Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 4: Choosing a Cover
If it’s possible to identify a “hardest thing” about publishing a book—and there are many things that were harder than actually writing the book—I might choose picking the cover. It’s the first thing potential readers see, whether on a screen, in a bookstore, or in the library. It conveys the genre, the writing style, the book’s personality, and the story to be discovered. We do choose a book by its cover. No pressure here. This is how it went down.
First step: Input
The She Writes Press cover design team asked for a detailed synopsis of the story from beginning to end (with spoilers), ten adjectives that describe the book, the main characters and what they look like, the story’s emotional mood, an object or place that captures the themes and tone, the book’s message and how you would like the reader to feel when they read the last page page, photos of book covers you admire . . . Oof!
Second step: Narrowing options
Some weeks later, I received ten possible designs. I opened the file eagerly, interested in what they came up with. Too trite, too white-skinned, not this story, not my mother. Then I got to the ninth one: a ripe, red tomato smashed against a white background, its juice and seeds flying. Now that told the story, and most importantly, got my attention.
I picked four others that were not impossibly wrong and sent them to a few trusted friends and family for opinions. (Which, I learned later, the publisher did not recommend doing.) Family liked Smashing Tomatoes. Everyone else rated it last choice. “Too bloody,” one said; “It was bloody,” my sister said. Some liked the lily white hands reaching for each other. “Too white,” one said. “Too ‘hand of God,'” my sister said. “Wrong hands,” I said. They were mine and my daughter’s hands. Stock photos don’t include 16100-year-old hands, which I think are amazing but no doubt make many uncomfortable. Some liked the string bag of tomatoes. Food was definitely a theme in my mother’s and my life together, and there is a tomato story in the book. I could have asked them to start over, but I decided to go with the grocery bag idea.
Third step: Revisions
I use cloth grocery bags; I don’t own a string bag. I needed the cover to be recognizable to my reality—one reason I rejected the two covers that included an elderly woman that was not my mother and the hands that were not our hands. I found a stock photo of a cloth bag of groceries (not just tomatoes) with a hand coming from the top edge, the bag straining with the load, and sent it to the publisher. “Something like this?” I asked. “No place to put the words,” they said. Also, the hand was white, and I really did want to steer clear from making my story exclusive. Caregiving does not have racial bounds.
They sent some options, one with a paper bag at the bottom of the page. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I didn’t like the others. As a new author, I didn’t know how much push they would tolerate, and I was loathe to be the difficult client. I wanted them to like me. I had read that traditional publishers don’t necessarily give authors any input at all, so perhaps I was lucky. I suggested adding chocolate and a bottle of wine, a request they didn’t respond to. They don’t, I supposed, employ actual artists.
Fourth step: Making a decision
I said yes . . . to a paper bag with groceries at the bottom of the page, that I didn’t love. I wanted to love my cover. I asked for a different font for the title; the block letters weren’t doing it for me. They complied.
Fifth step: Living with the decision
And that was it. My book was going out into the world, to be seen across the internet, and hopefully on brick and mortar bookstore shelves, with a baby-blue cover, orangey-red title font, and a bag of groceries. It’s like naming a child. Once you sign the birth certificate, that is their name forever, or until they are old enough to change it. There are no do-overs.
Last step: Learning to love it
It’s been five months now, and the cover has grown on me as I consider it symbolically. The vegetable lode is arranged in a careful balance. One slight tilt of the bag, and they will topple, ripe tomatoes smashing on the floor. And is the loaded bag sinking off the bottom of the page, or is it rising from the depths? You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself.
When my daughter-in-love was creating art for my book trailer (you can view it here, now it I love!), I asked her to add wine and chocolate to the bag, for my personal use, and to make them clearly not look like a photograph. I didn’t want anyone to confuse it with the real cover. It makes it perfect. Just before the book went to the printer, I made one more plea to the publisher to include wine and chocolate. She said no, it couldn’t be done to match the rest of the image. Yes, it could have, with artist skill and an amazing computer program, it could look indistinguishable. I let it go.
A book is born, with a cover! Coming October 18 (officially) and available now for preorder wherever books are sold. (See special offer and links here.)
For posterity, here is my working cover (and title) for years, and the cover with wine and chocolate (as featured in the trailer opening). You can view the trailer, which I really love, here).