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Cover Story...

As an author of dozens of books published by Scholastic, Bantam, Random House, Little Brown, Harper Row and other publishers that no longer exist, the choice of covers was never mine. As a rule, cover designers are hired by publishers and authors are presented with the finished work as a fait accompli. It doesn’t matter if the author likes the finished cover or not.

Since I was self-publishing Unforgotten Voices from Heart Mountain, I was excited to be in control.

At last, I’d have the power to pick or nix the cover of my choice. And then the choices came! After the agonizing weeks spent debating, tweaking, and consulting on the cover, I’d never want that job again.

Weeks before the book reached completion the cover became an issue. I personally started dummying up covers with some of my favorite images from archival photos. They all looked fine, except none seemed to echo the title. The voices in the book are largely from teens and young adults; but the most appealing archival photos are of little children, all too young to speak in the book. My first choice looked like this:

We had wonderful stories from former boy scouts, but if we used the scouts on the cover, it would appear to be a book about the scouts; a narrow view of the story.

Hoping to keep it simple, I chose a stark snowy image of the camp taken by Frank Hirahara. Stunning, but now, as one friendly critic pointed out—it was faceless; the voices were totally forgotten. For a time, I reasoned, readers could make the leap and imagine the many people with voices inside the tarpaper barracks. But I knew that was wishful thinking.

At that point I tried an all-new and totally opposite approach. Why not use a crowd scene, to reflect the many voices in the book. Sounded like a fair idea. I tried, but here's the thing, the people in the only crowd scene that might work have their backs to the camera. I didn't even keep that trial run.

By now, the book was being delayed by my indecision and the designer, a generous family member was becoming impatient. I wrote to my co-author, to writers, bookstore managers, and friends. Help me decide, please! One writer suggested using headshots of the people I interviewed from the interviews. Problem was, I did those interviews so long ago with a video camera that was long gone. All that remained were discs of questionable quality. Getting them converted would take even more time. But the suggestion did remind me of images inside an earlier book, the faces of the “voices” in my book, Dear Miss Breed. What if we did a cover with the faces that go with the voices from Heart Mountain?

In a matter of hours, I had it. I was done with overused archival photos. I made a quick job of it with headshots of the many people I interviewed...their faces popped with a freshness that illuminated the title and looked different from the many book covers about the incarceration. With or without the image of the camp, I thought this was perfect. And it would have been if almost all those headshots are from old photos that just don’t have the clarity cover art has to have.

“No way,” the designer told me. “Your cover is going to look like a homemade cookbook that will be an embarrassment.”

And then, our designer, James Oppenheim came up with something much better:

Bottom line, you don’t always get what you want and sometimes that is a lucky thing.

Another bottom line, my apologies to all the publishers who did all the grunt work and made all the decisions for all those book covers that were rarely what I envisioned. Who knew? Self-publishing is a learning process and I’ve learned a lot, mostly that I prefer writing and leave the many jobs publishers do, to them.


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