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Book Covers, Design Choices, and the Author?

Note: This post primarily applies to university presses, since this is where I’ve published.

The design of a book cover should convey the essence of what’s inside and intrigue potential readers (read: buyers).  As an author, I’m interested in how a designer visualizes the title and the ideas I’ve expressed in a book I’ve written or edited.  This can be both exciting (“The designer got it!”) or worrisome (“Whoa, that’s really off the mark!”).   It’s a process that I didn’t pay much attention to with my first book, and one I am far more invested in at this point in my career.

Dixie's DaughtersConsider the design of Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, published in 2003.   I didn’t have any quibbles with the font and the designer tried to incorporate some element of Confederate symbolism in the reddish bar below the photograph by adding stars.  Stars and bar, anyone?  There’s also a Confederate gray, one might say.

The photograph, one I found, is from a girls’ school in Texas where the students wore Confederate-inspired uniforms and are all standing at attention with rifles cast over their left shoulders, as though they were members of the CSA.  This conveyed a theme in my book, which is that it was women who took on the cause of Confederate memory and, in a sense, they were soldiers in the Lost Cause.

The only issue I had with the cover was that the initial gray color in the title muted my name and it couldn’t be seen.  This was upsetting, since it was my first book. It has since been corrected.

My second book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture came out in 2011.  A lot had changed since 2003. I was a more mature scholar and while I was open to the designer’s interpretation, it turned out that I needed to weigh in on this decision.

Because there were hundreds of songs written about the South by Tin Pan Alley lyricists, there was an equally large number of sheet music designs from which to draw from.  The art of Tin Pan Alley “Dixie songs” were, as you might expect, rich in color and design.  Like a book cover, the sheet music art was intended to convey the story told by the song, so the designer had plenty to draw from.

Some of the covers, however, should come with a warning: “Beware of racist caricatures!”  It should be implicit, really, but for some reason the initial design for this book actually drew from one of those racist covers.  That was when I said “hold up!”  The designer clearly misunderstood the implicit message.

Dreaming of DixieThe revised design got it right, because this was a book about how the South had been romanticized in American popular culture prior to the advent of television.  Here’s Miss Southern Belle strumming her banjo, sitting on some oversized cotton bolls and gazing out on a bucolic southern landscape.  Even the clouds look like cotton.  The art work is adapted from the sheet music for the song “The Whole World Comes From Dixie (When They Play That Dixie Tune).” No problems with seeing my name here.

My latest book, which presumes there’ll be another out in the ether, is Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South.  It comes out in October, but I’ve already got a jacket design, because marketing! (Speaking of marketing. . . reviewers, book bloggers, librarians, and other avid readers can now request to see the galleys on NetGalley.)

It’s a true crime story that drew on my skills as a historian, but it is written to be accessible to a broader audience.  Set in Depression-era Natchez, Mississippi, it offers insight into the decline of the Old South and southern families, but also about the Jim Crow South and the racial justice that sent an innocent woman named Emily Burns to one of the most notorious prisons in the region at the time, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman.

This book is very personal to me and so I really wanted the cover to reflect something of the southern gothic drama that unfolded that year, which resulted in national headlines. I also wanted to recognize Emily Burns, who family members called “Sister,” since she was the other victim in this crime.  She had to be on the cover. It had taken me five years to find a photograph of her and, more to the point, up until now, community memory had virtually erased her from the story.

First take on the design? No Emily.  “It didn’t work. It was confusing. Looks like she was the one murdered,” I was told.  “We can put her on the back cover.”  No, no, no.  This perpetuates her place in the story as being in the background.  No.  I also worried about the font of the title, so I pushed back.  Next take: New font, Emily, and two of the other principals in the case.  Much better.  Then I gave consideration to the original font design, because I was wrong. It was right on the money, because the font had been adapted from a ticket to Goat Castle (also known as “Glenwood”)  in the 1930s. You’ll have to buy the book to learn why there were tickets to Goat Castle.

Goat Castle

The final take on the design pushed all of the buttons–southern gothic, image of Goat Castle, the two white principals Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, but Emily “Sister” Burns was there, too.  There was also the font that drew from the ticket.  Success!

Goat Castle

I’m not suggesting that an author be involved in design.  In my case, I’m a historian and so just as I wouldn’t want a designer to correct me about history, it works the same in reverse. At the same time, the book represents you and your work, so when the situation merits your involvement, I believe that you can and should have a honest conversation with your press.  Be willing to compromise, however, because your press is responsible for marketing your book.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below.

The author and her dog

The author and her dog
Karen L. Cox and her dog, Phoebe
Me and my best girl, Phoebe. 2015

We are pack animals. Authors and dogs. Dogs and authors. It doesn’t begin or end with memoirs like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me.  My Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with photos of the dogs owned by my fellow writers, mostly historians because they’re my tribe, and I regularly post photos of my dog companion, Phoebe.

Phoebe. Pheebs. Pb. Sweet Pheebs. My gray girl. My boo who I often greet with “Hey, woo.” This is what happens to dog people. They invent language and terms of endearment to communicate with their four-legged companions.

Dog and cat
Even the cat loves Phoebe. 2016

Phoebe is pushing fourteen.  She’s been with me since June 2003. I mentally prepared for her arrival for weeks, knowing that it was a great responsibility.  I met her at the county animal shelter where they had given her the name “Ash,” because of her coloring.  It really is gray and not black.  They had also listed her as a chow mix, maybe because she was a chunky and fluffy ball of fur. But as she grew, and grew, it became clear that she is more of a lab mix than anything else.

Dog
Phoebe, 12 weeks. 2003

I brought her home and thought about her name. She was a gassy puppy. I teasingly referred to her as “fart blossom.” That became FB for short. And in trying to pronounce “FB” it became Phoebe. Despite this slightly embarassing beginning to her name, Phoebe, more than anything else, connotes sweetness.

babybellyphoebejuly-august20032
With Phoebe, July 2003.

She grew fast and her legs got long and she has always been able to make wonky shapes with them. In her youth, she greeted people by jumping on them–not the best manners–and now that she’s an older lady, she can’t jump, so she makes a high-pitched yelp when guests come to our house as a way of saying “pay attention to me first.”

My career would not have been the same without her.  She has given me a work/life balance. And as much as I’ve invested in her wellness over time, she has matched it with unconditional love, companionship, and contributed to my own well-being.  More recently, she has been the only being that has made the monasticism of writing my most recent book bearable.   Whether it was a sigh, a yawn, or a nudge to stop the tap, tap, tapping on my computer–she reminded me that I was not alone and breaks for fresh air and a walk are healthy.

Always a lady
Always the lady. Phoebe in 2007.

So, it may come as no surprise to many of my fellow authors who often dedicate their books to their human companions that I decided, this time around, to dedicate my book to the companion most tried and true, Phoebe.  This will not make a difference in her life, because hers is one of routine–feeding, walking, and the search for the next good scratching of her hind end.

But it means the world to me. It’s an acknowledgement of her steadfastness and the unbounded joy she’s given.  It’s also been an honor to have her by my side for so many years.  We should all be so lucky.

Phoebe, December 2016. Photo credit: Logan Cyrus
Phoebe, December 2016. Photo credit: Logan Cyrus

 

 

W is for Waffle House

W is for Waffle House

This weekend an exhibit of images and texts called Southern Icons, A to Z opened in Pike County, Georgia.  For each letter of the alphabet, the curators chose an icon. Numerous southern writers and artists were invited to participate and I count myself lucky to be among them. In my case, I was invited to participate by writing the text that accompanied a photograph by Tammy Mercure.  We were given the letter “W” for Waffle House.  Unfortunately, I cannot be there for the opening, but here is our entry:

Waffle House
Photo by Tammy Mercure

My contribution:

Cultural icons, even a southern icon as familiar to the region as Waffle House, has a history. The restaurant, founded on a short order concept, first opened in 1955 in Avondale Estates, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The idea behind the restaurant was simple: provide good food quickly, especially a great breakfast waffle, and provide friendly customer service—a dollop of southern hospitality, if you will. Add a jukebox and a menu that offered customers a bang for their buck and the result was rapid success.

Yet what often makes a restaurant a cultural icon is its brand, in this case, the Waffle House sign. Using yellow glass blocks that spell out W A F F L E
H O U S E in large black letters, the sign beckons customers day and night. As Tammy Mercure’s photograph illustrates, its power is in its simplicity. For many, it signals a nostalgic memory of their youth—food after a football game or the 3 a.m. munchies following a night of revelry. And for so many more, it has come to symbolize a shared experience around food, in a familiar setting, that transcends race, class, and generation.

 

Exploring the Land

Exploring the Land

Whenever I begin new writing projects, I do so not by heading directly to the archives, but by going to the place where events happened.  There’s usually something about the geography, the architecture, street patterns, and even the climate that helps me better understand the places I write about.

Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC
Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC

I’ve been doing this ever since I wrote my first serious undergraduate history paper.  The place was Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I wrote about a female seminary called the Burwell School that operated there beginning in the 1830s.  I went to Hillsborough, once the colonial capitol, to familiarize myself with the place. Fortunately, the building that housed the seminary was there, too, so I spent time in and around what had also been a large home.  In fact, very often such schools operated out of peoples’ homes–a fact I learned by going there.

Dunleithtourguide
Sarah and I had a very entertaining tour guide at Dunleith

More recently, I’ve spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, where it all began with an exploratory trip with a fellow historian from Mercer University, Sarah Gardner. We flew into New Orleans, rented a car, and made the 3 hour drive to the little town on the bluffs. Had I done a better job of looking at a map, the closer airport for reaching Natchez is in Baton Rouge, less than an hour and a half drive away.

It was a great beginning to a new book project.  Seeing the town, walking its streets, touring some of its mansions, and going to the edge of the bluff on which the town overlooks the Mississippi River helped me gain a better perspective of the town’s historical importance in the antebellum era.  Over the course of several visits there, I continued to learn more about the town through its streets and geography.  So well, in fact, that I have even given people directions when I’ve been there on a research trip.

Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs
Looking at the Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs

It’s not always easy to get to the place one studies, especially for students.  Still, I think it’s a worthy goal to encourage them to go if they can, and find ways to assist them when they can’t, by encouraging them to study maps or even go on Google Earth to “see” the landscape for themselves.

Cypress bog in front of Melrose
Cypress bog in front of Melrose, a suburban estate in Natchez

Exploring the land–both the natural and built environments–is a wonderful way to get to know the places we write about.  It also adds to our historical perspective.

Cheers,

KLC

Why an author site?

A few years into writing my blog Pop South, I began using it to promote my work as an author and speaker.  I’ve come to the realization, however, that the blog should be its own entity.  I also concluded that as someone who has had some modest success as a public intellectual, I should develop an author site to highlight my publications and expertise on the American South, especially as it pertains to Confederate culture writ large (not just ideology, but flags, monuments, etc.) and presentations of the region in popular culture.

I also have new books in the works–one monograph and a co-edited collection.  In the coming months, I plan to blog about the monograph and the experience of researching and writing it.  I hope you’ll follow along.

Cheers!
Karen