Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 10.0: A Tale of Two Covers

A book’s cover is important, for all the false folk wisdom that you may have had.  The more so if you can actually get your local book store to turn your treasured work face out, which is pretty much the only way a casual browser will find it.

But however valuable a striking design may be, the cover is famously one of those elements in book publishing over which authors who don’t answer to Leonard, Gladwell or the like have essentially no control.

I have sought and gained in each of my contracts the right of cover review — thus giving me at least the de jure right to see what some designer hath wrought before it gets set in stone.

Strictly speaking, this right and a token gets you on the subway (showing your age there, eh what? — ed.)  No one at the publisher has to respond to whatever howls of despair and rage I may vent.  But at least I can vent.

But in fact, I’ve had pretty good luck over my career.  My first cover was fine, simple, but graphically effective.  My second, the hardcover dust jacket for Measure for Measure remains my favorite.  I can’t find a copy of it on the web but it was cool, trust me:  Robert Hooke’s flea, over which was superimposed the first page of the score from Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a bass clef and symbols Dalton used for his first tabulation of the elements.  Busy, I guess, but I love it.

The two covers for Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) capture the author’s difficulty here.  First, note, that unusually I do have two to comment on, as this book was sold simultaeneously in two different markets, the US and the UK.  The US publisher, Houghton Miffllin Harcourt chose a slightly early pub date than the UK’s Faber & Faber — June 4 vs. August 20th, so this is the cover I got to see first:

Levenson.Newton+Counter US cover

When I say “first,” I dont’ mean early…or at least not represented as early.  I think I got to look at this in November, for a June pub date, and I looked at it for a day or two, and liked it, pretty much.  It’s got a good feel to it, an atmosphere of threat, and it is unmistakably a London scene, and the type really pops. (You can’t see it so much in this rendering, but on the book itself the letters are treated to be shiny and a little raised, making them really commanding in person — a nice touch.)

Problems?  A few — and not to few to mention.  It is, IMHO, a little dull, a little generic.  In its final rendering, the atmospheric beige is a little less warm, more washed out…just a bit flat.  On reflection, though the thought did not quite occur to me at the time, it’s all a little Masterpiece Theater-ish:  worthy, respectable, and a little fusty.

But the biggest issue, which did occur to me at the time, came into sharp relief when I got to see Faber’s design:

newton english cover

The obvious, first:  That’s got some punch to it.  Black and white for maximum contrast, swords, coins, crowns and blood — and another image, showing the Tower of London, that unmistakably places the story in its geographical setting.  As far as I am concerned, this is a superior bit of book-art, one that will help sell the book when it appears in its market.

Oh — and one more thing.  It makes sense.  It’s historically accurate.  It draws on an engraving of the Tower that is period appropriate, entirely consistent with the late-seventeenth/early eighteenth century period of my story.

By contrast, the American cover is a Victorian pastiche inspired more by some half conscious memory of Sherlock Holmes than that of William and Mary’s London.  Every  man-made element on view is nineteenth century:  the Houses of Parliament, begun 1836; Big Ben, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the Embankment, construction starting  in 1862, Westminster Bridge, the second on this site, also begun in 1862, even — especially — the gas lights.  Gas lights!  That technology spread rapidly once the first gas – producing company got its Royal Charter in 1812 — but Londoners could not possibly have walked the streets in the glow of  gas-lamps before that year.  What was the designer thinking?

What was I thinking, to let this pass?

Well – I did call my editor, and noted, mildly, that the entire cover was anachronistic.  I conceded that the atmospherics were fine, but the actual historical detail was simply wrong.  My editor, still, at that point, Becky Saletan, told me not to worry — no one would notice, and it was the design, the look of the thing that matters. Besides, I was told, it was late in the game to seek a major redesign.

I caved.  I shouldn’t have, but I did. And much as I love Becky, and I do — as you will see if you follow the link above, she was dead wrong too. People do notice, and for those that do, it casts a funny light on the trustworthiness of the book.  I’ve been fielding some e-mails and have been pushing the blame onto my evil publishers, which is mostly fair, but not entirely.

So, just to break into the narrative here:  two morals so far.  One — you must demand right of review, as I did…and you and your agent have to be proactive enough, as I was not, to review at a stage when the design is not all but locked.  I ought to have taken part in some earlier stage, seen sketches, had some chance to push on the importance of historical accuracy for a book in which I took a lot of pains to make as persuasively connected to the past it attempts to vivify as possible.

Second:  don’t do what I did, and cave.  It wasn’t too late. It was November, for crissakes — seven months before publishing, four months or a bit more before the actual final mechanicals were set for the cover.  We could have gone through two or three more iterations…and yet, I caved.  Do what I say; don’t do what I did.

There was one last hiccup to the story.  When Becky resigned and Deanne Urmy took over the project for HMH in January, I told her that the cover was, in historical terms, a mystery wrapped in an enigma — or something like that.  Basically, that it was an anachronistic catastrophe.  She took it in, told her design department, who overnight shot back two new possible covers, both variations on a single theme:  a period – appropriate painting of some detail in a town or village setting, with title and author in type against the monochrome color field that framed the image.   Basically, a sixties era Penguin series design idea.  Not terrible, just aesthetically out of date and desperately ordinary.

I made the choice that interesting and wrong was better than worthy.  I had one last arrow to my bow:  I sent Deanne the Faber cover, saying, how about something like this — and meaning: why not just do a deal with Faber and use their cover, full stop.

I was either (a) too subtle or (b) treading on some incredibly triple top secret designer’s taboo that you can’t just choose the better of two pieces of work and call it done.  There is certainly a lot of investment in the idea that the British and the American markets are different, which is surely true — but I’m not sure if the difference extended to the point of sticking with a design known to be in error, given that the UK version is certainly, purely as a visual experience, certainly (to my eyes at least) striking enough to grab a browser’s attention.

So:  in sum.  I screwed up, and I learned, again, that the right of review is almost no right at all — unless you are prepared to go to the mat.  I should have.

There is one justification for the American cover, and its pitifully weak.  The subtitle of the book “The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist” evokes deliberately, the great fictional scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes.  As noted above, it’s that connection that animates this cover.  I guess you could say that the cover is supposed  to make that connection visually — and draw people in to read the historical story that anticipates the fiction.  Or not.

That said — what’s between the covers is a damn fine piece of work, if I say so as shouldn’t, so don’t be deterred by gas lights out of time.  And do, if you are getting ready to publish your own work, make sure that your editor lets you see what will be wrought in your name with enough advance warning to make a difference.  And even then, be prepared for an uphill fight if a fight is necessary.

Explore posts in the same categories: good books, History, Isaac Newton, Newton and the Counterfeiter, Publishing, Uncategorized

4 Comments on “Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 10.0: A Tale of Two Covers”

  1. […] Tom Levenson’s “Diary of a Trade Book” series quite a bit (the latest post is on cover art), so when I say a stack of copies of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of […]

  2. […] Tom Levenson’s “Diary of a Trade Book” series quite a bit (the latest post is on cover art), so when I say a stack of copies of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of […]

  3. […] Tom Levenson’s “Diary of a Trade Book” series quite a bit (the latest post is on cover art), so when I say a stack of copies of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of […]

  4. […] Tom Levenson’s “Diary of a Trade Book” series quite a bit (the latest post is on cover art), so when I say a stack of copies of Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of […]

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