VJ Books Blog

How a book jacket designer handled her own book’s design

I had been a book jacket designer for more than 20 years when I began a writing life. My first book, a memoir, tells of the revelations that followed the sudden death of my husband in 2003, my search for truth and the birth of my new self in midlife. After a career designing covers for other authors, I was thrilled as I imagined my manuscript typeset in pages between boards with a dust jacket. I was also terrified—especially when I thought about showing the final product to my dad, now retired, but previously creative director at Simon & Schuster for more than 30 years.

My first thought was that I should stay out of the design process. I was afraid if I tried to design it, I might fail miserably, and then be labeled a “difficult” author. I had worked with a number of opinionated authors over the years. Once, Allen Ginsberg mailed my boss a favorite bandanna so I could match the color precisely for his book jacket. Pantone 186 came closest. Ginsburg was satisfied and even sent me a thank-you note. While I continued to receive occasional fan mail, other authors weren’t so easy to please. After sweating through countless versions of a design, I wanted to run screaming into the street, and possibly even look for another line of work or perhaps only design covers for long departed authors who couldn’t complain.

When my editor sent me the first round of designs for my book, I eagerly ripped open the envelope, and then tried to suppress my disappointment. The design was handsome: an image of cherries in a cracked china bowl with elegant type. But it lacked the intensity and passion I’d hoped to communicate to readers. So my second thought was that having lived with my story for so long, I’d be a less difficult author if I at least tried to design the cover myself.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or its online miniature), but I have always been attracted to the packaging of the written word. I remember falling in love with certain book covers; I’d beg my dad for jacket proofs to wrap around my school textbooks. Bowled over by beautiful typography or an inventive image, I have purchased books because I was as smitten by the cover as the good reviews. I cherish my mini-museum of books with covers by Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig and other mid-century legends, purchased at street fairs. Most are paperbacks with wood-pulp pages held together with aging glue. Afraid to crack the fragile bindings, I haven’t read any of the books, but their covers speak of their intelligence and wit.

For my book about seeking the truth behind the veneer of a “perfect” life, I wanted to design a cover that would attract buyers without misleading them. The challenge was to find a simple, arresting image that would capture the story’s power; a beautiful, fragile thing that was somehow imperfect, as a counterpoint to my one-word title: Perfection. I began optimistically. How hard could it be to design the package for something I knew so well? But within a week too many concepts were bouncing around in my head. I felt deflated. I enlisted the help of my assistant, whose job description includes talking me off the ledge when necessary.

What was something beautiful, fragile and imperfect? We experimented with images of flowers and fruit: roses with withered, torn petals; blemished apples and peaches. We developed a simple treatment for the title, something that could hold its own against the bold image. Of the 20 layouts I offered my publisher, one image floated to the surface and felt right to us: a red and yellow tulip sliced in half revealing dark stamens. My assistant noted the flower’s subtle heart shape, while I loved the strong colors and the feeling of being forced to look at details I’d never noticed before, like the hairline wrinkles on a familiar face you might notice only at a distance of a few inches.

I sent the designs to trusted friends and colleagues. The tulip emerged as a consistent favorite. As I prepared to send the designs to my editor, I grew anxious, worried about which one of the 20 would survive. To my relief, the tulip was the winner, both for my publisher and for my dad, still my toughest and most valued critic. He gave me the thumbs up—though he complained about the size of my name (too small).

(Publisher’s Weekly, May 25, Julie Metz)