Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there? - Macleans.ca

Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there?

The Editor-in-Chief of Maclean’s was a bit ‘obsessive’ about the cover of his first book


Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there?

Covers matter. At Maclean’s magazine, we sell between 7,000 and 21,000 copies a week on newsstands, and the most obvious variables week to week are the cover subject, the cover image, and the cover line, which means that when we nail a cover, we can sell three times as many copies as when we don’t. I spend a good amount of time every week on the details of Maclean’s covers, endeavouring to arrange things so that our results are as often as possible at the high end of the range.

Last summer, when I was finishing the manuscript of my first book, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, my editor at Random House mentioned that we should start working on its cover. A few weeks later, she emailed me some mock-ups prepared by her in-house designers. She asked my preference. Once my input was received, I was told, the designers would produce the book cover. Simple enough.

I should have registered my choice, put the matter out of my mind, and finished writing my endnotes. I was working with a fine publishing house filled with people who package and market books for a living and, while I can claim to know something about newspapers and magazines, I’ve never worked in books.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that I’d spent five years writing The Uncrowned King and that I might never feel up to the chore of writing another book. If this was my one shot, I should do my best to get the cover right, on the assumption that covers are every bit as crucial to books as to magazines. I told myself that my input was important: if I know magazine buyers, I know book buyers—readers are readers.

I also knew, better than anyone else, the story that the cover was supposed to reflect—how in 1895 a wealthy young Californian, William Randolph Hearst, bought a feeble New York daily and engaged Joseph Pulitzer, the undisputed king of American journalism, in the most spectacular newspaper war of all time. By 1898, Hearst had supplanted Pulitzer as the dominant force in New York publishing, and was on his way to becoming one of the most powerful and fascinating private citizens in 20th-century America. It’s a big sprawling story with drama, romance, murder, prizefights, jailbreaks, literary scandals, enormous fortunes, brilliant new technologies, genocidal wars, the most exciting election in American history (with fascinating echoes of the Obama campaign)—and it all raises crucial questions about the role of journalism in our lives. Who, if not me, was going to capture all that in a single cover?

I offered my editor a long but polite list of suggestions for alterations to her proposed covers. I soon received another set of mock-ups by email. Some of my suggestions had been incorporated, but I thought, in my now obsessive state, that we hadn’t yet nailed it, so I next did what I do when I’m uncertain about a proposed magazine cover—I asked the art department for more options, fresh approaches. The response from the publishing house was cool.

Like all editors, I’m accustomed to cool responses from designers and art directors. Even the best collaborations between editors and art departments are at some level contests of will. Being a 25-year veteran of such collaborations—having stood toe-to-toe with some of the most ingeniously stubborn art directors in the business—I was not without resources. On a good day, I can bring a designer to heel with the arch of an eyebrow. Trouble was, these designers worked not for me but for my book editor, and they couldn’t see my eyebrows because we were communicating by email.

I’ll spare readers the humiliating details of my further efforts to take control of the cover of The Uncrowned King. It wasn’t long, however, before I was drafting designers of my acquaintance in Toronto, Montreal, and New York to produce alternatives to what I was now referring to as “the atrocities” coming out of the Random House art department. I sought confirmation of my judgment among friends, colleagues, my agent, and some poor woman at the next table in a hotel restaurant—“Just look at these two covers and tell me which you’d be inclined to purchase?”

I noticed amid all of my activity that I was losing the attention of the people at Random House. My editor had been sympathetic and accommodating early on, but past a certain point responses to my emails slowed until eventually I was informed by her assistant that my editor’s email was malfunctioning and that it might be weeks before it was working again.

When the last batch of alternative covers produced by my personal designers failed to elicit a warm response from Random House, and when a last anecdote I’d hoped to add to my manuscript was refused because it was late (in part because of my preoccupation with the cover), I went on strike. I quit answering emails from my editor’s production staff and announced that I was no longer in a mood to promote the book upon publication.

A few days went by.

My agent called: “Are you an idiot?”

My daughter picked up my favourite of the alternative covers I’d commissioned: “Is this the atrocity?”

My assistant said, “I bet they hate you at Random House, but I guess you’re used to that.”

Eventually my editor sent me a curt email saying that we were due at the press and that she was unilaterally approving the version of the cover produced by her art department. I think she mentioned that she liked it, and that everyone else in her offices liked it. She didn’t invite a response.

Foiled, chastened, I returned to my endnotes and resolved from that point forward to do with professionalism and good cheer everything asked of me by my editor, and I’m proud to say that some days I did.

Eventually the printed book landed on my desk. From time to time, people would come into my office and notice it. An embarrassing number of them have told me that they like the cover.

(Certain details of this story have been altered to protect the reputation of the author.)


Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there?

  1. It is understandable that authors wish to take control of their covers. However, many authors lack the visual skill necessary to concept a good cover. Authors should focus on writing great books, and trust the publisher to package it. (And in turn publishers should entrust their art directors with the cover design and treat them as professionals.)

    Thanks for the insight and good luck with what sounds like a fascinating book.

  2. Ken, sorry to hear you had a frustrating experience.
    I think we designers need to be reminded every so often that what we’re working on embodies a huge emotional investment on the part of the author, and that we constantly need to be putting out our best work to do efforts justice.

  3. Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. That is the flip side. We as designers have our agenda and the authors have theirs (which in the end should trump ours). I just wonder how much of the author’s wishes and ideas actually make it through the filter to us. I wasn’t trying to imply that designer knows best, rather give us what we need to know and turn us loose. A good designer has the author’s interests at heart. We want books to sell.

  4. Just as a matter of curiosity, how well did your July magazine cover score?

  5. Readers understand that the cover is not the artwork of the author unless it is expressly stated. Therefore, whether designed by the author or another, the cover is an artistic representation of the book’s meaning by one of more of it’s first readers. Understandable that many authors may be thrilled, confused or dissappointed by the feedback that the cover represents and how that feedback will play into perpetuity. Kindof like this online journalism which through an open comment policy cannot live in that nebulous area of reader receptiveness where a piece can sit in the mind uninterrupted for a time. I must say I like the old days of print publishing better. I love this cover for it’s art made from a font that endured until the san serif one I’m using now took over. And I love this one too for the same reason. I might have been enticed to read the Uncrowned King by artwork that showed triumph over print.

  6. When my first book was published, the lady handling the whole thing – literally; not even her partner in the enterprise knew about until the end – asked me what ideas I had about the cover art, and I told her. She declined to use any of my ideas. In fact, she didn’t even show me the cover or offer to change it. When the mess she’d made – the editing, as well as the back cover blurb – finally reached my publisher she was outraged. Unfortunately, it was too late and we’ve been stuck with the damned thing ever since. There are some people who like it, but it’s not good. Nor is that editor/cover artist still there.

    The second novel was a much happier production. I made suggestions, she made some prototypes and sent them to me, we went back and forth about three times, the last on the font of the lettering.

  7. Diva much?

  8. “I can bring a designer to heel with the arch of an eyebrow.” Is that something to be proud of? Those designers are professionals who studied design, yet you seem to think you know better. Would you question the work of your lawyer, plumber, doctor the same way?

    I always wondered why the covers of Mcleans were so horribly ugly and now I know why: the boss thinks he is a better designer. Please let the designers do their job. It would be arrogant not to. Design is a stressful job, that does not pay well, but the worst of it all is to have someone who is not a designer telling you how to do your job.

    I would love to see an illustration, or clever photography on the cover, instead of the usual image bank picture with the huge alarmist title with photoshop drop shadows. That would make the magazine look more professional.

  9. FWIW, I think this is a great cover.

  10. I’d be the same way. liking the cover of your book is important. People shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but they certainly buy books because of them. We pick up the ones that we think look interesting (or at lest i do). I’m sorry to say that i wasn’t too fond of yours. Better luck next time?