Judging a Book By Its Cover

21 Aug 2006

This is more of a brain dump than a post, but just the same ...

MARSELLUS: Now the night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting ... That's pride fuckin' wit ya. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit.
Pulp Fiction

So, this Tales of the Midwest project is nearing a critical stage -- the first great concatenation of 40-odd blog posts into a single Word document, then a thorough edit and partial rewrite (taking into account the many excellent comments offered during the process). Ultimately ... a manuscript. After that, sure, sure, I could go through the whole "find a publisher" exercise. Maybe I will ... But, you know, I just don't know if that's my bag, so to speak. I've been giving serious thought to just doing it all myself on Lulu.

Last year, as I've said probably one too many times now, I did this really fun thing called NaNoWriMo. For all who completed the task (and, something like 9,000 of the 60,000 writers did), a fantastic promo offer came in from Lulu.com, an online book publisher. Anyone who finished could get their book printed (one copy) by Lulu for free. I gotta tell you: For as rough and largely unedited as my novella was, it was still a decent thrill to receive an actual, tangible, perfect-bound, glossy coated hard-copy book in the mail.

How Lulu works (for self-publishing books): First, you format the book just as you would a normal book. So, there's a little design work to think about. I'm pretty handy with this sort of thing, having worked in publishing for so long. They offer an extensive primer for beginners -- what to say on the copyright page, which pages should be left-hand pages, which should be right, etc. Actually, there are no real "rules" and you can do whatever the hell you want (so long as it's legal), which is the primary benefit of self-publishing. Of course, if you want to offer the book commercially, you have to put a little thought into certain details -- such as working out the ISBN number paperwork, for example.

Once you get the text done (and, they give you the page sizes and other relevant measurements within which you must work), you export it into a PDF file. When you upload it to their site, they run your PDF through a checking program and let you know whether you've done it right. (It took me a few tries to get right, as I had a screwy font issue crop up on me.)

You then do the same for the cover page. I think I did mine using Photoshop. It's a pretty cool cover but, again, not something I could offer for commercial sale, as I used some appropriated graphics from the Internet.

Once your PDFs go through the system and you get the all-clear signal, the rest is simply paperwork-type stuff. They basically lay out the costs in an idiot-proof format. As I recall, the system says something like, "We'll charge $x.xx per book printed." Then it asks you how much profit you want per book. This could be zero, or it could be $50 -- whatever you want. Add the two things together and you have your retail price per book, which you could incorporate into the design somewhere (like on the back cover, over the bar code). Okay, maybe I have that backwards. I guess you'd want to know the price before making the back cover. But anyway ...

What I'm getting at is that it was a relatively painless experience -- user-friendly, even. I didn't once get the feeling that Lulu was one of those typical vanity presses that prey on writers who simply cannot get published anywhere else for whatever reason. (And, we all know the horror stories of famous writers who went through hell trying to sell their books. It's almost a cliche these days -- the Pulitzer winner who was turned down by two dozen agents and editors before someone "took a chance.") Is it worth going through all that, really? So, I kind of see Lulu as an active choice one would make about publishing a book -- a new, neat, novel thing. The cool part: You don't have to get hosed into buying 500 copies of you book; they one-off print them as people buy them.

Of course, there is the pride issue ... Vanity press books are viewed as being of "lesser quality" than those for whom the authors were paid, right? That's the perception, anyway. Or, at least that's what "they" say the perception is. Now that I mull it over, though, I don't know if I bring any preconceived judgments when viewing a self-published title. I never really thought about it before. Still, I guess there is always that pride issue -- enough to make me recall that quote from Marsellus in QT's Pulp Fiction. Should I fuck pride? (No comment necessary. Just a rhetorical question as I mull through this ... ) Anyway, all this is just talk, and it's neither here nor there. What I really wanted to talk about today was:

THE COVER!

Ahh, yes, the cover page. Now THAT is an important motherfucking issue (compared with that other minor detail -- the text itself). We wouldn't have sayings like "Don't judge a book by its cover " if it weren't human-friggin-nature to do exactly that. I'll admit it: I do this ALL THE TIME. I don't think I've ever NOT done it.

A quick tangent ... Out of every single person I've ever known, I'm proud to consistently be the one in any given group who never wants to leave the bookstore when we go. Say what you want about big chains -- i.e., category killers -- being the root of all evil in society, but I friggin' love mega bookstores. I love Barnes & Noble; I love Borders; I love Joseph Beth's. That doesn't mean there's not a soft spot in my heart for a good independent bookstore. That was a cool vibe that I definitely dug back before the big dogs came along. I put some serious time in, for example, at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle during my D.C. days. But those stores did all of the thinking for you. It was the indie owner's vision of what you should be reading. Respectable, enlightening, and fun, sure. But, I prefer it the other way around -- where you get to browse everything, and decide for yourself what's worthwhile. It's the treasure hunter in me, I suppose.

But, every trip, it's the same thing. Some dispatch from the group eventually finds me sitting on the floor in an aisle leaning against a shelf. "There you are," they say exhaustively, indicating that they've been looking for a good half-hour. "Everyone's waiting for you. They have been for ages, and we looked everywhere!!!"

It's because I move around a lot, I think. I like the science section, the bargain books, the philosophy section, the reference section, the screenplays, the new fiction section, the new nonfiction section, the music department, the music scores, the kid stuff, the small press poetry section, the periodicals. I'll take in a little James Gleick and follow him up with an in-depth price guide to collectible Hot Wheels. (That's a literal example, by the way. Somewhere in the bowels of my garage, I have my childhood Speed Racer Mach 5 Hot Wheel, which looks to be worth a pretty penny!)

My point, though (if there is one), is that, throughout it all, I have to admit that the book covers play a hefty role in hooking me. A great cover can capture the overall spirit of a book, can prompt one to pick up a book in the first place, and even perhaps influence how one "views" the text in his or her mind's eye. In other words, a book's cover is important. But, that's where the problem comes in ...

I want a cover that truly captures the spirit of the book. I'm envisioning an illustration -- anything related somehow to any of the screwy stories told inside, or possibly to a story not told inside but still with the same general spirit. Two examples:

Possibility #1:
Example of a cover illustration takenfrom an image in the book :

From the following excerpt, taken from the chapter on Giving The Finger:

"Thelast main variation I find to be themost disgusting. Usually, when I witnessed this one, it was being delivered by some whorish young thing stepping out of a Trans-Am on a street corner. Thus, I call this one ' thebreak up.' As you'll see, this variation is delivered sort of underhanded, in a highly distinctive palm-up fashion. Thefingers are all curled, making thefact that themiddle fingeris themost important almost tough to perceive. And, yet, theimplication is clear. See for yourself.

[illustration in original post of this style of giving the finger]

Most of thegirls I've seen deliver this have had many years experience wearing skirts that barely cover thebottoms of their asses. So, it's natural that they would be unconsciously aware of not bending at thewaist in public. Thus, this method probably evolved because it effectively lowered thegesture to window-level in theTrans-Am without really having to bend down. Further, I think theimplication these young lovers are going for is that their entire arm is being aimed at thedriver, which emphasizes theoverall statement, in my opinion."

Illustration: Whorish young thing slamming the door of a Trans Am, flipping the bird (in the style shown) to some asshole.

Possibility #2:

Example of a cover illustration not takenfrom an image in the book, but still reflecting the general attitude within the book:

One story that didn't make it into the book was my class senior trip. If I really wanted to force things, I could probably get a post out of that, but I tried pretty hard to tell only the more interesting "tales." All I ever mention (and in passing) about the Senior Trip was the suicidal roommate at the hotel. But, one other detail stands out in memory as something fitting for a cover illustration: I'd gotten hold of a can of hair spray at one point and did all sorts of pyrotechnic stunts with the thing. So ...

Illustration: Some dude lighting a cigarette with a can of hairspray ignited like a torch. There's a huge ball of flame at the top of the page from this, with the title "Tales of the Midwest" inside.

Possibility #3:
Completely open. I'm still thinking up additional possibilities.

Problems for Numbers 1 through 3:
I suck at drawing. Seriously, for all my talk about encouraging people to explore their capabilities, there's an important flip side to it all: When you do explore your own capabilities, you eventually have to draw a conclusion from such exploration. Sometimes, you'll just suck at things.

My level is probably somewhere around a semi-gifted 14-year-old. That is to say, I'm not entirely dreadful at mimicking simplistic drawings. Once I spent most of a work day doodling aling with a "how to draw manga" web site. My manga character wasn't too terrible, but it certainly wasn't original, either. It just sort of looked like the one drawn by the page author. But, the young whore and the idiot with the spray-can-blow-torch ... Those are pictures that reside only in my imagination; there's no step-by-step guide for getting them onto paper.

I really envy people who can draw well.

Solutions for Numbers 1 through 3:
As I see it, there are only two solutions: (1) have someone else do the cover illustration, or (2) don't have an illustration and just design something using text over a high-res picture. Well, it's getting late in the day, and I need to get back to work on a few things, so I'll just leave it there for now.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On August 22, 2006, wormstooth wrote:

I like possibility 1.

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