Monday, March 26, 2007

Hey! I think I know that girl! I have no idea what her name is, though.

Heather Corinna gives a good overview of some of the challenges inherent in producing a cover that doesn't make the author want to disown the book:

Here’s the thing: your book cover has to somehow do the miraculous feat of pleasing you, the author (and if you’re not the sole author, also any co-authors), your editor, the art department, the marketing department, the publicity department and the higher-ups (my editor and I call them the Grand Poobahs) of the publishing company. And all of those people need to feel, at the end result and throughout, that yes, this cover very much IS what the book will be judged by, and it needs to create the desired verdict. Obviously, all of us don’t have the same agenda.

That, my friend, is a LOT of cooks in a kitchen not unlike the kitchen of your first apartment: the floor holds a shitload of dirt no matter how often you scrub it, there’s no counter space, and it’s the size of a coffin, with a sink whose drain is incessantly backed up, no matter what you do or don’t put in there.

Heather's in a somewhat unusual position in that she and her publisher agreed that she would have far more imput into the cover design than a lot of authors get (and good for her!). Interestingly, she ran up against some of the same issues we ran up against in choosing photos for the Dread Unit 4 (Sexuality and Sexual Decision-Making) of our Big Health Textbook:

So, I had all sorts of limits if photos or illustrations of people were going to be used: no one naked or half-naked, no one looking unhealthily thin, no couples (unless there were a LOT of photos of couples, in which case I’d want serious diversity when it came to gender, orientation, race and appearance: but ideally, no couples, since sending the message that sexuality only exists when there is another person around isn’t cool by me), no adolescent Jon-Benet’s, no status clothing or the like, no one looking ashamed or like they were making a webcam video to seduce someone with.

While the sport and exercise units of our textbook used photos of teens in the local schools (taken with their permission, and released by their parents), in our chapters on sexuality, drugs, body image, and violence, we mostly chose to use stock photos (in a couple of instances, we set up photos with kids from local schools, telling them what the photos would be used for and what the captions would be, and giving them lots of chances to veto the images or their uses). We figured that adolescence is challenging enough, without being "confused sex poster-teen" in your sibling's health textbook.

Like Heather we wanted to present an inclusive view of sexuality. We needed some couples, because some of the photos were for pages discussing communication with your partner. We certainly didn't want to pornify our textbook—we wanted to show kids who looked, for lack of a better term, "normal"—like someone our readers might go to school with. We wanted to show kids from different ethnic backgrounds, in ways that didn't resort to ethnic stereotypes.

Heather's mission:

to find two girls, one guy, and ideally, none of them would be rail-thin, the majority of them would not be white, they wouldn’t be a simple read in terms of their orientation or economic class, neither of the girls would look like they were going to a beauty pageant, and they would all look like the age of the book readership. Ideally, we were talking headshots, since that solved some of those problems full-stop.

It's not easy. We looked through hundreds of photos from at least five stock agencies, and found couples doing things I don't know the names for, teen girls wearing more makeup than I see on a Saturday night on College St. Healthy teens, who look comfortable in their bodies, just talking, or holding hands? Almost non-existant. Bi-racial couples? Ditto, and, as Heather says:

This may not be news to you — heck, it wasn’t exactly news to me, but the degree of this was a bit of a surprise — but guess what? So far as I can tell, if you are a young adult male of African descent, you may only have your photo taken in a baksetball court or in an alley — apparently you aren’t allowed inside photo studios. You must either look like the weight of the world is smashing you down, or look like a cocky bastard about to throw down or get down.

Eventually, she found a photo of a teen girl with "honky locks," who looked thin, but not underfed for her body, with an interested, engaged expression, and a few other photos. I think we found the same girl.

See here's the thing about sexuality (and many other specialist topics) and stock photography: in general, despite the myriad photos on the sites, there are only a handful of photos that will really work for any given take on a topic. If you have a book about sexuality, and you want to present sexuality in a non-pornified, non-judgmental way, then you're going to have a limited range of photos that will work for you, and everyone else publishing in that area is looking at the same photos. So you get situations where a college-level, hardcover textbook on Human Sexuality from a big textbook publisher will have a cover photo that shows an armchair with four feet sticking off the side, and the same four-feet-entwined photo will grace the cover of a small softcover book about contraception from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or where one of the photos from the inside of our textbook may also appear on the cover of a teen sexuality book.