Judging a Book by its Cover
If you know nothing about a book or its author, how else can you judge it? When I’m perusing bookstore shelves, it’s often the split-second appeal of the jacket that makes me pick it up or pass it by. It’s sort of like an impulse buy—an impulse gander.
I first saw the cover of my novel SHELTER ME at my agent’s office. I arrived at that moment with the kind of semi-psychotic mix of hope and trepidation one reserves for blind dates and college entrance letters. Would it be great? Or would it be ugly, cheesy, boring and/or misleading? Would anyone gander?
I think it’s pretty great. Readers often say they picked up SHELTER ME because of its colorful, evocative cover. However, they also mention with striking regularity that the woman’s hair doesn’t quite match the description of Janie’s, and the boy is a little too big to be Dylan. Readers really care if the cover matches the story.
And why shouldn’t we? A book is an invitation, and we want to know if it’s to a hoedown or a minuet. And further, we want to be beguiled into believing the characters exist somewhere in reality. When the cover doesn’t match, it lets a little air out of that sweet bubble of enchantment.
“That’s not really her,” readers often say of Janie’s cover shot. “Her hair is curly.”
“Yes,” I was tempted to reply the first time I heard it. “But that could never be ‘her’ because I made her up. She’s fictional.”
That’s the wrong answer. The highest praise for any fiction writer is when readers believe. The worst thing we can do is remind them not to. So I agree and apologize, because I really do wish the art department had found a photo that was just as beautiful, but with a curly dark-haired woman. (In fact I had to ask them to darken the hair of the woman on the cover because she’s actually blond.) Publishers don’t set up photo shoots for each cover—it’s far less expensive to search stock photo sites for pictures that already exist.
For my second novel, DEEP DOWN TRUE, it was harder to find one that reflected the story and had that elusive gander-worthy appeal. They finally chose a photo of two kids whispering, a scene that wasn’t in the book. Knowing this would let the air out of readers’ enchantment bubble, I added a few lines to make it happen. The publisher may have thought I was a little nutty, but I knew readers would rightly ask, “What’s with the cover? That never happened in the book.”
The sales reps (a group you really want to make happy) loved the story—but hated that cover, in large part because it showed the kids’ faces. Readers have strong feelings about what characters look like, and we don’t want to be contradicted by someone else’s version.
Back to square one, this time searching for pictures that might not strictly represent the story, but would be beautiful and evocative. The minute they showed me the final cover of DEEP DOWN TRUE, I had the gut reaction I’d been waiting for, one I hope readers will share: “I want to be in that lovely scene and find out what’s going on there.” It made me want to gander.
In the end I kept the little scene where the kids whisper to each other. Apparently storytelling inspiration can come from the most unlikely sources … even from a book cover that doesn’t exist.