Donna Everhart

The Anatomy Of A Book

I’ve always loved books, but one in my hands today is not treated the same way as it was years ago.  When I used to start reading, I would sometimes peruse the dedication page, but most often I would jump right into the story.

Not now.  Now actually meaning anytime since about 2009.   When I pick up a novel these days, I virtually dissect it.  Like that stinky little frog, or God forbid, that ginormous EARTHWORM thingy we used to have to cut into and take apart bit by bit in biology class.  That’s how I go through a book, dissecting it bit by bit.

By dissect, I mean I read/look at everything.  When I’m enamored with an author, as I am with too many to count, it’s not just about being entertained that interests me.  It’s about the skin, spine, bones, heart, lungs, eyes (vision) and brains of a book.  (yes, this post will be filled with terms using various organs I decided on; cheesy but effective, don’t you think?)

When I pick up a book now, I study the cover (skin).  This used to be the very first thing that drew me in.  With a quick first glance over the shelves, I could immediately pick out one I thought I’d like.  Since deciding to write and pursue publication, I’ve dreamed about a cover for my own book.  Today when I look at covers, I still have a penchant for a certain vibe they carry, while knowing I like many different types.

Here are a few of my favorites:

With BASTARD, the picture of the young girl and the figure of a woman nearby, hand on her hip, plus the model of the car tells you this will be a story about conflict set in a time some decades ago.  COAL RIVER and ONE FOOT IN EDEN are covers I love, portraying darkish settings which, (IMO) tells you there’s trouble ahead.  The covers evoke a sense of heaviness/darkness, serious stories about serious topics.  With CEECEE HONEYCUTT, the book was pitched as STEEL MAGNOLIAS meets THE HELP.  The hummingbird and flowers just below the scrolled volute (?) makes you envision people with sweet Southern charm who get their happy ending.

I’ve become pretty consistent about flipping the book to look at it’s spine.  This is just to see who published it, and since I started doing that years ago, I’m now familiar with many of the imprint logos.

With the cover also comes flap copy or “bones.”  By reading that, I understand the story’s structure and what it’s about.  It will tell me (in some cases) if the author used first person, third, is it from multiple narrators or one.

Next, I take a look at the heart, which to me is the dedication and the acknowledgements pages.  I call this the heart because this is where authors will likely let you have a peek at their emotions.  I like to see who the books are dedicated to because it also tells me a little bit about the author’s relationships, are they married, with or without kids?  Dogs?  Cats?  The acknowledgements gives me an idea of a book’s journey.  Who did the author know?  Who helped them?  How long did it take?  Not all of these answers are given, but after reading many, many acknowledgements and dedication pages, I usually think I know a little something more about how a particular book came to be.

Next comes the lungs, that breath deep inside, that in and out movement which pinks up our skin, makes us gasp, or laugh, or literally stop breathing during a particularly tense scene, as in…the story itself.  Self-explanatory, no?

Then, there is the vision for the book.  How does the publisher see the marketing of it?  There might be blurbs by other authors of the same genre, for one.  Sometimes these are so abundant, they fill some of the inside pages at the front along with one or two on the front cover, and the entire back cover may have them.  There are reviews to go after, and sales people who contact distribution channels to place the books in stores.

Last, but not least, the brain.  This is where you are encouraged to think about the story with Reading Guides, particularly if a difficult social issue is written into the story.  Occasionally there will be a “Conversation With <insert author name>.”

Strange, but true, I look at all of it.  Even the ISBN #’s, copyright date/s, and print editions.  And disclaimers.

The other day I picked up my next read and I spent time looking at the list of books the author has finished since his debut.  I thought, “I’m doing it again.  Dissecting.”  But it’s fun, and all of it is there for a reason, whether for the reader or the authors themselves.  And I don’t smell like formaldehyde.  That’s a plus.

Do you spend time “dissecting,” books, or am I the only one with this quirky habit?




11 thoughts on “The Anatomy Of A Book”

  1. julieweathers2014

    Wow, what a great post! I’m not nearly that dedicated. I like to read acknowledgments. It’s always interesting to see who shaped the book and the author. I dislike blurbs. That may change if I ever get published. Flap copy or jacket copy I always read. Covers are definitely important. Cartoon covers leave me flat. If a book is really highly recommended I may still reluctantly buy it, but I’ll tear the cover off. First pages that suck me in are imperative. Random pages that keep me interested are also.

    Good job.

    1. Thank you so much! I thought, people are gonna think I’m craaaazy….! (sing song voice) It likely makes no sense to anyone but me. I don’t pay much attention to blurbs when buying a book, but I get it. To some folks (readers) they might think, well this person blurbing is my fave author and if SHE says it’s good – it must be good!

      Hey, if I get ONE, just ONE, I’ll be ever so grateful.

      Agreed on cartoon covers. No thanks! And, I also agree on first pages. Even the first sentence as you talked about in your own blog. I have reworked my own first sentences over, replaced old with new, and done all I could to make them interesting. I like the first sentence of my current WIP.

      “Whenever I hear the birth stories Momma repeats on our special day, I can’t help but think of Laci, and how she ended up.”

      When I don’t make any changes to a sentence, I believe then, I have “the one.”

      Sort of like when we get to the point of moving commas around…

  2. The analogy you’ve made between body parts and your process of dissecting a book is excellent. You are so thorough, I admire that! Like Julie, I read the flap copy or jacket copy and the acknowledgments. I won’t buy a book if I don’t like its cover.

    You inspire me. Doing it my way, I seem to miss some vital organs… LOL!

    I love your post! <3

    1. Thank you so much, Lilac!

      We never think we’re getting it right, but, from everything you’ve written thus far, I detect that you would create a very much ALIVE and living work, with a HUGE <3!!!

      Keep writing, Lilac…you're doing GREAT!

      1. You are very welcome, Donna!

        Thank you so much for your heartfelt and encouraging words. I feel humbled and honored as well as motivated… You are a wonderful friend! <3

  3. The reasons I pick particular books is so obscure it might be some arcane thing lost in the depths of time. Nowadays I am just feeding an addiction. Because of that I do libraries often. I grab four or five books a week. Sometimes I can’t even figure out what caught my attention when I get it home.

    I try to read them all but invariably one or two get returned without me finishing them. Sometimes those are books be writers I admire, sometimes writers I never heard of. About once a year I try something like a Patterson book. Sometimes I can get a third of the way through them.

    Covers don’t do a whole lot for me. Like everything else the EPA got their fingers into them and the cardboard with environmentally friendly glue are just lacking. I know there are books out there with history and magic in them. They have gotten hard to find but I am blessed, or cursed, to have one of the greatest bookstores in the world right across the bay.

    I go there twice a year to recharge my batteries and breathe in the magic of the past. This magical place is Haslam’s. People from around the world send books to them to re-bind because they do it the old way. Stitched bindings and calfskin covers.

    They are also a book seller. The building takes up a whole block and you need those lovely old ladders to reach the upper shelves. It is spectacular. So much so that they even have illuminated books you can touch.

    If you go to Boucheron in St.Pete this year you have to make a side trip to Haslam’s. I have to warn you that if you do you might not make it back to the conference.

    1. Libraries – even the smell of them, heaven. I probably should have gone to work in one instead of technology.

      I would agree with that blessing/curse for Haslam’s. Given your descriptions, right across the way would be too close for me. I’d never get any writing done. You must have exercised a LOT of discipline to only visit twice a year! How do you stand it?

      Speaking of old books, I just bookmarked Abe’s Books the other day. You might know about it, but I didn’t. It’s here you can find even the rare ones, evidently. They have a search tool.

      Anyway, I would imagine they would have the sort of books you speak of…stitched with calfskin. I can’t imagine how beautiful a book would have been, published in that manner.

  4. This kind of dedication(/dissection) seems like the mark of a professional. You have educated yourself and developed a connoisseur’s eye for construction and taste.

    I am nowhere near this level of discernment, but can appreciate your “eye” – and I DO adore a beautifully made book. Especially innovative design.

    Like Julie, there are graphical choices that leave me cold. Almost 100% of the time, for historicals (dating before photography), any manner of photo on the cover tuns me off. Everything doesn’t have to be sepia toned or “distressed” looking or fakey parchment, but photos have a tendency to appear cheap to me for centuries-past time periods.

    I don’t care for cartoony covers either, for a novel. Maybe for the kind of book you’d pick up and just read a page or two – essays on quirky subjects, or humor pieces – but yeah, generally not appealing for me either.

    I also can’t really respond to covers that are too stark/blank/convey little. For me, some little part of the story is in a cover, and I’ve always tended to LOOK at covers while I’m reading from time to time, to seat myself in a particular place.

    1. I’ll take it! (mark of a professional) Although it seemed a little more like…obsession? 🙂

      Covers are definitely *the thing* for me first – and of course story. But I wouldn’t get to the story without the cover first catching my eye. Unless. I’ve been told about a book. Then I tend to just listen to the advice, “oooohhhh this is such a GOOD book about and you’d love it!”

      The covers for ONE FOOT IN EDEN or COAL RIVER, are the sort I would gravitate towards on a shelf. Maybe this has something to do with the sort of art I love. Impressionistic paintings, yet not ALL impressionistic paintings – mostly landscapes. Those and the works of a friend’s husband as an example. His name is C. Ford Riley. You can google him and you’ll see what I mean. His paintings are stunning and so realistic. Some actually look like photographs.

  5. And I thought I was the only one with scalpel-eyes. I’ve also jumped on-line just to examine the little worms life and habitat.
    BTW this is a brilliant post. Love it.

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