Kill Your Darlings

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By: Peter Terzian | August 2, 2009

It may be, as offline readership continues to decline, that the mere fact of a bound, printed book with a paper dust jacket is something to celebrate. But every book jacket designer has at least one that got away—a fresh, inventive cover that was shot down en route to the bookstore shelf. These “lost” covers form a parallel universe in which the books we read and love exist in entirely different skins.

The reasons why cover designs get killed vary: The author’s spouse didn’t like it. The marketing or sales department didn’t think they could sell it. The chain bookstores said they would only stock it if the cover was red instead of white. Designers can produce hundreds of compositions before finding one that makes everyone happy. But does anyone really know whether a given cover sells a book? “We all assume we know something about this body, whatever it is—the buying body or the body politic,” says Knopf designer Peter Mendelsund. “But, frankly, no one has a clue.”

We asked eight designers to show us their favorite runners-up, and to explain how and why these covers were nixed. In most cases, the designers were surprisingly sanguine. “It’s actually a good exercise to have to redesign something,”says free­lance designer Gabriele Wilson. “Quite often, the designs end up being stronger than when they started.”

Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford

Carol Devine Carson / Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford / Knopf

Outside the office of Carol Devine Carson, art director for Knopf, is a gallery of also-rans—mocked-up copies of books by Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and others, all with killed covers. The one closest to Carson’s heart is for Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker (2001), a collection of stories with a cast of half-pet, half-person mutants. Carson came up with a cheerful baby-puppy hybrid. “I showed it to [Bradford’s] editor,” says Carson, “and the reaction was really funny, a sort of ‘Eek!’ She said, ‘It’s kind of repulsive, it’s kind of scary, but it’s kind of charming.’ So I thought it stood a chance.” Bradford admired the cover’s “strangeness and creativity,” he says, but “something about that dog-baby’s face struck me as sinister and mocking.” After a detail of a pooch from an Old Master painting was rejected, Bradford and Carson chose a quieter canine close-up; both love the finished product. “Looking at [the original] cover now, it doesn’t seem as ill-fitting as I’d first thought,” says Bradford. “I have children of my own now, and perhaps a baby’s face isn’t quite so scary to me.”

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

John Gall / Remainder by Tom McCarthy / Vintage

Rare is the designer who ends up killing his own design. John Gall, art director for Vintage Books, had already received approval for his cover of Remainder, the critically acclaimed 2007 debut novel by British writer Tom McCarthy. For the story of a man with head trauma who uses his settlement money to stage recreations of his scant remaining memories, Gall’s initial idea was “to treat the cover as if it were a slightly damaged artifact,” he says. (The concept also nods to the shopworn state of remaindered books.) But Gall had doubts about his own de­sign, and worried that it was too sedate for a first novel being published as a paperback original. “I thought it needed a little something,” he says, “some color.” His concern led to a series of experiments submerging type in blue liquid, complete with a water tank, various shades of blue dye, and an assistant to swirl the fluid. At the last minute, a new cover was born. “It ended up feeling like we were rehearsing one of the scenes in the book as we slowly lowered the book in and out of the water again.”

God Is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.

Paul Buckley / God Is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr. / Viking

Paul Buckley, executive creative director for Penguin Books, came up with a bounty of possible covers for God Is Dead, a 2007 collection of short stories by debut writer Ron Currie, Jr. Each expands on the book’s fantastic premise: God lands on Earth in the Darfur region, taking on the form of a poor woman, who dies and is eaten by a pack of wild dogs. The dogs begin to speak about the deicide; Currie’s stories recount the frantic effect the news has upon various characters. Buckley says that his favorite idea was a collage of a falling coffin superimposed

on a seascape, which “reminded me of the Pink Floyd aesthetic that I’m so fond of.” Unfortunately, Buckley’s design followed the successful release of a special series of Penguin Classic “Deluxe Editions” with covers reconceived by graphic novelists. The editor and author requested a comix-style jacket; Buckley asked them to take a second look at his designs, but says that the “sheer number made them lose focus.” In the end, Buckley hired graphic novelist Anders Nilsen, “who has done fantastic images of talking dogs.… He nailed it right away.”

Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk

Rodrigo Corral / Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk / Anchor

Freelance designer Rodrigo Corral is the visionary behind the sometimes stomach-churning covers of Chuck Palahniuk’s shock-punk novels. When Palahniuk published Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories (2004), a collection of journalism and personal es­says, Corral designed a photographic cover that visualized a gruesome bit of family history: Palahniuk’s grandfather going on a murderous rampage as his father hid under the bed. For the paperback edition, Corral wanted to take the cover in an entirely different direction. He created a pattern of tiny icons—hatchets, dildos, cockroaches—drawn from every piece in the book, with a half-bear, half-bodybuilder figure (a reference to Palahniuk’s ad­ventures with steroids) in the center, then scribbled out each image with a marker. It’s the only one of Corral’s covers that has ever been rejected. “I feel they made a big mistake,” says Corral, who reverted to the original ominous-shoe cover for the paper­back. “Unless you know that particular story, it’s not as powerful.”

John Gray / Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer / Houghton Mifflin

East London–based designer Jon Gray of gray318 is best known for his covers—many hand-lettered—for some of fiction’s bright­est lights. Gray receives commissions from both American and British publishers, and oversees the design of the U.K. editions of Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Coe, and Ali Smith. In the U.S., how­ever, it’s his covers for Jonathan Safran Foer that have be­come iconic. After designing the jacket of Foer’s massively successf
ul Everything is Illuminated, Gray was given the assign­ment to work on the novelist’s highly anticipated 2005 follow-up, a story about a boy grappling with the aftermath of September 11. The book’s original title was I’M OK. With only a partial manu­script to work with, he came up with an intricate hand-drawn pattern of angels, griffins, and curlicues. But the cover didn’t prove vi­able when Foer renamed his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Some­thing told me that maybe this approach wasn’t going to work with the new title,” Gray says. In the end, though, the designer’s “hand” cover became one of the most in­stantly rec­ognizable book jackets of the year.

How Perfect Is That by Sarah Bird

Gabriele Wilson / How Perfect Is That by Sarah Bird / Knopf

“Editors sometimes need to see what doesn’t work, in order to figure out what does work,” says freelance designer Gabriele Wilson. That process was taken to extremes when Wilson con­ceived a cover for Sarah Bird’s How Perfect is That. The novel, originally titled Weightless, has at its center a fallen Texas soci­ety woman who hopes to re-enter her old milieu by opening a high-end catering service. Wilson’s earliest comp showed a woman out cold. “But they felt that she looked dead,” Wilson says. Pushed to make the jacket “lighter, more fun,” she says, she experimented with putting status symbols in floating bubbles. When the title changed, the direction shifted, and Wilson thought the braying ladies in Jessica Craig-Martin’s party photographs were ideal—“very decadent and over-the-top.” The consensus: The women were too old. In the end, Wilson collaborated with Portland, Oregon photographer John Clark to create a great leg shot: “He had all these models coming in and standing on their heads,” she says. Wilson is happy with the finished cover, which isn’t too different from her earliest concept.

Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

Paul Sahre / Notable American Women by Ben Marcus / Vintage

“It’s a little like navel-gazing talking about killed work,” says freelance designer Paul Sahre. “It’s such a part of what you do that putting it out there and going, ‘See, look how great this was,’ or ‘Aren’t I a victim?’ is kind of terrible.’” Most of the time, he thinks, “you end up at some better place after something gets killed.” He cites as an example his initial design for Ben Marcus’s debut novel Notable American Women, which was released as a paperback original by Vintage in 2002. Marcus’s story turns on a group of women called the Silentists, who try to get rid of all emo­­tion by not speaking or moving. Sahre visualized this with stock photos of a brick and a rock. When the cover got rejected, he came up with a line-drawn-based design. “I’m actually very happy with this. Still, I look at [the original cover] again, and this would have been a better cover. But then that other cover wouldn’t have happened.” Happily, he was able to recycle the initial science-textbook concept to illustrate a New York Times op-ed column.

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe

Peter Mendelsund / Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe / Knopf

Peter Mendelsund, a senior designer at Knopf, did “hundreds” of comps for Send, a 2007 guide to e-mail etiquette. The book met with “huge excitement” at the house, he says. One of his earliest designs was a rude twist on the Macintosh cursor icon. “I think that maybe alone would have helped sell the book,” says Mendelsund. But initial enthusiasm from the sales and mar­ket­ing departments turned to concern over whether chains would stock the title. A later design mimicked an e-mail window, with symbols standing in for the kind of ill-advised language the authors warn against transmitting. “There’s nothing particu­larly arty or fantastic about it,” says Mendelsund, “but it has some­thing that maybe makes you smile a little bit.” At the last minute, even those symbols made people balk, and a tamer cover made the cut. Mendelsund believes that the excitement of posi­tioning the book eclipsed the wit and charm of the authors. Sales were disappointing. This fall, Knopf is giving Send another chance, re­-launching it with a brand-new, non-Mendulsund cover.