Many years ago, while a guest at a writing colony, I met an excitable writer who was worried about his debut novel. Every night at dinner, he sat down beside me and told me how many pages he’d rewritten that day, how his editorial process was going, and how much buzz he was already getting. Mostly, though, he talked about his novel’s cover, which he never went anywhere without, as if it were some kind of talisman. I saw each iteration of his cover, which arrived by FedEx every couple of days. They were all great and I told him so. “But if you had to choose one,” he asked, “which one would it be?”
All writers—and I am no exception—have fairly strong ideas about the design of their covers. I wanted mine to reflect the novel I wrote, and to be bold, imaginative, and attention-grabbing. I wanted it to whet a reader’s curiosity. I wanted it to make some noise, to drown out the other novels around it. I wanted to have as much input as possible, because, well, it was my book, after all, and I knew it better than anyone, right?
Just as a movie adapted from a novel can never truly reflect the complexity and emotion that resonates on the page, so too a cover can never truly reflect the novel within. It can come close, but let’s face it, it’s a different beast altogether and is best left to the experts—the art department.
If you’re lucky, as I was, you will have a team of designers who see something in your book that even you didn’t know was there. They will excavate and forage and root around in the novel’s mud and come up with something more inspiring than even you could have imagined. In my case, the thought of relinquishing such control went against everything I believed in, yet I refused to give in to it. Every time I felt myself reaching for the phone to call my editor to discuss my cover, I thought about that writer I had met all those years ago, remembering how involved he had been in the process and how the process had driven him mad.
I wasn’t about to be driven mad, so I turned my attentions elsewhere—I did what I was supposed to do when one has a novel coming out and left the rest of it to the superlatively skilled people at Algonquin, who came up with a fantastic cover, though not the cover that now decorates Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence.
That cover came at the 11th hour, the result of a printing mistake. “We like to call it a beautiful oops,” the art director wrote to me in an e-mail. The cover had returned from the printer full of strange and otherworldly colors—reds and greens and yellows. “We’d like to recreate their mistake,” she added, “if it’s okay by you.”
Nice to have been asked, I wrote back instantly, “yes, of course”—although a part of me wanted to say no, that part of me that had been dreaming of a different cover altogether. Was this the right cover for my novel? Did it speak to those mysterious elements, which had inspired me to begin with? I didn’t know, not like I knew the ending to my novel, not like I knew every character inside and out. But not knowing was okay with me, just as not knowing what the final product would look like was okay with me.
All of this is to say that we can never know what something will look like or how it will do in the world until we have released it completely, until it is literally out of our hands. We can never fully know if something is right until we see it differently, not as we ourselves imagined it to be but as someone else imagined it for us. Our covers are not our own and they were never meant to be. They arrive as inspiration arrives and hold just as much intrigue as any work of art can. It is a collaboration that works only when we step aside and let those in the know do what they do best—interpret, dream, and cover our creations in a beautiful oops.