The Making of Jaws’ Iconic Book Covers

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It’s an image that has caused an entire generation to be wary of the oceans depths: A woman breast strokes at the surface, and a colossal great white shark rises directly below her.

The initial covers of Peter Benchley’s Jaws were so memorable in their dread-inducing power that they made their way to the film’s branding, and today are inseparable from it. This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s breakout adaptation of the book, and we’re looking back on the development of its iconic pair of covers.

In 1974, following the massive success of the book, The New York Times Magazine published Ted Morgan’s riveting (and exhausting) behind-the-scenes piece about its publication.

The article touches on the book’s cover—beginning with art director Alex Gotfryd, “an urbane man with a Polish cavalry mustache who turns out 700 jackets a year.” Gotfryd initially commissioned Wendell Minor to illustrate Benchley’s own idea for the jacket: “to show a peaceful unsuspecting town through the bleached jaws of a shark.”

Minors comp at left, with Tom Simmonds’ eventual first UK edition at right

To turn it over to the Times Magazine, which brought the sales pitch meeting to life:

At the sales conference at the Taliment Country Club in the Poconos, six regional sales managers sat around a table listening to the editors make their presentation, and a slide of the jacket was projected on a screen. The sales managers were given the one-sentence sales “handle,” which in practically all the salesman, who usually have an hour to sell a buyer 60 or 70 titles, will have time to say, “the handle for Jaws” was: “The exciting tale of a resort town fighting for its life against a Great White Shark.” …

[Doubleday Senior Editor Tom] Congdon rose and made his presentation: “Of all the fish in the sea, the fiercest is the Great White Shark,” he began. He tried to create a sense of drama. He talked about the excitement generated by the book. He tried to convey a feeling of “you’d better get with it or you’ll be sorry.” The sales managers loved the book and the title, but there was considerable resistance to the jacket. It made them think of Freud’s classic dream of castration, the vagina dentata.

After the sales managers vetoed the cover, the publisher circled back to Gotfryd.

“We’ve got a problem. Can we have just a fish on the cover?”

“The cover’s not big enough,” Gotfryd said. “It will look like a sardine.” Finally they decided to go with a typographical jacket, the title and the author in stark lettering against a black background. They printed 30,000 copies and jacketed the books—an operation that is still done by hand—in Doubleday’s Perryville, VA, printing plant.

When Oscar Dystel of Bantam saw the jacket, he was unhappy. “Without an image,” he said, “No one would know what Jaws meant. It could have been a book about dentistry.” He asked Congdon to put a shark on the jacket. Congdon went to see Gotfryd and said: “Dystel wants an illustration. He’s advanced a lot of money. I think we should honor his request.” Gotfryd stifled his exasperation and called artist Paul Bacon, who made a rough layout of the enormous head of a fish.

“Why can’t we have a swimmer as well to have a sense of disaster and a sense of scale?” Gotfryd asked. Bacon came in the next morning with the completed jacket, an open-jawed shark’s head rising toward a swimming woman. Dystel was pleased and wrote Congdon on Dec. 20: “The jacket design for Jaws is much improved. If you sell 100,000 copies we’ll follow you to the letter.”

“We realized that the new version looked like a penis with teeth,” Congdon said.

Nonetheless, the book found its way to publication … but Dystel remained unhappy with the cover, even as Jaws became a smash hit. So for the first edition paperback, he commissioned illustrator Roger Kastel to improve it. As Empire reported:

As research, Kastel went to New York’s Natural History museum and took photos of Great White exhibits that were lying on easels for cleaning. With his shark image clear in his mind, Kastel took five minutes at the end of a photo shoot for Good Housekeeping to place the model onto a stool and get her to do an approximation of the front crawl.

The rest is (ominous, terrifying, traumatic) history.

Edit: Original comp added June 22, 2020.