I’m a writer and a person of pretty circumscribed artistic talents. I can’t sing or play an instrument, and whether or not I can dance depends on who you ask. I’m skilled with words but not with images. When we’re creating promotional graphics at Woodhull Freedom Foundation I’m the first person to say “I don’t have a good design eye, so don’t rely too much on my feedback.” And yet it was hard for me to hand over creative control when it came to the cover for my forthcoming memoir, Bound: A Daughter, a Domme, and an End-of-Life Story.
Early in the writing process, there were some images that I thought would make a good book cover. At that time, the book was still titled, My Mother’s Cross: Cancer, Kink, Sex, and Death, and I imagined on the cover a St. Andrews cross, much like the one that dominates the first chapter of the memoir. The cross would have an IV pole standing beside it, perhaps with the tubing draped around one arm of the cross. Beside the cross might be a stool on which would sit an ashtray with a cigarette still sending smoke curling up into the air, as if a person had just left the room. This is much too complex and busy an image for a book cover, I know, but it blended the sexual, medical, and personal indicators that I thought were necessary to indicate what the story was about.
Fortunately, She Writes Press does not give authors control over their cover designs. We have feedback into the process, but Julie Metz, a professional designer creates images that will help sell books rather than images that cater to authors’ whims. I looked forward to what Julie’s team would come up with. The first cover they presented me with was beautiful. It was arresting, elegant, simple, and absolutely eye-catching. I loved it in the abstract but felt like it didn’t fit. It featured a pair of fuzzy red handcuffs where the red rope currently sits, and to me, it didn’t convey anything to do with the medical or caregiving part of the story, which is so important. When I mentioned some of my earlier ideas to Brooke Warner, my publisher, she politely but firmly explained that they would likely be off-putting. I began to question my own sense of taste. Brooke assured me that the purpose of the cover was to catch eyes and get people to turn the thing over and read the back copy which would draw them into the story and prompt them to leaf through the pages. Still, I felt like it screamed THIS IS A BDSM BOOK, which it isn’t.
From the start of writing this book, I’ve been guided by the principle that my mother’s sexuality should feature in the story in the same way it featured in her life: it is a significant piece of the story but it is not the story. Sex is often either rendered invisible or made central but rarely is it depicted simply as a feature of a person’s life. I went in search of other images.
When I found the red rope image I loved the color, in keeping with the way that the red of the handcuffs had caught my eye. The heart shape risked being too cute, but I liked that it symbolized many ways that people are bound together through love, family, and obligation in addition to the more obvious reference to sexual bondage. It was one of several red rope images I sent to Brooke, and when I saw the new cover design I was much happier at first. And yet. And yet there was something that looked wrong to my eyes. The cover felt off-balance to me. I felt like the rope dominated the cover and the title got lost. Again I questioned my own sense of taste.
I began to be afraid that, given the title change and now my uncertainty about the cover, that the book was soon going to feel alien to me, like something that was once part of me and now had been severed. It was a terrible feeling.
Brooke pointed out that despite my sense that books are physical objects to be held in the hand, an incredible amount of book buying occurs on Amazon, where covers might appear as one-inch boxes. The cover needed to stand out even at that size. I shrunk the image down and fell in love with it.
It’s easy to find significance in an image after the fact. Now when I look at the cover of the book I’ve worked on for the last five years I see so much in that simple combination of image and text. I see the love between my mother and me along with the sense of being bound to her by duty. I see the excitement of her sexuality and the way it was flavored by romance (that’s hardly a proper bondage knot). I see the color of blood and the color of hospitals, which evokes the medical part of her story. The image behind the text tells a story that finally feels like it fits the book inside.