An Author’s Dream: Sheila Parr

You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover

– Willie Dixon, 1962

Haven’t we all heard about the deception of book covers a million times? Legend Bo Diddley even sang about it. While there’s certainly a profound nugget of truth there, when it comes to actual books, it isn’t always fitting.

Book covers play a key role in building literary careers. James Fox, Editor-in-Chief of the Midwest Book Review, has this to say about book covers:

For the post-publication reviewer, the cover is the gateway decision that decides if a book will be summarily rejected, or if the reviewer will invest additional time and energy into a further exploration of the book’s desirability for being reviewed. Book reviewers must prioritize submitted books in a manner that would equitably utilize their time and energy to best effect for their audience or readership.

Think of it as going shopping in your favorite bookstore to buy an armload of books as gifts for yourself, your friends, and your family. You want to pick the books that you are going to provide as gifts which will be as appropriate to the intended recipient, as attractive to the recipient, and as reflective of your own good taste in the recipient’s behalf, as possible.

That’s why, for the post-publication book reviewer, one of the key selection elements is how the book will “sell” to its intended readership based upon its physical appearance.

This literary triage selection process is not a review. Rather it is decision process on whether of not to accept or refuse a book for review. It is not a critique of the literary content, but as an assessment of the book’s viability in the competitive context of the book selling marketplace. It is passing judgment (or reviewing) the book-as-product and the publisher as that product’s producer.

If you share this author’s dream, your primary goal is to write a fantastic book.  A critical secondary goal is to find a fantastic publisher that can transform fabulous content into a product that will not only grab the attention of the intended reader but also that of book reviewers, booksellers, media representatives, the movie industry, and perhaps even Oprah. 

To create this spectacular package, the publisher carries the burden of accurately reflecting the book’s content in its title and book cover design. Doing so is critical for satisfying all players involved, and for building and maintaining a stellar industry reputation.  Designing book covers is not as easy as some might think considering there’s about a 10 to 15 second window to satisfy.  That’s about how long the average person spends glancing at a book before deciding to pick it up or move along. Wow!

If you’re Stephen King, Philip Roth, or Jodi Picoult, you’ve built an established audience who will likely give your next title their full attention. However, if you’re an unknown, the book cover becomes a critical piece of the success puzzle.

With all this in mind, I was fortunate enough to have my debut novel land the desk of graphic designer, Sheila Parr.  Her fantastic cover design for ABERRATIONS was recognized by Print Magazine as one of the best of 2009!  Print Magazine is the premier publication for the graphic design industry.  Sheila works for Greenleaf Book Group, a small publisher based in Austin, Texas.  Her ABERRATIONS cover design was selected along with covers created by designers at New York-based powerhouses HarperCollins, St. Martin’s Press, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Pantheon, and Scribner.       

Sheila is incredibly talented at what she does, and provides a great example of someone who has tapped both sides of the brain to achieve her creative goals.  Her design was likely instrumental in convincing James Fox at Midwest Book Review to put ABERRATIONS into the “yes” pile during his literary triage. Their Small Press Bookwatch division went on to say that ABERRATIONS is deftly written … very edgy … engaging … insightful … and fascinating!  They gave the book a 5 star-rating, helping me to relay that ABERRATIONS is just as good as its cover.

Thanks Sheila!

I often wonder if most highly creative people are born knowing what they want to do. Have you always wanted to be a graphic artist or was it a specific creative interest that evolved over time?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I drew, painted, designed, glued, colored, glittered, and sculpted whatever I could. I also wanted to be a writer, so I filled notebooks with stories I had written and illustrated. Then I reached a point when I realized that I wasn’t very good at drawing, so I decided I would be a writer. I took a required basic design course in journalism school, and fell in love with graphic design. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a designer. I kind of went full circle.

Do you have other creative interests, and if so, what are they?

I go through creative cycles. Right now my job is very demanding so I don’t have much time for personal projects. I find it difficult to have a very demanding day at my job, and then go home and work on personal art or crafty projects. So I channel my creative energy into my work and enjoy simpler creative outlets in my free time, like my backyard garden. When I am on the other side of my creative cycle, however, I sketch, paint, crochet, and design all kinds of things at home, and I do it for my enjoyment, not because I’m really good at it.

There is a stereotype that creative people are “different,” which can be a positive or a negative at times. What are your thoughts on this?

I think there are all kinds of creative people. My job requires me to be highly creative, but I also have to be professional and proficient at client management. I work on a lot of business titles, and the authors sometimes aren’t used to interfacing with creatives. So it’s the constant duality of Business Sheila and Creative Sheila. Different hats for different parts of the day.

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?

Being a creative person has caused me to pursue challenging work, and to push the limits and really explore who I want to be. It has definitely helped me deal with life’s aberrations. When I’m going through a difficult time, I think it’s great therapy to make something: collages, paintings, drawings, journal entries. Creativity is an outlet that I feel lucky to have.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

Both of my parents always encouraged me creatively. I have always been my own worst enemy when it comes to letting myself be creative.

I often wonder, “Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?” Have you ever wondered about this? In a world filled with creative people and people who think they’re creative, how were you able to distinguish yourself and your talent despite any doubts along the way?

Absolutely. I think that for a lot of designers concepting comes very naturally. Developing a professional demeanor, organization, flawless execution, and client management are areas where they struggle. I am in many ways the opposite of this: I worry that I won’t be able to come up with a good idea. I am not naturally filled to the brim with great ideas. I have to work at it. There is a lot of impostor syndrome in artistic fields. I have to remind myself that everyone else thinks I’m doing a good job, my clients are happy, my boss is happy, I win awards from time to time . . . that must mean something.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. How have you coped with disappointments?

I try to be realistic about what I can achieve, and I give myself room to fail from time to time. I accept that I am good at some things, and I have to work very hard at others even though I still might not be successful. I feel I am so lucky to be doing creative work for a living, that my failures so far have felt pretty small.

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of thought processes. How would you describe your creative process? How does your mind work?

My creative process begins by trying to understand the essence of what I’m working on. I design book covers, so for me I need to get an accurate idea of what the author is trying to communicate. My professional creative work is very goal-oriented: I am packaging a product to sell, and I have a small space to interpret the author’s vision in a marketable way. There is a lot of back and forth with my creative work. I have to put myself in the shoes of the author, the distributor, and the consumer. Then I have to create something that is true to the book’s message and is artistically sound. I spend a lot of time in bookstores.

My personal projects are totally different. I try very hard to not approach them with any preconceived ideas about what they should be. I let them develop as they will, and the goal is the process, the enjoyment I get from creative work.

What are the top three characteristics of a highly creative person, in your opinion?

1) The ability to see something new and unique in the ordinary

2) The desire to combine craft and concept to create something meaningful and beautiful

3) The willingness to approach a problem from several different angles

Many creative people have tons of ideas but never follow through. I’m not sure if it’s because they lack drive, organization, or focus. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

It can be difficult to find the drive to make creative projects happen. For me, creative work takes a lot of energy, and sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t. I deal with this by being very understanding of my lack of creative energy.

If I’m getting frustrated at myself for saying “I should [fill in creative activity here] more” I decide to either accept that it’s not going to happen right now, or build time into my life to do it. It is a shame to let creative talent lie dormant, but it’s worse to live with constant guilt for not using that talent. If I decide to build time into my life to bring my ideas to fruition, it helps to have a plan. I have a friend who decided to do a painting a day to kick-start her creative projects. Some days she would spend 10 minutes painting, and others she would paint for an entire evening. It’s much easier to develop the drive, organization, and focus to complete creative work when you have a realistic plan.

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