On a summertime road trip between Newport, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, I started writing a book with my friend. As we sped up I-5 I sang to the highway exit signs: “The book you hold in your hands is a vessel” which became the first sentence of Demystifying the Manuscript: Essays and Interviews on Creating a Book of Poems. This dream book-to-be would take us more than a decade to complete, but my friend, Kelli Russell Agodon, and I were determined to see this project through.
A few years in, we realized that the book would be better if we invited other poets and editors to share their book creation experiences, too. Demystifying the Manuscript includes over 43 contributors. There are essays from Linda Pastan and Diane Seuss; interviews with editors from Graywolf Press and White Pine Press. It’s the book Kelli and I needed to read; the book that we knew others needed, too.
For example, how does one choose cover art? There’s no simple recipe. However, the cover art that I chose for my forthcoming book, Blue Atlas, became a new kind of journey including trading social media messages with a stranger in Bangalore, India, and falling in love with a Mauritanian staircase. I’ll include for you here the cover reveal and the accompanying article I wrote for LitHub about the cover art process.
From the Demystifying the Manuscript Files:
The Cover Art Conundrum: What’s Best for Your Book?
There are so many aspects of putting a book together that no one ever talks about in MFA programs or really, anywhere. Once the title is chosen (another conundrum) and the decision on sections or no sections is completed, it’s time to look for cover art. Let me say, this is the way it works for me. Perhaps, for some people the cover art comes earlier, but I need to have a sense of the book as a whole before I can make much progress on artwork. Also, while it’s true that some presses have a book designer on staff, even in these cases, the publisher will be happy to have your input. Do know, however, it’s the press and not the poet have the final say.
- Covers can sell books. An alluring cover can create a buzz concerning the contents inside. Alternatively, an unattractive cover can turn readers away. This is what a bookseller friend told me. This is also part of what makes the choosing so hard.
- The image needs to interact with words. In other words, where on the image will your book title and name go? Of course, the image can be isolated and framed away from the title and author, but this limits the graphic design.
- Be sure to contact the artist before you fall in love. While searching for cover art for my book, Cloud Pharmacy, I found what I believed was the perfect image. Dutch photographer, Berndnaut Smilde, has become increasingly famous for creating and photographing clouds inside physical spaces (museums, pharmacies, theaters). However, when I wrote asking permission to use his photograph, he responded with a polite no. When I wrote a second time with all the eloquence I could garner, the answer remained the same. This made finding my final image all the harder as I couldn’t let go of “my” cloud room.
- Keep a file of possible cover art. There are several cool ways to do this. If you start a file in PowerPoint you can easily add your book title and name. Try the text in several fonts and in several different arrangements. This will give you a good sense of how well the image works as a book image. I also started a Pinterest page so that I could keep track of possible artwork.
- Give yourself plenty of time. Most writers I know choose three or four different book covers before they settle on one. Go to museums, to galleries, to coffee shops that curate local art shows, and get acquainted with the art that pulls you in. Try to determine what elements speak to you. For example, I learned that covers that include motion (a bird flying, a group of feathers falling) are extremely compelling.
- Visit bookshops, libraries, and your own bookshelves to determine which front covers pull you in and which do not. This will become second nature to you after a while in the way that when you’re shopping for cars all the models on the road begin to catch your eye.
- Think outside the box. One classic cover I love is, And Her Soul Out of Nothing by Olena Kalytiak Davis. The body of a naked woman, her back to the viewer, floats in white space. The image is startling and fits the contents of the poems wonderfully.
- Don’t be too literal. For my second book, Cures Include Travel, I chose an image of airmail letters floating in space. The sense of travel came across in the aerogrammes and foreign stamps. For Cloud Pharmacy I began by looking at images of apothecary bottles and old pharmacies, but ultimately, I wanted something that brought an extra layer of meaning to the poems. Ultimately, I chose a photograph of an abandoned building with peeling wallpaper and a greenish light pushing through one small doorway.
- Artwork alone does not a cover make. For Cloud Pharmacy, I worked closely with the designer at White Pine Press to find a font I liked and to place the title within the image. These decisions are essential to the overall look of the book.
- Remember, there are several superb ways to represent your work visually. At different times in the last few months, I had over a dozen works of art that I was seriously considering for Cloud Pharmacy. These included everything from apothecary bottles, to floating clouds, to a woman in a boat. The list goes on. Finally, there are several different representations for the work and no one ultimate star.
- Work with a graphic designer! If you have a specific vision of what you want your cover to look like, it might be worth hiring a graphic who has an expertise with cover art. However, it’s good to check and see if your publisher is open to this. Some presses will be, but others will not.
- Try to enjoy the process. This is your book! Your love child! Yes, it’s nerve wracking but it is also a wonderful gift. You will have a book in the world and you will get to choose which slinky black dress or favorite blue jeans its dressed in. Let your book be something that “feels” like you.
Try This: Cover Art Research You Can Do Now
- Go to websites of your favorite poetry publishers and browse their covers to get a variety of ideas on what is beautiful to you.
- Start a Pinterest page of images that you think might work as possible cover images for your book. You can share this page with friends and eventually, your publisher. It’s free and easy.
- Search for copyright-free and/or royalty-free images. There are several sites that have “free,” or “creative commons” artwork.
- Create a PowerPoint document for your favorite options. Include the title of the book and your name in different fonts and with different placements. This allows you to move beyond the initial crushing on phase to see if there could be a real relationship here between image and text.
- Do you have friends who are painters or photographers? See if they have a piece of artwork you could use or consider commissioning a piece by them. Having cover art created by a person close to you adds another level of meaning to your book.