I get to choose the face my memoir presents to the world.
My Shepherd: A Memoir won’t be published until May 2014, but as it moves through my publisher’s system long silences are broken by sudden communication. The most recent was thrilling. I got to see—and to pick!—the cover of my book. For an author to select his book’s cover is fairly unusual, at least in the university press world. The publisher’s job is to package and market; authors throwing their weight around can muck that up. But they were deadlocked at Michigan State University Press between two covers, and sent me both to break the tie.
I’d known they were basing the jacket on the picture I took of Freckles with her nursing newborn lambs, standing beside a giant hay bale eaten into a half moon. The color scheme I could only imagine, and the font. I opened the pictured cover first and was thrilled by its overall beauty and its thoughtful composition. The big surprise was the range of blue mountains at the top. Although the narrative embraces neighboring mountainous West Virginia, the story is set mostly in Ohio’s more modest hill country. But I think it’s wonderful that this design says, as if the artist had read my memoir, “This is a book about place.” Yes. The Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio and their human inhabitants, many of them refugees from West Virginia, are a huge part of the story about my and my family’s life there as we operated a sheep farm for a decade.
And I thought the full bleed—an image that goes all the way to the edge, no frame—worked well and was enhanced by the artfully used white space. I polled friends and family and former coworkers, and nine out of 12 favored this cover.
The other jacket was an extreme closeup of Freckles’s face, plus the lamb at the right. Very dramatic. (Sorry, my publisher won’t let me show it because such images spread and can end up being listed as the cover.) But to me, it lacked the other’s multiple messages—of course such complexity can be risky. Those who voted for it liked the “faces” and the “in your face” quality of it, though to me their reasons seemed rather theoretical. And they didn’t know this author’s marketing strategy, which sometimes seems even to me as convoluted as a barrel of fishhooks.
My book is a literary memoir that tells a dramatic story of dreams, dislocation, culture shock, fatherhood, farming, and rebirth; and it’s about coming to love an ornery place that, unlike much of America, hasn’t been blandly homogenized. Yet I want it stocked in the gardening-farming-nature sections of bookstores. Memoirs come and go—mostly go, in that busy category—but my book’s niche audience—homesteaders, hobbyists, and armchair farmers—might keep it in print a long time.
Years ago Purdue University Press published a little memoir called Shepherdess: Notes from the Field that was coded on the back Science & Technology / Memoir. Multiple categories like that stoke authors’ hopes that bookstores will stock their books in two or more places; it’s called double stocking, and they won’t. Shepherdess stayed in print almost 20 years, however, because booksellers took their cue from the first category and stocked it with homesteading, gardening, and nature books. Likewise, mine has a chance to stay in print for more than a year if folks browsing the back-to-the-land gulch see and buy it.
Which brings me back to the covers. The second, in that context, says, “This is a book about how to raise sheep.” Nope. Totally misleading. I made every mistake as a bumbling shepherd; the book really depicts my emotional journey as a farmer and as the son of a failed farmer. While I want it in the practical section, I want those who pick it up there to be told right away, by its cover—by those mountains—that it’s a layered personal story involving place as well as sheep. The complexity of this cover takes away the how-to curse.
Then browsers will open it and see the romantic frontispiece map, which says, “This is a book by and for dreamers like you,” which I hope will set the hook. Anyway, it’s the book I would’ve bought as a young man grieving my father’s loss of our farm.