Sunday, October 7, 2007

Book covers and bears

Wherever I appear to talk about Look Me in the Eye, the cover draws praise. People liken it to a Norman Rockwell print, and they tell me how it fits the book perfectly, how they love the squinty child, and how it stands out.

Many folks assume I created the cover. I didn’t. The cover is the creation of Whitney Cookman, who heads the art department at Crown Publishers. For those of you who have not met him, here he is, at his desk, the day before my book went on sale:




















Like all commercial artists, Whitney’s work is focused on a task; in this case, selling books. Some people will walk into a bookstore hot on the trail of my book. A snappy cover ensures they find it fast. Other people come into a bookstore to browse, and a book that shouts “pick me up” is a lot more likely to be bought that a book whose cover has nothing at all to say. The successful cover artist has to create cover designs that grab readers from twenty feet away in a crowded store. Everyone agrees – Look Me in the Eye has a cover that’s up to the job.

When I talked with Whitney a few weeks ago, I realized something interesting. Cover artists – to be successful – must have an “invisible style.” That seems strange, because a “style” is considered essential to many other creative people in the arts. For example, successful writers all have recognizable styles. Many readers could pick out a book by King or Grisham, for example, without ever seeing the cover. Once I've written a few more books, I hope the same will be true for me. Many art enthusiasts can recognize a Picasso, an Andy Warhol, or a Dali by the style, too. And the same is true of photographers, like Diane Arbus or Ansel Adams.

My own concert and circus photography has a unique, recognizable style.

But if a cover artist’s books all had the same style, how would they stand out? They’d all look similar. And that would never work. Each book cover must be totally unique. Look at some of the other big books from Crown . . . . can you see any pattern in the covers? I can’t. They all emerged from Whitney’s art department, and all are unique. That is a remarkable accomplishment.

(For those of you who wonder what the other Crown titles are, here’s the catalog page: http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/catalog/index.html )

That’s an interesting point to ponder . . . Whitney's a successful artist whose style must remain invisible to ensure success. Each book has to be unique, unless it’s part of a series, in which case the series as a whole must be unique and each title within must appear as a part.

I never thought about that before, but now that I see it, it’s obvious. I wonder what he’ll come up with for my next book?

Yesterday, my publisher, Tina Constable, was happy to send him more work. Here’s Tina at her desk, one Monday morning. Note how fresh and enthusiastic she looks, and this at 9 on a Monday morning. And that’s typical of this industry. Most all the people I’ve met in publishing seem to have a great love for the work. The only place I’ve seem similar enthusiasm in business is at music publishers, whom I visited back in my rock'n'roll days.





















I can’t quite imagine looking like that when faced with a pile of 500 insurance claims to be administered, or 300 loan requests to approve or deny. Creating and publishing books is truly a fun thing to do, and it shows.

Getting back to the book and cover design . . . When a book becomes a New York Times bestseller, the Times allows publishers to add a colored stamp to the cover. In my case, it says, “Instant New York Times Bestseller.” So as soon as they heard the news about Look Me in the Eye, the cover went back to Whitney for modification, adding a red star to the lower right side.

You’ll see the modified cover in stores in the next few weeks.

Before I go, I’d like to offer this vignette into the secret life of authors.

I was gone all last week, doing appearances in Washington DC and the Midwest. I arrived home late Thursday, and I went to Robison Service first thing Friday to see how the shop was doing in my absence. An hour after I arrived, Martha (my wife, who you’ll meet in the book) called.

“There’s a bear in the yard. A big black one. By the bird bath.”

She had not asked a question. She had merely stated the facts. Thinking for a moment, I felt some response other than “Neat!” was called for. So I said, “Maybe he’s thirsty, or likes poultry.”

Ignoring my response, she continued, “The dog was out there too but I brought him inside.”

Trying to be helpful, I said, “So we know he wasn’t hungry. Wonder what he wants?”

She squealed. Now, at this point, some guys would just abandon their mates and return to work. Not me. I always try and offer workable, constructive suggestions.

“There’s a shotgun in the closet. Shoot him twice if he breaks down the door. The bears at Yellowstone know how to work doorknobs but the ones here probably haven’t figured them out yet.”

I knew that was a good answer. Practical advice is always welcome.

Secure with my advice, she stood at the window and watched as the bear lumbered back into the woods. This time last year, we had a six-foot-tall moose in the yard. He wandered off too. Neither one of them tried the door.

* * *

And a few more tidbits before I go . . . .

I just found out that Look Me in the Eye is now Random House Australia's #1 non fiction title. Here's the top ten, Down Under:
1.
LOOK ME IN THE EYE: MY LIFE WITH ASPERGER'S by John Elder Robison
2.
THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins
3.
LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID by Bill Bryson
4.
THE RISE & RISE OF KERRY PACKER ' UNCUT' ( REVISED EDN) by Paul Barry
5.
MAKING THE CUT: A SURGEON'S STORIES OF LIFE ON THE EDGE by Mohamed Khadra
6.
SEARCHING FOR SCHINDLER by Tom Keneally
7.
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by Bill Bryson
8.
NEVER ORDER CHICKEN ON A MONDAY by Matthew Evans
9.
DOWN UNDER by Bill Bryson
10.
LOSING MY VIRGINITY: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Richard Branson

And in the United States, Look Me in the Eye has also debuted at #11 on the BookSense bestseller list:

http://www.booksense.com/bestsellers/hrdnon.jsp


All of this is far beyond my wildest expectations. It's hard to believe now, but just twelve months ago, I sat at this same computer wondering if my book would ever see the light of day. And look at it now!

And that’s all for this Sunday night . . . . .

22 comments:

Polly Kahl said...

Wow John, that post really covered it all. It's always exciting hearing about your writerly adventures, but I liked the bear part the best. It reminded me of Holly's post with pix of the bears on her kids' playset in the back yard. http://author-in-the-trenches.blogspot.com/2007/06/only-in-canada.html Publication is one thing, but wild animals are something else. I'm afraid I'm experiencing some bear envy here. And some moose envy too.

Russell said...

Polly may be suffering bear envy, but I could live without one in my yard. Having looked at the book list you provided, I'm afraid the only intelligent competition you have is Tom Kenneally....John you should make an effort to meet him during your trip here as he is a very intelligent, engaging conversationalist, a delight to listen to on the radio.
And having finally decided to abandon a publisher and self publish my own writings I know what it's like to finally see the hard work realised....sadly I'm not in your joyous position....I'm at 43000 on the sales list.

ORION said...

John. It's a BEAR!!!! Talk to Holly...
MUST SAVE MATE AT ALL COSTS!
Martha, look, I gave you the dragonfly -- it's all up to you now!
Congratulations John!

maria falcon said...

i just finished reading the book. iam so overcome with so many emotions.my aspergian teen son is going thru that extreemely isolating phase.he is very bright and difficult to direct.pages 239 and 240 really hit directly.when asked how he is ,the response is a monologue of his latest interest.hopefully others recognize his genuineness and he will affirm all that he is,just like john finally did- it was difficult to read because it took so long to be appreciated.lastly-kids rarely follow advice,especially if they have high iq`s and see themselves as logical and their social environment as illogical-"i want to be included but i don`t want to be like them,or deal with social trivialities."hopefully with maturity will come patience and we will be able to connect on a richer level.john robison is a ray of hope.maria falcon

John Elder Robison said...

Polly, I remember those bears on Holly's swing set. It takes a very sophisticated bear to use recreational equipment. I'd be concerned about bears like that.

Out at Yellowstone park, the bears mastered door handles and when people started locking doors the cruder bears began smashing windows but some bears - the ones with finesse - learned how to use a coat hanger.

Luckily for Martha, her bear wasn't one of them, or else it just wasn't interested in house raiding or wife eating.

John Elder Robison said...

Maria, the best thing about writing Look Me in the Eye is the letters and comments I receive from folks like you, who have a personal connection to Asperger's

John Elder Robison said...

Russell, you just have to keep at it. One year ago I wasn't even at 43,000. I was zero. And a few years before that, I hadn't an inkling of even writing a book. So you just never know.

The Muse said...

We have black bears that wander our neighborhood also. I have only caught a few glimpses of one while walking. My across the street neighbor said that one time a big Papa bear was pressed against their glass sliding door looking in the house. Lucky that bears around here don't know how to open doors yet! Then in the spring he saw the Mama bear with two little cubs in their backyard. So I guess now we have at population of at least 4 bears that live peacefully in our suburban neighborhood. I no longer leave bird seed out in my yard because this attracts the bears. Our yard is completely fenced in because of our dogs. I do worry about my little Poms being mistaken for as a tasty little rodent snack though.

Ampie, why don't you just blast some KISS music into the backyard to scare him away? No shotguns. At least the bears in your neck of the woods are not peeping Toms!

PS. Congratulations on the #1 ranking in Australia! That's wonderful news.

Piglet said...

i think your responses about the bear were pretty cool, and your wife sounds like a very cool cat :)

thanks for the info on publishing, it's a great insiders "view".

Holly Kennedy said...

Only one bear, John?
No worries! Please reassure Martha for me. It's when you have two or more that you need to worry :-)

Big congratulations on all of the growing success with LMITE.
I'm not surprised at all!

Holly Kennedy said...

Almost forgot to mention how tough we are up here in Canada... Tell Martha to picture this: Ten boys, all under the age of twelve, huddled together at their bus stop down the road from us as a mother bear and her cub wandered past not forty feet away.

Now, mind you, had I KNOWN this was going on, I would've probably squealed too!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Man, I've seen moose and deer and elk and ground squirrels and foxes and wild cats and coons and all other manner of creatures. Never a bear, damn it. I spend enough time up in the mountiains, I deserve to see a bear!

I also want to see a mountain lion, but my friend says I don't. He saw one once and it was so long it stretched all the way across their dirt road as it ran by! And they really do carry off little kids sometimes. Smart hikers "bell" their children in the Rockies.

I did see a catfish once in a shallow river in KS. Its face was bigger than mine.

Chumplet said...

We live about thirty miles north of Toronto, so we're not exactly one of the great wild places. Two years ago, a black bear wandered along the river valley and ended up in the middle of a 50's subdivision. After six hours of chasing, the authorities finally pinned him in a pine tree in somebody's backyard and tranquilized him.

A few months ago, elephants broke free from their pen at the local hockey rink during a visit from a circus. You can imagine the 911 calls at 3 a.m. A lady complained about the 'present' one of the pachyderms left on her front steps while munching on her petunias.

I don't think many of us have shotguns in the hall closet. It's a good thing yours wasn't 'smarter than the average bear'.

Kanani said...

Well, I like the bear story.

And the rest of it too.

The Anti-Wife said...

Love the bear story and the way you handled it.

Congratulations on your incredible success!

Drama Mama said...

John, I just watched your CBS interview. You are navigating through all of this beautifully.

My 8 year old daughter was reclining on my bed today, sipping on a lemonade. She was reading my copy of Look Me in the Eye and laughing.

I guess I don't need to wait for the audio version for her.

Thank you.

Alan Gage said...

My mom teaches graphic arts at the local college and has helped a few local authors lay out their books and designed the covers. The first thing she said to me about your book was how much she LOVED the cover.

debra said...

Kudos to you, John. I'm reading your book now. Thanks for a great read. We've had plenty of animals on our palatial country estate: raccoons, deer, possums, foxes and a few coyotes, but no bears...

Barb Kirby said...

Hi John,

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of your book from Crown. August and September are busy months for OASIS and I am just now finding time to write.

What can I say other than I think it's terrific? I also posted a review on amazon.com earlier tonight which should show up within a day or so.

I've been recommending your book to OASIS visitors and those who have read it so far have such positive things to say. I've also added mention of it to the Important News Area of my site.

Also, thanks for the mention of the OASIS site and our OASIS Guide to Asperger Syndrome in your resource section. I'm thrilled to learn that you found OASIS helpful.

Congratulations on the success of your book!

As an aside, we were in Amherst in late August looking at colleges for my younger boys. What a beautiful town.

Barb Kirby
OASIS (online asperger syndrome info and support)
www.aspergersyndrome.org

Angulimalo said...

Thanx John. I've realised that the hard part with writing a book is selling it. Writing about what you know and love is easy, it's convincing the rest of the world that's the hard part....for anyone who wants to see my "sales pitch" go to YouTube and type in "angulimalo".
Also I'm reading your book and loving it.
A question: "Is keeping a blog/writing responses online easier because in a way you aren't dealing with people?" I mean you are dealing essentially with a machine and I and everyone else are simply things that appear in the machine. But either way, you are a joy because you aren't bitching and moaning about Aspergers, you are attempting to help people understand their husband/son/nephew/uncle/cousin/neighbour better, and that has to be applauded.

PLANET3RRY said...

I think the bears in your area only know how to operate sliding glass doors...

Daly said...

I love the cover of your book! It reminds me of my own little (well, not so little anymore) Apergian son. Now he is 13 but he looked so much like the kid on the book cover when he was that age...well, it just makes me feel warm and smile every time I see it.

I took your book to the park yesterday. We were having a group homeschool 'park day'. I'd promised my friend she could borrow it. Well, anyway... a bunch of the moms started crowding around saying that they wanted to read it next.

I had to start a written list to keep track of everyone! Finally one the moms who walked up to me last said, "Oh! I'm just going to go buy my own copy! I can't wait that long to read it!"

Give your cover designer my thumbs up! love it!