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The Art of Cover Art and the Making of History (Books)

Historians like to think that our craft is a solitary process.

We lurk about in musty archives and poorly lit libraries for years, digging up all manner of arcana and getting bookworm poop lodged deep in our lungs. If we're lucky enough to find something worthwhile, we then return to our chambers (or couches, thanks to COVID) to tap out our findings for the half dozen colleagues who will read the first half of our abstract before vaguely citing us in their own work.

It's a romantic notion, but it's also far from the truth.

Though my name is on the cover, the book that will finally gain corporeal form in a few short months is almost nothing like what I imagined as I scraped together my book proposal in 2016.

And that's a great thing. Though we the historians take all the credit for putting words on paper, the editors, marketing team, designers and copy editors are the real professionals who shape our output to make us look less like the dusty losers that we actually are and more like the polished intellectuals that we wish we were.

Recently, Stanford Press was kind enough to offer a glimpse of that process in this truly remarkable blog interview with Kapani Kirkland, who talked about what goes into designing cover.

Most of that process is hidden, because frankly we scholars would probably just bungle everything - it took a full year and a half of negotiating to finally settle on the second half of my title - but with trust, the final results can be magical.

Before reading the blog, I had only seen the final version of my cover, which was sent with a gentle but firm 400 word explanation by my editor (who clearly had some experience with the matter). Reading the interview was stunning. I loved the grace and beauty of the earlier designs, but even more so, I was fascinated by the logic that went into creating them. The designers, marketing team and editors all helped to guide each iteration with an eye not only to my book's content and the capriciousness of my aesthetic preferences, but to the cover's ability to grab casual observers and convince them that this was something worth reading.

In the end, I got bugs swarming across a field of green. And it was perfect. It captured my own idiosyncratic personality, but projected that in a way that I think will be marketable to a range of people who might otherwise care less about famine. But we'll see.

Check out the blog for a great read and some amazing images like these.

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