This Is How They Decide What Ends Up on Your Book Covers

A Handsome Man Peruses a Library

Photo by Kiselev Andrey Valerevich / Shutterstock

Wade offers a look inside the world of book design, including some very good reasons why you should not judge a book by its cover.

What I Imagined

Along the staircase to my writing studio hang the covers of my five books, and none of them remotely resembles what I’d imagined they would look like.

Most aspiring writers start dreaming what the covers of their books will look like long before their manuscripts have been written. I’d imagined my first cover would resemble those of Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby: classic, iconic, literary.

Instead, I got a photo of a Kewpie doll.

To say I was surprised by this would be a mammoth understatement. It would be like saying the Wicked Witch of the East was mildly inconvenienced by that house landing on her. The book was a memoir about growing up gay in Missouri with a family who loved me but had absolutely no idea what to do with me. I had originally titled the book — based on advice I received when I was younger, heavier and fond of alternative neckwear — Fat Boys Shouldn’t Wear Ascots. Much like the literary cover I’d imagined, that title would never reach bookshelves.

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Something You May Not Realize

Here’s something you may not realize about publishing. By default, most authors contractually lose two battles right off the bat. The first is what the title will be, and the second is what the cover design will look like. Of course, most publishers consult with authors and want them to be happy. But they also have their own ideas, and they are (after all) in the business of selling books.

So, Fat Boys became America’s Boy, and the cover (of the first edition, at least) turned out to be an extreme close-up of a blue-eyed, blond-haired Kewpie doll. As soon as the final design was approved, I printed it out and carried it to my local bookstore, holding it up in comparison to one book after another — like a zombie in search of brains.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that — though it was not what I had imagined it would be — the Kewpie doll was actually quite a good fit for my book. America’s Boy is a nostalgic look back at a person I had tried and failed to be. Like its Kewpie-adorned cover, my book was a picture of a perfect boy who never existed. I emailed the designer and told her it was brilliant. People still ask me about it today.

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Each in Their Own Special Way

My other covers were, in their own special ways, as beautiful, unique and initially baffling. I’m sure many people wondered why on earth the cover of my memoir At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream featured a raccoon perched under a Pottery Barn lamp. Those who read it learn within a few pages why it makes perfect sense.

Eventually, I came to two very important realizations about book covers. The first is that I should stop worrying about them because — as I often tell aspiring writers — the author’s job is to create something of substance that a reader can wrap his or her arms around. If you succeed at that, chances are that you’re going to give your cover designer something inspiring, as well.

The other realization is that book covers need to be thought of as pieces of art all on their own. That is one of the ways books are collaborative pieces of art. The work of the writer and the designer becoming a kind of duet. The great designer Chip Kidd (who notably designed the covers for Jurassic Park and many works by David Sedaris) said that, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” When the design is at its best, I agree.

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Visceral Responses

In another way, the designer also deserves the respect due to any artist who is willing to put a distinctive personal stamp on a project. Their results are bound to be subjective, but I’ve always been pleased to elicit a visceral response — be it good or bad — with my work. So why shouldn’t they?

In the end, there are a number of reasons to not judge a book by its cover. First and foremost, the fact that the person who wrote the book did not design the cover and most likely didn’t even have final approval of its appearance. But, for good or ill, covers are exactly how many readers decide what to read. I’ve found that all my cover designs have ended up beautifully complementing my work. But even if they had not, I would owe a debt of gratitude to their designers for every person who took a look at one of my books and judged them worthy of picking up and seeing what I had to say.

Want More Wade?

Wade is the author of hilarious collections of essays under his own name and beautiful novels under the pen name Viola Shipman. Visit waderouse.com to learn more about all his work.

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Last modified: July 25, 2019