Friday, May 16, 2008

By its cover

I had the pleasant experience this week of seeing some first-draft mockups of the cover of my forthcoming novel (this isn't a promotional blog, but I doubt I'll be able to resist an announcement when it comes out next year...you've been warned). They looked good--my editor and I made a few suggestions and sent them back for another round.

But aside from being pleased that the whole publication process was underway, I felt kind of odd. I've felt this oddness before, with my other book covers, and I feel it whenever a favorite book of mine is reissued, with a new cover.

We're often told not to judge a book by its cover--the old cliche, of course, means that we shouldn't judge things by their surface. But the fact is, we DO judge books by their covers. Walking into a bookstore is deeply meta for me--having been through the publishing wringer half a dozen times, I'm hyper-aware of the ways in which publishers are attempting to entice me to pick up their books. But this doesn't immunize me from those enticements. I absolutely pick up books with interesting covers, and should I go on to read those books, the images on the covers will color, however subtly, the way I read them.

So the oddness I refer to is the oddness of seeing a cover after I already know the book--and feeling as though it doesn't quite fit. In the case of my forthcoming book, I've had a cover in mind for about a year, and although my publisher asked what kind of cover I wanted (a rare privilege, I can tell you), and more or less listened to what I said, the cover the book will eventually have will not be quite right. It can't be. Even if I designed it myself, it wouldn't be right--because the cover I have in mind has hidden depths. It's layered, magically, almost. It can't exist.

Occasionally a book I've read will come out as a reprint, and I won't like the new cover at all. What I generally feel at this point is betrayal. A novel is different from, say, a movie, in at least one important way: because it's nothing but text--that is, a series of symbols with no inherent meaning--it depends upon its reader to create the story it tells entirely in her head. I think this is one of the reasons people have such deep, abiding, sentimental attachments to books--because they feel a book is their book. And it is, because they made it themselves.

And so, any kind of visual representation of a book--a cover image, say--feels like some kind of an insult. No, no, you want to say--it's not that way, it's this way. This is even more true when you wrote the damned thing. Have you ever heard a writer say, of his or her book, "Don't you love the cover? I think it's awesome." This is a rare occurrence, to be sure. No matter how good the cover is, it's wrong somehow--too dark, too cute, too busy, too spare, to bland, too designed.

The converse, as I mentioned, is when you see the cover first, and then come to associate the book with it. Infinite Jest, that's one, for me. All of Salinger's books, with their little stripes and distinctive typeface. The blocky, kind of awful illustrations on the covers of Rick DeMarinis's novels and story collections. Lorrie Moore's Birds of America. The Norton critical editions of classic literature, with those old-school one-color illustrations. Penguin Classics. The New Yorker. All the Audubon Society Field Guides. It is the habit, these days, of commercial publishers to have one cover for the hardcover edition, and another for the paperback, presumably to win a different audience the second time around. But do they ever wonder how the first audience feels? The one who already read the book, and now are being told that everything they believed in was just a lie?!?

In a perfect world, every book would have the same blank cover, with the title and author printed on it in the same typeface; and we would all make our judgements by reading the first couple of pages. Then again, maybe that's not a perfect world. Maybe that's a boring-as-shit world--a world in which everybody would beeline right out of the bookstore and go feast their eyes on some flowers, or video games, or other people.

Other people: that's the right metaphor. A book cover is like a pretty dress (or whatever garment floats your boat) that you can't wait to get underneath. And then, when your lover leaves you, and you see her wearing something new, ah!, the pain! Those reprints aren't for you--they're for someone else. Damn those covers! Jezebels! Judases! That's my story you're tarting up!

11 comments:

Andrew said...

Congratulations on finishing your book. I like the covers of my books but it probably doesn't matter since most people buy books online nowadays. I don't know if this is good or bad, but I like your books a lot but I don't remember the covers of any of them. Actually, it's hard for me to visualize almost any recent book cover except for the famous ones like Freakanomics.

One thing that strikes me is how difficult it is to have a good cover. If you look at the ads in the New York Review of Books, you'll see that the books by commercial publishers tend to have striking, beautiful covers, the books by major university presses tend to have ok but boring covers, and the books by minor university presses have flat-out ugly covers.

Excellent artists are all over the place but it seems that noncommercial presses don't go for that. For my next book, maybe I'll try to just hire an artist myself to design the cover.

bloglily.com said...

Yikes. That dress metaphor has me worried. I never look at covers. I open the book to the middle and read a couple of paragraphs and then decide if I want to go all the way.

james said...

so true about covers. and why is it that paperbacks always have superior art to the hardcovers? the discrepancy is staggering.

even things like book size and font play a huge part. denis johnson's "jesus' son" was printed in 1993 in the slim, black cover with yellow chalk-like lettering. there was a reprint in 2000-something in a much more normal trade paper size with a less gritty looking cover and THAT edition is the one that's now out of print. i bought two copies (darn you amazon for your glitches) and i still can't pick up either copy to this day. the old slim black is the only "jesus' son" i want to read.

jrlennon said...

Andrew, I didn't say I'd finished the thing! In fact I'm still editing... you're right, though, small presses have traditionally invested less in the book's appearance...although my book is coming out from a smallish press (Graywolf) and they are doing a bang-up job.

bloglily, what're you so worried about? ;-) Thanks, BTW, for the link in your post about the perfume book.

And yeah, James, Jesus' Son is kind of a lousy cover I think, but it's become great in my mind thanks to what's inside.

I don't think everybody's like me here--bloglily is clearly less susceptible to cover art...but as with other stuff in my life, presentation is important to me. Musical instruments, cameras, kitchen implements, books: it's not enough that they work, I want them to look cool, too. I want to be surrounded by artful, thoughtful designs. Never at the expense of utility, of course, but sometimes you really can have it both ways.

puc said...

Banana Yoshimoto posts the different covers of her books by country of publication, an intersting study. You might look at the changing of covers as a kind of MTV evolving brand image - the same, but always changing. Google does the same thing on their home page. Brautigan's books had distinctive covers (that were I think the same in hardback as paperback), and somehow his covers turned into a kind of brand image - and I suppose that's what you want, if yr wanting to sell books. But authors change over time: you mentioned Salinger, and I have a copy of Catcher in paperback published by Penguin in GB that has his photo with a brief bio. on the inside cover. Very rare, of course. On the front of the cover there's no art. The photo, which I will not reproduce, shows him in button down shirt with tie, tweed coat and vest, his head leaning slightly forward, the way portrait photographers instruct, his eyes wide open and looking right thru the lens, but askance, his head turned slightly sideways, and a slight twist to a small, close-mouthed grin, as if he's thinking, "You can put me on the cover, but you can't put the cover on me." But I'm really writing to thank you for letting me visit and to let you know I won't be back. I would like to sign off with a few comments edited from something I also posted over at LROD. I think it's only natural that writers trying to find a toehold get frustrated at the rejections, particularly when they see evidence of elite access or examples of inferior work being given a chance; what these rejected writers may not see is that published writers (those with a few stories or even a first book) feel the same emotions. It's often more difficult for a writer to publish a second book than a first. And there's nothing more demoralizing for a writer than seeing their books start to get remaindered, their publisher losing interest, their agent not returning phone calls, their books going out of print, and their new work getting rejections. They're back into the slush pile. A classic example is the great southern writer Sylvia Wilkinson, an intersting study if anyone's interested, but you would have to research the story, no space here. But this is why I said earlier with regard to publishing, careful what you wish for. I also want to say I'm amazed and grateful that TG came by, I think Waldo handled the crisis well, Scott Snyder showed some real class, and Ward Six is performing a service, a kind of volunteerism, and you put yourselves at risk (as Rhian has described, anyway, though I don't think in the end anyone cares or any of it amounts to anything) in doing so - because you don't post using Anonwhatever. Best of luck to both of you. I will look for your books at Powell's the next time I'm in. Here's the Banana site if anyone wants to take a look at all the different covers of her books: http://www.yoshimotobanana.com/europe_e/)

jrlennon said...

Thanks a lot, puc--we do pride ourselves on speaking our minds here, but when we have something negative to say, we try to leave ourselves amply open for rebuttal. I really like the virtual community this blog has brought us, and I hugely appreciate everyone's contributions.

You're right, it IS harder to publish the second book than it is the first, but I can confidently add that, except for a lucky few, it gets even harder from there. You don't get much of a chance to prove yourself--for most of us, it's write a bestseller within 5 years, or forget it. I've been more fortunate than many writers, but I certainly don't blame those who throw in the towel. You have to wonder sometimes if it's worth it.

Not writing--writing is worth it. Publishing. Speaking of Salinger!

Anonymous said...

Graywolf has put out some great stuff. Are smaller presses more forgiving when it comes to book sales?

jrlennon said...

I sure as hell hope so...

rmellis said...

Well, Puc, it's been good knowing you. Safe journeys!

I have been mentally composing a post about covers for months now, and you scooped me. I was going to talk about how sometimes books have the same covers: the latest Jonathan Coe novel has an image on it that also appears on a different new novel (I forget by whom). At work sometimes I arrange books so all the similar covers are together: a row of six books with women in pretty dresses standing in a field; a row of books with half a face showing; etc.

I always thought they changed the paperback cover if the hardcover had disappointing sales. If a book does really great, they tend to keep the cover.

myles said...

I agree, JR, the books I buy have an aesthetic value as well as a literary one. I've often decided to pay a bit more for a foreign edition 'cos I like the cover design better. And I very nearly refused to buy a Burgess first ed because the cover was very much from the Seventies Puke school of design.

And I won't buy a book that's a film tie-in and has the actors on the cover. Don't tell me how to imagine the characters in this book!

AC said...

I hate movie "tie in" covers too. Aything else is better. Most of the books I've bought in the past several years have been used hardcovers with the dust jackets long gone, so I haven't had to think about cover art lately.

I enjoyed checking out the Banana Yoshimoto covers. The one that really jumped out at me was the UK edition of Kitchen. I haven't read that book in probably 15 years, and I was trying to remember the plot. As soon as I saw that cover, I remembered what the book was about. (My copy is the American paperback, so it wasn't the kind of memory jog you'd expect.)