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Cover Story

(the creation of a book jacket)

About 2,000 of my readers received emails from me in September 2005 asking them to look at some book jackets by going to a survey web site I set up. Here's the backstory:

Idea 1:
What Should I Do With My Life? was a big bestseller, and so it seemed natural to reproduce its look and feel for my follow-up. On that basis, when I teased my new book on my web site, I made my own mock-up of the new jacket using bright blue instead of bright red.

Idea 2:
Far before I actually turned the book in, Random House realized it was time to start telling booksellers about this great book they had not yet read. One of them went to my website, and seeing that I wanted this book to basically resemble the last, they did their own version: but in bright yellow. (I no longer have a copy of that one.)

Upon seeing their mock-up, I admitted to my publisher that I didn't want this jacket to look just like the last book after all. It looked a little too cold and clinical for what I'd written. "Warm it up," I advised.

Idea 3:
They came back to me three weeks later with this "softened" version.

It was basically exactly what I asked for, and yet it did not please me. I told them it did not look special enough. I asked for something daring and unusual.

Idea 4:
Another two weeks later, they came back with this, emphasizing the question mark:

We were right up against our deadline. I started to think we needed to put a graphic in our book cover. But what? What would represent family-journey-struggle in a way that wasn't too obvious? In the middle of the night I had this idea of a door, weathered in the way a family that has been through trouble feels weathered. It would be closed, and slightly imposing. Perhaps from the view of someone coming home after a long time away. In the morning, I sent Random House this:

Idea 5:

Random House was energized by this. They thought it was pretty good. More generally, they began to see that we might be able to use an image on the cover after all. We both agreed to come up with as many good ideas as we could. (By the way, here is the photographer's site who shot the Green Door.)

Idea 5:
I started to pump Random House with ideas. I brought in my  good friend and artist JD Beltran. She came up with this:

Well, I loved it! I was thrilled! It was disturbing and unsettling. So did my friends. I showed it to Random House. They kindly informed me that it reminded everyone there of Wizard of Oz, and not in a good way. I was angry and frustrated and yet I trusted their opinion, too. So I decided, maybe, that I needed to solicit the opinions of others, and who better than my own readers? Secretly, I hoped my readers would back me up. I used a web site called Zoomerang, it's awesome. In five minutes you can build a mini-site that allows people to vote and submit comments. I showed my readers three jackets. The green door, the flying house, and as a last minute entry, a jacket built on the image of four muddy boots. I emailed 500 readers, and within a day 90% had voted. They didn't have to pick one - they were free to like more than one.

Did my readers back me up? Nope. My publisher was dead right. 2 out of 3 people hated it, said it looked like Wizard of Oz. It was very eye opening. And it helped me trust my publisher more.

The rest of that poll showed that 2 out of 3 people liked the green door, and even more liked the muddy boots.

Idea 6

"Well, what about those muddy boots?" my editor said. She loved the image, which my friend JD had also discovered. I insisted that with a nuclear family depicted, it would turn people off who don't feel that picture relates to them. I agreed it was a beautiful image, but I was too nervous about the Daddy/Mommy/Daughter/Son version of family.

Idea 7
JD came back once again with another image, and this one I loved. It made me laugh out loud. My friends all said, "Random House will go for that." A family pushing an RV on the side of a road.

Now I really loved that one. Random House didn't, to my shock. They thought it was okay. Here's a close up of the family in the photo:

It's actually a three generation family, with grandma in the back window, and it was taken in South Africa. Why didn't Random House like it? Well, for the very reason that it requires you to get so close to it to see what's going on. Book covers have to attract readers from ten or twenty feet away. At that distance, the cover was merely blue.

So I went back to the polls. Over the next several days, I ran three more polls, each time with 500 newly invited readers. I also tried one more thing, to save the flying house image - what if we made it less menacing, less "falling to the ground," by adding a helicopter blade to the roof?

Idea 8

Meanwhile, my editor was still lobbying for the muddy boots. She had me talk to the chief Random House designer about my concerns that the boots were too traditional. He suggested that there were lots of things we could do to give it an edginess - such as flipping the boots upside down.So I tried his suggestion:
Boots Upside Down = Family Turned Upside Down.
We loved it!

Idea 9

In the last two polls, readers saw the helicopter house, the green door, the boots upside down, and the family pushing the RV. The helicopter house was still Wizard of Ozzy. The green door polled okay, about 60% good/great. The boots a little higher, around 2/3 good/great. But 90% of readers loved the family pushing the RV!

I took this data back to Random House. Now, no author had ever run real polls before, so they were a little overwhelmed. Random House argued it was dangerous to depict a particular family, especially a white middle-class family, when the book is so multicultural. I agreed with their point. I had worked hard to make the book represent so many cultures. Thus, despite the fact that 90% of people wanted the RV shot, we didn't go with it. We went with the boots, upside down, and with not a day to spare, we sent the image to the book printer.

But we weren't done! Four days later, two magazines called. They were running reviews of the book, and they wanted the book jacket to put in their magazine. So Random House sent the file over to these magazines. Within about one hour's time, both called. "There must be some mistake. The image is upside down." It's supposed to be upside down, we told them. "It is? Well, then we're not running it - it's too confusing." So when 2 magazines both tell you your jacket is too ugly for them to put in their magazine, you panic.

My publisher called me. I was in Nashville that day. The printer could flip the image, but they could not stop the printing to find some other image. "So do we run the boots upside down, or right-side up?" my editor asked, giving me the choice.

Honestly, I wasn't surprised the magazines had a problem with it, because I had seen that same feedback in my polling comments. Maybe I was overthinking it, trying to be too cool, flipping those boots so they were hanging from the ceiling.

"Flip them back up rightways," I said, and that was it.

Idea 10

This, by the way, is the UK jacket: