The paperback of my memoir was released recently, but I barely recognize my own book with the new cover. It hurts my heart to say goodbye to the gerbils on the hardcover edition of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. But what else can I do?
In the publishing world, a lot of money and talent is poured into creating the perfect image and identity for every book. You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but a cover definitely helps sell the book.
On the grand totem pole of decision making, the author is usually among the last to see a book’s cover – after the designers, editors, marketing and sales teams, and publicist. Last year, when the editor of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter emailed me the cover design for the first time, I was as sweaty-palmed as a girl on her first date. I had reason to be nervous: Since my brother and I were both models for my father’s pet books about gerbils, I’d sent the publisher plenty of embarrassing photos to choose from, like that portrait of me at age 12, looking cross-eyed at two gerbil butts while I demonstrate how easy it is to tell males from females.
When I finally took a deep breath and clicked on the editor’s attachment, up popped an image that made me laugh out loud: Two gerbils – one brown, one spotted – peeping out of a pair of kiwi-green rubber boots with red trim. It was perfect. I’d even had rubber boots like that when I was a child. What better way to portray the comic story of an eccentric Navy man who became obsessed enough with gerbils to raise nearly 9,000 of them, with his entire family along for the adventure?
The book was launched in May 2009. For the past year, those gerbils have accompanied me to teach classes and do readings, sign books and serve as a pet judge at The American Gerbil Show. Fans seemed to love the cover. One woman put it this way: “That cover just says ‘pick me up and read me!’” The book cover was on my web site, and I carried roll-up posters with my gerbils and rubber boots to various events. For a while I even contemplated buying a pair of adult-sized green rubber boots.
Then, as the publisher was getting the paperback ready, I got this startling news: they were creating a new cover. “No more gerbils,” my editor said.
When I asked why, she explained the decision this way: “We’d like your book to reach a wider audience.” She hesitated, then added delicately, “You know, some women just don’t like rodents.”
I do know that. My own mother, despite being married to a gerbil farmer, never did develop any fondness for them at all. So what if gerbils put food on our table? “They have tails like rats,” Mom always said. “Ew.”
So, once again, I waited anxiously as the publisher tested different designs with focus groups. I saw two of them – both black-and-white photos of young girls with their backs to the camera, one in a white slip and the other in a bikini – and had mixed feelings. I know that flesh sells. It’s also true that black-and-white photos somehow carry more artistic heft. These potential book covers for the paperback of my own memoir were both lovely, moody images in the category of some of my favorite memoirs, like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.
On the other hand, they weren’t very cheerful pictures, and my own childhood, though decidedly bizarre, was a lot less tragic than theirs. Should my book go out into the world – to beaches and airports, subways and living rooms – with a moody black-and-white photo? I didn’t really think so.
At last, my editor sent me the final design for the paperback of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. I was so nervous that I made my husband stand beside me while I clicked on the attachment.
Once again, I had to laugh. Because apparently those at the top of the publishing totem pole had come to much the same conclusion that I had: Instead of a black-and-white photo of an adolescent girl poised for something to happen to her, the new cover has a little girl in a polka-dotted play suit running up a hill toward some flowering trees, pigtails flying. She isn’t waiting for something to happen to her. She is, instead, gleefully running toward her next adventure.
Admittedly, it’s a bit odd, as the author of a memoir, to see my book flashing a photograph of someone who definitely isn’t me. I can’t help but remember the covers of those other memoirs I’ve read and loved that have color photographs, like the chubby baby on A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and wonder now if those are the author’s own photos.
In the end, I suppose what really matters is that the new cover of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter exudes the energy and joy of a quirky, free-roaming childhood. The design captures the essence of the book, if not the literal subject matter. That little girl and I will become fast friends as we carry my book out into the world together.