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July 23, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, June 2009

Posted by webmaster
Each month novelist and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin shares behind-the-scenes stories about his meetings with reading groups to discuss his novel Matrimony. Today he answers a question that he has been asked by book club members --- whether or not he selected the cover for Matrimony --- and takes a journey through an important aspect of the publishing process. For more about Josh and his books, visit his website.

June's Condensed Statistics
Number of Book Groups Visited: 12
Number in Person: 4
Number by Phone: 6
Number by Skype: 2
Number of States Represented: 6 (New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan)
Total Number of Participants, not including author: 118
Total Number of Male Participants, not including author: 3

A Popular Book Group Question in June: Did you Choose the Cover for Matrimony?

Readers are very interested in covers, and why shouldn't they be? The cover is the first thing they see. And the cover is a visual representation of what is otherwise a non-visual experience. (Good fiction, of course, is visual in that it should appeal to the senses, and reading itself is a visual experience: you're using your eyes. But adult novels don't generally contain pictures, so the cover is in another medium, is a different sort of avenue to what's inside the book.). Writers, too, are interested in covers --- in large part because we want our books to look good and because we want the cover to be representative of what's in the book. Also, while it may be true that you can't judge a book by its cover, people do judge books by their covers. The cover is the first thing a reader sees, and a good cover will make someone pick your book up, whereas a bad cover won't. In a recent issue of Poets and Writers, a bunch of agents lamented the state of book covers. They said not enough money was being spent on cover design and that the publishing industry should hire designers from the independent music business. I tend to agree. In fact, if I were given a certain amount of money to spend on publicizing a book, probably the first thing I would spend it on would be focus-grouping potential covers.

Many authors will tell you that they had absolutely no say in their cover design --- absolutely no say in anything about the book other than the writing of the book itself. I was a lot more fortunate than that. I was included in the process all along. The hardback cover for Matrimony is a bathroom with two toothbrushes, and while I certainly can't take credit for designing the cover, the idea itself was mine. The art department at Pantheon came up with four possible covers, one of which was my toothbrush idea, and everyone involved thought that treatment was far and away the best; in fact, we were all quite taken by it.

With the paperback, it was more complicated. I wanted to keep the hardback cover for the paperback, and so did my agent, but my paperback publisher generally likes to do a different cover for the paperback. The paperback audience is different from the hardback audience, and putting a new cover on a book makes the book itself feel new. The art department did at least ten possible covers, all of which my agent and I hated. Then they came up with the cover with the two pairs of shoes, and we were on board. I can't say I'm in love with the paperback cover the way I was with the hardback, and I know some readers have wondered about the woman's shoes, which, since the picture is taken from a bird's-eye-view, look small, as though the shoes belong to a child. But it's a striking cover, I think, and in a lot of ways striking is more important than good: you want someone to notice your book when it's lined up next to so many others in the bookstore. If someone notices your book, they'll pick it up. After that, the book itself must do the work.

---Joshua Henkin