Well, what do you know? Apparently the publishing industry is not even close to dead. As we are reminded by the recent release of two books, “Cover” and “What We See When We Read”, by guru designer Peter Mendelsund, there are whole departments of smart and talented people devoted to the ancient art of book cover illustration. And these designers are not historical re-enactors in period costume wielding ancient, cryptic tools — but living and breathing professionals working on lofty floors in Manhattan highrises! Designing real printed book covers (on real paper!) that do not even appear in some electronic versions!
This is welcome news indeed for writers who are faced with no end of apocalyptic and hopeless rumors that herald the end of reading, the end of books, and the end of storytelling, period. It is so bad out there, we are often reminded, that the only recourse for aspiring writers can be to become your own editor, proofreader, designer, PR and social media expert, and to release your book yourself. Never mind if you are perhaps not the best candidate for any of these jobs. It will be incredibly fascinating and empowering!
Well, I have encountered this same slippery slope in journalism, where reporters who used to work with fact-checkers, proofreaders, layout departments, and, in broadcast journalism, sound technicians, engineers and producers — all highly skilled professionals — are now forced to edit, proof, and mix their own stuff, and, on top of that, become their own 24-hour wire service, constantly filing blurbs and tweets and Facebook posts.
The problem is that when you have worked with highly skilled editors, proofreaders, designers and PR professionals, you know with a hundred percent certainty that, almost always, your work is greatly improved by their work. I believe it is so crucial that, though I write this blog, it is ALWAYS proofed by somebody else. Why? Because, though I was once a decent editor, I know you are at a distinct disadvantage when proofing your own copy.
I am all for writers owning and directing as much of their work as possible. I am all for independent vision and creative control. And, of course, electronic and self-publishing is here to stay, whatever we may think of it. But I think it is disingenuous to argue that self-publishing presents a wonderful opportunity for all writers. I think it works very well for some writers. For many others, it is an opportunity of last resort — especially depending on what sort of book you have written. And I think for some categories of writing, this trend may indeed be disastrous.
I wrote a book called “White Night”, a work of literary fiction, and, like many writers, I know exactly where I would like it to be released — by a smaller literary imprint of a large publishing house. Why? Because I would like to work with a talented and sensitive editor, a great book designer and a motivated PR team. I don’t think it’s crazy to admit that, for example, it’s unlikely I would come up with a book cover that is as beautiful, mysterious, and evocative as the ones highlighted in Peter Medelsund’s book “Cover”.
There is an interesting section in this book where Mendelsund includes a passage from one of the writers whose books he has designed, along with pictures of the visually dazzling and playful covers. The writer, Ben Marcus, says: “It took me too long to realize that writers should not be allowed to interfere when it comes to the design of their book jackets.”
So, in this writer’s opinion, not only is he unsuited to designing his own book cover, he should not even interfere when he has one of the best designers around doing it!
As a writer of literary fiction, you certainly want your work to be daring and singular. If it is to be called literary fiction, it needs to be distinctive, and therefore, to some degree, risky. But the writer is not the only one who should have something on the line. There needs to be a group of people who believe in your vision, and can add their considerable knowledge and expertise, not to mention determination and force of will, to the task of bringing it to a wider audience. You need people who think that writing is important and valuable — much more than just a dollar to be earned.
I read with interest both of Peter Mendelsund’s books on a designer’s relationship with books and the creative process. Perhaps it has given me a few good ideas about how the process can work. Mostly, though, it has convinced me, once again, that I don’t naturally think like a book cover designer, and, especially when it comes to my own work, I would be less-than-ideally suited for the job.
I did end up wondering how a high caliber designer like Peter Mendelsund would illustrate my book. What visual elements would he pull from the text? How would he create a cover that is mysteriously enticing but not alienating or cryptic? Would the end result feel beautiful? Tragic? What sort of typefaces would suit the mood?
But, that’s the thing. No matter how much I wonder, I can’t really imagine how a professional — someone whose job it is to think about this every day — would do it. How could I?
Publishing a book, especially a literary book, is always a risk and a long-shot. Even at the best of times — if ever such a time existed — before our most recent spate of trials and calamities, it was never an easy or sure thing. Though you may see the author’s name on the cover, all books require the vision and effort of many dedicated, impassioned, highly skilled people. People who believe that, though it may not be easy or straightforward, ultimately, it’s still worth it.
I guess what that means is, in the end, and in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, I still believe in the publishing industry. I believe in what it can do, and in what it was meant to do.
But, of course, for it to work out in my particular case, the feeling has to be mutual.
(Psst! Hey! Peter Mendelsund, et al. ...)