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This Pretty Much (Book) Covers It


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Some items I doodled at the bus stop. Well, not really

Many book covers do well with a pretty face. But sometimes you have to go with someone’s rear end—you’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Through all my high school years, I was a lunatic thief, and became more and more brazen: I would dribble basketballs out of stores, march out holding new briefcases as if I were a businessman, stroll out with completely unrolled sleeping bags—my behavior was quite mad. I sold much of the loot at school.

I only stopped—temporarily—after spending a few days in jail for stealing a bottle of Scotch. Budgeting as a high school student can be so restrictive—stealing all the things I “needed” seemed to be a reasonable answer. Oh, I was an altar boy too—hmmm.

Clarity came to me on how I could pay my debt to society: I would write a memoir about my shoplifting business, in which I could complain about how all those stores and plainclothes people tried to thwart me. So I did. I finished the book a while back, checked it many times for the proper use of the semicolon, had a developmental edit and a copyedit, and then mulled over whether my stickman drawings of someone stuffing a tape player in their coat (collectors’ items, suitable for NFTs) would work for the cover. No.

Asking the Pros What They Know

So I checked out the sites of admired writers who are generous with their resources. I looked over Joanna Penn’s list of cover designers and Jane Friedman sent me her list of editors and designers. Jane’s list included Studiolo Secondari, for which I got a fortuitous second recommendation. I contacted Linda Secondari, head of the studio, and had a 30-minute Zoom call with her on my work and her process. She was grateful we were on Zoom, because I could tell she was nervous about me stealing the family tableware.

On request, I sent her 10 cover images I admired, taken in my local bookstore, with brief explanations of what I liked about the cover, whether it was image/illustration, typography, colors or something less tangible. That cover bundle is the lead image of the post here.

She then sent me a 4-page creative brief, a portion of which I’ve included below. The brief covers a number of points on cover possibilities and flavors, image potentials, and also had a number of questions for me. I replied to that brief with thoughts on her thoughts (we are thinkers!), answers and some questions of my own.

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Juggle the Votes (Then Rig the Voting)

After a couple of emails, she sent me four cover comps based on our discussions, seen below.

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Debriefing, that’s the criminal mastermind at 16 in the first shot, two modelings of the Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” album cover (with type somewhat modeling the Sex Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks” cover) and the last perhaps a take on an SciFi/drug fantasy feel, though the colored disks there were to be later rendered as candies. But if they brought LSD to mind, that was part of my diet then too.

I circulated the comps to 25–30 people, not all of them geezers like me and some of whom even read books. I probably should have shown them to some adolescent criminals in training, but none of their parents would admit such. What was amusing was that the favorite 1-4 choices in that bunch of reviewers, those mumbling knaves, pretty much came out even among the contenders. So I smushed the covers about in my mental crockpot and chose the grayish version of Sticky Bollocks, er, Fingers, with additional comments and observations suggesting small changes.

Give and Take Gets the Goods (and They Are Good)

A few emails later, the front-cover masterpiece oozing petty criminality was in my inbox, with the full cover version a short time later. Gaze at it below, and if your instincts are to call the cops, I’m good. I think it has some pizzazz, enough to get someone to pick it up and read my fervid blurb on the back cover, and maybe even think of buying it. Or stealing it.

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The entire process with Linda and her studio went very well, with good communication and understanding. Bonus: On our initial Zoom call, Linda also suggested Sticky Fingers as the title rather than my original Stolen Sugar. I barely had to think about it in saying yes. If the references are unclear, I suffered (and gloried in) sugar deviancy as a kid, which played its hand in my earliest baby-face days of crime, and on to mature transgressions later.

I’m grateful the process went as smoothly as it did. When the book is actually published (mid-summer?), I will tape it to my head, front and back covers, for a month or so, much like the old-fashioned sandwich-board-people ads of yesteryear. I’ll include eyeholes and a straw hole, and live on chocolate malts. That’s marketing.

Word sailors of WU, have you had interesting, infuriating, inspirational experiences in getting your book covered? Self-pubbers, have you had the gumption (or the goofiness) to try and design the cover(s) on your own? Is the cover of a shelved book the thing that first makes you grab it? Do the jeans on my memoir cover make me look fat?

[Note: this is Memorial Day. We should honor those killed and wounded in defense of our country. But this year, I too honor the souls of those needlessly shot and killed in what seems to be a crazed domestic war, the latest examples, in a long line, in Buffalo and in Uvalde. Light a candle for them.]

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About Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com.

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