Commercial Publishing Pitfalls

American Dirt is  still on my mind. A lot of the fallout has coalesced around the publisher’s marketing tactics, primarily it’s liberal use of barbed wire, both on the cover and as an ill-considered promotional centerpiece at the book-launching party—yikes!
While the barbed-wire motif makes a certain kind of sense on the cover, it is still a questionable call, and using it as a centerpiece at an uber-elite publishing event is something else entirely—anyone could have predicted the consequences of that bone-headed move. But such moves are typical of the many pitfalls facing a writer in commercial publishing.

“Never judge a book by its cover.” The old adage still holds. In the world of commercial publishing—unless you are, say, James Patterson—you have little control over how a book cover depicts your work, or over any of the marketing decisions that follow. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.

When my first book, Arachne Speaks, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and the Marion Vannett Ridgway Honor Book Award for “a distinguished debut in the field of children’s literature,” I was beyond thrilled. I was so grateful for even having the opportunity that I didn’t question the choice of illustrator, much less cover art, I was never asked for input about either.  But the cover, when finally revealed to me, created a boatload of angst.

Arachne Speaks original cover

Arachne Speaks original cover

Taken from the book, the illustration totally works within the context of the poem. But as a cover for a children’s book? Well, you be the judge.

I took the cover to a conference of my writing peers in to ask their opinion. The consensus: a resounding WTF?? Many of my colleagues said, “Kate—think Columbine,” shaking their heads in disbelief. The horrific school massacre in Colorado had occurred less than a year and a half earlier.

When I contacted my editor and gave her what I regarded to be a significant amount of expert feedback, the response was polite but patronizing and dismissive: members of the marketing department had spoken, and they knew best.

Arachne Speaks revised cover

Arachne Speaks revised cover

The upshot? Booksellers refused to stock the book and the publisher ended up recalling it and covering the offending illustration with a new jacket.

In the meantime, life moved on in the fast-paced book world. Despite its initial critical success, Arachne Speaks had lost momentum.

Don’t get me wrong—I am eternally grateful to the publisher and editors who took a chance on a first-timer like me. Poetry is a tough sell, albeit for children or grownups.

Bottom line: I wrote a darn good book. I had nothing to do with any marketing decisions. I suspect Jeanine Cummins had little to do with the decisions surrounding her book, either. Who knows how differently things might have turned out if we’d just had some say in the matter?

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