Authors don’t usually have much say in the covers of their books, idioms about judging books notwithstanding, but in the digital revolution sometimes conversations about cover design make it to the writer, who naturally has opinions about the thing. Trouble is, nobody else in the publishing house really cares about those opinions, and maybe it’s best if they ignore us writers. We may be too invested in relaying a scene or theme from the book as opposed to creating a visually appealing cover that will sell books. After all, we’re wordsmiths, not graphic designers.
Unless we’ve also done graphic design work (cough, cough). But even then our input is presumed to be minimal.Like I mentioned, the digital world has crash-landed onto the publishing industry, and the cloud of smoke is still in the process of clearing. So where 10, 15 years ago cover designers only concerned themselves with how images and typeface looked on one kind of card stock or another, now they have to design for real world book covers and tiny thumbprint images that one can find on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book selling Web sites.
Walk down any cereal aisle in the grocery store and you’ll see a lot of orange boxes of cereal. Not all of them, certainly, but many of them. That’s because marketers have noticed people are drawn to orange and yellow cereals. Certainly those rules don’t hold true for say, diamond ring boxes. Consumers have expectations, in other words.
Notice we’ve drifted from the writing in books to the color of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. For publishers, our work is a product crammed in an aisle with thousands of other products all calling out for our attention and money. We may talk about our art or our mission as writers, but books nobody knows about are books nobody reads. I get it: to be noticed one must be noticeable.
My cover started out as my impression of what the cover should look like, and this state of affairs came about because I know the cover designer personally. So while I was “vacationing” (or rather, feeling terrified) at the haunted Hot Lake Hotel in La Grande, Oregon, the designer and I did a little film shoot. In the old surgery room of the once-sanitorium. Creepy. So it was perfect for the cover of a humor book. Right?
The idea was to communicate the klutziness and trans-ness of the book, as well as the funniness. So we started with me in a green gingham shirt and a makeshift sling over my arm. Because bumbling is in the title, the sling I used was one of Emile’s swaddles, replete with bumble bees. Oh we writers are so freaking clever! One of the early versions looked like this:
Funny, yes, but we kept playing around with the font and the layout. It looked a little busy, and maybe not “professional” enough. At some point the elements got moved around until we had this:
Ha. Now this one I find super funny. Only problem was, it wasn’t readable or visually understandable when viewed as a thumbnail.
Okay, I get it. I wanted to resist, and say something like, people can read Bumbling and Transsexual, so what more do they need? I wanted to point out that this tiny image is going to be presented next to the printed title and a short description of the memoir. I was attached to this image, I wanted to see stacks and stacks of this book with my silly digitally enhanced chest on the cover—I don’t have that much chest hair, folks.
A new idea was born in a meeting with my editor, the publisher, my publicist, the cover designer, and a marketer. Why not show a picture of me from my childhood? I went through the crusty photos I had from my childhood, looking for a picture of me frowning while wearing a dress. There certainly are enough of those out there, because I was approached with a number of dresses, I went to Catholic school where I had to wear a skirt every day, and I hated all of those non-trouser outfits. So fine, I poured over picture albums. Every single shot had a problem—the sun cast some weird light effect in the corner, I was half-standing behind another person, I’d just gotten a perm (no way is that crap going to light up the cover), or the picture was uncroppable. And then I came across my prom photo.
Now then, I had to smile for this photo, but perhaps there’s a tension in the image. It’s a forced smile, done on command from the Olan Mills photographer. My mother had spent 5 hours on my hair and makeup. My date was already flirting with two other girls at prom. I hated wearing heels. Especially pink heels. So now I have a new cover, not of my design, but certainly borne of my own experience. Here it is.
Fifteen design versions. Xena help us all. This baby is done!