How a Novelist Learned from a Book Cover

by Lev AC Rosen

Year after year, my creative writing students are shocked when they learn that most authors (except ones who are already hugely successful) don’t have approval over their book covers. My students are working on their novels, trying to break into the business, and they’re dismayed to learn that the novels they’re working on, the ones they’re pouring all their blood and sweat into, would most likely be presented in a way they have no control over. The idea of your book, your baby, being judged on something you had nothing to do with is a pretty horrific one.

I know the cover is part of the business—an advertising tool, something that has to sit on a shelf (or website) and scream, “Look at me!”—and that there are people who have been creating and developing covers for years. But that doesn’t make it easier to give your book to someone and hope that all the years of hard work, all the plotlines, characters, jokes, and emotions, can somehow fit into one image that also sells. It’s not easy, and it seems impossible. I think what my students are secretly afraid of—what a lot of us are afraid of—is that no cover is ever going to do all that.

I admit, I try to present ideas for a cover once I’ve sold a book. Or, as an editor friend of mine once said to me, “You’re one of those authors.” I just like to do what I can to make sure my vision is expressed. After all, who knows better how to sell to the book’s audience than the book’s author? (Or so I tell myself.)

And since a mash-up of hard-boiled noir and post-apocalyptic sci-fi struck me as an area where cover art can go particularly wrong, I made sure to offer suggestions for the cover of my book Depth as early as possible. But my ideas—vague cityscapes, drowning silhouettes—were nothing compared to the actual cover that creative director Richard Ljoenes and the rest of the team at Regan Arts delivered.

My publisher told me that she found the artist for the cover, Vlado Krizan, at 4 a.m. after going through many artists online. And I think that late-night work was well worth the effort. The final cover is gorgeous. More than gorgeous—it inspired me to think about my book in a new way.

The Empire State Building, which is on the cover, isn’t featured in the book, but now I wish it had been. There’s just something about seeing this iconic New York image thrusting out of the ocean waters. It’s an image that conveys striving and survival in a bleak but beautiful world. I didn’t think too much about striving when I wrote the book. I thought about survival, yes, but the image I always came back to was someone drowning.

After seeing the cover—the city, like a hand, clawing its way out of the water—I think instead of someone pulling themselves up, nearly drowned but still gasping for air. In many ways, it gives me more hope for my post-apocalyptic world. I can imagine this world more fully, and I can imagine it as a world where people are not simply surviving, but striving in new and dramatic ways.

So, though my students are often dismayed by the idea of not having final say over their cover, I feel I can now tell them that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The art inspired by your book—that new interpretation—can let you see your own work in a new way, and it can not only make it more dramatic and fresh in your eyes, but can let you see all the possibilities that you didn’t even realize were there. It can make you judge your own work in a new light, and that can be inspiring.

This article originally appeared in Publisher’s Weekly.