You will judge a book by its cover, and so will every stranger who comes upon your book. Suddenly all those carefully crafted words must speak a visual language, must compress themselves into a single image. The cover on the left is one of my favorites for the way it integrates title and author’s name into a single, clear object. It’s hard to read in this reproduction, but the author’s name is on the matchbox and the title on the ashtray.
My novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, will be published by Fomite Press, and Donna Bister, half of the Press’ partnership, has asked for photos that represent the novel’s three locations: Chicago, Alabama and New Mexico, as well as its time period, 1930. A central event is the protagonist’s trip to Scottsboro, Alabama, to protest the unfair conviction of the nine so-called Scottsboro Boys.
I’m looking at photos, but I fear clutter and confusion. I was blessed with the cover of my memoir, above, a photo of myself at thirteen. It speaks to the child that every viewer once was as well as a sense of movement shared by many. For my novel, I hope to find something equally simple and compelling. So I search among book-cover websites and try to define what I like. The best ones, to me, function as two-way icons. They represent the book to the viewer but also speak to something in the viewer, inviting him or her into the book.
Against Happiness’ cover is a sort of visual pun. The viewer will have the joy of recognition, compounded by whatever positive or negative feeling she has about smiley faces.
The Disappointment Artist’s cover is a single visual example of the book’s subject. It will awaken vivid memories of taste and touch as well as feelings of floundering in many readers. I like The Road‘s cover best of all for the way it uses scale. It makes the viewer feel how small he is on the scale of trees and roads. My novel’s title, A Free, Unsullied Land, suggests a vast landscape, but I shrink from the Southwest’s gorgeous but well-known red-rock vistas. Perhaps a plain background with a sense of translucence and shading from top to bottom, like a sky without clouds. Perhaps a black-and-white image of a march protesting the unfair Scottsboro convictions layered in half-tone over part of the sky.
Meg Wollitzer, in her essay “Second Shelf,” wrote about the tendency to relegate so-called women’s fiction to that lower shelf, and she talked about that genre’s typical covers: “Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.” But I would not exclude any of those images or demand the big, bold type face often reserved for novels by well-known men, as long as I can find the right face to put on the body of my work.