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Choosing the Right Cover

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We stand in front of the computer screen like the patrons of St. Matthew's tax office huddled around a table in that incredible Caravaggio that hangs in Rome's Contarelli Chapel. Before us is an image -- a box of matches and the title of a book on our '10 list: Burned, by Louise Nayer. It's not a great cover -- it's not the one we'll eventually choose - but it's electrifying nonetheless. After all that's gone into the preparation for this moment -- importuning the agent for submissions, getting a manuscript we like, negotiating the deal, editing and copy-editing the text, writing the jacket copy and the catalogue copy, chasing down blurbs -- we have arrived, a year after of the inception of the book whose cover we are now studying with silent fixity, at the moment where the whole thing becomes real. We are going to publish a book -- not a magazine, not a newspaper supplement, but an actual book that you can buy in a store or (does anyone do this anymore?) borrow from a library and hold in your hand without having to power up a device and sometimes, when you're not surfing the Net or babbling on your cell phone or reading email on your Blackberry, actually read.

I have been obsessed with book covers for as long as I've been obsessed with books -- and that's a really long time, believe me. I started my collection of Penguin Books at Kroch's & Brentano's in downtown Chicago (long gone, of course) when I was fourteen, and have added to it over the last four+ decades at a fluctuating rate; but let's say, to be conservative, ten a year, which means that I now own close to five hundred Penguins and Pelicans with color-coded spines. A book I bought in 1963 and still read from time to time is a blue Pelican called Under Pressure: The Writer in Society: Eastern Europe and the U.S.A. A longwinded title, I admit, but the abstract Soviet-red geometric figure against a stark white background (red, white, and blue; get it?) told me everything I needed to know.

Those austere, elegant paperbacks formed my introduction to books, and -- I have to confess -- I collected them as much for their covers as for their content. A book cover was like a face -- if you studied it closely enough, you could learn a great deal about the history and character of the book it clothed, even its mood. I loved the square, blocky-type Faber & Fabers -- no illustrations necessary for T.S. Eliot -- and the lissome torch-bearer on the Modern Library spines. The point of these uniform insignia was to identity the books they adorned as members of a unique club with a literary sensibility of its own. As Jeremy Lewis noted in his massive and entertaining biography of Allen Lane, founder of the Penguin Press: "He was anxious to promote Penguin as a brand, to sell the imprint as well as individual books." That's why we have a black spine running down the front of our books with the company's name -- Atlas & Co. -- emblazoned on it: We're saying, this isn't just a book, it's one of our books. It represents who we are.

The cover we're staring at on the screen today is by an artist named Jessie Katz, who we've never used before and who isn't even a book-jacket designer; she does works on paper and posters and customized cards. She came to our attention when she did a card for Caroline, one of the interns, that "blew our minds," recalls Lauren LeBlanc, our senior editor. "It had this kind of Sergeant Pepper quality, like an explosive collage."

Burned is a dark book - very dark. It tells the story of how the author's parents were horribly disfigured by an accident that occurred when she was four and that transformed her family's lives. "We didn't want a 'type' cover," says the book's editor, Natasa Lekic. "We thought about a photograph of Dad's burned bathrobe lying on the lawn, but we needed a cover that was edgy and intense without being a total downer." The argument for Jessie was that she wasn't a book designer; she wasn't stuck in some received idea of what a book cover should be.

Jessie had sent us four jackets, and we argued back and forth about their merits for a few minutes, but it was a pointless exercise. It was instantly clear which cover was right. We all saw it at once.

Here are the four covers. Which one do you think we chose, and why? We'd love to hear from you, and next week we will announce which one we ended up choosing.

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