Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there?

The Editor-in-Chief of Maclean’s was a bit ‘obsessive’ about the cover of his first book
Kenneth Whyte

Hello? Hello? Random House, are you there?

Covers matter. At Maclean’s magazine, we sell between 7,000 and 21,000 copies a week on newsstands, and the most obvious variables week to week are the cover subject, the cover image, and the cover line, which means that when we nail a cover, we can sell three times as many copies as when we don’t. I spend a good amount of time every week on the details of Maclean’s covers, endeavouring to arrange things so that our results are as often as possible at the high end of the range.

Last summer, when I was finishing the manuscript of my first book, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, my editor at Random House mentioned that we should start working on its cover. A few weeks later, she emailed me some mock-ups prepared by her in-house designers. She asked my preference. Once my input was received, I was told, the designers would produce the book cover. Simple enough.

I should have registered my choice, put the matter out of my mind, and finished writing my endnotes. I was working with a fine publishing house filled with people who package and market books for a living and, while I can claim to know something about newspapers and magazines, I’ve never worked in books.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that I’d spent five years writing The Uncrowned King and that I might never feel up to the chore of writing another book. If this was my one shot, I should do my best to get the cover right, on the assumption that covers are every bit as crucial to books as to magazines. I told myself that my input was important: if I know magazine buyers, I know book buyers—readers are readers.

I also knew, better than anyone else, the story that the cover was supposed to reflect—how in 1895 a wealthy young Californian, William Randolph Hearst, bought a feeble New York daily and engaged Joseph Pulitzer, the undisputed king of American journalism, in the most spectacular newspaper war of all time. By 1898, Hearst had supplanted Pulitzer as the dominant force in New York publishing, and was on his way to becoming one of the most powerful and fascinating private citizens in 20th-century America. It’s a big sprawling story with drama, romance, murder, prizefights, jailbreaks, literary scandals, enormous fortunes, brilliant new technologies, genocidal wars, the most exciting election in American history (with fascinating echoes of the Obama campaign)—and it all raises crucial questions about the role of journalism in our lives. Who, if not me, was going to capture all that in a single cover?

I offered my editor a long but polite list of suggestions for alterations to her proposed covers. I soon received another set of mock-ups by email. Some of my suggestions had been incorporated, but I thought, in my now obsessive state, that we hadn’t yet nailed it, so I next did what I do when I’m uncertain about a proposed magazine cover—I asked the art department for more options, fresh approaches. The response from the publishing house was cool.

Like all editors, I’m accustomed to cool responses from designers and art directors. Even the best collaborations between editors and art departments are at some level contests of will. Being a 25-year veteran of such collaborations—having stood toe-to-toe with some of the most ingeniously stubborn art directors in the business—I was not without resources. On a good day, I can bring a designer to heel with the arch of an eyebrow. Trouble was, these designers worked not for me but for my book editor, and they couldn’t see my eyebrows because we were communicating by email.

I’ll spare readers the humiliating details of my further efforts to take control of the cover of The Uncrowned King. It wasn’t long, however, before I was drafting designers of my acquaintance in Toronto, Montreal, and New York to produce alternatives to what I was now referring to as “the atrocities” coming out of the Random House art department. I sought confirmation of my judgment among friends, colleagues, my agent, and some poor woman at the next table in a hotel restaurant—“Just look at these two covers and tell me which you’d be inclined to purchase?”

I noticed amid all of my activity that I was losing the attention of the people at Random House. My editor had been sympathetic and accommodating early on, but past a certain point responses to my emails slowed until eventually I was informed by her assistant that my editor’s email was malfunctioning and that it might be weeks before it was working again.

When the last batch of alternative covers produced by my personal designers failed to elicit a warm response from Random House, and when a last anecdote I’d hoped to add to my manuscript was refused because it was late (in part because of my preoccupation with the cover), I went on strike. I quit answering emails from my editor’s production staff and announced that I was no longer in a mood to promote the book upon publication.

A few days went by.

My agent called: “Are you an idiot?”

My daughter picked up my favourite of the alternative covers I’d commissioned: “Is this the atrocity?”

My assistant said, “I bet they hate you at Random House, but I guess you’re used to that.”

Eventually my editor sent me a curt email saying that we were due at the press and that she was unilaterally approving the version of the cover produced by her art department. I think she mentioned that she liked it, and that everyone else in her offices liked it. She didn’t invite a response.

Foiled, chastened, I returned to my endnotes and resolved from that point forward to do with professionalism and good cheer everything asked of me by my editor, and I’m proud to say that some days I did.

Eventually the printed book landed on my desk. From time to time, people would come into my office and notice it. An embarrassing number of them have told me that they like the cover.

(Certain details of this story have been altered to protect the reputation of the author.)