The Buggy History of One Book Cover by Sarah Albee

I am not a patient person. The long process of guiding a book toward publication always feels torturously slow to me. And yet, a few weeks ago, when I finally got an email from my editor, Emily Easton, entitled “Bugged cover design,” I hesitated before clicking on it. At long last, I was going to see the cover for my new nonfiction, middle grade book, due out in April, 2014, called Bugged: How Insects Changed History. I’ve been toiling away at this book for years. But I was momentarily too nervous to see what cover the Walker design team had come up with.

I felt a little the way I used to feel as a kid when confronted with a wrapped present from my Aunt Nina. What if I hated it? What if Emily was sending me the book-equivalent of an itchy sweater with a rhinestone poodle on it?

*suspenseful interlude*

I have asked some of my author friends about their cover experiences. Were they happy with them? Did their editors listen to their input? Did they have veto power?

My friend Lynda Mullaly Hunt  had this to say about her cover: “As a debut author, I assumed that I would have no say at all, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was asked.” The design for One for the Murphys went through three versions, and “their final choice was the best one.”

Jo Knowles said, “My editor always shows me the cover and asks for my input. With my newest book, Living With Jackie Chan, she showed me the mock-up and told me they were concerned that the design looked a little too spare. She asked if I had any ideas and I suggested they add Clover, Uncle Larry’s cat who sticks by Josh even in his darkest moments. My editor loved the suggestion and that did the trick!”

Fellow nonfiction author Loree Griffin Burns  said, “I hated the Tracking Trash cover when I first saw it. There was a second design, a much cleaner design, that I liked better. But during our very thoughtful discussion, I realized that the editorial/design teams were right on with their choice. I wanted the cover showing a beach one might like to vacation on, but this was a book about trash! Duh. The beach with the dirtier waves and the stepped-all-over sand was more in line with the theme of the book, represented more accurately the story underneath. The HMH team saw this long before I did.”

My friend Julie Berry  told me, “It’s always seemed to me that my publishers wanted me to like the cover.”

And Kate Messner had this to say: “I’ve been really fortunate with book cover input. I work with three different publishers, all of whom consult with me once they have a draft of a cover to share. Sometimes, my editor will send multiple options and let me know what kinds of conversations are happening in-house while asking for my input as well. And I do feel like my opinions are valued…I’m most appreciative of that and always enjoy the cover conversations.” She followed up with, “Where we get hung up, I think, is that we authors think of covers as this heartfelt reflection of our stories, while the publishers see them as marketing tools, which they are, really. Finding that balance – where the cover grabs attention but still makes the right promise about the words inside – is the key.”

Exactly, Kate.

That’s precisely why, when I finally screwed up the courage to click on it, I didn’t like the first version of Bugged. I didn’t think it made the right promise about the words inside.

Here it is:


First off, although the cover is definitely funny, and I love Robert Leighton’s cartoons, I thought the praying mantis was all wrong. Mantids are very cool insects, but there’s not a single mention of them in the book. And they have not changed the course of human history. Also, the design includes no humans—and the book is about human history.

Emily listened. So next the designer came up with this:


*Dolorously shakes head* This one didn’t have any humans on it, either. Plus again, the bug wasn’t right. Though beautiful, this species of beetle has not changed human history.

I suspect that Emily was growing exasperated with me. “What bug would you put on the cover then?” she asked me. I said that any one of the “big four” would be great—fly, louse, mosquito, or flea. Those have been the biggest troublemakers in history.

But an editor has to look at the cover from multiple perspectives, besides that of her know-it-all author. From a design perspective, flies and mosquitoes are not especially interesting to look at. And from a marketing perspective, a flea or a louse might be so skeevy they’d drive buyers away.

So the poor, beleaguered designer went back to the drawing board.

Finally, after receiving input from marketing, Emily sent me the third version. Score! I think it says “history” and “humor” and makes the right promise about what’s inside. Ready to see it? Ta-da!!


Caryn my agent loves it. Emily says everyone at Walker loves it. What do you think?

SarahAlbee pic credit Bruno RatenspergerSarah Albee’s next nonfiction book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, will be published by Walker Books in April, 2014. It’s a follow up to her book called Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up. You can find her history blog at, and follow her on Twitter at @sarahalbee. She also loves connecting with kids via Skype and in-person author visits.