The art of book covers: Recreating the jacket for IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE

That old saying, “you can’t tell a book by its cover,” hits home especially with authors who have little or no control over the images that the marketing department in a publishing house chooses to sell your book.

When I decided to make In My Mother’s House available as an e-book, I had the opportunity to create a new jacket. The novel spans three generations of women, starting with Lydia, a girl whose own mother dies in childbirth in the middle of the great blizzard of 1888 in New York City. However, most of the book is set in a New England farmhouse.

The original hardcover jacket showed a soft-focus copy of one of my own grandmother’s watercolor paintings of her sun porch.

I think my grandmother would have been amused by the “hijack” of her painting, but I know she would have been furious about the paperback jacket.

In that mass market edition, the publisher used an actual photo of my grandmother as a teenager which I had sent them for background research. Clearly posed by a formal photographer, the young woman leans against a studio backdrop, her dreamy eyes staring at the camera. Her long dark hair is fastened with an extravagant bow at the top of her head and she is holding a rose.

She is followed down the front of the cover by two what used to be called “bodice ripping” females.  They are generic women: thin faces, long wavy red hair, and troubled expressions. Each is facing away from the other.  Whereas the image of Lydia looks like a real person, the other two appear to be computer generated which makes the cover seem oddly unbalanced.

When I objected to this jacket (it was already in production), I was assured by the marketing division of the publishing house that an image like this would make readers pick up the book. Even though the novel sold well in paperback, I was never convinced the jacket was the reason.  My uncle, when he saw it, said my grandmother must be turning over in her grave and I had to agree with him.

Now that I had full control over the e-book production, what did I want this new jacket to say?

After a sad, motherless childhood in upper class New York, Lydia marries and moves to a farmhouse in Connecticut. Setting often drives my fiction and even though Lydia’s story has nothing to do with my own grandmother, I used the facts and dates of Grandmother’s life as a framework for the story I wanted to tell. For that reason, the farmhouse in the book is modeled after a classic 19th century white clapboard house where I spent many childhood summers.

That type of house, I decided, would be featured on the new cover. The image I chose is from a rural section of upstate New York, which perfectly fits with the book’s theme. The dark trees hanging over the house give a sense of foreboding.

Unknowingly, Lydia carries the wounds of her childhood into her role as a mother and grandmother. I’m happy that at last, the jacket image reflects the secrets and the sadness under this roof.

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