What was Random House thinking? Katha Pollitt handed the firm a gift-wrapped successor to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, the white-hot bestseller from its Knopf imprint, in Learning to Drive. Her book, like Ephron’s, is a stylish essay collection about being a wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, New Yorker and writer.
Faced with this chance to strike gold again, Random House has – so far – blown it with Learning to Drive. Let’s leave aside the things the firm didn’t do for the book, such as publish a reading-group guide – Knopf didn’t at first post one for I Feel Bad About My Neck, either – and focus on what it did do: namely, give the book a cover likely to do nothing to help it gain the high bestsellerdom within its reach. Among the problems:
1. Visually the design doesn’t “pop,” industry jargon for “jump out at you.” It is way too dark and ambiguous. Except for the road sign, it looks a colorized mammogram. (Just what women want! A book that reminds subliminally them of cancer!) If you lean a few feet back from your computer, you may not even be able to read the title of the book (especially if you’re using laptop like mine, which isn’t brand-new and and has a relatively small screen). It just fades away. And that’s what it will also do at a bookstore or library where it’s surrounded by covers that do pop.
2. The gloomy cover, though a problem, might at least be defensible if reflected the tone of the book – if it appeared on, say, another paranoid Don De Lillo novel. But Learning to Drive teems with life as seen by a woman who is passionately involved with it. It is also entertaining. So where are the women, or even the people? Where is the wit? Yes, the cover shows a road, and the road is a classic symbol of life in literature. So you could argue that, theoretically, it fits the book. But marketing surveys have shown that a cover has 4-to-7 seconds to grab you. In those few seconds, how many people will make the symbolic connection?
3. Above all, the cover of Learning to Drive doesn’t suggest what is unique about the book. Its image of a road could fit anything from Richard Ford’s short stories to Claudia Emerson’s poetry. The cover of I Feel Bad About My Neck showed a jar of skin cream with the title of the book on the label and would have suited no other book. That’s part of what makes it a great cover.
I’m not asking for a copy of Ephron’s cover. And I’m certainly not asking for pink. But there’s a middle ground between stereotyping women and denying that a book has anything to do with them. The cover of Learning to Drive renders women invisible, and – oh, irony of ironies! – that is what Pollitt has spent her entire career opposing.
Cover design for Learning to Drive: Royce M. Becker
Why I chose Learning to Drive for this occasional series on book covers: This is case in which the publisher clearly could have done better. Many small firms can’t afford to hire great art directors (who oversee book design) and graphic designers (who often develop or execute the cover concepts). Random House can afford it. And some books have little chance of becoming bestsellers even with great covers. Others come from authors whose books will make the New York Times list if they look like dog food. Learning to Drive doesn’t fall into either category. With this book, Pollitt had the best chance of her career to “break out” — more jargon — and find her way to many more readers. She may still do it. But it would have been easier for her if her book had a cover that helped booksellers and others understand its uniqueness and position it correctly. Finally, this was a case in which a protest by Pollitt and her literary agent might have helped. Most authors have little or no control over their covers. Often their agents don’t have much clout, either, or won’t use it for fear of offending publishers. Pollitt has a strong following and one of New York’s best agents. There’s little doubt that Random House would have tried to accommodate them if they said, “This cover is unacceptable.”
Note: A thousand thanks to Sean Lindsay, the host of the site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, for a) noticing my comment that I didn’t know how to add images and b) e-mailing me instructions for finding and inserting images. Without Sean, you wouldn’t be looking at the image of Pollitt’s book but reading a description. If you’d like to see a blog by someone who really knows how to pull one together, visit his informative and entertaining 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.