We all know that we’re not supposed to do it, but if we’re honest, we can admit that we do it anyway. And I understand why. The cover isn’t simply a pretty wrapper for the book; it’s the first impression, or more accurately, the first representation of what the book is about it. Its job is to communicate the best it can what lies inside those pages, appealing to the author’s desired audience while also hopefully casting the net a little wider to attract new ones.
It’s a daunting task for any artist. Still, the stakes are exceptionally high for the incredibly talented individuals tasked with grabbing a book lovers’ attention and convincing them to stop, stare, pick up, read the book jacket, and then buy the book. I’ve had the immense good fortune of having not just one but two stunning covers. And I’ve had the privilege of collaborating on both of them. I collected images on Pinterest, took pictures of books I loved at my local bookstore, and shared them with my team. I drew on my work as a brand storyteller and talked about what I wanted the cover to communicate, its tone, personality, and desired audience.
My first book, Mothers and Other Strangers, is the story of a complicated mother-daughter relationship and the lies we tell when the truth is too much. Rachel, the mother, is a beautiful, mysterious woman, a survivor of tragedy, who, while admired for her beauty, is also inaccessible, especially to her own daughter. I decided on the image of a Protea, the South African National Flower, where the main characters are born and where Rachel’s story begins and the novel ends. It’s a stunning flower but prickly to the touch, just like Rachel. The daughter Elsie has a recurring dream while trying to uncover the truth about her mother, so we added a wisp of smoke and set the whole thing against a black background. I love the final cover that the artist David Ter-Avanesyan created, and I heard again and again how the cover made people stop and pick up the book.
So when it came time to create the cover for The Wise Women, I knew it had to be something special. Again, I had the good fortune of being included in the process and had the luxury of seeing many different styles of covers—illustrated, abstract, evocative. There were many choices, which is so rare, I know. But there are so many more characters in this story of a meddling advice columnist mother and her two adult daughters. All the women are in crisis, and the story is set in three different neighborhoods in New York—Sunnyside, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Add an eclectic cast of secondary characters and multiple themes—belonging, ageism, gentrification, family, marriage—and the challenge to communicate all of that gets a lot more difficult.
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In the end, I thought about how I wanted readers to feel about these women who are all facing a future that, while unexpected, may be even brighter than they imagined. I wanted readers to feel hopeful, believe that things are looking up and that there are still blue skies ahead even on our darkest days. So that’s what the designer Joanne O’Neill did—created a gorgeous cover where each woman is represented by three different flowers in three different colors, set against a bright blue background.
The cover has gotten so much love and attention, and I’m very grateful. People comment that it makes them happy, which is exactly what I wanted. While this book deals with serious themes, it does so in a more lighthearted way that is meant to engage and entertain the reader with humor and heart.
Understanding how much work goes into a book’s cover hopefully removes any judgment that comes with placing so much value on it and lets us appreciate the cover art as an extension of the book itself. Stop, stare, pick it up, and while you’re reading the summary on the book jacket, scan to the bottom and take a moment to note the incredible artists credited for making you do so.
After two decades of working as an actor, Gina Sorell returned to her first love—writing. A graduate with distinction from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, she is the author of Mothers and Other Strangers and balances the solitary hours of fiction writing with work as a creative director and brand storyteller. Originally from Johannesburg, Gina has lived in New York and Los Angeles, and now lives in Toronto with her family.