Covers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Please welcome Mary McDonald to the Debutante Ball! Mary has been a bookseller for eight years at The Learned Owl Book Shop in Hudson, Ohio, where she organizes author events, writes promotional materials, designs ads, finds people “that green book that was on Oprah last week,” and sells her favorite books with joy and abandon to the nicest customers in the world. She sometimes writes things here.


Mary’s Bad Marketing Awards or: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Okay, they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. They also say you are what you eat, yet so far, I bear only the most glancing resemblance to a frozen pizza. I’m a bookseller at a little independent bookshop in Ohio and I am here to tell you that I judge books by their covers All The Time. My customers do too, and I often find myself recommending a favorite novel to patrons, saying, “Pay no attention to the cover. It’s not that kind of book.”

Publishing houses have marketing departments and art departments and all sorts of people to figure out what sort of thing they should put on the front of their books. But we’re all human. And sometimes things go wrong. So, if you’re a writer, this is a cautionary tale: Do Not Let Bad Cover Art Happen to You. It’s also a big “Go Team” shout about new and about-to-be-released books that I love, with covers I am proud to display.

New in Paperback, from the Department of If It Ain’t Broke:

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin) is a dark, almost gothic tale set in the wilds of Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century; it’s got a hook that doesn’t let go and beautiful language to boot. When A Reliable Wife came out in hardcover, I knew it would make a great book club selection and eagerly awaited the paperback. There was Nothing Wrong with the way the hardcover looked. Alright, maybe it does start to look a little like a sinister Christmas card if you stare at it too long, but still.

The cover they’ve chosen for the paperback looks like a trashy romance, except … not trashy enough. Now, I like a good bodice-ripper, but if that’s what you’re after, you’ll be sadly disappointed in Goolrick. And if you want what this book actually is (a serious, historical novel about two fascinating and tortured souls, set in fin de siècle rural America), you’ll likely pass over this oddly lit Photoshop creation.

Hardcover Winners:

Girl in A Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens,
by Arnold Gaynor (Crown). Yes, I know it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But one look at the cover makes me feel I know all about it without having read a page. A woman in a pale (blue) dress sits at a writing desk, her head on her arms, probably weeping. The simple addition of a sub-sub-title would make it complete:

Girl in a Blue Dress
A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens
A Good Time Was Had by None

Border Songs, by Jim Lynch (Knopf). I love Jim Lynch. I loved The Highest Tide. I can’t wait to read Border Songs, but the cover keeps making me say things like, “eegh…” and put it down. I know Walton Ford is a great contemporary artist. I know his meticulous observations of the natural world are something that Border Songs’ narrator shares. I know the publishers were very happy to get his work for the cover. Here’s the thing: I’m from the Midwest, and maybe the rest of the world is just a smidge edgier than we are, but when I hold out a book to a customer, saying “I just love this author — this is his new one,” and they shrink in horror from the freaky bird carnage on the front cover, a bookseller starts to consider the merits of a plain, brown wrapper. Really, what would have been wrong with a nice Audubon?

Because I Believe in Positive Reinforcement:

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson (Doubleday). Hooray! In its new paperback incarnation this wonderful novel no longer looks like it should be called Young Vampires in Love. The world has been made safe for democracy — or at least for book clubs, who would not touch this with a ten foot pole before. The Gargoyle remains my favorite novel of 2008, when it was released in hard cover. Several years ago, someone asked me who the Great American Novelists of Our Time were. Where were the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, Cathers and so on? I think they were hoping for a group moan-fest. At the time, I pointed to Foer and Chabon and Atwood.* Today I would enthusiastically include Davidson. 

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son, by Michael Chabon (Harper). A giant ticker-tape parade should be thrown for Michael Chabon’s latest. These essays make us think not only about what it means to be a man, but what it means to be a part of this wacky mob we call mankind. Overall, the pieces in this volume are about growing up — not in a this-is-what-happened-to-me-when-I-was-a-child kind of way (though there is some of that, too), but in a what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-adult kind of way — about how we must invariably disappoint the people we love, and how we learn and grow and become even better at doing that. And how sometimes, in a moment, it all turns out so beautifully right.

My two favorite essays are about a writers’ workshop and Christmas. They make me want to run out and hug people on the street, they’re so good. You’ll have to see for yourself. Go read it right now.

On the subject of covers: The good people at Harper got this exactly right. There were so many really spectacular ways to mess this up, and they succumbed to none. A tool box (or a box of hammers, if you’re feeling snarky) would have been cliché (or insulting, respectively). And the cover does not sport a single lawnmower (points for that!). Nor does the art make one reluctant to read this on a plane.** The super-title, “Manhood for Amateurs” would, with the wrong art, have the potential to leave your seatmate thinking that you are in need of a how-to guide (if you are a man) or are contemplating a sex change (if you’re a gal). Their choice of cover is attractive and visually interesting to (I think) both sexes. Hurrah for Harper!

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You:

Both of these come out in July and are as beautiful inside as out.

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, by Carey Wallace (Pamela Dorman). This is a rare jewel of a book. Wallace’s language transports you — not just to a small, Italian town in the 1800s but to the inner world of the blind contessa who lives there. As spare and elegant as a line drawing, it is a story of the costs and joys of imagination. The characters haunt you long after the last page. And its cover art is not bad either. Bright and different, this novel will be as visually distinct from its neighbors on the shelf as its contents are superior. I like it — can you tell?

The Blue Notebook, by James Levine M.D. (Random House). I read this in an evening. I could not put it down. It’s the story of a young girl sold into prostitution in Mumbai at age 9. At 15, she has a notebook and has begun to tell her story. The Blue Notebook is a novel, but Levine did research for the Mayo Clinic interviewing homeless children on the main drag of prostitution in Mumbai (known as “The Street of Cages”), and so his characters are (quite literally) achingly real. He’s donating all U.S. proceeds from the book to International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.

You might imagine that this is a book designed to “make us aware” of yet another horror far away — inducing feelings of guilt and helplessness in equal measure — something you “should” read, but would so much rather not. Instead, it’s a remarkable work of art. Fascinating and shocking, but more than that — a story of invention and genius, The Blue Notebook makes you long for the narrator to keep going, to write more.

The faience blue cover with the scarred notebook of the title fallen open to a middle page is well suited to the story. It would have been easy to make The Blue Notebook look like a “women’s novel.” The gender-neutral cover will encourage all readers to discover the treasures inside the binding.
*Canadians count! And Davidson also hails from our neighbor to the north.

**For more “Covers We Are Ashamed to Take on Airplanes,” see my Rant on Romance, Or: Put It away, Fabio – I’m sitting next to the VP of Sales.

9 Replies to “Covers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

  1. Great post – and having just finished A Reliable Wife, I totally agree with you. A riveting read! I love your description of The Blind Contessa’s New Machine. I wish I lived closer so I could come into your store and have you recommend books every week!

  2. That bird carnage cover does make me recoil! Yikes. Thanks for a great post, Mary. Funny and informative! It’s cool to read about things from a bookseller’s perspective.

  3. I completely find the cover issue vexing as well. It’s absolutely true from a Librarian’s standpoint that people judge book’s from their covers…especially children and reluctant readers (think 9 year old girl…pink cover=must check it out). But I also find it vexing when I see a cover from abroad that I like more than the cover chosen for the North American cover….and sometimes I just find myself asking…what were they thinking…my other favorite is the same cover used for more than one book!! That pops up more than one would think.

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