As 2016 was drawing to a gray, rainy close, my friend Anne gave me a little royal blue book. Its cover looks like an embroidery sampler, the letters virtually stitched onto a canvas the color of Crater Lake in high summer. Barely 70 pages long, The Clothing of Books, by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is a meditation on book jackets and their audiences.
It was a timely gift. I was just then finishing the first round of edits to my manuscript about how the North Cascade mountains became a wilderness national park. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I would have to think about how to clothe my own book.
Envisioning a book cover
A couple of months later, my editor at WSU Press sent an email: “We need to identify possible images for the book’s cover. Have you any visions for the cover you’d like to share?” Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I did. While I did not have a specific image in mind, I had a strong opinion about what the image should show: the sea of mountains that comprises the North Cascades, stretching into the horizon. Now I just had to find a photo that conveyed the rugged magnificence of the range.
Academic press books aren’t usually known for their cover art. Their subject matter is often quite narrow, sometimes arcane, and covers reflect that. Academic presses don’t have big budgets and typically can’t afford to pay for cover art. Photographs from archives or other public domain sources are common, although all-graphic covers appear as well. But I hoped to create a book with broader appeal than academia and I endeavored to write an engaging narrative that any reader would find compelling, as well as one documented with extensive research.
In other words, I wanted it all: a book that looked and read like a trade book, but with the gravitas of an academic work bolstered by a thousand or so footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. The cover would clearly play a big role in achieving this goal.
Finding Andy Porter
On Twitter, I’d been following Andy Porter, an incredible photographer who specializes in images of the North Cascades. Based in Sedro-Woolley, WA, he roams all corners of the range, and his love of that landscape is evident in his transcendently beautiful photographs. Andy has traveled the globe, and his appreciation for his adopted home shows in his art. He became a photographer when he started backpacking, and writes, “The planning, the trip itself, being there, in the outdoors, that’s the best part. Being able to capture some part of the look and feel of the place is an extra bonus. It helps to keep the memory alive and makes it possible to communicate some small part of what it was like to others.” Exactly what I was looking for! I loved his work but knew my nonexistent budget could not pay for professional photography. Then, fortuitously, I caught an interview of Andy on an episode of Rudy Giecek’s Cascade Hiker Podcast. During the conversation, Andy mentioned that he sometimes allows local organizations to use his photos in promotional materials and the like. Hmmm.
I went to his website and spent a few hours reading his blog and trawling through hundreds of gorgeous images of the North Cascades, from night skies glittering with stars to alpine meadows waist-deep in wildflowers to mountains upon mountains upon mountains. Several, I thought, might be perfect for the book. I figured it was worth asking.
I emailed him, introducing myself and my book, and asking whether he might consider allowing me to use one of his images on the cover. I’m no marketing expert, but I suggested it might be good exposure for him, and that it certainly would be good for the book.
To my delight, he wrote back almost immediately, cheerfully agreeing and inviting me to use any image I wanted. Thrilled, I wasted no time, picking a dozen possibilities and emailing them to my editor. They went into the book cover design machine, and about two months later I received an email with this image:
My editor wrote, “We are really pleased with it, and welcome your thoughts.” My thoughts, when I could pick up my jaw from my desk, were that I’d gotten everything I wished for: an eye-catching cover that captured the monumental beauty of the North Cascades. I showed Mr. Adventure, and he said, “Oh, wow. Wow!” And that was the reaction from everyone else, too, usually accompanied by “Gorgeous!” or “Stunning!” or another superlative.
And then it hit me. This was my book cover. This was really happening. The book would be out there, in the world. People were going to see it, and hopefully buy it.
Fledging the book
In that instant, I understood that in some key way, the book no longer belonged to me alone. I’d worked on it for years, sitting in archives and libraries for days, going through dozens of boxes of records one sheet of paper at a time. I’d sat in my office-in-a-closet at home, alternating between typing furiously and resting my forehead on the desk, staring at my feet and waiting for the words to come. I’d sent a proposal, then the manuscript, to WSU Press, and signed the publication contract. I’d incorporated the suggested edits from reviewers and my editor. But it wasn’t until I started showing the cover image to people that I realized the audience was more than an abstraction. So I dug out the sapphire, palm-sized tract about book covers that my friend had given me months before.
Jhumpa Lahiri writes that a cover “marks the birth of the book and, therefore, the end of my creative endeavor. It confers on the book a mark of independence, a life of its own.” This captures exactly my feelings about my book once I saw its cover. She adds, the “cover has a metamorphic function as well. It transforms the text into an object, something concrete to publish, distribute, and, in the end, sell.”
I’m proud of my accomplishment in writing this book. It took a long time and I worked hard. As Mr. Adventure says admiringly, “You wrote a book!” Yep, I did. And once it got a cover, I began to let it go out into the world. I won’t be able to be there with it — it will have to survive on its own, with me occasionally parachuting in to give a reading or interview. But that’s okay, because this book looks just like I hoped it would, thanks to the amazing talent and generosity of Andy Porter, and to the impressive design chops of the WSU Press team. Together they captured what makes the North Cascades so special.
In honor of North Cascades National Park’s 50th anniversary, Andy Porter is publishing a monthly series featuring his favorite places in the park. Check it out!