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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Judging a book business by its covers

Years ago my dad passed along to me a New York Times article on writers’ most humiliating moments. (He also once gave me a book — for Christmas — called Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. My dad had a lively sense of humor.) My favorite story in this wonderful article — here it is — is about a writer who found one of his books in the garbage. “‘Under the signature, in my own handwriting, are the words ‘To Mum and Dad.’”

I remembered this yesterday when I visited a magical little bookstore that specializes in titles for young readers. And athough not looking for my books, I swear that's true, I spotted a hardcover of mine, for sale on the shelf, that I had signed.

In 2003.


That YA novel had one of the worst book covers, in my opinion, in book-cover history. It was dark, dismal and depressing and conveyed almost zero information beyond title and author. As soon as I saw the cover, back when the book was coming out, I knew (this is a far-too-common experience) that it would sink the book. And for whatever combination of reasons, the novel did plummet straight to oblivion. (In my own defense, beside it on the bookstore shelf yesterday were three paperback copies of my next book, The Revealers, which has been selling steadily since 2003).

I started talking about book covers with the woman who was staffing the store. For her this was a pet peeve, as it often seems to be for people who work at getting young people to pick up books. She declared that virtually every author whom she’s seen visiting the store has said they had nothing to do with their book’s cover — and very often, she added, they hated it.

I don’t hate all my covers, but I do often hear complaints — and plaintive questions — about covers, especially from school librarians. The query I hear most is, Don’t publishers know how kids react to book covers? Don’t they ask?

My response is: You’d think they would. But they don’t seem to. And that’s a funny thing.

Publishing books for young readers is a marketing-dependent business — and how many other, similar businesses virtually never look for advice or feedback (think “focus groups”) from their customers? Yet book editors, art directors and marketers, in my experience, do not do this. They “know better.” I’ve actually had an editor tell me that kids don’t know what they like (!).

Except they do. Librarians tell me there are some basic principles. Kids don’t want to be seen with covers that feature kids who look nerdy or unpopular. Boys won’t look at books that appear, in any way, to be for girls. Kids know when they’re being patronized or manipulated.

It’s not hard to observe that the big publishing houses are in Manhattan, and Manhattan people tend only to talk and listen to other Manhattan people. I’ve written lately here that as the big houses struggle in a changing book market, small and independent publishers may have — do have, I think — an opening. And as small presses (like my own Long Stride Books) pop up, they naturally tend to be closer to readers. The cover of my new book, True Shoes, evolved in this space as I sought and received feedback from kids and their teachers (you can page down, and see). And I’ve just this morning been in touch with a middle-school teacher whose kids are today giving me feedback on the True Shoes cover, which we are going to improve.

Does a process like this, in which kids and teachers are actually involved, make for better covers? Probably not always. But any business that ignores the preferences and reactions of its actual audience is, you would think, perhaps a little too insular for its own good.

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