A current movie reminded me of a publishing story that I’d love to share with you.
For once, this isn’t about independent publishing: it’s about a big publisher struggling to find the right cover design.
In 1988, Joseph Campbell had just died, but the series of television interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, became an enormous hit—the highest rated program PBS has ever aired, to this day. It was this series that introduced most of the non-academic world to Campbell and made a household phrase from his dictum, “Follow your bliss.”
An editor at Doubleday, then one of the Big 8 publishing companies (it’s now an imprint of Penguin-Random House) watched the first episode and thought, This has GOT to be a book!
And her next realization was, And it’s got to be out NOW!
She contacted the partnership that produced the series and hired the woman who had served as Moyers’s research assistant, an academic with the wonderful name of Betty Sue Flowers. (It’s from her that I heard this story.) Basically, working from transcripts of the still-incomplete series, Dr. Flowers and the editor pulled together a complete, enduringly beautiful book—in two weeks.
If you’ve every been around books at all, you know how astonishing that feat was. Books—especially complex, heavily illustrated and annotated books—usually take months if not years to go from conception to being ready to print. That’s true even in this age of digital distribution.
Who was the editor that accomplished this astonish publishing miracle?
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
Yes. That Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Jackie Kennedy. Jackie O. Jackie.
Everyone who remembers her remembers her as John F. Kennedy’s wife and widow.
That’s the person portrayed (to favorable reviews) by Natalie Portman in the current film, Jackie.
After Kennedy’s death, however, Jackie went on to live a full and rich life, if a challenging one for one born to wealth and power.
From the mid-1970s to her death in 1995, however, she served as an associate editor at Doubleday. There she published hundreds of books, including many on history, as well as a number of novels and memoirs.
And of course, in 1988, she helped to introduce the concept of following your bliss into the public consciousness.
Now the story that Flowers tells that I remember best about the creation of that book is this:
They’d managed to pull together the book in two weeks. Flowers had compiled the text (crediting Jackie in the preface), and a small army of photo researchers found images that worked with what Campbell and Moyers were discussing.
The one thing they couldn’t agree on was a cover image.
They wanted something evocative, but not too literal. Yhey didn’t want to use Greek sculpture, for example, because Campbell’s whole argument was about the universality of myth.
Around and around they went, defining just what they were looking for.
At a certain point, Jackie looked up at the painted dragon on her vintage Chinese silk coat. “How about that?” she asked.
That turned out to be one of the more iconic covers of the 1980s. It managed to convey precisely what the power of myth might be, while managing to pull the reader in. In a word, the perfect cover.
The lessons are many. One is that art takes work—but when something’s perfect, it’s perfect. Another is that people are often much more than what we read about them in books, or see in movies.
But mostly, from this publisher’s point of view, it’s that the perfect cover doesn’t tell or even show the reader what they’re going to get (though it has to make some clear promises about genre, etc.); it seduces us into wanting to read the book, and puts us in a mood where doing anything else is unthinkable.