How many of us dream about what our book covers might look like, whether we’re two weeks, two months, or two years away from that process? When The Glass Wives was ready for a cover, I “let go” because not only did I know it was out of my hands and into those of a capable designer (and my editor), but I had no preconceived notions. I knew what I thought wouldn’t work—the popular cupcake, for instance. And if you’ve been around here for a while, or if you glance to the right, you’ll see why I was pleased. The cover for The Glass Wives captured the tone of the book. And THAT was what was most important to me. I have some thoughts (private thoughts) on what I think might work for my next book, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, but we’re not quite at that stage (soon, though, soon).
Today, amazing author Yona Zeldis McDonough who has written more than twenty children’s books and six novels for adults (and more) reveals what she thinks about the covers for her books. If you ask me (you did, right?) they’re beautiful, but we think so much about what our book covers convey and what they don’t. We wince if we think something is too light, too serious, too vague, too specific.
Share your thoughts in the comments. And take a look at Yona’s book covers as you welcome her back to Women’s Fiction Writers.
by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Let’s just agree to scrap that old adage about not judging a book by its cover because we know it’s a big, fat lie; we all judge books by their covers, especially when wading through a sea of them on shelves and tables at our local Barnes and Noble or indie bookstores. Covers instantly relay information about the kind of book and author we’re considering. They beckon to some readers and send others heading for the hills. They whisper, they tease, they cajole, seduce and shout. They are of vital importance and so we ought to just own up to that fact: what’s on the cover is crucial to getting a potential reader to actually pick up your book and look inside. As the author of six novels, twenty-three books for children and the editor of two essay collections, I know from whence I speak.
When my first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, came out from Doubleday in 2002, I was mostly pleased with the cover, which was dramatic, bold and intriguing. The dark background suggested the novel’s darker aspects and the placement of the violin suggested the sensual curves of a woman’s supine body. (That the dancer’s foot was depicted in an entirely incorrect position was something that bothered me but not the publisher, who would not change it when I pointed it out.) The cover was designed to appeal to women but not exclusively so; a man might read the book with censure or embarrassment. This, although I did not fully understand it yet, was a huge plus. My second book with Doubleday, IN DAHLIA’S WAKE, came out three years later. The cover photo—a delicately washed out image of a townhouse in brownstone Brooklyn—was evocative and gender neutral—good things—but also a bit tepid and unmemorable. The book did significantly less well than the first and I do have to wonder about the role the cover played in that.
When I published, BREAKING THE BANK, novel #3, I had switched publishers and was now at Downtown Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Unlike the first two books, which came out in hardcover, this one was a paperback original. The cover, which showed a woman from behind over whose red umbrella a shower of bills rained down, was a good one—specific to the book, and attention getting in its own right. But the lone female in the red coat was beginning to inch toward chick-lit territory, a neighborhood I would soon inhabit more firmly with the publication of novels #4, A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK and #5, TWO OF A KIND.
The cover of Wedding depicts not just a woman but a bride from behind and the array of hands that fuss with her dress, as well as the Tiffany-box blue background and embossed gold lettering fairly pulsate with the damning words chick lit, chick lit. And the wedding-themed cover of TWO OF A KIND says the same. I happen to love both of these covers and feel they convey essential thematic information about the books. In the case of WEDDING, which is told from several points of view—though not the bride’s—I loved how the bride on the cover was being done to. She was an object, rather than a subject, a fact that underscores something important about the choice of narration I made in the book. In TWO OF A KIND, the couple (seen from the back—natch!) is seated apart, separated by an aisle. The man is looking straight ahead; the woman is turned in profile looking at him. From their body language we sense the tension and dissonance between them, postures that mirror precisely what transpires in the novel.
Novel # 6, YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME, is even further along the chick-lit spectrum. The dominant color scheme is pink and white. And it depicts shoes (read: girl-y) and not just any shoes either. Pink, peep-toed shoes, with white polka dots. And they face a pair of shoes made for a baby girl. Now I happen to love this cover. It’s is bold and arresting in its own right, and it really does speak to the book’s essential theme: how motherhood is almost a confrontation with a tiny new stranger. But it is also a very gender specific cover; no guy is going to be caught reading that book on the subway—not even my husband!
The chick lit association these covers also tend to lighten and even cheapen the words inside them. Now let me say something about chick lit here. Despite the fact that women are—and have historically always been—the big consumers of novels of all kinds, the books designed to appeal to our interests and sensibilities are somehow demoted and tainted with that chick lit brush. It’s a bad brush too: it says your book is unimportant, shallow, trivial and not well written. Never mind that when men write about relationships or domestic issues, they are hailed as brave and revelatory. When we women do it, we are relegated to the chick lit ghetto, a place from which it is hard to escape. I’m sorry to report that my very own indie bookstore, a store with the word community in its name, did not want to carry my new book, despite the fact that I have lived in the neighborhood for more than twenty years. When I expressed my disappointment to the owner of the store, he made it clear that he thought my book had little merit—because of its cover. Had he bothered to read or even look at it, he might have thought otherwise.
The ideal cover is gender neutral—one that either a woman or man would want to pick up. (Many women avoid books with high heels, birthday cakes and back views of female figures standing by the ocean or a lake too.) But most writers do not get a say in their covers. And even when they do, they still need to be attentive to the market place. My books are going to appeal to women, and so the covers should be appealing to them as well. If there are times when I feel the cover skims the surface and does not plumb the depths, so be it. As a wise friend said to me, “The cover is an ad. And the publisher is more experience in creating that ad than you do.” He was right. I am a novelist, not an advertizing copywriter or art director. And I know that the words contained within my covers are not ads. They are best and truest expression of what I think, observe, believe and feel and I can render. And I can only hope readers will find their way to them, whatever the covers that contain them.
Yona Zeldis McDonough was educated at Vassar College and Columbia University. She is the award-winning author of six novels and twenty-three books for children, and she is also the editor of two essay collections and is the fiction editor at Lilith Magazine (www.lilith.org). She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband, two children and two small, yappy Pomeranians. Please visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com and https://www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough.