Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Judging a Book (see under: cover)

Sadly, most of my adventures in the past three weeks have been both indoors and prosaic, rather than outdoors and/or literary: preparing to move house, moving house, swearing as we punched a too-large sofa through the freshly painted wall of our reno'd house. (I guess we were trying to make our indoors outdoors.)

I did find a little time to begin a campaign of shameless self-promotion in the hopes of getting a little media attention (a whisper, if not a buzz) when my book finally appears. Even at this stage—as I'm dealing with a publicist, a publisher, an agent, various booksellers, event planners, conference organizers, newspaper reporters, magazine editors, and TV and radio producers—the fact of the book's imminent publication doesn't feel real, and won't, I suppose, until I actually hold a physical copy in my hands, feel its heft (or lack thereof), the same tactile bibliophilia one experiences while browsing a good bookstore and that can't be reproduced by surfing Amazon.com.

What does convince me—more than five years of research and writing—that a book really will emerge at the end of this long, dark, nearly soul-destroying tunnel is the fact that I know (and have known since last summer) what the actual cover will look like. When I first saw it, I was a little taken aback by the cover design's (quite literal) in-your-face-ness. The book is about a kayaking tragedy on the stormy Bay of Fundy, and I'd always imagined a cover image (rather clichéed, I'll admit) with a distant paddler riding a mammoth wave: Paddle-to-the-Sea meets The Perfect Storm.

The one produced by the Penguin design team is far more dramatic. At first I worried: Is this too over the top for a true-life story of a young man's tragic death (several young men, in fact)?

The image quickly grew on me, however. I like the stark, graphic-novel-like quality of the photo-illustration (if that's what it is). And the close-up immediacy of the image better suits the style and point of view of my "nonfiction novel", in the sense that I've tried, as much as possible, to get inside the heads of the various participants of the Fundy Multisport Race, rather than view them from the pseudo-objective distance of traditional news reporting.

Most of all, I like the ambiguity of the person's expression on the cover. It could be an image of pain and panic—the look of someone in trouble, in desperate straits. But it could also depict an athlete in a moment of extreme effort, of pushing himself (or herself, even the gender isn't 100% clear) to the physical limits. And that ultimately is the border region that Fatal Tide explores: the desire of endurance athletes to experience moments of psychological exhilaration through physical suffering...and the sometimes fatal consequences of pushing themselves too far.

A cover, in the end, is intended not simply as a reflection of a book's themes, but mostly as a marketing device: people do judge a book by its cover, or at least whether to buy it, borrow it, and read it or not. With that goal in mind, the cover for Fatal Tide has worked so far. Last week, I sent out a few batches of emails to PR people and newspaper editors, inquiring if they'd like to do a story or a mention of the book.

The first emailing included just my written pitch and description of the book: I batted about .250 in the number of answers I got back. Then, for the next inquiry, I attached a small jpeg of the cover: suddenly, my average shot up—I got several immediate replies, and a good three-quarters of people I sent the message to said they wanted to read the book and likely do an article.

Did they judge the book by its cover? Who knows. But I think it definitely made them wonder what was inside.

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