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Book Cover Desperado

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“By dose id code,” I stuttered, nasally.


“What?” the home invader screamed. “What did you say?”


You try speaking clearly with the barrel of a gun pressed hard against the end of your nose, with your crossed eyes transfixed upon a nervously twitching trigger finger. See how far you get. I said, “By dose id code.”
In response, waggling the pistol forcefully against my proboscis, he pushed me backward into a chair. Knees buckling from fear and impact, I graciously agreed to sit.


This had begun as a quiet, average day working in the studio at my computer and drawing board on a book jacket illustration. My studio is in the front of the house. Our home is at the end of a T-intersection in what was once referred to as a “quiet bedroom community.” It’s a place where nothing but an occasional earthquake tremor ever disturbs the tranquillity. Our street is in one of those many dead-end pockets created by the original building contractors to trap prospective buyers, which today makes it impossible to drive across the valley except on main streets. Locating an address requires detailed instructions, careful study of a Thomas Guide, and a lot of getting lost. So when I looked out of the window to see an apparition out of yesteryear galloping hell-for-leather down the black macadam street which ends at our front door, my jaw dropped. Jesse James, in wind-blown duster and full western gear, was apparently intent upon dropping in for a visit. Like it or not.


I guess I’m not too bright when it comes to situations like this. Despite the many cautions my partner heaps upon me, I tend to address life directly. I opened the front door. Jesse (for lack of his real name) charged up onto the lawn and reared his mount in classic theatrical fashion. Leaping to the ground, the would-be desperado ran up the steps,
jammed a six-gun into my abdomen, and pushed me back into the house.


“Let’s go!” he commanded. I didn’t argue. “Where d’ya work?” he asked, and
I backed into my studio.
“Right here,” I said. That was when he jammed his pistol against my nose, and forced me, thankfully, to sit.


“I don’t like it!” he proclaimed.


“Well, I must admit I’m not crazy about the room myself,” I replied.


“Naaah,” he growled. “I don’t give a @*%$% about y’r @*%$% interior decoration.”


“Okay, okay,” I allowed. “What do you want?”


Until this moment, he had been carelessly waving his weapon in my general direction. Now, pointing it at the bookshelves, he groaned, “The books. The damned books!”


“Books?” I wondered aloud, surprised. Figuring this as probably the most unusual home invasion of the century, I eagerly suggested, “Take them! Whatever books you want. Be my guest.”


The revolver revolved once more to me. “I don’t want your @*%$% books. Ain’t you the judge? You’re the guy who says who wins for book designs, right?”


“Well, not exactly. There are thousands of books, and a great many people judging them. I’m only one of…”


“But, you are the judge, ain’t ya? You are! I know. I read your name in the @*%$% newsletter!”


“Sure. But didn’t you read all the other names as well?”


Suddenly, the cold gun barrel was back against my right nostril. I stopped trying to explain.


“Are you gonna tell me what’s wrong with my @*%$% cover or ain’t ya?”


“Oh, sure. Okay! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” I asked, in a distinctly nasal voice. “No problem. Just put the gun away, and we’ll talk.”


“No kiddin’? You’ll tell me?”


“No kidding. I’d love to tell you. I’ll even tell you how to design a winner. Happily. It’s what I do.”


“No tricks now,” he cautioned, holstering and then patting his armament through the leather.


“Hey! I love telling people how to design things better. Almost as much as I enjoy doing it myself and getting paid for it.”


“Waddaya mean, ‘getting paid for it’?”


“Oops! My mistake,” I retreated. “Don’t worry, I didn’t mean you.”


“Uh-huh. That’s awright then.”


With a sigh of relief, I asked which book cover was his. A familiar videotape replayed in my mind. “Why do you do it?” my partner asks each year as the cartons arrive. “They pay you nothing. You spend days away from family and work, judging publications when you could be earning money. You can’t afford to be a philanthropist. So why do it?”


Although I had never been able to give a satisfactory answer to her, I knew that I had damned well do a bang-up job for this malcontent.


Reaching into my files, I pulled a Benjamin Franklin Awards Book Evaluation sheet to demonstrate how the checklist of questions and comparisons are applied in judging.
“Okay,” I began, with shaking voice, “Right here, at the top of the judging sheet for ‘Book Evaluation – Cover/Jacket Design,’ it says to read the publisher’s description of the book inside the front cover. That means your Entry Label.”


“Waddaya wanna do that fer?”
“Because what you write on the Entry Label should tell the judges what to look for in the book, and who you intend to read and buy it. If you leave out information, or describe something other than that which fits the entry category, or proper intent of the book, the judging questions will be answered differently.”


“Really? I didn’t know that.”


“Well buddy, you are not the Lone Ranger!” How appropriate, I thought. “Unfortunately, a lot of entries get in trouble right here, at the start. It’s important! See here, even though your book category is business, you didn’t describe the audience for whom it was intended.”


“So what? You already know that!” he exploded.


“No, not quite. You didn’t tell the judges what kind of business, or the age and experience level of your intended reader. But, let’s move on to the judging criteria. ‘Question 1. Overall reaction.’ That’s where the judge rates his or her first impression. You didn’t do too well there. The back cover has real problems.”


“Oh, yeah?” His hand crept ominously close to the revolver. “What’s wrong with that?”
“You’re not going to like this,” I said warily, “but the colors and content of the back cover don’t relate to your front cover and spine. There’s no title or author on the back, and the body copy is 6 point black italic type over a solid red background. That’s extremely hard to read, especially for people with vision problems. Here. You tell me. If you picked up this book in a store because you liked the front cover and then placed it face down among others, like this, wouldn’t you have difficulty recognizing it by color, title, or design? Do you think you could find it amidst all this to buy it?”


“Well… no. But it’s still a good book, ain’t it?”


“Well, let’s see. ‘Question 2. Appearance.’ The cover design is intriguing, and it does evoke an interesting response. You score well for that one.”


“See. I told ya.”


“Not so fast,” I admonished. “ ‘Question 3. Does the organization of cover elements allow instantaneous reading?’ Well, it’s not that easy. Now, step back a little, and see if you don’t think it’s difficult to read this spine copy. That’s Question 13. And how about the pale yellow letters against white in the front cover title? Those and the back cover won’t score too well on Questions 4 and 5 for color choices and organization.”


“Okay, okay! So I made a few mistakes. I can fix ’em.”


Defensive, he obviously needed a little more help to get the message. Placing the book in his hands, I read aloud, “ ‘Question 14. Are the company name, logo, and ISBN on the back cover or spine?’ ” I waited.


Turning the book over and over, he examined the cover with tear-filled eyes, as if seeing it for the first time. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Then, without another word, the book desperado dropped the book and ran. Lodged in my memory is the image of a man’s duster overgarment and horse’s rear end high-tailing it away and down the road.


Pardner, I’m surely looking forward to seeing his next Benjamin Franklin Awards entry. Although not a Jesse James or Lone Ranger, I’ll bet my boots that masked man will score way up there next time.


As for me, I finally told my partner why I judge each year. I learn something new every day. Every @*%$% day!


Howard Goldstein is a writer and book designer located in the Los Angeles area.

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