beyond an author’s control or expertise, which can be painful to admit, particularly when the "expertise" of graphic designers and marketers seems so subjective or at odds with an author’s “vision” for a book."
 The "author's vision" for a book is a phrase that makes me wanna stab my eyes out. If y'all out there knew how many times an author told me that the cover they were sent was "horrible" you'd never have time to read anything else ever again. “How,” I would ask them, “is it possible that every instinct they have telling them that the cover in question is horrible but that the press’s other books are selling and winning awards for design?” No answer. Or, better yet, another answer from the author in question that every person in publishing has heard a million times: "I showed the design to my family and friends and they all had the same poor reaction to it that I did. They, too, all hated it" OK, case closed. If your buddies say it’s horrible it really must be as one of your close friends is Chip Kidd, right? I digress.
To get some advice on navigating these issues, we asked a handful of writers—including Kate Christensen, Bennett Madison, Stefanie Pintoff, Mark Jude Poirier and Tom Scocca—who have been through the process these questions:
  • How important are covers in terms of selling a book?
  • Have your publishers asked you for your opinion or “input” on your covers, and to what extent do you think they listened? Did you ever meet with the designer? How important was “marketing” in making decisions about the cover of your book(s)?
  • Did you ever receive a cover that made you unhappy and if so, what did you do about it? Did you ultimately end up with a cover that made you happier?
  • How important are blurbs, particularly for a first-time author?
  • How did you go about getting your blurbs? Did your agent or editor help, or did you rely more on personal connections?
  • Have you ever offered someone else a blurb?
Alright, those are the questions to deal with…what are my reactions? 1) Important but not the end of the world if the cover sucks, right Geek Love? 2) Input? Usually publishers do what is best as they are the professionals and they almost always get it right. If we can’t agree on that, let’s at least agree that they are better at figuring out what works than your cousin Gus, OK? Meet the designer? What do you think this is Canada? Really, how would that help you? You already have a tangible example of what the designer thinks…it’s called the cover. Marketing? Let’s leave that sacred cow alone. I still believe to this day that the marketing decisions presses make include more closely guarded secrets than one would find in the North Korean supreme people’s assembly. One battle at a time, if you please. 3) Unhappy? Yes, I am sure every writer has been at some point but sometimes you have to trust someone else, yes? 4) Blurbs are important…and stupid. Discuss. 5) Usually the editor will do a lot of the searching for a blurb or two. If you are lucky you know a novelist with some public profile who will say something nice about your forthcoming book. Blurbs appear to be the most stressful aspect of the cover experience for all the authors in the piece. I agree with them. I hated asking for quotes for my writers. I found that many published and established writers were so ungenerous with their time that it made me feel like an old man. Some simply "had a policy" not to blurb. Others would just ignore the request. Look, a blurb from another writer none of us have ever heard of doesn't really help you. Sorry, the truth hurts. If you can walk through the mine field and get some great quotes, I ain't gonna lie, it really, really helps. For instance, tell me this guy didn't hit it out of the park when it came time to put some blurbs on the back of his original paperback release for Houghton Mifflin's Mariner line. For reals, right?!? However, blurbs aren’t always a good thing. Isn’t the following blurb the stupidest one you’ve ever read?

“This novel is so magnificent — in every conceivable aspect, and others previously unimagined — that it has occurred to me that the shadow of this book, and the joy I received in reading it, will fall over every other book I have ever read.” – Rick Bass on Cold Mountain

Seriously? I mean you have to be a grade-A asshole to send something like that in. Either Cold Mountain is the best book ever written in the history of humankind or Rick Bass has a bug up his ass about being asked to blurb a book he doesn't really like. In each case, you really don't want to put that on your book jacket even though Rick Bass is a famous writer and, on the surface, it appears that he has said something wonderful about you and your boring post-Civil War novel. I can offer new novelists no solace...trying to secure blurbs downright sucks. That's that. Anyway, back to the jacket discussion...

The authors in the Awl piece, which you really should go and read without the added acid I am throwing on things here, are split on their reactions to their book jackets. Kate Christensen said “The cover for the hardback of Trouble made me unhappy, but no one would budge on it, so there it stayed. My mother thought it was a picture of me; I thought it was flat-out weird. I still dislike it.” Bennett Madison was in deep loathing on his first jacket. “I absolutely hated the cover of my first book. I complained a little and they changed it enough to make me hate it so much more! So the moral of the story there is, no matter how bad it is it can always be made worse with hot-pink "I Dream of Jeannie" harem pants” I haven’t read his book so I don’t know what that last thing about Jeannie means but his point is well taken.

Mark Poirier had both a positive and negative experience with his two novel jackets. Poirier says, “I loved the cover they chose for Goats for which they had asked my input. I also loved the cover they chose for Unsung Heroes of American Industry. Again, I had some input. The cover they chose for Modern Ranch Living, however, sucked and continues to suck today.” Matthew Gallaway, Tom Scocca, and Stefanie Pintoff all had love at first sight with their covers. So it is a wash and--if anything--more of the authors were cool with their jackets than disliked them. But does a book jacket matter in the end? It does and it doesn’t. A cool jacket wrapped around a big pile of shit still makes for a bad read, right? All text covers of a type still used in French publishing houses can keep safe the best novel you’ve (n)ever read. So, why sweat it?

Finally, what’s my advice on this contentious issue? Trust in your airline pilot…your mutual fund manager…your lifeguard…your…you get the idea. I am not saying that presses don’t make mistakes but there has to be some kind of acceptance that the publishers and their designers are trying to create something in everyone’s best interest and no one is better at that than the designers at those houses. No, not always. Not exclusively, but it is what they do. I am sure that I could manage a professional baseball team better than many of the current managers but does that make it true? Nope. I have found that one’s life is better, less stressful, and generally more pleasant if one leaves things that one isn’t versed in to the professionals in the given field. Sure, I could suggest a typeface or a different color for a title but that hardly means that I am capable of discrediting a design because I don’t like “hot pink” or the look of “a bland and way-too-literal photograph of a curvy-road-ahead highway sign in the desert.” To his credit, Mark Poirier comes around to my way of thinking about it:
"I offered cover ideas to people at Simon and Schuster for The Worst Years of Your Life, an anthology I edited, and I’m grateful they went in another direction. The cover they chose features a diagram of a frog dissection that looks as if it were made on a '70s ditto machine. Created by Catherine Casalino, the cover went on to win design awards. While I approved the cover and approved the covers from Bloomsbury, it took me a while to believe that sometimes book-jacket designers, people who actually get paid to design book jackets, people who actually have a lot of experience designing book jackets, often know better than I. Because of my sour experience with Modern Ranch Living, I’m a little touchy, but I have come to let the experts do their jobs."
 Let the experts do their jobs. Good, sage advice…just breath, authors, and know that not only shouldn’t you judge a book by its cover but remember what your mother taught you: it’s what inside that counts. Of course, I've never had my baby covered in hot pink, tilt-shift photos, and terrible typefaces. Maybe I'd feel differently if I weren't just a boring blogger. It's an interesting point.

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