(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:
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.
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.
They came back to me three weeks later with this "softened"
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
Another two weeks later, they came back with this, emphasizing the
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:
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.)
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
"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.
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?
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
Boots Upside Down = Family Turned Upside Down.
We loved it!
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
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
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
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.
This, by the way, is the UK