Telling a Book by Its Cover

Last night I presented my books at Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, MD, at the restaurant’s “FIRST FRIDAY ARTIST TALKS.” It was a preview of the Hyattsville Arts Festival, which is on Sept. 14.  This presentation was different for me, as I focused on my book cover artwork painted by Audrey Engdahl.

I told about an interview of Knopf vice president and executive editor Jordan Pavlin by Michael Szczerban, an editor at Simon & Schuster (September/October issue of “Poets and Writers” magazine, page 61). Szczerban said, “Let’s talk a bit about book jackets. What makes a jacket excellent?” Pavlin responded, “I now believe that the most important quality is how arresting a cover is: how readable, how telegraphic, how distinct on the shelf, and yes, how it looks reduced to the size of a postage stamp.”

Some covers are not. Many telegraph nothing about what’s in the book and use hackneyed art similar or nearly identical to that on other books. In contrast to these nonspecific, “one size fits all” covers, I believe a book cover should give a reader some idea of what the book is about.  Here are my two book covers, painted by Hyattsville artist  Audrey Engdahl, and here’s what I think they communicate:

A COVERcologne 12-06

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Cologne No. 10 For Men

  • This satire is about the illusions and delusions of the Vietnam War – body counts, kill ratios, winning, “search and destroy” missions renamed “search and clear,” pacification, the Tonkin Gulf Incident, collateral damage…
  • Cologne is a metaphor for illusions–one drop of Cologne No. 10 For Men under the nose makes the stench of war smell sweet
  • The rice paddies, farmers and water buffalo in the background show it’s about Vietnam

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Well-Considered-FINAL-COVERWell Considered

  • I wanted to show that the book is about a neighborhood where residents work together across racial lines to solve problems that have risen from the deep past.  It is not an interracial romance
  • The novel is also about climbing out of the deep well that is our racist history. The oval at the top shows the opening of the well, the field stones (not brick or concrete) show that it’s very old; in Maryland, the setting for the novel, it was probably laid by a slave.
  • The houses at the top left symbolize life today, and the old store and lynching tree represent Maryland’s past. There were 43 lynchings in MD between 1854 & 1933.
  • The wall on the left is a sound wall in Bowie, MD, which was defaced with ugly neo-Nazi racist graffiti in 2006. Today it’s hidden by shrubs and trees, probably for the same reason that we’ve torn down all the slave cabins in the state—to help us forget.

I know that the artwork on my books is important because at festivals, I watch people come closer as they are pulled in by the cover. Then it is up to me to explain the story and make a sale. Several times passersby have approached to ask, “Who is your artist?” Audrey Engdahl. I certainly hope to have a painting by her on my next novel.

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One Response to Telling a Book by Its Cover

  1. Deron Lovaas says:

    Richard — I finally had a chance to read Well Considered over the Thanksgiving break, and wanted to thank you for penning it.

    As a Marylander, it was of personal interest to read so much about PG County history, and as someone who cares about social justice the dialogue and the history woven throughout were fascinating.

    And of course the story was a really good yarn that made it damn hard to put down!

    Excellent work weaving all of that together. Many thanks for sharing your talent and experience!

    Best,

    Deron Lovaas (College Park, MD)

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