“Writing a book, seeing it published, why that must be the most wonderful feeling in the whole world. To hold it in your hand, a book that began just as an idea in your imagination!” says a character in one of my novels. Writing a book is a (pretty much) solitary undertaking, but producing a book, “holding it in your hand,” that is a collective enterprise, pulling the author into myriad relationships, some more intense than others.
Naturally, there’s the editor (and no doubt her assistant) with whom the author has many dealings over many months. Trotting right behind in the process is the copyeditor. This person will question your punctuation, yes, but also ought to make sure that your references are correct. (Did Triscuits exist in the era in which you are feeding them to your characters?) I have learned the proverbial hard way that the author needs to alert the copyeditor as to the novel’s narrative quirks beforehand. Otherwise there’s a lot of confusion, and occasionally a lot of hard feelings. (On the other hand, I do have to admit I have more than once thanked the copyeditor for her alerts.) The proofreader then takes up your book. The author’s relationship with the proofer is simpler.
When it is suddenly over, it feels like a summer fling in September, ciao, amore.
Months before publication the publicist and the marketing people jump into the fray. In that intense moment—flurries of emails and phone calls, possibilities abounding—the author’s life will be intimately entwined with these individuals, all equally enthusiastic, committed to the glorious prospects for this wonderful book! But, alas, this is not so. The relationship ends, suddenly it seems to the author, and when it is over, it’s ciao amore, like a summer fling amid September’s fallen leaves.
What of all the other hands and eyes, talents and skills contributing?
There are other people who clothe the author’s words in print and paper and send those words out to meet the world. The book designer, the typesetter, the jacket designer and creator of the jacket art. The author is deeply indebted to these unseen contributors, but she has no contact with them. Their names are discreetly tucked on the publication page.
But what of all the other hands and eyes, talents and skills contributing? I’ve read that one of the Big Five publishers has started listing their names at the back of their books, production assistants, everyone who, literally, had a hand in creating the artifact. I applaud this choice and hope other publishers will follow suit. These contributors should be noted, acknowledged just like they are in films. (I always sit through the whole long list of ending credits until the lights come up and it’s just me and the guy sweeping up popcorn in the theatre.)
“I like it very much.” Or, “I like it very much.”
The second-to-last step in the evolution of the artifact is the dust jacket. The editor will send the author a “proof” of the dust jacket. To this the author can reply one of two ways.
“I like it very much.”
“I like it very much.”
Of all the many books I have published, there have been several dust jackets that I did indeed like very much. However, I only loved two of them, both were long ago and both by the same artist, Wendell Minor, who managed to evoke character and thematic canopy with his artistic rendering.
What could I say? Could I whine that Roxanne Granville wasn’t that skinny?
Mostly, publishers’ decisions about jacket art have left me baffled. For The Great Pretenders (Berkley, 2019) I was surprised to see Roxanne Granville, the central character, wearing an enormous sunhat, a yellow sundress and long black gloves, staring skyward, standing beside a fat-fendered 1950’s Cadillac in front of a line of tall palms with a generic cityscape in the background. This woman did not look like the Roxanne I imagined or described. There was no yellow dress in the book. Roxanne drove a smart little British sportscar, an MGT, not this big behemoth. The palms look more like Florida palms than bushy California palms.
“I like it very much.” I wrote to the editor.
I understood the fat-fendered Caddy, though I was surprised to see what looks like a parking ticket on the window. (The Great Pretenders is a Hollywood novel of the Blacklist era, the Fifties. Clearly, they wanted the jacket art to reflect that era. As for the figure not looking like my character. Could I whine that Roxanne Granville wasn’t that skinny? Could I inquire why she was looking skyward, perhaps to a flock of Canadian geese overhead? I could not. In the last draft of the novel, I put her in a yellow sundress (though yellow would not have been her color) and I did not include long black gloves, thank you.
I protested the cityscape.
But the more I thought on it, the generic cityscape made me bristle. I’m native to Los Angeles, my earliest memories are rooted there, and the sprawling city itself is important to the novel. I protested. I wrote to the editor again. “I like it very much,” I began, but I objected to the cityscape. At the very least, why not include the iconic LA City Hall? (Recognizable by anyone who has ever seen a television series set in LA.) I won that round, happy that my authorial input was acknowledged, maybe even respected. Oh, and no parking ticket for her.
I’m not even sure what I envisioned. It’s a handbook for writers.
The jacket art for nonfiction, I learned, is an entirely different process. For nonfiction there’s no central character, no particular era or overall thematic canopy that can be evoked in a visual image. When the editor sent me the jacket proof for Memory Into Memoir, (2021, University of New Mexico Press) I wrote back, “I like it very much,” though in truth it looked nothing at all like what I had envisioned. I’m not even sure what I had envisioned. Memory Into Memoir is a handbook for writers.
“Pen in hand” is a nostalgic image, perhaps even metaphorical.
What I envisioned was, oddly, more like the recent proof I received for jacket for the Chinese edition of Memory Into Memoir. I like it very much. I like the bright, the vibrant red. I like the wistful picture of a woman alone with a pen in her hand facing an open window and a setting sun. It’s thoughtful, even tranquil (though I know very well that writing a memoir is not a tranquil experience, quite the opposite). The writer in this gauzy scene appeals to me. I like the little drawing on the back, the disembodied hand, again, pen in hand, writing in an actual notebook. I like it because “pen in hand” is itself a nostalgic image, perhaps, now, even so passé as to be metaphorical.
I have zero idea what the writing on this dust jacket says. I have sent it on to my adventurous cousin, Patty Stephenson who has lived and taught in China. She can speak Chinese, and though I don’t know if she can read it, she knows a lot of people in China and they can read it. She will get back to me with their findings. Stay tuned.