COVER GIRL: The Work of Jen Wang
Written by
Erin Hosier
July 2009
Written by
Erin Hosier
July 2009

Nobody doesn't care about book covers. The day I interviewed for my first job in publishing, my soon-to-be new boss gestured to a cardboard mock-up of a book jacket on her desk and asked me what I thought. Feeling really comfortable that I had the job, I took a breath and told the truth. The image was cliche in every way. Though it was an historical novel meant for epic impact, the design was magazine-y and cheap looking. The black and white image of a half nude lady looked like a cheesecake throwaway, like an ad for body wash. I told her so. "I agree with you," she said, and my aesthetic genius in my own mind was confirmed. I got the job but was surprised to learn that my opinion hadn't held any sway over the publisher's final decision to keep the original image. The book went on to become a bestseller and there was an equally cheesy looking package for the sequel. Strike two for The Hose. While it's true I didn't go to art school, I can assure you that I've slept with enough people who have to know good design from lame. So every Wednesday on She Writes I'm going to feature some excellent book jackets and/or their designers. Feel free to email or comment with your faves and I'll work em into a post. Today I want to focus on the work of one designer whose work I admire consistently. Her name is Jen Wang and she's part of the design team at Penguin. I do not know her, but every time I cruise the bookstore or the design blogs, her covers are really recognizable for their whimsy and for the way she uses type in such a bold way. Almost every book cover she designs would look great as a movie poster, know what I mean? Here's one from the Penguin Classics series that is better than its corresponding movie poster:

I mean which do you prefer? The shadow of a grown man in a baby carriage which references the fantastical nature of Fitzgerald's story of a man aging backwards? Or two middle aged white people blankly staring ahead as half their driver's license headshot is taken?

Here are some more covers by Wang. P.S. Can somebody please teach me how to post these goddamn jpegs in a uniform way? Also, the covers herein are copyrighted by the publisher - I'm just sharing the love.

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  • Nissi Mutale

    I love the cheesy and the abstract. I can see the merit in both. Thanks for posting!

  • Erin Hosier

    I hear you. There is nothing worse than getting that first pdf via email with all the enthusiasm of the publishing house only to see an image of your book that you don't recognize or relate to. Even as a reader, if I buy a hardcover but I think the jacket sucks, I'll just take it off and throw it away (I mean recycle it, natch). And if the paperback cover is an assault on my senses, I just won't buy it. (Maybe that's where the Kindle comes in...) More soon.

  • Amy Ferris

    love this. really, truly. and what great book covers. thongs & grannie pants - big bravo, pamela, to your son. a genius.

  • Paula Chase Hyman

    Oops forgot to mention that the change to the covers came with the third book. The first two books in the series remains graphic covers.

  • Paula Chase Hyman

    I remember how excited I was to talk cover with my editor. I had a million ideas in my head and she was sweet enough to let me share them. And my first cover conveyed all that random spittle I spewed. I adored my first two covers, above all they convyed the focus on "teen friendly" vs. race of me or my characters. I wasn't one wit surprised when my then new editor told me they wanted to change to photo covers because most of the successful YA series used them. The unspoken - it would be a lot easier to sell them if they looked like all the other teen lit books.

    The moral of the story? As an avid reader I like covers that are abstract and interesting. But I guess the industry prefers more direct, obvious images so it appeals beyond us art-y types.

    Hey, what do I know? I just write the words. LOL

  • Michelle O\'Neil

    I totally agree with you on the Benjamin Button covers above. Love the man in the carriage!

    I have not slept with nearly enough artsy people to have an official opinion (rats!) but I like the cover for Therese Walsh's debut novel The Last Will of Moira Leahy. It has a very dreamy and romantic look without being all Fabio "Harlequin."

    I also like the cover to Courtney Sheinmel's YA novel Positively, about a HIV positive teen who has lost her mother to AIDS. The look of the girl with the balloon has a hopeful, letting go quality.

    (Both of these come out in October).

  • Keryl Kris Reinke

    I was in a discussion group at Seton Hill, and many of the members commented on how effective they thought this cover for In The Woods was.

  • Yes, great topic. It definitely got heated at times but I give them a lot of credit for putting up with me. Just know I have many more regrets about the times I decided to play nice and accept a cover I didn't really like -- always the wrong decision.

  • Erin Hosier

    Your kid is a genius. And thanks for the tips. Also, great work getting your publisher to accept your input about your cover. It's great when that happens and there's an art to the negotiation for sure. Will definitely post in the future about the politics of cover choices.

  • Hi Erin -- Great post. Love love love Jen Wang -- Benjamin Button and In The Woods were two of the best covers of last year. Before I go on to my story and this gets lost, on positioning the jpegs, if you're writing in wordpress, after you insert the photo, in the visual view click on its top left corner and you should get one option that shows a picture in a frame. Click on that and it should let you position the photo left, right, center, and also resize it. Then click update.

    For my new book How Not To Act Old, after a protracted search for a cover everyone loved, my 15 year old son came up with the final image. We were playing with the concept of granny panties vs. thongs. I wanted a woman wearing a thong OVER granny panties, which the publisher thought was too weird. The publisher wanted granny panties and a thong hanging side by side on a clothesline, which i thought read mother-daughter.

    And then my son said, What about granny panties and a MEN's thong? Here's the result:

  • Rebekah Spicuglia

    This is really great, thanks for sharing!!!

  • Marie Gauthier

    Great idea! A former bookseller, I'm fascinated by book design. Thanks, Erin, and thanks, Jane, for another source!

  • Erin Hosier

    I could look at this stuff all day.

  • Jane Hammons

    Henry Sene Yee, another book designer, blogs about how he makes choices for and revises book jacket design. It's fascinating because he shows the designs he discarded.