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What Else Are You Supposed to Judge a Book By if You Haven’t Read It Yet?

Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it's tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can't say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many covers, most of which I didn't even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked professional. Here are five that I was shown but that in the end didn't make the cut.

Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. Both my editor and I loved the type in this cover, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter.

My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4 and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which was how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn't seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-Box popping out or a really interesting acid trip.

So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn't work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book, and I'm thrilled with it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Swimming Across the Hudson Used Hardcover $4.50
  2. Matrimony (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  3. The World without You
    Used Hardcover $10.50


Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You

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