Friday, April 07, 2006

Covering the Cover and Worrying Over the Title

(NOTE: The following is a memoir and as such is told using lies, misinformation, faulty geography, and plain BS. Dialog has been shoddily constructed for greater dramatic purpose in search of lower truth. The moral compass is pointed east on account of some fool left it next to a magnet and screwed up the needle. Am I a “must-have” item yet?)

As the writer burns his remaining operative brain cells fretting with the text, the publisher jumps through the flaming hoop of cover design and tries not to be singed. The writer contributes unhelpful suggestions from relatives, so-called friends, and the cashier at his local Barnes & Noble who is saving for another piercing without saying where.

Before paperbacks, most covers were limited to type arrangements and discrete decoration embossed on the boards. Someone, somewhere, had the idea of treating the dust jacket like a box of soap flakes. Buy this NEW, IMPROVED novel or nonfiction, GUARANTEED to remove stains! Serious readers slipped off the dust jackets and threw them out. Then came the paperback revolution and new printing techniques, and the cover rose in importance at the request of the marketing department. De-bossing, holograms, die cuts, foil stamping, and any other trick devised by printers and graphic designers are used. Whether these make a difference in sales is a constant debate, but all agree the well-executed cover helps establish a book’s credibility.

Cynthia Frank and I had walked the floor at the annual Northern California Independent Booksellers Association show last fall, and looked at covers from publishing companies great and small. Most were clear type arrangements with nothing fancy or startling. DOG WALKED needed more flash to stand out from the rest of the writing books. She postponed work on the cover until the manuscript hassles were fixed and asked me for ideas. One rule I have stuck with is never get involved in arguments over the cover. Another rule I have is not to date women with red hair, unless they have a private income.

An email arrived from Cypress House with three cover suggestions. The first had a black and white pup standing by the side of a macadam road in outer bucolia on a clear blue-sky day. Nope, I said, looks like anything except a writing book. The second had a reproduction of a painting of a dog walking by a red door. Nope, I said, the connection is tenuous at best. The third had the magic, a gray background with a vertical bar of purple and a photograph of a feral cat walking down a South African road. I like this, I said, a double take cover where the browser is knocked off guard and must look closer.

So five thousand or ten thousand copies were not printed in vain, Ms. Frank sent the cover out to several buyers and asked for their comments. Reactions were mixed-up:

“Are you serious? That’s a cat. No one outside the business would understand. Are you trying to say something about writers?”
“Striking but doesn’t convey the subject matter clearly.”
“The book cover made me laugh. It’s a great idea.”
“Perfect. There’s nothing more to say.”
“Immediately liked it. People like absurdist things. At least some people do.”
“I don’t get the ‘dog’ part. If you have to explain a title or cover, they are not doing their job. Think about the minimum-wage bookstore clerk opening the box and shelving this volume with the pet books.”
“It’s dumb and makes the book appear silly.”
“Cover is distracting and probably doesn’t match the tone of the text. Or does it?”

Added to the confusion was a serious thumbs-down on the subtitle, A COMMONPLACE BOOK FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH. DOG WALKED had come far since its original appearance as a chapbook at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. There the subtitle had been REQUESTED AND UNCALLED-FOR ADVICE FROM A BOOK MIDWIFE. Cynthia and I had fussed over the subtitle until we arrived at the “commonplace” version to reflect the quotes, suspicions, and directions in the text. We were happy but the buyer for a large chain said it made the book sound ordinary, like they had never heard of the tradition of commonplace books. Not wanting to stomp on any opportunity for sales, we changed it to AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH. The buyer wrapped their pointy-head around the new take and promised to order.

One last obstacle remained. I emailed Mr. Detroit the NEW, IMPROVED cover. He called.

“How’s your blood pressure holding?”
“Systolic is steady at 130.”
“Cut down on your salt intake and approve the damn thing.”
“Would you pay retail for this book?”
“Hell, no. You promised me a free copy.”

NEXT: Knee Deep in the Amazon


Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

The idea of reproduced paintings on book covers makes me cringe and twinge and shiver. The idea of cats posing as dogs and dogs as cats make me jump out of my seat and clap with both hands!

3:56 PM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

Many a writer has been professionally and personally embarassed by having a cat walked down the street when they wanted a dog.

6:35 AM  

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