As told by Delphine, the author
The adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover [jacket]” is only partly true. It’s not for lack of trying. The look of a book cover jacket is an important aspect of market positioning. It is what first catches the attention of retail buyers at major book fairs, reviewers and readers. It can persuade bookstores to display your book more prominently or, at least, give it more than “spine-out” (where only the spine title is visible) shelf space. It can also give readers a sense of the genre, subject and tone of the content. And, for the sake of truth in advertising, it shouldn’t over promise or under promise what the reader will find inside.
In the case of my book, “The Art of Gaman,” published by Ten Speed Press in 2005, coming up with the book title and cover jacket design proved as hard as developing the content for the book. The subject of “Art of Gaman” was fairly straightforward. It featured arts and crafts made by the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from the West Coast after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned in internment camps for the duration of World War II. Since they were only given a week to settle their affairs and only allowed to take what they could carry, the objects they made in camp were largely fashioned from scrap and found materials. Tossed and forgotten in storage sheds and attics, most of the objects had never been shown in public until I started asking friends and family who had been in camp what they had saved.
In all, designer Kit Hinrichs and his team at Pentagram/SF comped up about a dozen cover options. I rejected some, the publisher rejected some. It wasn’t a reflection on the quality of the design, but on what part of the book’s subject the cover image emphasized. This is a dissection of why we ended up with the cover we did.
This is the design that accompanied the initial concept proposal presented to Ten Speed Press. It featured photographs, taken by Terry Heffernan, of some of the objects made by internees. As a working title, I called it “From the Heart,” which reflected the spirit with which I undertook this deeply personal project. I also insisted on sharing cover credit with Kit and Terry, but they soon talked me out of it, saying that names like Hinrichs and Heffernan wouldn’t lend much credibility to the subject. This sample cover design was appealing, but it was a definite “place holder” since it communicated a look of cheerful Americana — the wrong tone for artifacts made by people who were essentially prisoners of war. But it conveyed the range of objects that would be shown inside and helped to sell the concept to the publisher.
Kit came up with this cover option, based on a title that I had proposed. The scissors were made by an internee from scrap metal that he had picked up near the automotive pool area in the camp where he was imprisoned. Terry photographed the scissors on rough hand-made paper, heightening its austere beauty. As lovely as the image was, we all agreed that both the title and photo subject were too narrow for the contents of the book.
This oil painting of a guard tower at one of the internment camps communicated imprisonment and desolation, but this painting looked liked it was done by a professional artist, when, in reality, most of the objects shown in the book were done using scrap materials by people who had been farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, etc. before being put in camp. Few had any formal art training. For the title, I was drawn to the word “desolation” because eight of the ten camps were in remote desert locations and two in swamps.
The split page with a photograph of the barrack living quarters at Manzanar, an internment camp in California’s Owens Valley, and a closeup of a teapot carved from found slate by an internee seemed to work beautifully with the title “Desolate Beauty.” The publisher nixed the concept saying that the title sounded too much like a “romance novel” and the scene did not invite browsers to pick up the book. Kit and I still love this version.
After months of suggesting titles and being shot down, one emerged that everyone liked. It sprung from the fact that virtually every former internee who lent me an object told me that doing arts and crafts in camp was their way to “gaman” – bear the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. The implied double meaning of the title, “Art of Gaman,” appealed to me, but I was sure that Kit and the publisher would pan it because 1) no one would know what “gaman” means and 2) no one would know how to pronounce it. To my delight and relief, they liked it. For this cover, Kit took the tiny wooden bird pins that so many people carved in camp and juxtaposed them over the evacuation notice that instructed all ethnic Japanese on the West Coast that they had to turn themselves in at assembly points in a week. The publisher was not in favor of this option.
Kit actually designed this cover to serve as the blad (which stands for “book layout and design” — the teaser brochure given to retail buyers at major book fairs). The publisher and I liked it; Kit considered it “a place holder.” He lobbied hard for the evacuation notice/bird idea, which he felt had more emotional power. A week before we had to release the cover file to the printer, I had to give a presentation on the book at a civil liberties conference. Because we were at an impasse as to which cover would have more public appeal, on a whim, I showed the two cover options to the audience and took a vote; this version won unanimously. Still dissatisfied, Kit added black bands at the top and bottom (shown), moving the author’s credit to the bottom to give my name greater visibility.
FYI: For those interested in seeing the objects in person, the book has become an exhibition, which will be shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, in Washington D.C., from March 5, 2010 to August 1, 2010.