Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Quest for Cover Art

Most of us grew up hearing the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover." Like most advice, we hear it, nod along, might even repeat it to others, but, for the most part, we ignore it. When most people use this phrase, they aren't actually talking about books (because who actually reads these days besides me and a few people I know?). They are typically warning you not to judge others and to look into situations before jumping to conclusions. And as much as we might want to buy into this notion, we all end up judging.

I won't lie. I'm a judger. I judge people for bad habits. For being stupid. For wearing terrible clothing. For eating the wrong things. For backing into parking spaces. For having too many children. For being Republican. For liking Twilight. For hating Lady Gaga. For thinking Glee is actually a good show. Yes, I judge a good portion of my waking hours and sometimes even in my sleep. Most of us do, even if we don't admit it.

I'm so aware of my own judging that I often over-think most of my decisions, pondering the judgments they will cause in others. I do have a point. I promise.

As I mentioned a few months ago, my first book is getting published by Sibling Rivalry Press early next year. The book is called He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I'm thrilled and can't wait to actually be able to hold my own book in my hands, but there is stress that comes with all good things.

I'm lucky that a press like Sibling Rivalry selected my book, because they want me closely involved in many of the decisions. This includes cover art, which brings me to a literal reading of "don't judge a book by its cover." The problem is that of course people are going to judge my book by its cover, and why shouldn't they? A cover has a big job. It needs to get a buyer's attention, but it also needs to convey something real and honest about the actual content of the book.

I love great covers and love them even more when the book matches the cover. Oh yes, I've been tricked. I've bought plenty of bad books with great covers. I like pretty books. If I'm buying an older book or a classic that has many different editions, I find the best looking cover and buy it. Covers are important.

I've been spending a lot of time flipping through images and trying to determine what would best fit my book. This cover will forever be the cover of my first book, and I don't want to hate it in a year. I'm leaning toward photography, because I think it fits better with the realness and honesty of the book. A lot of the book is about documenting real events.

I'm also cautious about the tradition of gay themed books putting some barely clothed or naked man on the cover. I don't want my book to look like gay erotica or an underwear ad, because its not. I like erotica and underwear ads, but that's not what I'm selling. If I have some sexy half-naked man on the cover, I fear readers will be disappointed or confused when the opening poem is about random horrible car accidents and losing one's faith. It's really not a very sexy poem. I'm not opposed to something provocative or even nudity (though, I was going to save the nudity for my author photo), but it has to be doing something more than titillating the gay viewer.

As most of my readers know, I don't shy away from gayness or even the label of "gay poet." At the same time that doesn't mean my only audience is other gay people. I already have gay in the title and if I just put a muscle boy on the cover, no straight person that I don't already know is going to buy it. My book is about the gay experience, but it is also about the lines between violence and sex and even love, and about the fear of death. These themes can connect and reflect a lot of different experiences.

I know I'll find the right image, but the journey is a complicated one. Until then I'll continue judging other people's covers.

-Stephen (Judger)


  1. Having cover control (or input) is important to me, too. I have very specific ideas of how I want my work to be presented and, luckily, I've had final decision in every book (poetry and fiction) I've had published so far.

  2. Looking forward to your book, Stephen!! And the nude author photo ain't a bad idea! ;)

  3. I have recently decided to renew my graphic design career. I was prompted in part because of a lot of online discussions I've seen lately regarding writers who are self-publishing or doing POD publishing. Most of them are very word-oriented and so have no clue about design, about choosing an attractive package, or typography—in other words, all of the elements that make books attractive. And sell them.

    I agree with you about judging a book by its cover: because that's exactly how most books get noticed, when lying amongst all the other books on the table at the bookstore.

    So I'm thinking of offering my services to such authors, to help them out with their design, typography, cover art, etc. Those are skills I've done a lot of as a pro graphic designer. Plus I'm a writer so I know those concerns, too.

    I encourage your quest here. I like the idea of a man on the cover, but because your poems are about multiple viewpoints, maybe a Photoshop collage of more than one face, overlapping, merged, etc. Would suit. So here I am, thinking about this stuff. LOL