One of the questions most frequently asked of authors has one of the least satisfying answers: "How did you decide on the cover?"
Because the answer to that particular question, at least in my case and the case of most authors with whom I've discussed it, is usually, "I didn't. I had nothing to do with it."
Authorial involvement with book-cover design usually boils down to this email you get, out of nowhere one day, as you're in the panicky final stages of finishing the book, and you've reached that terrible point where you are certain the whole thing was a terrible mistake, and you don't want to be a writer anymore and you'd like to go home now, and then along comes this email from your editor or your editor's assistant, with an image attached to it, and the email says, "Here's where we're heading with the cover. What do you think?"
And the subtext, which we authors are really good at interpreting, says, This is a finished product that a lot of people you don't even know have worked really hard on, so it doesn't really matter what you think.
My response to this email, every time but one, has basically been, "Great."
Because (and maybe I'm lucky, or maybe I've been working with the right people) the covers are
great. They are the work product of very smart, very creative people with a very particular talent that I absolutely do not possess. (The one time I complained was when my dear friends at Quirk Books presented me with the cover for Countdown City
, the sequel to The Last Policeman
, and I whined like a tiny baby about how my hero was missing his mustache. They said it wasn't a big deal, and I said, "Oh fine," and then threatened to go to bookstores with tiny little mustache stickers, but I never actually did it.)
There are some writers who grumble about being iced out of the cover-making process, but not me. I love
Because the thing is, while I don't in general complain about being a writer (which is a hard job only until you compare it to literally any other job), the truth is that writing a book is already such an emotionally and intellectually and logistically overwhelming process, that any aspect of the process that specifically excuses my involvement I experience as an absolute delight. It strikes me as very difficult work, ginning up a cover that reflects the content and tone of the novel, and also maybe sells some copies, and I don't want to be involved in that work any more than I want to be involved in typesetting or writing jacket copy or planning a marketing campaign. There are people who like to do those jobs and are good at them, bless their beautiful human hearts, and I for one am delighted to get the hell out of their way.
All of which is to say that, in the case of my new book, Underground Airlines
, published this month by Mulholland, the thriller/mystery imprint at Little, Brown, I had absolutely nothing to do with the cover, which means I am allowed to say this: it is an extraordinary cover, and I am proud to literally have my name on it.
You can judge for yourself, but here are the three reasons why I am so proud and excited about this cover, the creation of the artist Oliver Munday, in collaboration with Little, Brown art director Keith Hayes.
1) Selfish reason.
As mentioned above, the specific immediate purpose of a book cover is to capture the tone and content of the book, and also hopefully sell some copies. Whether copies sell remains to be seen, but there is no question that the cover captures the tone and content. Airlines
takes place in a nightmare version of contemporary America where slavery still exists, and its hero is a fugitive slave working undercover for the U.S. Marshal Service. He is a brilliant, tortured man in an impossible situation, who holds a darkness inside him but also a hopefulness, a melancholy goodness that I think the cover perfectly captures.
It's also just beautiful. It's a beautiful picture. It sings. It's epic.
2) Political reason.
There has been some discussion in recent years, which I have monitored with interest and anxiety as a white person writing a book with a black protagonist, about how the publishing industry in general can be reluctant to put African American faces on book covers. This is part of a larger, vital conversation about diversity in publishing: Who are the people writing, editing, and selling us our books? How much is the institutional racism that is part of American life reflected in the industry that creates, promotes, and sells stories and ideas?
In the opinion of some observers, publishers are reluctant to feature black faces on covers, presumably because white readers will assume that the book is a "black book" and won't buy it.
Obviously it would be better if this wasn't an issue at all, but the fact is these issues — of representation and equality and racism — are very much alive and crucially important, in publishing and in every other aspect of American life. Actually, that's sort of the point of the book. There was probably no way Little, Brown could have put a white person on the cover of Underground Airlines
, but they could have put no people on the cover at all.
3) Sentimental reason.
Two weeks ago it was my birthday, and some friends got me a lovely and thoughtful present: an early-printing hardback copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
, with the beautiful original Random House cover.
Somehow I had never noticed — despite the fact that I have stared at the Underground Airlines
cover for hours now, and the fact that that Invisible Man
cover is pretty famous — that the Airlines
cover owes a strong debt to the Invisible Man
cover, just as my novel owes a strong debt to Ellison's.
Book covers, like books, do not live alone but are part of a cultural and aesthetic tradition, and part of their function (a part I have never really thought about much until recently) is suggesting to potential readers what part of the broad cultural universe this particular book belongs to.
So that's just one more level where Munday's cover for my book brilliantly succeeds.
Every time I've gotten that email saying, "Here's where we're going with the cover,"
I click on the picture, hoping the image will live up to what I've written. This is one time I only hope my book lives up to the cover.
÷ ÷ ÷
Ben H. Winters
is the author of, most recently, Underground Airlines
and before that, World of Trouble
, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. The second book, Countdown City
, was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman
was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate