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How Do You Choose a Book Cover That Tells Your Story?

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How are book covers made? How do art departments capture an entire story in a single image? It can't be easy. Book cover designers -- especially at big publishing houses -- get descriptions of books by the dozen and have to sort through images and fonts, colors and, well, "feel," for lack of a better word, to try and provide a cover that tells a story -- and, ideally, a story that evokes the words beyond the cover.

As a contemporary fiction writer with New American Library/Penguin, I provide a synopsis of the book to their art department, just as indie authors must do for independent book cover designers. Then I hold my breath to see what the art department conjures up. Will the cover be "me?" More importantly, will it honestly represent the emotions and story I've put on the page and attract readers? This is important, because people really DO judge books by their covers, and will only pick up books with covers that intrigue them if they're in a bookstore. Likewise, they'll only click on those postage stamp links on Amazon if they find something about a cover that speaks to them as readers.

In the case of my first book, THE GERBIL FARMER'S DAUGHTER, the first cover for the hardback (I was with a division of Random House for that one), the art department came up with a cute idea: gerbils sitting inside a pair of green farmers' boots. For the paperback version, however, they changed the cover dramatically. That book has a little girl running through an orchard under a bright blue sky -- nothing to do with the book. Absolutely nothing, especially since the book is a memoir and the little girl is definitely not me. Their rationale? They wanted a book WITHOUT rodents on the cover, since some women apparently don't care for small animals that look like rats, and they wanted a bright image so Target stores would carry it. I wasn't in love with the idea, but it worked. Hats off to the marketing department for coming up with a cover that captured the "feel" of the memoir (happy, light) and would draw an audience.

For my first novel with NAL/Penguin, THE WISHING HILL, I loved the cover immediately. It has a picture of a little girl blowing dandelion seeds and is a literal depiction of a pivotal scene in the book. I had asked for this image and sent them suggestions, and they delivered -- with the added perks of gorgeous paper and colors.

My second novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, is a family mystery based on a true story, and a very emotional story at that, about three sisters searching for a brother they never knew they had. The first cover showed three sisters walking together on a beach peppered with roses beneath a bright blue sky. It was all wrong, both in fact and feel. There are no beach roses growing along this particular island, the three sisters would never have walked together in the book because their relationship was too turbulent, and the sky was too bright and happy for the story. I asked them to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and the next cover was much better. Still pretty -- a woman with her back to the camera, a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean in plum and pink and blue -- but with a hint of darkness. I love it.

Now, with HAVEN LAKE, the novel scheduled to be published in April 2015, the art department hit a home run and came up with a cover that really is "me" as a writer of tense, emotional family mysteries. The cover is beautiful, but evocative of loss, love, and hope -- just like the story I'm telling. Now I'm more excited than ever to finish the book as I start writing the last chapters this month, in preparation for delivering the manuscript to my editor in July.

In the case of a book cover, every picture really is worth a thousand words -- and more.