Tag Archives: Joshua McCune

Covers, Covers, Covers

Elly Swartz’s Finding Perfect just got a cover last week (see it here) and that reminded me of how exciting (ok, and nerve wracking) seeing your cover for the first time can be. A lot is riding on that cover design. In spite of the proverb, we all judge a book by its cover.

The perfect cover isn’t only beautiful, it delivers the right book to the right reader. So I thought I’d do a roundup of four books that I’ve had the opportunity to read whose covers do exactly that. The first is Penny Parker Klostermann’s There Was An Old Dragon Who Swallowed A Knight with art by Ben Mantle.There Was an Old Dragon cover

From the minute you see that big, old dragon with the dinner napkin around his neck, you know he’s trouble. Funny trouble. And the book delivers that funny again and again both through text and pictures.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.51.40 PM

The cover of Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s Book Scavenger tells you, “Hey, if you like books, if you like mysteries, if you like to solve puzzles, this is your book. Sarah Watt’s did the art and April Ward designed the cover. And when you read the book, it absolutely delivers on the cover’s promise. Books, mystery, puzzles galore.

CharmedChildrencover (1)

Janet Fox’s cover of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, with art by Greg Ruth, is fabulously sinister. You can’t help wanting to go into that lighted door and yet, at the same time, thinking “I am not sure those kids should go in that door. I do not have a good feeling about this.” Janet’s book comes out in March but I’ve already read an ARC and let me tell you, it’s both worth going in the door and sleep-with-the-lights-on scary. It delivers on the promise of the cover.


And finally, there’s the cover of Joshua McCune’s Talker 25. Gorgeous color combinations, all that texture, the stylized nod to dragons and the the tagline below the title. The cover is gritty, tough. You know the book will have a dark side. And that’s exactly what you get when you read it. (Plus the realest dragons I have read in years.)

If you’d like to read more about the thought process behind Talker 25, there’s a great post about how Paul Zakris, art director at Greenwillow, and Sammy Yuen, the artist, worked through that process here.

So here’s to the artists and cover designers who do such a brilliant job telling a reader in one image what’s waiting inside that cover.

Which covers that you’ve seen lately do you think do the job of delivering the right book to the right reader?


Filed under cover art

Talker 25, The Evolution of a Kick Butt Cover

Holy Hell!

A Kick Butt Cover

I know the expression is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but we do. We just do. That’s why anyone in the publishing biz from writers to editors to sales and marketing folk will tell you a great cover will sell a book. Particularly a debut book. For debut authors, a great cover will mean the difference between turning off girl readers, attracting boy readers, looking too childish as well as a whole host of perils that writers making black marks on a white page never think about.

Joshua McCune’s debut young adult novel TALKER 25 has a great cover. No. A kick butt cover. Today, on the launch week of TALKER 25, Paul Zakris, Art Director at Greenwillow Books, is joining Emu’s Debuts to talk about how the Talker 25 cover evolved and why he loves it as much as we do.

Paul Zakris

Paul Zakris

Zakris has been designing children’s books for almost twenty-five years. Twelve years ago, Virginia Duncan, vice president and publisher of Greenwillow Books, recruited him to be the art director at Greenwillow Books where he oversees everything from board books to young adult novels. “Because Greenwillow is a boutique imprint, I do see everything,” says Zakris. “I’m not in on the acquisitions meetings but I do hear about manuscripts soon after they are acquired.”

As soon as Duncan gave him the manuscript, Zakris loved TALKER 25. “It’s my kind of book. Sci-fi, dystopian, action adventure with a dark side. A future with dragons in the world and a government cover up. What’s not to love? I like that it’s a boy book with a lot of action. But it’s gritty and dark with a female heroine.”

“Once we’ve acquired a book, we have a jacket strategy meeting pretty early on,” says Zakris. “That’s when we meet with the publisher and head of sales and marketing and we talk about what we want to show. Do we want a character cover? Which one? The girl? Or do we want to focus on the love interest? Or maybe we want to go with something a bit more iconic? We pretty much bring every idea to the table.”

Zakris says he initially focused on the characters. “I went with a tough girl and the three dragon colors.” But the group felt like focusing on a girl might skew the appeal away from boys. “Once I had that feedback, I knew we were headed into a more iconic direction. Except we couldn’t put a dragon or even a dragon’s eye on the cover because dragons on the cover signal middle grade and this is definitely a teen book.”

Sammy Yuen

Sammy Yuen

At this point, Zakris decided to bring in one of the best designers of iconic covers in the business: Sammy Yuen (Remember the cover of Ellen Hopkins’ cover CRANK? That was Sammy Yuen.) “I oversee a lot of freelance designers,” says Zakris. “I may get to start on a project but because we are small house, I have to reach out to many designers. This kind of collaboration is one of the many things I love about my job.”

Zakris gave Yuen the TALKER 25 manuscript, a summary and a few guidelines. “I told him we wanted it to be gritty with kind of a military aspect but also incorporate dragons. He worked on it for a few months and came back with six or seven versions with twenty or thirty comps.”

Yuen nailed it. The logo had a military feel. With a dragon in it. And the distressed metal was the perfect background to suggest grit and war and darkness.

Because the cover was so extraordinary, Zakris looked for other ways to make it pop. “We printed it on foil. In other words, we did four-color print but accentuated with foil so it pops even more. As a result, the distressed metal has more depth and grit. I think the jacket conveys cool and serious at the same time.”

Once the cover was done, Zakris got busy with the interior design elements. He carried the distressed metal background through the section breaks. Also the first word of each chapter links to the logo style. “I also wanted the type to be more adult looking, smaller but still readable. I wanted the font to be high tech looking. The chapter breaks are simple black numbers. It has a really clean look.” Yuen has begun work designing the second book of TALKER 25.  “Sammy has all the elements to play with. It has to relate to TALKER 25 but also be different.”

Who gets final say over a cover design? Is it the art director or the editor or the head of sales and marketing? “Actually,” says Zakris. “Everyone has to be in agreement. There’s a real back and forth in our process. We want everyone to be excited. We want sales and marketing to go to Barnes & Noble with a book cover that they like because it makes it easier for them to sell the book. But all of us want the cover to be great because we think the book is great.”

We, over here at Emu’s Debuts, think this cover kicks some serious butt, Paul Zakris and Sammy Yuen. So go ahead, world, judge this book by its cover because the story that Joshua McCune tells in TALKER 25 follows through on the promise.

Remember: Comment on any post this week, Monday thru Thursday, to be entered to win a signed hardback copy. The winner will be announced on Friday.

You can find Talker 25 online at IndieboundAmazon, BN.com, or at your local bookstore.



Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, cover art, Launch

Talker 25 Book Birthday: Name That Dragon!


Welcome to Day 2 of launch week for, and the official book birthday of, Joshua McCune‘s TALKER 25! Available now. Today. AT THIS VERY MOMENT. Fly to your nearest bookstore or order online at IndieboundAmazon, or BN.com.

Dragons, of course, play a central role in this epic tale. With names like Betelguese the Red Giant and Red Wraith the Specter of the Adirondacks, it’s not hard to imagine whose life would be forfeit if you met one face to face–say, in a dark alley or fighting over the last crab cake at a dinner party.

Do you have what it takes to name one of these mighty creatures? Your prize, should your name be chosen as victor, is your very own copy of TALKER 25!

Here’s a pic for inspiration:


Think you can name this bad boy?

And here’s a link to Josh’s richly imagined alternate reality show, Kissing Dragons. It’s amazing. Tons of inspiration there.

Please enter your name ideas in the comments section. Enter as many names as you wish!  A winner or winners will be chosen and announced in next Monday’s post.

Thanks for playing!


Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, Launch, Uncategorized


As my fellow emu Joshua McCune so correctly pointed out in his cover reveal post, books are judged by their covers. Sure, word of mouth, blog buzz and personal recommendations can get readers past a misleading cover but that first look can bring out the Judgey McJudger in all of us.

When Joy Peskin, my editor at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, emailed me the cover of EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN in December, she was very circumspect, giving a lot of props to the designer Elizabeth Clark, saying how much the sales and marketing folks like it and ending with “I’ll hope you’ll feel the same.” Then she attached this cover:


Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk when the email came through and as soon as I opened it, I gasped (a wow kind of gasp), hit reply and said, “OMIGOSHOMIGOSHOMIGOSHOMIGOSH….WOW…I love it…omigosh.”

Yeah, I know, way to be articulate, right? But I’m so glad I did that because Joy wrote back instantly and shared that showing authors their covers is her #1 most terrifying part of her job and receiving my email in response is the # 1 most awesome part of her job.

So what do I love about it? Well, I love the boy. I love the ghostliness of his image since the book is about a boy who disappears. I love the landscape because it is nearly exactly what I pictured as I wrote the book. I love the abstract symbols of connection because so many of the characters in the book struggle with belonging and disconnection. I have no idea about the subliminal magic of typeface but I love the way NOT SEEN ironically pops off the cover.

Thank you Elizabeth Clark for designing the perfect cover. I was lucky enough to see some of the versions that the team at FSGBYR had rejected and all I can say is I am one lucky author because these folks who hardly know me are really looking out for my book.

EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN is due out September 16, 2014.


Filed under cover art

The Emus Retreat

One of the many special things about the Erin Murphy Literary Agency is the annual client retreat. This summer, the retreat took place at Big Sky Resort in Montana. Emus came from all across the country–often at great personal expense–to connect, recharge, learn, explore, and laugh. The whole experience reminded me once again how blessed I am to be a part of this community and how important this community is to me, both professionally and personally.

We heard insights and advice from guest speakers and a panel of experts. We broke into small groups to discuss our own individual career quandaries. We shared our works in progress and the ugliest sweaters we could find (or make). We got serious, and we also got plenty silly. We wrote, hiked, ate, drank, took in the scenery, and didn’t get nearly enough sleep (well, some of us didn’t). We took notes, pictures, and videos. We listened to our very own in-house band, sang, clapped, cheered, and maybe even shed a tear or two. For many of us, events like these can tax our introverted natures, causing us to retreat from the retreat. That was not only allowed, but understood and valued. Through it all, in doses we could all be comfortable with, we got to know one another better. What a treat!

Some Emus

[Some of the current Emu’s Debuts: Christine Hayes, Kevan Atteberry, Pat Miller, Laurie Thompson, Joshua McCune, Carol Brendler, and Tara Dairman.]


I’m mostly an analytical type, so I like to try to quantify things: What exactly did I get out of this retreat? What is one thing I can point to that makes the retreat worth the time and money I spent to go there? What will I be able to directly use from this experience to further my career? I don’t have a satisfactory answer to any of those questions.

Still, I know it was all worth it. The connections made and relationships built will keep me going when things get hard. They make me feel like not only am I a part of something magical, but I actually belong there! I think so many people are drawn to writing because at some point in their life they felt awkward, marginalized, forced to stand on the sidelines and watch the “cool” people have all the fun. Well, at an EMLA retreat, we get to hang out with some of the coolest people out there, and we find out they’re actually a whole lot like us.



p.s. We also got to see an advance copy of Pat Miller’s SOPHIE’S SQUASH, and we were absolutely charmed and delighted. You will be hearing more about this fabulous book, I guarantee it! In fact, you might just want to pre-order your copy right now, before they’re all sold out.


Filed under Colleagues, Happiness, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

I Kissed a Dragon, and I Liked it.

If there be a devil, one of his concubines is surely Big Lady Doubt.

She first introduced herself to me in 8th grade. I’d applied to this science & tech high school. Figured I was a shoo-in. My brother had gotten in a few years earlier, and if he could do it, pshhh, please. Plus I was a math nerd. Game over. Thing was, I wasn’t a very dedicated math nerd. And there was also this English component to the entrance exam. English and meI weren’t on good terms then.

Man, talk about getting knocked off a pedestal. BLD told me to lay low and accept my lot at my regular school, but no matter how low I hunkered, the bullies found me. At that special school, I might not be special, but at least I’d be safe, and perhaps even normalish. So I rededicated myself to nerdiness, learned some big words, and tried again the next year. Got in.

The excitement did not last long. My peers were brilliant. 21 perfect SAT scores, a quarter of the class attending Ivy league schools, one guy even patented an invention.

BLD told me I couldn’t compete. You’ve already climbed halfway up the mountain. Don’t want to fall off it by aiming too high, do you? Nope, definitely not. Didn’t take any risks. Not with school, not with friends, and most certainly not with girls.

One thing BLD couldn’t touch was my writing. Why? Because I was awesome, duh. With my arsenal of big words (ambagious, marmoreal, casuistic… bam!), I could not be stopped. That, and I never let anybody but my mother read anything I wrote. She was completely unbiased.

In college, BLD told me to switch from an English/Physics double-major to something practical (mechanical engineering). Kept writing though. I was 300, 000 words into my epic fantasy and it was bound to be a best-seller.

Eventually, I discarded my unicorn dreams and got serious. An 81,000-word MG about a clan of warrior squirrels (there was a basset hound and a lemur involved, too). Serious stuff. I even mailed a query to South Africa, where the story was set.

Rejection. Shocking, I know. But this was my first go and I was just figuring out things. Nothing to worry about. Honing the craft and all that.

Round 2. A story about Gods playing games with kids (kind of Rick Riordan meets THE NIGHT CIRCUS). Got my first request. This is it. She will be wowed by my brilliance. Sorry, the story didn’t really go anywhere. Whatever. She knows nothing.

Then I got seriously serious. Writer’s Market, blogs, a thousand variations of a query (one which got mauled by Janet Reid on Query Shark), even revision. Wrote another story. My best one yet. With action and emotion and even theme. Sent out dozens of queries. Requests came in. Partials, fulls. Got so close. So damn close.

Then I heard laughter. BLD had entered the room. Knocked down the door. Refused to leave.

She laughed louder at my next story. A war story. With romance and darkness and consequence. And dragons? Seriously? Yeah, with dragons. Closing my ears to her noise, shutting my eyes to her sneer, I entered one of Miss Snark’s First Victim’s critique sessions.  25 words to hook a reader. If it sucked, so what? They didn’t know me from Adam. That’s why I used an alias. If they liked it, well, maybe BLD didn’t know everything.

Most everybody was hooked. This gave me a rush of confidence. Then an agent contacted me out of the blue asking for pages. Ammi-Joan Paquette. Me: Who?! BLD: Scam alert!

Unlike my astute agency mates, I was mostly unfamiliar with EMLA when Joan’s email arrived in my inbox (I knew it was a closed agency and I’m a wee, shy thing when it comes to conferences & networking – bad author). Did a quick check around the web and instantly realized how fortunate I was (understatement). This agent, this agency. Oh, hell yeah.

At the time, I was only about 14k into what was then titled KISSING DRAGONS. I was more pantsing than plotting at that point and wondered if I could keep riding the tailwind that had garnered her initial approval. BLD: No chance. You’re hosed. I powered on, if for no other reason than to spite her.

More good fortune struck in June, when one of my scenes from the story co-won* Nathan Bransford’s action-writing contest. Another confidence injection to propel me to the finish line. Sent it to Joan. Figured there’d be a long wait. BLD: followed by a short rejection.

Joan got back to me a day later to arrange a phone call. BLD was at a loss for words. Me: This is it. This is really it.

No. Joan wanted a revision. Why? Because the second half of the story was nutsoid (my word, not hers). I revised, sent it back a month later, ignored BLD’s smug look the best I could.

Another phone call. No, still a little bit crazy. But – and it took me a long time to realize this – the biggest issue was that I tried to wrap up everything a little too prettily. The ending was rather fantastical and shifted the tone from the gritty, realistic feel (her words, not mine) of the first half.

So I scrapped the back half completely, outlined (the horror), and rewrote. I went darker, because in that darkness was truth. Through that darkness was hope, however painful. That’s what I told myself at least.

BLD told me I was an idiot. It’s too dark for YA. She’ll despise this new version. What does she see in you anyway? This rejection could be the end of you.

So be it. Send.

I waited. Joan had gotten back to me on the other revisions super fast.

One month passed. Agents are busy people, I reminded myself almost daily. And they hate incompetent writers, BLD reminded me even more often.  Two months. BLD mated and multiplied. I prepped myself for rejection.

Another month trudged by. Then April came. A week before my birthday she emailed. As much as I expected another dashed dream, I still had that evil worm of hope slithering through my heart. It took me a very long time to open that email.

Loved it. Called two days later. I rambled incoherently, yet this did not dissuade her. Agented. Happy Birthday, Joshua. We did minor touchups and went on submission.

I figured it would be awhile (BLD: Forever). I’d been on the query carousel for more time than I care to admit.

A week later we had our first response from Greenwillow. Is this a trilogy?

A week after that, the offer came in. A trilogy. A gritty, realistic (yes, with dragons) trilogy about how the lines between good and evil blur and fade and sometimes disappear (BLD: maybe it’s just a story about dragons, kid). The first book, TALKER 25, will be released early 2014.

I’ve never particularly cared for the aphorism about life being about the journey and not the destination, but this journey has helped teach me that if you’re gonna kiss a dragon, don’t half ass it.

And, perhaps more importantly, I’m no longer afraid to tell Big Lady Doubt to suck it. At least every once in awhile.

* about a month after T25 sold, the other winner, Josin L. McQuein, also had her book picked up by Greenwillow.


Filed under Agents, Introduction, Rejection, rejection and success, The Call