All books have a cover story. What’s yours?
Let me start this guest blog post with a confession: I am someone who does judge a book by its cover. Not all books, but with books of poetry, I certainly do. I believe what happens on the cover of a book of poems is key to what’s inside. If a book cover and its content can’t be of a piece, they should at the very least not get in each other’s way. I am writing about book covers today to celebrate the publication of my book, Drive, out this month, National Poetry Month. And, frankly, to celebrate the cover! Drive is my fourth collection of poems, and is the first one with a cover that, to my heart and mind, truly introduces readers to what they will find inside.
When I opened the carton stamped D R I V E on the side and held this carefully-made object in my hands, for the first time, I felt the impact of the oddity of the image, combined with the title, making a poem of the cover. I was holding a poem. Like a parent with several children, who loves each one differently, and who is not supposed to have a favorite (but does), I’m forced to admit that, when it comes to the cover, Drive is mine. And, here’s why. I’ve always wanted a book whose cover makes you to want to pick it up. With Drive I like the feel of the matte finish. The slightly smaller-than-standard width, made to complement the short lines in the poems––the whole glove-compartment-size of the book––makes sense. Katherine Bradford’s artwork invites the reader to reach for the book, to look, and look, again, to ask questions like: what does that airborne woman have to do with the word drive?
Our covers like our lives bear the marks of good and bad decisions, some of which are not always our own. In the design, production, and printing of Drive, whatever compromises were made on the cover along the way were so small and so few, I can barely remember what they were.
I was very lucky to find a home for Drive with the Boston-based press, Grid Books. It is a small discerning press, one that truly respects the final product, producing thoughtfully-made books and art imprints. While my book designer is an absolute minimalist, in terms of typography, he, my editor and I immediately agreed on the image. And that has made all the difference.
For each of my previous, much-loved books, there is still a nanosecond of memory, when their origin stories flash before me: the pleasures, the concessions, the rush, the glitches in the printing of a cover. At one point, when adamantly rejecting a proposed book design, I half-decided a brown paper cover would be better than what I was being offered. Even after that cover was fixed, I still imagine that the person I’m handing the book to at a reading or book fair also sees the mistakes or the wrangling that went into its shape. Then, I let this go. And there it is, the loved and lucky book, its vulnerable face looking up at potential readers, waiting to be embraced.
For my own books, and for those I read, I want the cover to make the outside as unique, as individual, as original as the poems inside. As a critic, art writer, maker, writer of poems, and former magazine publisher who is now passionately engaged in book-making, I know I see and expect things others do not. For a few decades I have been collaborating with, and learning from, my friend and graphic designer, John Kramer. Together we publish books and chapbooks, ‘zines, and all manner of printed matter. I blame him for not being able to overlook minor mistakes, when even the smallest detail in book design is off! But I celebrate, too, when I see how text and image come together, a thing of beauty. I ascribe to him my delight in knowing a little more than most about how this happens. Anyone who has fumbled with fonts to make a card, or menu, or invitation, recognizes when text and image come together in some pleasing way–or doesn’t, even if you don’t quite know why. A truly bad book cover might create enough tension in merely being so bad that it becomes eventually appealing, as a point of conversation, by being so puzzlingly wrong. I was actually embarrassed to be reading, in public, in a cafe, the first of Elena Ferrante’s astonishing Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, imagining strangers thinking I was reading some sort of dime-store romance novel. On the subject of book covers making a public appearance––I remember Billy Collins in a classroom advising students (only half-joking) to carry a book of poems around with us, at all times, to look really cool, even if you didn’t ever read it. And, don’t all of us want the covers of books we read and write to look really cool? Don’t we want the cover of our books to make something happen to readers, even at a glance, even before we read the first line of the first poem inside?
Of course, there are always surprises. Books that stand apart from others. And I’d much rather have a brown paper bag with text as a cover than something Hallmark, or cliché, or worse. Some authors, like Mary Ruefle, for example, will sell books based entirely on the strength of her reputation. (I’m in!) Her plain-faced text and imageless cream-color book covers leave a whole lot of room for the reader to fill in the blanks, a signature style of her press, Wave Books. Nothing gets in the way of what we expect. After all, there was an age when books simply had the title, the author’s name on the cover, the spine, and that was it!
Among the notable covers of poetry books from last year is Diane Seuss’s, almost unbeautiful Frank: Sonnets. Here is a book whose shape and size fit the poems inside, the width expanded to accommodate the poet’s long lines, the cover is in evocative/provocative conversation with the poems, and the image, personal to the author, to the title, integral to how this happens, making it a perfect cover. I’ll stop there, as the discovery of how this happens is one of the many pleasures to experience in the reading of this book, and a lesson in how to judge (and appreciate) a book by its cover!
Everyone with a published book has a cover story. The ins and outs, the delights and outrage, are sometimes operatic. Some are songs of appreciation and love for the care given their words by a thoughtful, artful press, while others are wrenching. One poet I know remains, spitting-mad at her first press, over a grim-looking cover, having had little or no say at all in how her precious first book of poems would end up looking. To this day, a decade later, she won’t speak of the editor, designer, or press without getting red in the face. Another friend’s experience, and resulting book cover is a dream, the energy, the imagery, the exotic creatures on it, so perfectly matches the climate of the work within, she could have painted the cover herself. This is another book I love holding it in my hands.
I’ve yet to meet a writer out there who is indifferent to the way their book looks. But some give little thought to the way their books appear to others. I haven’t made a study of it, but my guess is that a careless (or meticulous) cover might possibly reflect the poems inside. To those of you who are shopping a manuscript of poems, I have some words of advice. After the labor of love it is to complete the writing of a book, and the heavy lifting in finding a good home for it, you owe it to your book to follow through on this last, important, part of the process. Some of the best advice a friend ever gave me on publishing, and, in particular, on making a case for my book cover: “You have to fight for your book!”
Some authors are invited by their press to participate in every step of the process, some have no say at all. Some presses have top-notch graphic designers, some have no designers, deputizing publishing interns to get the book out the door. When looking for a press: find out how each one handles production and design of its books. Talk to other authors. Avoid presses whose book covers look amateurish. If and when you get to the contract stage of things, don’t be shy about asking how your press works with their authors on book design. Fight for your book!
READERS: I’d love to hear your cover stories, for inclusion in a possible collection of stories. Email me at via my website: elainesexton.org
Elaine Sexton is a writer, critic, teacher, and bookmaker. Her fourth collection of poetry, Drive, is out this month with Grid Books. Her poems, reviews, and essays have been published widely, in journals including American Poetry Review, Poetry, O! the Oprah Magazine, ARTnews, and Art in America, and online in Plume, On the Seawall, and Night Heron Barks. This spring her poems appear in three new anthologies of poetry: Tree Lines: 21st Century American Poems (Grayson Books), Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, & Social Justice (Cave Moon Press), and I Wanna Be Loved By You (Milk & Cake Press). A longtime member of the faculty at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute, she also teaches poetry and text and image at numerous art and writing centers in the US and abroad.