Essays

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…”

By posted at 3:17 am on July 9, 2009 8

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.

I.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes into designing a book jacket, you’re not alone. It was one of the things that seemed a bit mystical to me when my novel went into production. In fact, the process remained shrouded in mystery up until the moment I received an email from my editor with jpeg attachments of a few prospective designs.

Let me back up by saying that one of my favorite quotes is a line from indie actor/filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who said, in a profile in The New Yorker a few years back: “There’s something about being naïve. Really interesting things come because you don’t know what the rules are, what you can and can’t do.” I went into the publication process with little-to-no knowledge of what goes into producing, promoting, or releasing a book. And I had a vague sense that it might be fruitful to maintain some measure of that ignorance; that becoming immersed in the ins and outs of production and marketing could be detrimental, both to my writing process and to the publisher’s ability to do its job. How much of a sausage-making expert did I really want to become, and how useful to the publisher would my porky hands be?

II.
In the current publishing environment, this is a rather old-fashioned way of thinking, and unrealistic. Much more pro-activity is expected and required from authors, now that marketing budgets (for unknown writers, especially) are dwindling; and readers have come to expect and crave more personal connection with authors. As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, “We’re selling authors, not books. We’re selling people the illusion of an experience with an author… They want the full experience.”

So it’s a somewhat complex relationship, an intricate dance. Contractually, the book no longer belongs to the author. And yet collaboration each step of the way is ideal. When it came to the book jacket, I was invited to be involved, and my input was both valued and incorporated; at the same time, I sensed that fussiness would be received as such, and knew that, technically speaking, the final decision was not mine. As a first-time novelist, new to the dance, I felt a little like I had two left feet.

III.
I did not have a specific picture in mind of what I wanted my book’s jacket to look like. But I did have a vague idea of what I didn’t want it to look like. I did not want the design to be too literal; I myself am drawn to jacket covers which are more evocative of a novel’s essence than descriptive of its plot or characters (I dislike, for instance, the movie-poster jackets of books which have been made into films, which often present celebrities’ faces for characters you’d rather imagine).

covercovercoverI also knew that conveying the cultural elements of the novel in a jacket image could be tricky. In a recent article in Hyphen Magazine, books editor Neelanjana Banerjee expresses a frustration with the easy cultural tropes that are often used for the covers of novels by Asian Americans – fans, geishas (or other painted-faced women in traditional East Asian dress), dragons, chopsticks, lotus blossoms (I would add peonies, cranes, and scantily clad Asian temptresses) – to “mark” the books in an exoticized way and thus, presumably, sell more books to readers attracted to the familiarly exotic – whether or not those tropes best represent the novel’s actual thematic content or storyline.

So when I received the jpeg attachments, I was relieved to find that each of the drafts centered around a dream-like (non-literal) main image; which did not include any of the above-named objects or tropes (none of which are particularly relevant to the novel). The image was a rather spare photograph of a single, hatted (i.e. wearing a canvass sport hat commonly seen in the southern regions of South Korea), female figure, shot from the back, looking out into an illuminated horizon – somehow both figurative and abstract at once in its facelessness – that I thought evoked the emotional core of the novel quite well.

IV.
What’s strange about the jacket-design process is that the people who are weighing in are in a sense the least qualified to provide an informative gut-level response – a simulation of that half-second book-browser reaction. My agent, my editor, and I have all (obviously) read the book, so we came to the image as anything but blank slates. After considering my initial (positive) reaction, I registered a concern that the image was a tad too abstract, and that it would not be clear to someone who did not know the story what the figure was doing (she is taking a photograph).

So I forwarded the attachments to a couple of trusted friends, one of whom knew almost nothing about the story (about a Korean family, mainly an immigrant father and his American-born photojournalist daughter who find themselves reverse-migrating to the father’s village hometown in South Korea), the other of whom knew a little. I asked them, simply, “What do you see here?” The former wrote: “I see a white woman looking off into the distance, most likely taking a photograph.” The latter wrote: “I love it! But why is the woman white?”

Whaa?

This, you may have guessed, was not at all the response I was expecting.

V.
I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman’s hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to. So I asked my editor (trying not to trip over my two left feet) if she could track down the origins of the image, to see if it was a composite and might be altered. While she was (justifiably) dubious that the perceptions of two people warranted an alteration, she kindly agreed to do the research.

In the meantime, I sent the image to a dozen other people. I literally received six responses identifying the woman as Asian or “non-determinate race” and six responses identifying her as white (one person even used the word “WASPy”). I was stumped. What’s more, there was no discernible pattern in the responses, no correlation between response and respondent: people of Asian descent, people of non-Asian descent, people who knew the story or didn’t, male or female, political persuasions one way or another – the responses were all over the place. (One of the people who identified her as white was a Korean American woman who herself had brownish wavy hair.) By the twelfth response, I just had to laugh. Fascinating! This was turning into a kind of Rorschach test.

My editor wrote me back with the results of her research: no, it was not a composite and thus could not be altered. But, as it turned out, the model in the image is in fact Korean; and here, attached, is a photograph of her from the front. Did this help settle it for me?

Well, no. Not really.

VI.
What is the primary function of a book jacket? The adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is, to me, despite its cliche status, rather sophisticated in its irony; because in fact we know darn well that not only can you judge a book (and, to some limited degree, the metaphorical person to which the adage refers) by its cover; but that a good many book-buyers do judge books by their covers. I was encouraged to focus on the question, “Does it make someone want to pick up the book and find out what it’s about?” In the case of this design, I’d say sure, and most of the respondents would, too. Regardless of the racial identity of the figure, the emotional evocation is, I think, compelling overall.

But would the perceived race of the figure affect one way or another whether someone would pick it up? And what about after the half-second impression? Has the jacket cover fulfilled its purpose at that point? Would finding that the character is of a different race than initially perceived (and that the story is a bicultural story) affect the reading experience? And does the fact that the “truth” of the image matches the “truth” of the story – that the model is Korean – matter, if the reader does not have access to this background?

The questions spiraled out from there: how much does the author’s name affect the reader’s expectation of the novel’s content? Does the name “Chung” on the cover incline readers to certain assumptions? What does it mean that some segment of the population expects that an Asian woman would have straight black hair though not all of them do? Is it productive to work at meeting the expectation, or is the time ripe in our culture to test the waters of deviation and diversity? I could also hear in my head the voices of Ethnic Studies activists and feminist scholars challenging the tyranny of Western beauty standards and the blondifying of Eastern cultures.

What to do?

VII.
coverThere is actually an end to this story, and a rather anti-climactic one. (No dramatic showdown between author and publisher, no grand moral stances taken.) As my editor and I discussed it further, we realized that her computer screen was showing black hair. So I asked her to send me hard-copy printouts of the image; and as it turned out, it was in fact variations of screen views that created different hair-color shades and thus impressions. The hard-copy showed black hair, and without the highlights, the appearance of the wave was slightly less pronounced. We liked the image all along, and we knew it would be hard to recapture all that we liked about it if we went back to the drawing board. We decided to go forth.

I am still a little nervous – having no control over the final printing process, color-correcting, etc. – about what this cover will look like. But I also realized that as each response piled on one after the other in my inbox, I was beginning to delight in the wackiness of the whole thing. Would Jane, the character in the novel, be so easily identified or defined by race? She is unambiguously an American of Korean descent; but she is also many other things: a war photographer, sister, daughter, lover, survivor of trauma and tragedy. She is a woman looking for her life in the wake of death. She would never deliberately deceive; but she would embrace the essential mystery of identity, the complexity of perception from the viewpoint of the beholder.

And – no surprise – so do I.





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8 Responses to ““A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…””

  1. skb
    at 12:11 pm on July 13, 2009

    It's fascinating to hear about this from the author's perspective.
    And the cover is great. Yes, compelling and evocative enough to pick it up and flip it over. Not to mention that they left room for a big, fat "O"!
    Look forward to reading the book.

  2. Anonymous
    at 6:34 am on July 15, 2009

    As someone who works in publishing, I find nothing more annoying than authors who have a long list of things they DON'T want to appear on their cover, but absolutely no ideas for what they WOULD like to see. Authors, let this be a lesson to you: you wrote the book, you should bring some cover ideas to the table. If you don't, you have no right to complain.

  3. Sonya
    at 1:08 pm on July 16, 2009

    Dear Anonymous, I have so little experience with this — i.e. clearly, I've only been involved with the design of this one book jacket — but what you say is actually what my instinct was at the beginning of the process. So what I express above re: what I didn't want to see on the jacket wasn't anything I said out loud to anyone at the time; those were my internal worries, but I thought that it would probably be good to stay open-minded about it. For instance, I generally don't like book jackets that feature photographic images, but lo and behold… and who's to say a peony might not have made a nice accent? In general I think it's good to put your faith in the designers and then be respectful in the way you communicate your reactions to drafts. I hope I didn't give the impression that the process involved "complaining" — it wasn't like that at all, and I'm thankful to my editor for being a good, straightforward communicator throughout the process.

  4. conner
    at 2:37 pm on July 16, 2009

    Sonya,

    This was a fascinating read. Thanks for taking me through the journey of your publishing process. I've always wondered about this, and how book jackets come to be, the influence of writers and who has the final say.

    You're right about those exotic implications so many Asian/American American cultured (and more) books display. Although I'm sometimes enticed by them, I mostly find them annoying.

    I'm looking forward to reading your novel!

  5. raaw
    at 8:09 pm on July 17, 2009

    Dear Anonymous, it's ALWAYS easier to say what you don't want than it is to say what you DO want. Have you not lived life? This happens with my web design clients, with women I date, with everyone. I'd much rather a list of cliché images NOT to use than maybe what a client might request: "I 'unno, make it look Web2.0".

    Sonya,

    As someone who has extensively studied race, racism and media images of race, I find your discussion really interesting! Esp. since I've also known those chestnut-almost-red haired Koreans. Race images, like racism, get reduced often to the simplest and most inaccurate portrayals. Since when do Asians have a monopoly on black hair and whites on "wavy"?*

    Anyway, great post again and pretty exposing to see a visual representation of a literary work… one can only guess how people even imagine the characters as their reading along… but perhaps that's too scary to think on.

    *I remember learning the trinity of hair types in "science" class: Negroid have "kinky" or, get this, woolly hair, Mongoloids have "straight" and Caucasoids have wavy. What the hell vaguery is that? I had to have it out with a professor on that one!

  6. Anonymous
    at 6:49 am on July 27, 2009

    Thank you!
    I am a designer that has been having a very rough time with this exact same problem.

    Sometimes people/authors/editors don't understand that we are trying our hardest to convey the "essence" of the story after reading a manuscript. We think we are doing right by the book, and by the author, but there are so many people telling us what "can't" be on the cover, that we are left with very little that it "can" be. We are sometimes given VERY conflicting views from the Editor, Author, Barnes and Noble Reps, and our own sales departments, that sometimes (if not most of the time) the design ends up being a mutilated version of the original idea and/or concept.

    ESPECIALLY, when sometimes (due do the budget) we have to find the best photo for the cheapest price. That can undoubtedly lead to a possible different hair texture, or anything else. As a designer you have one photo that is $5,000 that is exactly the girl you want but with a crappy facial expression, but then there is a photo that costs $500, with a girl that has a slightly different hair texture but a better facial expression that matches what the author's tone is. Which should be chosen?

    There are a million conversations like that, but then the public gets involved, which, as seen in the last few weeks , can be dangerous.

    Thank you for defending the very difficult position of the designer as someone that needs to convey a vision and (a lot of the time) as the middle man that is trying to produce a fantastic design within strict limits!

  7. Book Porn? Long Live the Hardcover « SONYA CHUNG
    at 10:29 am on February 7, 2010

    [...] it was to hold it in my hands, turn it over, flip through.  (And especially after all that hoopla over the jacket design.)  Many, many thanks to designer Rex [...]

  8. Friday Links
    at 7:41 am on August 31, 2012

    [...] More on designing book jackets [...]

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