The Big Cover-Up: A Writer’s Role in Book Jacket Design

Timothy Schaffert
From the September/October 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Walt Whitman didn't have an art director like Gall. When he first published Leaves of Grass, in 1855, he chose the stamped floral design that framed the book's title himself. Whitman is among the many authors who, by invitation or necessity, have designed their own covers. Evelyn Waugh came up with the jacket designs for the first editions of his novels Decline and Fall (Chapman & Hall, 1928) and Vile Bodies (Chapman & Hall, 1930). In 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien's publisher invited the author to provide one of his own illustrations for the first print run (fifteen hundred copies) of The Hobbit. In 2000, Faber and Faber published new editions of Milan Kundera's books that featured covers designed by the author himself. Dave Eggers and Kelly Link call the shots on their covers, but they're also their own publishers (McSweeney's and Small Beer Press, respectively), and their work would likely garner attention with even the dullest of dust jackets. The hardcover edition of Eggers's How We Are Hungry, published by McSweeney's in 2004, features a simple black cover, yet it was reviewed by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other major publications.

Don't explicitly depict a book's characters on its cover (unless, of course, it's a movie tie-in edition, in which case it's more than desirable to place, say, an image of Brad Pitt on the cover of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club).

Novelist Elizabeth Evans has published novels with both small presses and large publishers, and she has designed her own covers for both. When Evans saw the planned artwork for her first book, Locomotion, published by New Rivers Press in 1986, she felt it was out of sync with the book's content. "I offered a painting of mine that is actually described in the title story," she says. "New Rivers liked it, and the amount saved by not using the illustrator—my work being offered for free—allowed them to make a beautiful color cover." Evans offered her artistry again thirteen years later, after seeing the cover concepts for her novel Carter Clay (HarperFlamingo, 1999). Though Evans liked the initial designs, which featured "black-and-white shots of a hulking guy receding up the highway," she was hoping for something more complex.

"To show [my editor] what I had in mind, I made a collage of photos, cut-up playing cards, newspaper clippings, scientific drawings, coins, and a gorgeous hot-pink wrapper from a bar of Chinese soap. That was fun—and since [he] loved it, my suggestion for how the cover might look became the cover." This collage style was also used on the spine, and proved so distinctive that Evans received calls from friends after the novel showed up in an episode of Sex and the City—the book was visible on a shelf in the background of a scene in Sarah Jessica Parker's apartment.

The fact that Chip Kidd designed the cover for his novel The Cheese Monkeys, published by Scribner in 2001, should come as no surprise. He's the art director for Knopf and is considered by many to be not just one of the leading designers of his day, but one of the most influential in the history of book-jacket design. Kidd's design became so detailed (and called for a jacket so complex that it would have to be put on each book by hand) that Scribner finally informed him that some element of the design had to go—the per-book cost would have been prohibitive, given the terms of Kidd's contract.

"I was freaking out," Kidd says. "Nothing can go. It's like saying the bottom can of a pyramid of cans in a supermarket has to go—the whole thing will topple over, at least in my head anyway. We ended up renegotiating the royalty rates so I could keep it all. Which was fine with me and obviously okay with them."

The cover of The Cheese Monkeys was printed just as Kidd had envisioned, but with the tables turned, the designer-turned-author learned that a good book jacket—even one by a top designer—does not necessarily translate into sales. "Often people will come to me, and it's not that they articulate it, but it seems clear early on that they think that simply because I'm going to work on their book jacket: (a) It's going to be good; and (b) the book will sell," Kidd says. "And that's just not a guarantee. Since I've published my own novel, I can hold it up as the primary example. If I couldn't make my own book an instant best-seller with my jacket, there's no guarantee I can do it for you, whoever you are. I think the jacket plays only a small role in whether a book is going to be a success or not."

The members of, an online forum for readers and writers, have been discussing and critiquing book jacket design ever since the Web site launched in 2000. But Readerville founder Karen Templer says the conversation has slowed down in recent months as the marketplace has become riddled with cliché. "Literary fiction—particularly midlist ‘women's fiction,' much as I hate to use that term—has now settled fairly firmly on tropes of its own," Templer says. "You take a really lovely stock photo—especially a landscape or cityscape, legs, or shoes—and superimpose some very pretty serif, letter-spaced type, preferably white, thereupon. It's become every bit as cliché as any other genre's covers." Indeed, a glance at the chick-lit table at the local Barnes & Noble, piled high with books such as Fern Michaels's The Marriage Game (legs), Jennifer O'Connell's Insider Dating (legs and shoes), and Robyn Sisman's Summer in the City (cityscape), confirms Templer's theory.

This reliance on conventional images may have evolved from a long-standing, unwritten rule of design: Don't explicitly depict a book's characters on its cover (unless, of course, it's a movie tie-in edition, in which case it's more than desirable to place, say, an image of Brad Pitt on the cover of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club). Even Peter Curl, the author of the aforementioned 1956 how-to book, warned of the various disasters that can result from neglecting this advice, citing his own mistake in creating a clean-shaven cover portrait of a book's main character, "when in fact he should have a luxuriant mid-Victorian beard!"

Kidd says that an early version of the jacket for Martin Amis's novel House of Meetings (Random House, 2007) featured the faces of two men that Amis claimed didn't look enough like how he imagined his characters. So Kidd worked with Amis to find images that would be more suitable. "It is precisely for this reason that it's rarely a good idea to show a character full-on in the face," Kidd says. "It can also rob the readers of the experience of building in their heads what the characters look like. There's a lot to be said for leaving it to one's imagination."

Author Max Barry would likely agree. He says he's never been more opposed to a cover design than when a designer tried to portray one of the characters in his novel Syrup (Viking, 1999), which he published under the name Maxx Barry. "My beef was that they'd put a guy on the cover who was meant to be Scat, my hero, and in the entire book Scat is never described physically, for what I felt was an important reason," Barry says. "And not only had they depicted him, they had used their marketing manager, who was closer to forty than twenty, and had combed his hair into this ridiculously conservative style and given him glasses and—argh, I can't even think about it. I made my case, but the publisher essentially said, ‘Well, we think this is right.'"

The Polish movie poster I suggested my editor consider for the cover of my novel Devils in the Sugar Shop does depict a woman's face, but considering her Peter Max–like trippiness, her blue eye shadow and outrageous bouffant, she really couldn't be mistaken for Ursula Andress—nor does she resemble any particular character in the novel. Ultimately, my editor decided not to use the exact image I e-mailed to him. Instead, graphic designer Kathleen Lynch commissioned an illustrator to recreate the image from Maciej Zbikowski's original drawing. Lynch experimented with contemporary typefaces for the title, but ended up taking a retro approach, incorporating a version of the poster's original lettering. "I prefer to stay as close to the original concept as possible," Lynch says, "because when you start to deviate from that it gets muddled."

So the cover looks almost exactly as I'd imagined it, which produces a new kind of anxiety—the sense of my having stepped deliberately, an unwitting author, into the complicated maw of marketing. In the world of publishing—where art and marketing attempt, implausibly, a graceful dance—neuroses can be expected with every step. But, as Sittenfeld says, "I try not to get too wound up about it because I'm a lot more invested in the writing than the cover, and freaking out about your book cover is, all things considered, a nice problem to have."

Timothy Schaffert is the author of three novels. His latest, Devils in the Sugar Shop, was published by Unbridled Books in June. He is the director of the Nebraska Summer Writers' Conference and the Downtown Omaha Lit Fest.