Undoubtedly you’ve heard (or said) the expression, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” While I agree with the saying’s assertion that you can’t know what something or someone is like based only on appearance, as an author, publisher, and bookseller, I believe that the literal interpretation isn’t completely accurate. When it comes to books, the cover can determine whether someone looks right past it or picks it up and thumbs through the pages. And if it’s your book waiting to be snatched up, you want to be sure that the cover calls out to anyone who glances its way.
Robbin Schiff, executive art director at Random House Publishing Group, summed up the book cover’s significance in an interview with Mashable, a global media and entertainment company. “The most intriguing designs don’t give too much away, and you absolutely can judge many things about the book by its cover,” Schiff says.
I came to understand the importance of covers with my first book, Hands at Work. Photographer Summer Moon Scriver and I knew that not only the book’s cover, but the entire layout design, was as important as our words and images in telling the stories of people passionate about working with their hands. When we consulted with Bob Lanphear of Lanphear Design, we knew we’d found the right person when he said, “This book will tell us what it wants to be.”
Other authors had warned me that settling on a cover can be one of the hardest—and most important—tasks in book publishing. There’s added stress to this decision because it’s usually made quite late in the process—after the book has told you “what it wants to be.”
Mashable presented a vivid perspective on covers in a post in March 2015 entitled, “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover ‘til You See How Long It Takes to Design.” The article includes a video for Hausfrau: A Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum, in which Random House “offers a rare peek into the book design process.” The clip cycles through a dizzying number of drafts of the hardcover book’s jacket, giving readers an idea of what designers go through to create a cover that does the work it needs to do. A quick online search reveals that the paperback ended up with a different cover.
For Hands at Work, Bob offered numerous design ideas (though nowhere near the number as Random House did for Hausfrau). Since the book depicts a couple dozen different kinds of work, we steered away from using a single image of someone’s hands (even though we had many stunning photographs to choose from). We didn’t want to give the impression that the book was all about baking, or weaving, or automotive repair. Summer and I knew the right one when we saw it, though.
In recent weeks, I’ve again focused on covers for two forthcoming books I’ve been working on. The first, BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community, will be released to the public on Friday, October 21. Published by the Lopez Community Land Trust, the 124-page book combines color photographs, profiles, and recipes for twenty-eight Lopez Island farms and farmers to present an intimate, behind-the-scenes view of what it takes to bring food from earth to table on Lopez Island.
BOUNTY Project Director Sue Roundy recognized the same challenge that Summer, Bob, and I faced with Hands at Work of selecting a single image to represent the diversity of farms and farmers portrayed in the book’s pages. With hundreds of photographs to choose from, Sue felt that one of The Sweetbriar Farm by Robert S. Harrison best communicated the book’s themes. Jane Jeszeck designed the layout to create a cover that I think readers will find irresistible.
Though still farther off from publication, the cover for my memoir, Hiking Naked, has been mocked up by my publisher, Homebound Publications. This small press’s founder, Leslie M. Browning, has an artistic eye and usually designs authors’ book covers in addition to all of her other duties as a publisher (and author, with a new novel, The Castoff Children). I’m delighted with the cover Leslie proposed using a photograph by Nancy Barnhart of Stehekin, WA (the book’s setting).
Thanks to the artists I’ve had the privilege to work with, I’m quite content for people to judge my books by their covers.