There are no lightsabers in Neighborhood Sharks (pity, I know). But when you’re battling the monster that is cover design and choosing the title for your first book, you’ll try just about anything to mix it up!
It was July 2013, the interior art of my shark book was done and in, and my agent, editor, and I were at one of the most grueling stages in the process of publishing a book: choosing the final title and cover art—the two most important marketing tools for the book. After so many months of work on the interior, it was difficult to even think about next steps, but a book’s title shoulders enormous responsibility, and covers are—by far—a book’s most important image because those few square inches of space have so much work to do. The writing and interior art might be the best in the world, but no one will know if they don’t open the book. (For more about my overall approach to cover design, read here.)
The original book dummy was sold to my publisher as SHARKS: The Great White Sharks of the Farallon Islands, which was simple and descriptive but didn’t have a chance of standing out among the thousands of other books called “SHARK” or “SHARKS.” As for the cover, should it be something from the interior? Something new? Could there be blood? How could the image would pair with the title and typography, and add up to a meaning greater than the sum of its parts? To start answering these questions, I played around with a few interior roughs in Photoshop, hoping we could reuse something already done, but finally concluded that I’d need to make new art for the cover.
Knowing I would be doing something new was at least a place to get started. I also knew that the cover should match the mood of the interior, and boy did I love using all that red for the blood in the book. The high quantity of hemoglobin in an elephant seal’s blood makes it glow a fluorescent cadmium in the water, and from a design point of view, it is—I think—a striking and gorgeous contrast to all the surrounding blues. Since so many other shark books use red typography to suggest blood, I thought it would stand out to use red in the image itself. As for the content, well—wouldn’t it be fairer to kids and parents for me to draw blood on the cover, to signal that there’s also blood in the interior to potential buyers?
I did a little sketch and showed it to Macmillan, nervous that it would be instantly rejected. Meanwhile, the interior art was scanned, I made my rounds of fussy digital edits, and sent the files back to the book’s designer; still no word about drawing blood on the cover. A good sign? I had a hunch that my sketch was the right direction, but I needed more input to be sure.
I often need to react against something to figure out how I feel when making a big decision, so I tend to ask for lots of advice from lots of sources before reaching my final choice. I posted on Facebook: “Having trouble deciding how much blood can go on the cover of my shark book. None? Many pints? Kids like blood, right?” All the moms said, “I vote for a small amount” or “Kids might like blood, but parents decide what to buy,” while all the men said something along the lines of “All the blood!”
Yes! That’s it! Lots of blood, maybe even all of it. Living takes life, sharks eat seals, and there really is a lot of blood in a seal attack. I fussed around in Photoshop with a piece of interior art and did a mock-up based on my little cover sketch.
The cover direction felt just right; now all we had to do was name it. Yikes! I called my agent, who suggested that I reread the book with “an eye for titles.” I went to Central Park and sat in the sun with a notebook in one hand and a final dummy in the other. “Neighborhood Shark” was in that original list, along with options like “Razor-Sharp Smile,” “Farallon Feast,” and “Visual Predator.” (The latter sounds like a bad 80’s movie, doesn’t it?) More suggestions came in from family and Facebook and friends and Macmillan, things like “American Shark,” “Sharks in the Neighborhood,” and “Sharks at Home,” along with the obligatory joke titles like “50 Shades of Shark” and, my favorite, “Eat, Prey, Shark.”
I emailed a rough list of the best titles to über-librarian/blogger Betsy Bird, and she graciously weighed in with advice. I also laid out six cover mock-ups—same image, different titles (plus the lightsaber one, just for myself)—and then visited my local library branch and Books of Wonder with the printouts to solicit more advice. The librarians were so helpful, as was Peter Glassman and the buyer at Books of Wonder, who all patiently shared their thoughts about what makes a book title good and memorable. I learned a lot from every conversation (and even kicked off a couple of friendships, hurray!). In the end, two or three titles stood out as favorites, and not a single librarian or book buyer objected to—or even questioned!—the blood on my mock-up covers.
One of my favorite title quest moments happened on the floor of the 86th Street Barnes & Noble. I was nervously looking around for parents and employees to poll and happened to notice an eight-year old boy standing nearby, apparently without a chaperone. Summoning the most uncreepy body language I could manage, I walked over, said, “Hi! I wrote a book about sharks and now I need to pick the title. Can I ask you what you think?” and held out my mock-ups as an offering. He eyed me as I quickly spread them out on the floor. And then—oh so adorably—he dropped down on all fours and carefully read over each cover, cradling his head in his hands to focus on this most serious job. “That one,” he announced, pointing to “Shark in the Water.” He nodded, then jumped up and disappeared around a bookshelf.
I found it fascinating that the shoppers I spoke with in Barnes & Noble all chose more generic titles, like “Great White Sharks” and “Shark in the Water,” while the librarians, book store employees, and book buyers all preferred either “Neighborhood Sharks,” “American Sharks,” or “Sharks at Home.” I asked the head of the children’s department at Barnes & Noble about this, and she wasn’t surprised at all. “Of course—the shoppers will all choose the safe thing. But I know I can sell this,” she said, and pointed to “Neighborhood Sharks.”
After all the feedback and a great deal of discussion with my editor and agent, “Neighborhood Sharks” won out as the final title, with “Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands” for the subtitle, and I went ahead and drew the cover with blood with no resistance from the Macmillan marketing team. I could not be happier with the final result, and with the extraordinary title design and layout by Andrew Arnold. Every piece of input helped make the cover what it is, and I treasure the time and thoughtfulness of all those who weighed in along the way!
At long last, my debut book as both author and illustrator will hit shelves everywhere on September 30th, and it’s oh-so-satisfying to hold and look at. Dear readers, prepare to meet your neighborhood sharks! And in the meantime, preorder the book from your local bookstore or online, and check out my brand new EVENTS page to see if you or your friends and family can make it to one of my signings. There are two launch parties planned, one in NYC on 9/30 and one in the Bay Area on 10/08; please join me in celebrating the birth of this book!
Thank you for reading, and see you at the shelf SO VERY SOON!