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Posts Tagged ‘Perfection’

The inside scoop on what makes a successful book cover – and why it matters.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the jacket cover for my new novel, Bird in Hand.  So many people responded with stories about their own covers, and questions about the process, that I asked Julie Metz, a book designer who has worked with all the major publishers (and who also recently wrote a memoir, Perfection) to weigh in.  We talked about how she designs covers, what kinds of covers are most successful, and what writers should know about how to get the covers they want.  (Part 2 of this conversation will run later this week.)

Thanks for joining us, Julie.  How do you approach the process of designing a book cover? First I try to get hold of a manuscript.  If this isn’t possible I settle for a tip sheet or an outline. Editors often provide useful information such as competitive titles in the marketplace, and occasionally I’ll be sent an author questionnaire. I try to factor in all these influences before I begin, then take a deep breath. Every project is a journey.

little childrenI read a piece the other day about how the cover for Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children spawned a dozen or so similar ones.  As a designer, do you consciously try to avoid colors, motifs, or trends that seem popular in a given moment, or do you embrace them? Trends are out there in the world, like the latest styles of shoes or jeans, so as a visual person you take them in whether you realize it or not.  Sometimes I embrace the trends, or am asked to embrace them, or rebel and reject them.  A book cover is essentially packaging, and as we all know, packaging is more important than ever.  It’s important to find a way to signal to the book buyer where this new title fits in, or, if it is truly original, that it doesn’t fit into any neat category.

What are some of your own most meaningful cover designs, and why? A good cover is a smart, clever idea executed in a way that is eye-catching.  It’s all about helping authors find readers – serving the content of the book in a way that will help a browser want to pick it up. You wouldn’t want to package the latest thriller the same way as this year’s big literary novel.  I have enjoyed working on spooky vampire gothic novels as much as I have enjoyed designing the cover for a terrific novel or poetry collection.

Here are a few examples, and the stories behind them:

The Dracula DossierThe Dracula Dossier is a fun read, and the cover was fun to design.  The challenge was putting together pieces from several images to make it all look like one universe.  The story takes place in London during the time of Jack the Ripper, and the theater plays a big part in the story. I think the curtain adds mystery and some information for the reader about the setting.

word comix 2The poems in Charlie Smith’s Word Comix are engaging and full of fantastic imagery, and I wanted to treat the cover as if the book were a novel.  The author suggested the Western element, and when I found this picture I knew my work was done.  I added some elements to give it a more gravity-defying feel.  I love doing hand-lettering whenever I can get away with it.

Pound coverWe designers live for the AIGA “50 covers 50 books” show, and I am proud that this Ezra Pound cover won a spot in the show.  As I mentioned, I love doing hand-lettering – and it seemed so appropriate for this collection of correspondence. I tried to give it an edgy, desperate feeling.

inheritanceBIGI hired a picture researcher to help me with the cover for Inheritance.  She had a friend whose mother had grown up in China at the right time, and there were family photos.  We did some hand-coloring, and I tried to channel my inner calligrapher.

The RomanticThe title of Barbara Gowdy’s novel The Romantic is somewhat ironic, so I wanted to find an image that showed the edgier, sharper side of love.

What’s your most “successful” cover? The Poisonwood BibleA book cover I wish I had been paid royalties for, because it has withstood the test of time:  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  When the art director assigned the job, he said that the mission was to take the author out of what might be called “genre” fiction to something wider.  I read the book and loved it.  I purchased Bible paper and organized a photo shoot to create the book for the background. I chose elegant, classic type, as we all saw this novel as a modern classic. But the cover was still missing something.  At 2 am (this was long before I had a baby, and my freelancer hours were night-owlish), I was fretting over the design in progress. My then-husband said he felt it needed a human element.

I began thinking about the story, about how these five hapless Americans in the missionary family that narrate the novel might be seen by the indigenous people of the Congo, where the story takes place. I found a great book on art of the Congo and noted that they created wonderful drawings using stick figures that, even in their simplicity, revealed so much about character.  Inspired by this artwork, I created five stick figures of my own.  My art director, Joseph Montebello, loved the design and fought hard to get it approved. I think the cover really did help the book succeed. It’s a great book and would have been successful anyway, but I like to think that the successful packaging made a difference.

Metz, PERFECTIONWas it harder or easier than usual to design your own book cover?It was harder! I felt like I had so much on the line. I wrote a piece about this for the May 25, 2009 edition of Publishers Weekly titled “Double Duty,” a title that accurately sums up the emotions I experienced as I worked on the cover.

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Everyone says that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do. Presented with an overwhelming array of options, a reader has limited ways to figure out which book on the shelf is worth $20+ – not to mention hours of precious time. The best covers, I think, reveal much about the tenor and style of the book while stimulating the browser’s curiosity.  (Recent covers that spring to mind include Lush Life, by Richard Price; Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski; and memoirist and book designer Julie Metz’s cover for her own book, Perfection.)

Some of my own book covers have been more successful than others. “Cover consultation” is a standard part of most writers’ book contracts, which means, essentially, that the publisher presents the writer with one or two options, and if the writer strenuously objects they may be willing to try again. Ultimately, though, the publisher usually makes the final decision, saying – with justification – that they have more experience, understand the market better, and are, after all, in the business of selling books.  With my own covers, I won some and lost some; usually there was some kind of compromise. (You can see the covers here and judge for yourself. Which ones work best?)

When my editor and I began talking about the cover of Bird in Hand, I didn’t have a specific thought in mind. We’d recently changed the title, and I was still stuck on ideas that had to do with metaphorical representations of a four-way stop.  So without any input from me, they came up with this option:Bird.in.Hand.cover.world

Isn’t this a beautiful image?  The saturated colors are lovely; the typeface is strong but simple, and the picture is arresting. But I felt that it was too, well, female – and perhaps a bit literal (yep, those birds are indeed in her hands).  My editor wrote, “Our sales force likes this jacket very much; they feel that, as a marketing tool, as a way to catch people’s attention and get them to pick it up from tables at bookstores, it’s very effective.” And I completely understood that. But I still didn’t think it was right for this book.  Bird in Hand is about four people with complex and clashing emotions, and I wanted the image to convey unrest.  The sales force disagreed, but my editor was willing to go back to the drawing board. (This image is now the cover of the international edition.)

The next three covers they sent were wrong for all different reasons:

BIH.cover.wireI understood what they were doing here: four characters, four relationships, crossed wires. But as a friend asked, “Is this book about a concentration camp?”  Here’s the next one:BIH.cover.barn

My novel takes place in New York and its suburbs.  To me, this looks like a bucolic Midwestern building in a field.  And then there’s this:BIH.cover.trees

Which I admit is a bit better. The problem, ultimately, was that these covers struck me as generic.  They didn’t convey anything in particular about my novel.

What often happens is that the writer may not have a clear idea of what she wants at first, but being presented with ideas that don’t seem right clarifies her opinion.  (This is, of course, no fun for any art director.)  So after getting all these options, I put some hard work into figuring out what I did want, as opposed to what I didn’t.  Bird in Hand is about the dissolution of a marriage (among other things), so I wanted to picture a domestic scene with something slightly awry.  I envisioned a marital bed in the foreground—but with an unsettling component, something “off.” I imagined a window with a surprising view or an odd picture on the wall.

I was inspired by two paintings that hang on the walls in my study:  “Beginning” by Laura Tryon Jennings, a rendering of the room I stay in at my parents’ house in Bass Harbor, Maine, in the summer – and “Rumpled Sheets” by Jessica Dunne, which depicts a bed at the VCCA, the artists’ colony where I met this wonderful artist.  (She did this painting while we were there.)DunneJennings, LT

After discussing all of this with my editor, she went to the art director.  Several weeks later, they came back with this:BIH.final.cover

I knew immediately that this was the one. It retains the color palette and typeface of the first cover but has a whole different feel. I love the bed, with its carefully folded back covers, as if someone got up and out. These sheets clearly aren’t rumpled in passion.  I love the odd little Audubon-like photo-realist picture high on the wall.  (What’s it doing there?) I love the juxtaposition of the soft orange blanket with the cool, shadowed sheets. This cover, to me, has mystery and drama and strangeness, and perfectly conveys the mood of my novel.

But what do you think?  I’d love to know!

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Metz, PERFECTIONThe memoirist Julie Metz, who is now working on a novel, writes:

When I wrote my memoir, Perfection, the story of my discovery of my husband’s secret life only after his sudden death, my focus was on careful recall aided by journals and letters.  And yet, since I love reading fiction, I wanted my memoir to “read” like a novel.  After many failed attempts, I found a structure for the factual narrative that allowed me to recapture my own state of mind at the moment of my husband’s death and the early months of widowhood.  The primary inspiration for my book was the fictional memoir Jane Eyre, in which an innocent narrator’s life is changed by a devastating revelation.

During this last year, while Perfection was in the final stages of publication, I began working on a new project, a novel.  I am finding it to be a very different process.  I began with a snippet of a story I’d been kicking around in my head for years, but as I got into the project in a deep way, the original story fell away as the characters became more vivid. Very little remains of the original idea except for locations and some back story.  The day I realized I had to quit forcing my original idea into the book was both sad and liberating. My attempts to direct the plot were those of a classroom bully who tries to force other kids to play by his or her rules. No one wants to play with a bully.

Now that I spend my days conjuring rather than exclusively researching my past, I frequently think of Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: to focus not on plot but on character. I try to sit with my (mostly) made up characters and hope that if I am quiet and patient I will get to know them as well as the real people in my life, and that they will tell me what they need to do and say.

Julie Metz is a graphic designer (she co-designed the cover of her memoir), artist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Glamour, and Publisher’s Weekly. Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, is her first book.

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