Friday, February 9, 2018

What the Cat taught me: Lessons for authors from yesterday’s book covers

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Do you have a favourite book from childhood?  You can probably visualize its cover, right? 
Just picture it in your mind's eye and maybe feel the nice, contented feeling that comes with curling up with a delicious book...

Well, this morning, I came across one of my preteen favorites sitting open on the floor where my daughter had left it when she went to school:  The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, by Paula Danziger:

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This book meant a lot to me as a kid.  I think it was because of its open acknowledgment that life is sometimes lousy when you’re a teenager but also the gentle message that (thanks, Dan Savage!) it gets better.  That there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  And it does all that with the good-natured humour that the late Paula Danziger brought to all her books.image

I posted this picture on Facebook because it brought back so many memories.  But I also started thinking about both how dated the cover looks (it's from 1978) and also how I doubted publishers would put a picture like this, showing a slightly overweight, slightly depressed teen on the cover of a book today.

Searching Google to find a history of this book cover, and I discovered I was right.  The most current version of this book, on Amazon, just shows a pair of gym shorts on the cover.  The previous edition (or perhaps a concurrent paperback version) shows an odd hodge-podge of cats and glasses and gym suits (I really don’t like this cover, and don’t feel it suits the book):

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Lessons from the Cat

As writers, indie and otherwise, there are a few lessons we can take away from how book covers change over the years.

First, for indie writers, your cover is IMPORTANT.  You probably knew that already, but seriously.  Look at other covers in your genre before you even think about self-publishing a book.  And if you're designing a cover yourself, look at other covers a LOT.

Second, even for writers who don't plan to self-publish (so you can leave the cover design to your publisher!) looking at covers can help you understand the changing sensibilities of the book publishing industry.  For example, the current cover, which doesn't show Marcy, the main character, might have been a decision to not show a white character, so as to increase the appeal to minorities, or it might have been a decision to not show a person who was overweight, to show more (perhaps) sensitivity to people who struggle with weight and body image.

The Cat over time

Here are a few previous versions, which have reflected the main character’s image in a few different ways.  Which one do YOU like best?

(I personally dislike any version of this book that actually shows a cat on the cover, but that’s just me.  The cat’s a metaphor, people!)

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I would love, by the way, to be an author whose book has been through so many printings.  I wonder if Paula Danziger has a copy of every single cover that’s ever been printed for this book?  It would make a great collage for her wall, don’t you think?

(For a similar historical collage of Judy Blume covers, scroll through this post.  And to weigh in on “girl covers” vs “boy covers,” click here.)

I bet you could probably put these covers in rough chronological order pretty easily.  And probably, if you read the book as a kid, one of these covers is more familiar to you than the others.  Does it bring back more memories?

My cover: right or wrong

Because the other thing about historical book covers is that if you loved the book as a kid, chances are every other cover just looks WRONG.  Inauthentic.  Like if Anne of Green Gables looked like this in your childhood…

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It might be hard to square yourself with an updated version that looks like this…

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Sure, she’s got the same orange pigtails and white pinafore, but somehow she doesn’t seem quite as authoritative.

(Oooh, but I just discovered that there’s a new graphic novel Anne of Green Gables that I really, REALLY want… !  And the publishers have been smart and turned Anne around backwards on the cover, so you don’t have to think about what she looks like until you open the book…)

Hmm.  Not sure I like what they’ve done with her nose, though.

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So where was I?

Oh, yeah.  Book covers, and how important they are. 

I think you can see from this that if you change the book cover, you do, in some weird way, change the book.

Why it matters 

I’m actually happy my daughter is reading the same version of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit that I read, way back when.  I feel like it’s almost the same book, in a sense, even though we just bought this one last year from a used book store in Tel Aviv.

If you’re self-publishing, think about how some of your favourite covers made you feel and put THAT into your next book cover – whether you’re designing it yourself or paying someone to do it for you.

And even if you’re not, and some brilliant art designer is going to take care of the whole cover thing for you, remember that you DO have a veto if something goes wrong.  When the publisher of my upcoming book sent me the cover, I really didn’t like one of the details they’d included there… and I told my editor so, gently.  They were very open to my thoughts and actually made the change I suggested.

Forget all that nonsense about how you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover.  In fact, you do, and there’s no way around it.  You judge the book by its cover—but you also remember the book by its cover.  Maybe even more than the text inside the book, the cover speaks volumes.



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