Do You Pick the Covers of Your Books?

The short answer is, "No."

When I am working on a novel, I don't discuss cover ideas with my editor. Although I think of myself as a visually oriented person (all writers think of themselves as visually oriented people), I understand that I am better working with words than with images. Otherwise, I would be a designer. Once the novel has entered the production cycle, I am consulted when a preliminary jacket design is ready. But this process mostly consists of my editor and publisher showing me the image and hoping that I will like it. If I don't, I can suggest changes—"Can you make the rocks look more like granite?"—and I suppose if I really hated something, I could have my agent throw a fit on my behalf. But ultimately, I understand that marketing is the publishers' area of expertise. It doesn't mean that they are always right. But their experience bringing books to market weighs heavily on our conversations.

Publishing a novel requires that an author let go of lots of things. We're so close to our books that we often have trouble seeing them as prospective readers might, which is why you hear stories of Countess Tolstoy rescuing her husband's "failed" manuscript for War and Peace from the fireplace. Just as we judge ourselves too harshly at a times, so too do we fail to understand the qualities in our works that compel readers to embrace them.

I've often wondered why the maxim "you can't judge a book by its cover" has become so widespread. The caution against leaping to conclusions based on appearances is universal. But why is this kernel of wisdom encased in a publishing chestnut? Beats me.

Ultimately, it's nice if I like my book jacket. I feel more confident about waving it around in front of large audiences, for one thing. For the moment, though, I am willing to defer to people like Charlotte Strick who is the art director for Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, which is another Macmillan imprint. She offers this explanation of the design process from her point of view:

Every three months or so, we gather together. In our hands, launch meeting packets still hot off the copy machine. Our editor-in-chief sits at the head of the double-long conference table, and introduces us, the weary and largely bespectacled, to the newest crop of books. Over the years I've found that most editors describe their hopes and dreams for their future covers in the same ways. Please make them look "hip," "sexy," and—oh yes!—"fresh, too"! Our job as jacket designers is to keep reinterpreting these well-worn requests....

As the books are introduced, each of us begins to wonder: Will I solve the problem with illustration or photography? If the title is brilliant and descriptive, maybe an all-type treatment that's bold and clever is the best solution. (These are always my favorites.) Is there even any budget for art after the copy-editing fees, production costs, and author's advances have been tallied? No? Never mind! We'll get out our paintbrushes and dust off our cameras and get to work. 

Once we designers have made requests for certain projects or authors, read through the manuscripts, researched fonts, and composed sketches, then the in-house roundtable made up of the heads of our publicity and sales departments and several high-ranking members of the editorial staff weigh in. We state our cases for the research we've done and the color choices we've made. We cross our fingers and toes and say silent prayers to the design gods in the hopes that our babies don't end up in the recycling bin—or, worse, that the chosen design is the one we like the least. "Why did we decide to show that one?" we curse ourselves.