One aspect of publishing that most writers are often frustrated by is how the final published book will look. Many novice writers talk about what kind of dust jacket or cover art they anticipate, and many labor under the misapprehension that they will have some say-so about it. They won’t. Decisions about dust jackets and paperback covers and, of course, electronic thumbnail covers are almost always made by the publisher; the author isn’t consulted, unless the author is a powerful name brand with some clout. Ordinarily, though, if an author objects strongly to a cover, the option is usually just a plain, single color cover with plain block lettering. This isn’t a particularly good plan for selling books, so most writers are forced to accept a visual depiction or single illustrative imagining of their story as offered. It can often be a shock to young, idealistic writers who relish the idea of seeing their work in print and desperately want a cover they can be proud of, then wind up with something that makes them cringe.
I was no different. Over the years, I’ve had numerous covers for my books in several editions. It might be instructive or at least explanatory to illuminate my reactions and responses to each of them:
This was my first published book, and I looked forward to seeing the cover with huge anticipation. It was published by a small but high-quality scholarly press operating out of Albany, New York. Their specialization was on studies of aspects of literature that had previously been ignored, and this fit my examination of American drama in the 1930s, perfectly. I figured I’d have a cover with some arty theatrical scene depicted, possibly with a suggestion of the leftists and socialists who dominated the scene in those days. Instead, I got this
It was no wonder to me that the book didn’t sell well. It would hardly stand out on the shelf of even the smallest university bookstore and looked kind of like a blank notebook or journal. I had to console myself with the notion that, at least, it was “red.”
This novel has had more subsequent editions than any of my other works, so there are several covers to deal with. The first a dust jacket cover, which to me, was somewhat disappointing in its appearance. It was designed by Andy Carpenter with art created by Jane Zwinger, neither of whom had I ever heard.
It was, in a way, accurate, but in other ways, it was entirely wrong. It didn’t draw curiosity and it actually looked boring. The British edition that came along a year or so letter was, in my opinion, much, much better. David Griffiths, who designed it, captured much that the novel suggested and seemed intriguing.
If sales were any indication, though, it didn’t make much difference.
The Japanese cover was also attractive, but I have no idea how it sold, either.
When SMU picked up the book for a reprint a few years later, I was once again disappointed in the way the cover looked. I thought this looked too “cartoony” and belied the seriousness of the story. I’m not sure who did it.
The Texas Tech University Press reprint cover, designed by Andy Price and including a painting by Jacqueline McLean, fulfilled both the mystery of the story as well as the abstraction of the story’s strangeness in a very attractive combination.
I liked it better than the electronic thumbnail cover offered on the Baen edition, as I felt the girl in that cover didn’t have the young and innocent look of the girl in the story. The suggestion of a stormy atmosphere also was a bit misleading.
The original edition of Agatite had a dust jacket cover I very much liked.
The art work was by Joanne Pendola, and my St. Martn’s Press editor told me it was from a prize-winning painting she had done. I thought it was perfect, as it made me think of John Dos Passos’s novel, U.S.A., which was, in a small way, a significant influence on my work.
In its Signet Classic reprint, though, Agatite was changed to Rage, a title I hated because for one thing, a movie about sheep killers in Montana had just come out with that title, and for another thing, the book was not about “rage” as a concept or an act. I had a Pulitzer Prize nomination at that point for Franklin’s Crossing, and this reprint made me look like the writer of cheap, paperback potboilers. The cover, looked as if it had patched together by a couple of middle school kids after being told something vague about the book. It looked gawdy and demeaning in my view, and I’m not sure the book sold very well at all.
The Japanese edition, though, did sell well, although the cartoony and somewhat garish cover put me off.
The Baen electronic edition was some better than the Signet Classic paperback, although I’m still not sure it captures what the novel is about.
Careless Weeds, which I actually edited and wrote a long preface for, but for which I was more or less forced to give credit to my friend Tom Pilkingon for doing—It was my idea to let his name go on the book to avoid an awkward situation following the untimely and tragic death of SMU Press editor, Suzanne Comer, who was originally my co-editor on the volume.—was designed by Barbara Whitehead of Whitehead & Whitehead, an almost legendary company for book design in Texas.
Nevertheless, I was not fond of the colors used. My thinking was that earth tones would have worked better, although I liked the way the drawings looked.
This was a cover I really liked, and they used it for both the hardbound and paperback editions of the book. I thought it captured the whimsical approach to Larry McMurtry’s work to that point that all the contributors to the volume showed. It was, though, still a serious volume containing a lot of serious writing by perhaps the most astute critics of McMurtry’s fiction and nonfiction in the state.
The saga of publication of this novel is a long one, but I worked hard on it, and the disappointment I had when I saw the dust jacket on the Dutton Edition was profound.
Designer Neil Stuart and illustration William Maugham did little but imitate the cover of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, a cover virtually everyone in the country was familiar with, if not from the novel, then from the mini-series. This made my work look like a cheap imitation and shameless bid for brand-identification. As I knew Larry and as he had blurbed the book for me, I was embarrassed by it, but I was stuck with it, and I could only grin and grimace internally when someone pointed that out to me.
They used the same cover for the paperback edition, which made matters some worse. But, as usual, I wasn’t consulted, and I doubt they would have cared if I complained.
The Baen electronic edition softens the comparison, which has become less acute over time, anyway, and I rather like the cowboy-looking figure superimposed on it. The old photograph was a nice touch.
This was my first book with Texas Review Press, and it’s a bit of a quirky story and one that not everyone would “get.” I was delighted, though with the cover designed by Kellye Sanford, a highly talented book cover illustrator and artist out of Houston. She also was married to a good friend of mine, Fritz Lanham, long-time book review editor for the Houston Chronicle, back when it was a real newspaper.
This was my first cover done by Kellye, but she would go on to do another for me.
The Baen electronic edition cover is great, though, even though it is a harsher take on the heroes fate.
Of Snakes and Sex and Playing in the Rain:
This was a second cover done by Kellye. I’m not sure she read the title essay, which is not about what it seems to be about, but this turned out to be one of the most attention-grabbing covers of all my works.
It excited a lot of commentary. And I think the Baen electronic edition cover is similarly designed to do the same thing. I like both of them a great deal.
A Hundred Years of Heroes:
This dust jacket and paperback edition cover was taken from a photograph given for use by Doug Harmon, and worked into the overall design by Shade Tree and Associates in Fort Worth.
I was never sure who authorized and approved it, as I was on the “outs” with TCU Press over the book when I got stiffed by them and by the Southwest Exposition and Livestock Show on the payment for writing it, so I did almost nothing to promote it. I learned a lesson though about the worthlessness of a man (or woman’s) word in modern times.
Twenty Question: Answers for the Aspiring Writer:
I wrote this book at the behest of the publisher, Billy Hill, who commissioned an old friend of mine, Lee Beckman, to do the design. I didn’t realize until it was too late that poor Lee had no experience at book design, so what came out was pretty crude and lacking in imagination. I wound up, then, doing the cover myself. I thought it was witty, as it illustrated the transition between the typewriter and the computer word processor. I am not sure if anyone else agreed.
I was not pleased with this cover, as the building depicted by Bryce Burton looks more like an office building than a grocery warehouse, which is at the center of the story. It also felt too urban. I complained about it and on the paperback edition, Lindsay Starr did a much better job, although there were many who mistook the photograph of a railroad trestle for a ladder, for some reason.
The Baen electronic edition captures what I think that Burton wanted in his version, but it does it with a better effect, using a night scene and a lonely street to good effect.
Threading the Needle:
This was another cover I loved, and so did my editor at Texas Tech University Press, Judith Keeling.
I thought Brendan Liddick’s design captured the ghostly sense of that old underpass perfectly, and it should have been attractive enough to catch a reader’s eye in any bookstore.
I liked the Baen electronic edition cover, but not as well. I thought it seemed to loud and less haunting.
Bookstores were all powerful when Carroll and Graff brought out this novel. Originally, I was sent an intriguing and attractive dust jacket cover showing six disembodied heads behind what were apparently iron bars of a jail cell. This was mysterious and perfect for a crime thriller involving a host of thugs.
Barnes & Nobel, though, rejected that idea and gave me this one. Imagine my shock with I opened my box of author’s copies and saw it. I nearly passed out with anger. This was gawdy, tacky, and misleading, as nothing in the novel suggests such an uproarious scene. But I was stuck with it. I am convinced it stymied sales of what was, in truth, a fairly quiet but intensely violent novel.
The Baen electronic edition’s cover is remarkably better and captures the novel with greater accuracy.
This novel offered a unique problem. I was sent to preview a cover that I liked very much.
But it was never used. Instead, when the novel arrived, it had a cover by Jill Bolton and Bruce Emmett that was far darker and, honestly difficult to see.
I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t given an option, so this was it. As the novel was a comedy, a kind of romantic comedy, the cover seemed to make it more somber and serious. At that point, brick and mortar stores were on the wane, though, so covers were less important. What I did enjoy, though, was a fine piece of art that accompanied a review of the book in the Dallas Morning News. This captured the novel precisely, and it would have made a dynamite cover:
The Baen electronic edition’s cover does a better job than the original Carroll and Graff version. It’s far less garish and tacky and is also a bit sexy.
Sandhill County Lines:
Texas Tech University Press did a great job, once again, in capturing the flavor and atmosphere of this collection of short fiction.
In truth, though, this cover, again by Lindsay Starr, would have served equally well and maybe better for Monuments, as it depicts a Railway Express Office where important scenes take place. It occurred to me that she might well have had the other novel in mind when she designed this cover, or it might actually have been a reject for the earlier novel’s dust jacket.
Hero of A Hundred Fights:
This is another cover I liked very much.
Designed by Ben Gibson with an illustration by Tom Allen, it captures perfectly both the spirit and the content of this anthology of Ned Buntline’s western novels and the legacy the left in the American imagination. This cover speaks volumes and does what any great cover should do: it conveys what the book is about and also suggests the tone and measure of its contents.
The late Paul Ruffin, publisher of Texas Review Press, and I went round and round about the cover. In exasperation after I made several rejections, he threw up his hands and told me to design it myself. He tried to engage Kellye Sanford again, he said, but she had gone out of contact after Fritz left the newspaper in Houston. Finally, he gave the book to Nancy Parsons who produced what I believe is an excellent cover that captures the spirit and nature of this odd-ball novel and its hapless narrator.
I did like the Baen electronic edition cover more, though. It was more understated and suggestive of the almost frightening weirdness of everyday life.
None of my covers, though, were absolutely pleasing to me when I first saw them. Some started to grow on me over time. Some never did.
I am now assured, ironically, that cover art has become a far more significant industry in the publishing world, as bookstores are all but gone from the physical landscape, and all book buying, including electronic book buying, is online. This, I’m assured, makes the posted thumbnail covers that appear either on the publisher’s webpage or on an online bookstore like Amazon or Barnes & Nobel all the more important. No longer able to browse shelves in dusty old out-of-the-way book shops or even in the “clean, well-lighted” aisles of grocery-market-style big box bookstores, book buyers are lured into a book’s attractiveness to their taste or proclivity as much by the descriptive log-lines as they are by an attractive thumbnail of an electronic cover. Writers still have little say-so in this matter, but then, it’s the publishers, either of physical or electronic editions, who pony up the money for the covers, as they do for the books, when they pay for them at all. So it’s always their call.
Publishing is a business, after all, and as any producer of wholesale goods will tell you, packaging is more important than product. So I’ve found that even though I’ve often ground my teeth in response to their decisions, I’ve had to learn to grin and bear it. After all, it’s the book itself that counts, and it shouldn’t be judged by its cover.