A Cover Story by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Let’s just agree to scrap that old adage about not judging a book by its cover; we all judge books by their covers, especially when wading through a sea of them on shelves and tables at our local Barnes & 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 five novels, 21 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 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 without censure or embarrassment. This, although I did not fully understand it yet, was a huge plus. My second book In Dahlia’s Wake came out three years later. Thecover 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. 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 presented as 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.
But because of 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 did not want to carry my new book, despite the fact that I have lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 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 marketplace. 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 experienced in creating that ad than you.” He was right. I am a novelist, not an advertising copywriter or art director. And I know that the words contained within my covers are not ads. They are the best and truest expression of what I think, observe, believe and feel. And I can only hope readers will find their way to them, whatever the covers that contain them.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of five novels for adults, The Four Temperments, In Dahlia’s Wake, Breaking the Bank (which has been optioned for a film) and A Wedding in Great Neck. Her fifth novel, Two of a Kind, was published in September 2013.
She is also an award-winning children’s book author with 21 children’s books to her credit. The Doll Shop Downstairs received a starred review from Jewish Book World saying that it “will become a classic.” In another starred review Kirkus called the sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop, “a quiet treasure.” The Doll with the Yellow Star won the 2006 Once Upon a World Award presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Her latest book Little Author in the Big Woods, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, will be published by Holt.
For over a dozen years, Yona has been the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine. She works independently to help aspiring writers polish their manuscripts. To arrange a book club visit, inquire about editorial services or just to say hi, please contact Yona via her website: www.yonazeldismcdonough.com or on the Facebook fan pages for her novels, which she hopes you’ll “like.”
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