Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999
March 7th, 2007

Anyone who says — meaning it literally, not as metaphor — that you can’t judge a book by its cover has never been through the process of said book cover with a publishing house.

With people, it’s an apt phrase. With a book? Not so much. Because when it comes down to the publishers, the marketing people, and the consumer, you’d sure better be able to judge a book by its cover.

Here’s the thing: your book cover has to somehow do the miraculous feat of pleasing you, the author (and if you’re not the sole author, also any co-authors), your editor, the art department, the marketing department, the publicity department and the higher-ups (my editor and I call them the Grand Poobahs) of the publishing company. And all of those people need to feel, at the end result and throughout, that yes, this cover very much IS what the book will be judged by, and it needs to create the desired verdict. Obviously, all of us don’t have the same agenda.

That, my friend, is a LOT of cooks in a kitchen not unlike the kitchen of your first apartment: the floor holds a shitload of dirt no matter how often you scrub it, there’s no counter space, and it’s the size of a coffin, with a sink whose drain is incessantly backed up, no matter what you do or don’t put in there.

I came into this publishing agreement with some hard boundaries: mostly, I didn’t want to wind up in some of the positions the last publisher put me in, and I had gotten to the point where if having certain boundaries meant I couldn’t find a publisher, so be it. I’m not sure when the right amount of time will have passed for me to feel like it’s kosher for me to talk about all of the nightmare that was the previous publisher, but it isn’t yet. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, I screamed as often as I cried, cried as often as I laughed in total disbelief, and I’m fully convinced I have this awesome editor this time thanks to instant karma and the interest of the universe per not wanting me to feel any pressing need to start bombing publishing houses.

Some of those boundaries were about the cover: I wanted more power in okaying the cover than many authors get, and walked into my contract negotiations with limits. For starters, I’d seen way too many friends in heartwrenching situations with covers — endless battles, choices made without their okay, end results that effectively stood counter to the message of their books they’d so painstakingly written. More to the point, I knew I had a very different sort of sex book here, and that the usual treatment was not going to be okay. I’m not cool with sexualizing teens in any way — they have to deal with enough of that elsewhere, this is the last place they should have to be. It’s also an inclusive book per both gender, gender identity and orientation, a book that deconstructs a lot of cultural body image and gender role mishegoss, a feminist book, an anti-subordination book, a book that doesn’t hold up heterosexual relationships or intercourse as the be-all end-all, a book that tries to talk about cunnilingus and fisting AND talk about anorexia, abuse, cohabitation and not acting like a dope just because you have a big crush. A book that — I hope — sends a clear message that when it comes to sexuality, strong individuality, a down-to-earth attitude and self-esteem is king.

So, I had all sorts of limits if photos or illustrations of people were going to be used: no one naked or half-naked, no one looking unhealthily thin, no couples (unless there were a LOT of photos of couples, in which case I’d want serious diversity when it came to gender, orientation, race and appearance: but ideally, no couples, since sending the message that sexuality only exists when there is another person around isn’t cool by me), no adolescent Jon-Benet’s, no status clothing or the like, no one looking ashamed or like they were making a webcam video to seduce someone with.

As I’m sure you can imagine, then, coming up with a cover for this — in a culture that is terrified of teen and young adult sexuality unless they’re using it to sell jeans or gas, or make porn out of it, no less — that pleased everyone was a piece of cake.

Yeah, not so much.

Skipping parts of the story and process selectively, as of two days ago, the deal was that I would go to Getty Images and find three photos of three young adults for the cover of the book, and my editor and I would deliver these to the art department, within one day. Given the audience of the book, the nature of the book, and the way the cover design was laid out, my goal was to find two girls, one guy, and ideally, none of them would be rail-thin, the majority of them would not be white, they wouldn’t be a simple read in terms of their orientation or economic class, neither of the girls would look like they were going to a beauty pageant, and they would all look like the age of the book readership. Ideally, we were talking headshots, since that solved some of those problems full-stop.

I think I’ve mentioned before that when you go to any stock photo house and first input teens, about 3/4s of the photos you get are young women, and only about half of them have clothing on, or clothing that isn’t a bikini. Of the half wearing clothes, those over the age of eight not wearing a goopy face full of makeup are the minority. Finding any even of average-size? Who also look like they have a thought of substance within a five-mile radius of their heads? Good luck. I know, you’re shocked. Makes a girl embarassed to include herself amoung the class that is photographers, I tell you.

Within about three hours, I managed to find one girl I liked. White, but clean-faced, with some funky honkylocks and piercings and a friendly, self-possesed expression. On the thin side, but looking as if the weight she is is the weight she is supposed to be: her head wasn’t five times larger than her torso. Studio setting, so for any visual cohesiveness, that means that’s what the rest needed to be, too. (And no, that part really wasn’t my job, but you ask a designer and artist to do something like this, we’re going to think about these things.)

So, one down. That means that for the remaining two, no white kids, and at least one guy. Plus, no one else with dreadlocks, otherwise it’d look like a book about dreadlocks. This, I confess, made me feel a bit of an ass, since it was the white kid who got to have dreads, but’cha know, one can only do so much with so little.

This may not be news to you — heck, it wasn’t exactly news to me, but the degree of this was a bit of a surprise — but guess what? So far as I can tell, if you are a young adult male of African descent, you may only have your photo taken in a baksetball court or in an alley — apparently you aren’t allowed inside photo studios. You must either look like the weight of the world is smashing you down, or look like a cocky bastard about to throw down or get down.

If you are Asian, you must either look obsessed with fashion, marriage or money.

If you are a young woman of Latin or Hispanic descent, you are allowed to wear a moderate amount of clothing even less often than white women. You apparently must either be dancing, kissing or stroking someone else, or be touching yourself in some way to make clear that your race compels you to be touchy-feely. When you are dancing you may smile, but otherwise, you need to look sultry at all times.

Needless to say, it was not my best day ever. Especially since I got my period in the middle of it, and The Bad Ovary (or tube, or whatever the hell it is every other month that puts me in two days of agony that only a Vicodin can tackle, and until Mark gets another root canal, I’m now SOL on that score) decided it was it’s turn, no less. I was one cranky, knackered asshole by day’s end.

I did, by the time the day had been night for several hours, find my three photos, though I nearly went blind in the process and became more and more disgusted as time went by. To go with the first girl, I found a fabulous Latina, of some size, no less, looking like she owned herself and smiling proudly. I found an awesome teen boy who looked sincere, thoughtful and smart; was working his afro like no one’s business, and who didn’t have to be holding a basketball to get someone to take his picture. All we can do is hope to gawd that these will work for the art department. From the sounds of things, though, everyone was happy, particularly since we are down to the wire on this and needed a cover by the poverbial yesterday.

Honestly? I’m lucky as hell that I have an awesome editor and a publishing house who gave a shit about my concerns: plenty don’t, and plenty who do still would hardly have cared enough to listen to my editor and I to the point that in the end, they let us choose the art. Seriously, my editor is so amazing that I’ve been trying to think of a next book within the scope of what Marlowe publishes just so I can have her as my editor again, which means thinking in a different direction than I had been for the next puppy.

Obviously, finding three photos to really work for or sum up everyone — including readers — is a bit of a stretch. (But hey, another design only allowed for a single photo, so imagine what a nightmare that would have been.) A lot of authors don’t take responsibility for their covers, largely because they shouldn’t: those decisions were made without or over them, many times with their protest. I’ve read some discussion off and on over the past six months of folks arguing that authors absolutely have total say and power with covers and can get that into contracts, and I have to call bullshit there. Maybe a few authors, but first-time authors, younger authors, authors who haven’t already shown big sales, and with publishing houses of some size? Not likely.

If these three photos are what wind up on the cover, I’m down with taking full responsibility for them. Do I wish I could have just shot the photos myself? Of course: I could have done a way better job than what I was able to find out there. But that wasn’t an option. Given the options we did have, I feel great about these, and I feel good about the cover in it doing its best, within the limits that were there, to speak to and for the book. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as feeling like you’ll need to add text in your book to explain that all those pervasive sterotypes you’re talking about are so pervasive…they’re even on the cover of this book!

But it doesn’t look like I’ll have any need to do that or feel that way. Nor does it appear I’ll have to be one of those authors terminally apologizing for their cover, saying it just wasn’t up to them: if these three photos go in, it was up to me. While I didn’t do the overall design, I okayed it, and that was up to me to some degree, too. From what I can gather, everyone involved really tried to come up with things that worked for everyone’s interests and did justice to the book.

In a word? If all comes out as we hope, it’s damn fine soup from so many cooks in this tiny little kitchen.

* * *
And now I need to go lie down again in hopes I can feel better and get my shit together to do things over the next three days I’d had planned to span over the next week and a half.

My Dad is coming back up here this weekend and staying for around ten days. We’d originally planned to fly him up in April, but that month is becoming difficult for me, and to boot, he wanted to see both more of the city and the public housing opening that’s a possibility for him for himself. Turns out the cheapest tix I could find were sooner than we’d both planned, but so be it. I could use his company and our dynamic, quite honestly, and him visiting now makes next month less packed to the gills for me, which is good stuff.

36 comments so far

  1. jennie Says:

    OMG I think we looked at the girl with dreads for the sexuality chapters in the Health and Phys-ed textbook I just finished!

    (I’ve discovered that certain stock photos appear again and again in certain subjects, presumably because we all have similar concerns, and there’s a limited supply of photos that meet our needs.)

    The photos for the three sexuality units presented a similar challenge to those you faced, only I needed way more than three of them, and I did need photos of couples. Also, they weren’t the cover, so they weren’t as vital to the book’s success or its message, and I’m only the editor, not the author, so while I was _determined_ to get good photos, showing real-looking kids from all sorts of backgrounds and of whatever different sexual orientations we could represent in a textbook, I didn’t have the same sort of emotional investment that an author would.

    We went with stock photos where we’d used photos of real kids in the chapters on fitness appraisals and whatnot, simply because we didn’t want to have to deal with releases for kids’ photos in units about sexuality, sexual decision-making, and sexual orientation, among other topics. I’m not happy that so many of the couples were apparently straight, but I was pleased that we looked for photos of kids who looked real.

    So yeah, I can sympathize. I hope the design is everything you want it to be.

  2. Laura Says:

    I had been wondering when I was going to read the blog about “the cover”. I am a designer, you see and totally interested in getting into book design. I know that phrase about not judging a book by it’s cover applies to everything BUT books. I wanted to say my designs made people want to read. You sound like you had a tough job on your hands. I probably would have given up on the photos and used a text-based design. Can’t wait to see it.

    I also feel compelled to tell you that I plan on buying your book as a gift to my somewhat sexually naive sister who is getting married. For two reasons: 1) I think she could use an eye opener when it comes to sexual issues and 2) because when her young girl or boy has questions about sexuality I want them to be able to find that book on mom’s shelf and secretly read it and become knowledgable. :)

  3. L. Says:

    I work at one of the larger UPs, and just fyi, most of our authors who have agents get jacket consulation, if not approval. I understand that there are a number of reasons why it may not make sense for you to have an agent, and I know that UPs are different from other publishing houses… but just thought this might be data point you’d be interested in. We show jackets to all the authors on our list, whether or not they have contractually granted consulation/approval… sometimes they object to things that we have to say “tough luck” about, but we always consider thoughtful, reasoned objections. Sometimes we just screw up because we’re doing 300 + jackets a year and mistakes happen. I think that if I had to make a call on your book, I would go for an all-type jacket… just to avoid the whole issue of trying to find enough stock photos of diverse teens. Because Getty Images apparently only has 3 suitable images.
    Anyways. Glad to hear that the book is coming along swimmingly. Do you have a pub date yet?

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