I had full confidence in my taste, until about ten days ago when I met with my brilliant little group of fellow creative entrepreneurs, and by unanimous vote, they told me to change the cover of my book How to Be an Adult. I wouldn’t have even listened to them, except that one of the voters was Katryna, the creator of said cover.
“It looks too much like your kids’ music album covers,” one said. “Too hard to read,” said another. “You need something hip. Your target market is 20 somethings. You need to appeal to them.” “Don’t go for Nields fans. They all have the book. Go for a new audience.”
The hilarious thing about all this advice is that I have been getting it all, word for word, for the past 22 years vis a vis our music career. Well, except the part about the kids music, since 20 years ago we had no kids music, but we did used to get complaints about our newsletters being hard to read. And once an A&R guy rejected the songs for the next record saying, “Too Nieldsy.”
Someone in my creative entrepreneur group suggested I go to a site called 99 Designs where they have contests among designers to make book covers (among other things), all for $299. In a week, I could have a new cover.
My group got very excited about this idea. I, meanwhile, wept quietly in the corner. I love the cover of my book so much it hurts. I love everything about it: the color scheme, the little me holding up the world of stuff, Katryna’s inimitable artwork. When I see it laid out next to my other two books, I love it the most and whisper to it, “You are my favorite child.” It’s SO pretty!
But eventually, I was swayed. OK, it does kind of look like a kids’ book. It is not exactly hip. This made me doubt my taste, which is the worst feeling in the world for an artist. There is that mean voice that says, “What do I know? Have I ever had a bestselling anything? No. So the other people must know something I don’t know.”
My friend Beth listened to me whine about how sad I was about changing covers, and how maybe I should just abandon the project and move on to the next one, and she said, “Right. You like what you like. And your cover didn’t work. And you love starting things, and you hate marketing them. So now you get to grow up and listen to your friends and get a new cover and do some work you hate. That’s being an adult, my friend.”
So finally, I went back to the 99 Design Website, clicked “Agree,” and starting a week ago Friday, the contest was underway. I was very quickly underwhelmed. I got a bunch of bad clip art covers, and too-many-to-count images of a young girl, half-dressed, sitting on a chair, her head bowed. In some, she wore a hat. In some she gazed wistfully off into the middle distance. Because I’d told the designers I was a musician, many featured electric guitars–as if that would somehow signify adulthood.
Then I realized I’d made a terrible mistake, timing-wise. From Monday-Wednesday of this all-important design contest week, I had my biannual mini-retreat (I call it a vacation from Suzuki practice, honestly) where I go to Kripalu, sit around and let others cook for me, go for runs, mediate, do some yoga, haunt the bookstore, and get my batteries recharged. I always say I will have a tech fast too, but so far that has never happened. And this time, with the contest underway, that would be an impossibility.
The way these contests work is that you have to constantly give feedback to the designers. “Try that in red.” “How about little hikers walking around a globe?” And you have to bother your friends––or in my case, my kids’ babysitters––with polls soliciting their opinions; then read the polls, sift through which demographic of your friends (and babysitters) likes which design, think about which of them would actually be a customer, then regret having sent it to your friends because now they will be annoyed with you for ignoring their advice.
So I went to Kripalu thinking I would work on my novel The Big Idea, and also do a tech fast, and also immerse myself in silence and meditation and yoga and become enlightened in two days, and also maybe write some songs, and also read some new book that I hadn’t yet discovered, and also organize the files on my computer. By Tuesday evening, my back hurt and I’d only worked on one scene of my novel, and I hadn’t found a book to read, and I definitely wasn’t yet enlightened, and my cover contest was a total bust, and I missed my family (and even Suzuki practice) and wanted to go home so badly I almost left early. But then I got a massage and went to sleep.
What ended up happening was that I got a bunch of sensible designs, none of which was a knockout, and then this one crazy Edward Gorey-esque cover that made absolutely no sense. “That one!”I shouted, and all my family members said, “Whaaaa???” I stuck this outlier in the poll, and all the poll takers said, “Whaaa????” And then, the Edward Gorey-esque artists sent me a new design that actually kind of worked. At least it worked for me and a bunch of my poll people. (Many of my poll takers still said, “Whaaaa?” And one said, “I have no idea what this even is.”) The artist was from Serbia, I think, and I fell madly in love with her work. I had her tweak the covers until the strange Gorey creatures stopped making my children cry (the one remaining is a rabbit playing…wait for it…a guitar). I did one last poll, and about a third of the people chose her design, and the other third chose something so heinous and clip arty I wanted to cry, and the last third chose an image with a ripped jean and the title coming through—a very clever image, actually, and one that might sell books. But just as many who loved the ripped jeans hated it.
Once again, I was confronted with the question: do you want to sell stuff, or do you want to like what you’ve made?
Several friends counseled me to choose the ripped jeans image. “You have the opportunity to reach a much bigger audience!” one said. Yes, but maybe not. And at the end of the day, I need to be proud of the work I do, and that includes my choice of cover. The ripped jeans image makes me feel sad and cheap. To me, being an artist with integrity means putting the work before my ambitions for the work. Does that mean I’ll never be a best-seller? I sure hope not! Am I self-sabotaging? My creative entrepreneur group may well call me on the fact that the new cover is basically just a hippification of Katryna’s old cover. It’s like a teen-aged version of such. But I love it. It makes my heart sing. The girl looks just like I felt as a twentysomething: what’s all this stuff on the floor, and what am I supposed to do with it? I wrote the book for people who feel the way this girl feels.
I am going to try both images. Stay tuned. In fact, I might use all three (Katryna’s too!) The great thing about self publishing is that you can do this.
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