How often have you been told “Never judge a book by its cover”? While there is wisdom in that saying, it tends to mask the vital role that actual book covers play in capturing readers’ interest. My experience with covers of a number of books bears this out. But getting to the final choice has often been a circuitous, rushed and last-minute undertaking, as the following examples show.

THE BOATMAN, my memoir of coming out as a gay man in India in the 1980s, was first published in India. While it took nearly five years to produce the book, much of the work occurred in the last year and last few months in particular. Although the process of choosing a cover image began earlier, it wasn’t until I was boarding a plane in Seattle to fly to India for the book launch that we finally got down to brass tacks. Images flitted back and forth between my publisher and myself, but most of them lacked appeal or didn’t relate to the book’s theme.

Since the book is about a young foreigner who comes to India and is confronted by his attraction to his own sex, I kept wondering why I was being sent images of two young Indian men in various poses. One image I thought would be perfect – it appeared on the cover of a South Asian LGBTQ magazine I guest edited – portrayed a foreigner with a young Indian man in an affectionate embrace. But the editor rejected this, not because of its implied cross-cultural, same-sex attraction, but because the foreigner happened to be holding a bottle of champagne! It was OK to portray two half-clothed young men in a suggestive pose, but no way could the book be seen to be condoning the consumption of alcohol!

It was OK to portray two half-clothed young men in a suggestive pose, but no way could the book be seen to be condoning the consumption of alcohol!

When a revised edition of the book was republished in Australia, the experience of choosing a cover wasn’t quite so harrowing, but again it happened late in the production process and within an extremely narrow time frame. The publisher and I agreed that this edition of the book needed to be geared to a wider audience than the Indian edition had been. We were looking to attract readers with an interest in South Asia and especially India, in travel, crossing cultural boundaries, and the like. The publisher sent me a range of cover options and asked for my opinion. None of them captured me, except a stock photo which, although not directly related to the story, had strong visual impact that I felt sure would appeal to our intended audience. Ironically, the photo was taken from the same Mumbai beach where the story begins, but I suspect few readers, even my publisher, made the connection. But this amazing coincidence cemented my decision to go with the photo. I’m so glad we chose it, since it has drawn many affirmative comments.

Not all my experiences in choosing a cover image have been quite so challenging. In my latest book, MORE THAN HALFWAY TO SOMEWHERE, graphic designer, Bob Lanphear of Lanphear Design, created a cover that not only dovetails seamlessly with the book’s title but is a story in itself, so much so that we decided to include it in the front matter. Bob built the cover around a photograph of me taken in Ecuador, changed the color of my jeans to match the cover color scheme, added a pair of hiking boots, and placed an image from Italy as background. All this was an evolving process that he did in collaboration with me every step of the way. This was such a welcome change from my earlier cover design experiences.

Covers are important. The best are simple, give at least a hint what the book’s about, and draw the reader in. They certainly are worth spending time on – preferably not at the eleventh hour – and best done with participation by all those involved – publisher, designer and author.