Katie Hafner: On Writing, Publishing, and Tea

Harpers calls Katie Hafner’s sixth book, Mother Daughter Me, “an unusually graceful story,” and Kirkus calls it “heartbreakingly honest.” KJ Dell’Antonia, writing for The New York Times, says it’s “the most raw, honest and engaging memoir I’ve read in a long time.” And if six books to her name isn’t enough, Katie, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for a long and varied list of publications including Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, and O Magazine. In her post here today, she takes an unusually graceful and honest look at the way a book makes its way from hardcover to paperback. Enjoy! – Meg

Mother Daughter Me Paperback Cover

Mother Daughter Me Paperback Cover

Who knows why publishers often drag their feet when it comes to bringing a book out in paper. Some people even argue that all three formats – hardcover, paperback and ebook – should be published simultaneously, to give readers their choice. I have no particular opinion on that, but I do believe that for many books, the paperback is what truly matters.

Here is my message to you: Even if sales of the hardcover of your novel, memoir, short story collection or volume of poetry fail to soar, do not give up. You can always try again with the paperback. For paperbacks are, without a doubt, a book’s second chance at life.

The hardcover of my memoir, Mother Daughter Me, came out last July, and while sales were just fine (well, not on the level of, say Anna Quindlen, but fine enough), it’s not really a book meant to be read as a hardcover. Perhaps because of the subject, I’ve always envisioned it in paperback, in part because it’s a perfect book for book clubs, many of which will buy only paperbacks.

I expected Random House to wait the customary year before publishing the paperback, but I decided to push for it to come out sooner, preferably – and for obvious reasons — in time for Mother’s Day.  So I was more than pleased to hear that the paperback pub date was April 8.

Mother Daughter Me Hardback Cover

Mother Daughter Me Hardback Cover

One obvious question for Mother Daughter Me was what to do with the cover image. I was in love with the hardcover image, which showed a ragged rip through the three words of the title and straight down the center of the book. By itself, that tear might have seemed just confusing. But the truly ingenious move on the designer’s part was this: she taped the page back together, with a film that looked and felt like real Scotch tape (and could be mass produced by the printer). It obviated the need for a subtitle, because that awkwardly patched-together page told a reader everything she or he needed to know about what the book was about. I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much I lobbied for that to be paperback image.

But the folks at Random House refused to use that for the paperback. And they were right. That cover is most compelling when people are holding the physical book in their hands. But the sad truth is that many book browsers see jackets as PDFs these days. Not only did the tear not jump out, but the textured tape was lost altogether, and the book faded to the background in an Amazon and Goodreads sea of brightly colored covers.

I resigned myself to a different image, but I worried. And sure enough, the two candidates my editor sent me were just plain wrong. One showed a broken plate, which looked just plain angry. Another showed three hangers, which could either connote “Mommie Dearest” (not at all the message of my book) or abortions (ditto on that one). So I fought back. Both designs, I told my editor, were terrible — off-putting and off the point.

Random House is a vast ocean of a place, and I’m a small grain of sand to them. After the hardcover was published, I became the publishing version of The Disappeared. But for some reason, my editor paid attention to my objections, and the designer came up with a third image. The moment I saw it, I knew it was perfect. It shows three teetering teacups on a stack of saucers. The teacup on top is teetering just a little bit, which, in my mind, signifies the fragile emotions conveyed throughout the book. Yet the picture is also whimsical, and playful.

Cross Promoting with Mighty Leaf Tea

Cross Promoting with Mighty Leaf Tea

Then there’s the idea of tea itself. Given that authors are expected these days not just to write their books but to market them, too, I decided to scour eBay and Etsy for teacups resembling the top one — bone china, with a delicate Royal Windsor floral pattern that I could swear I’ve spotted during tea drinking scenes in “Call the Midwife.” In an amazing triumph of cold calling, I managed to strike a collaboration with Mighty Leaf Tea, which is promoting the book by sponsoring giveaways of the book together with boxes of tea. And to every independent bookstore I visited while on tour for the hardcover, I sent a beautiful teacup with a paper flower made from pages of the book nestled inside, along with a box of Mighty Leaf/Mother Daughter Tea. The tea was a lucky stroke, lending itself beautifully to my little marketing effort. (This is just a hunch, but I’m pretty sure Cheryl Strayed didn’t send a smelly hiking boot to bookstores – then again, she didn’t need to.)

The paperback came out a week ago. Random House is still largely indifferent to the book, which is to say it that “Mother Daughter Me” is unlikely to become the next “Wild,” with or without the hiking boot. But a lot of people are getting a nice cup of tea out of the deal. And oh yes, a good read, too – just in time for Mother’s Day. – Katie

1 Comment

  1. April 16, 2014    

    So interesting to hear the back story about the cover. I loved the book, as you know, and want to go to tea with you (and Meg, too)!

1st BOOKS is hosted by MEG WAITE CLAYTON

Read the new national bestseller, The Race for Paris, from the author of the New York Times-bestseller The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel). Meg has also written essays for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Writer's Digest, Runner's World, and public radio.

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