I hate my own book’s cover so I’m basking in these groovy retro self-help book covers

Ariel Meadow Stallings
9 min readJan 31, 2023

It’s not a secret. Everyone knows how I feel about the cover of From Sh!tshow To Afterglow: I hate it.

I prided myself on being an easy-going author through the book’s year-long editorial process, but I pushed back HARD on the book’s cover.

It was the only veto card I threw down with my editor. It was the only fit I pitched.

As I said to my editor Laura:

This cover shows where the reader is starting from (shitshow) instead of where they’re heading (afterglow!). It’s de-aspirational and un-motivating.

The choice to go in this visual direction feels extra confusing because Shitshow to Afterglow is very much NOT about the shitshow. Based on your editorial guidance, I wrote this book to be uplifting and proactive.

This sinking couch does NOT speak of growth, self-development, or ballsy healing… it’s a tan, bland, sinking ship.

When I imagine this cover on the bedside table of a depressed reader, I feel the ways this image drags them down — just when they want to be lifted up! This cover adds even more of a sense of sinking and descent into the lives of people who bought a book specifically to help them overcome that feeling.

This could be the perfect cover for a funny book about a suburbanite’s domestic life falling apart… but that is not this book.

This book is about making the choice to turn a shitshow into uplifting, edgy, sexy, active healing. My goal is to make shitshow recovery feel cool and exciting, like an opportunity instead of a curse. That beige couch feels cursed.

Another way of saying it: I would not fuck on that couch!

Laura heard my concerns, and she went to bat for me. She even went so far as to pitch a new title of the book to the publisher, in the hopes of getting a different cover. Nothing worked.

Hachette sales and marketing didn’t just like the couch — they loved the couch.

The nail in the coffin was when the head of Hachette sales sent the cover to the senior buyer at Barnes & Noble.

“…Now THAT’S a book I can sell,” the buyer supposedly said to the sales guy.

…Apparently, they would fuck on that couch.

So that was it: I was stuck with a sinking couch.

All I could do is surrender and trust Hachette sales to know what sells. That’s their job. As the author, it’s my job to shut up and let them do their work.

Having been through the publishing house meatgrinder with three editions of Offbeat Bride, I knew this was the deal when I went into the process. I knew how challenging it would be to learn to stand down and let other people do their jobs… but I’ve spent 4+ years working on my surrender practices, so I wanted to try.

From mid-century fonts to naked women to truly bold design choices, they just don’t make ’em like they used to…

Part of my process with letting it go was basking in the beauty and joy of book covers that actually inspire me. My basking started when my editor asked me to send her cover inspiration for Shitshow, and even though the designers ignored all of my suggestions, book cover basking is something I’ve grown to love doing.

Every trip to Elliot Bay Books involves me snapping shots of my favorite covers. My son reads design books while I browse the self-help section. Afterward, we go to Rancho Bravo for cheap burritos.

But a few months ago, I found myself not at Elliot Bay but Twice Sold Tales, a local used book store. Tavi was selling some of his old books to get money for a new Lego set, and I spent half an hour in the self-help aisle, obsessing over retro self-help books.

The bold colors! The groovy fonts! The old white dudes! All the rainbows! I started a new fantasy, one where instead of wishing Shitshow’s cover had looked like something by Pixie Lighthorse, I imagined it more like a book by Gail Sheehy.

Who wants to go on a snarky lil browse through the used bookstore with me, reviewing some of these favorite retro covers? My faves tend to fall into a few themes, so let’s do this…

Old white dude author faces

In these days of very personality-driven books, TONS of self-help books have the female author pictured on the cover, but back in the day, the only way to get your face on the cover was to be an old white dude.

White cover, big quote, big title, author photo — I like it. Bill Sands might look like he wants to sell you some insurance or make you an authentic mid-century hamburger, but he’s here to tell you about his compelling crusade — which actually was pretty compelling.

Norman Vincente Peale here looks a little bit creepier to me than good ol’ Bill Sands. Supposedly Norman is an optimist, but he looks more like the owner of the Five and Dime, who wants to yell at you about stealing some lemon drops. Note: YELLOW! Also: weird cut-out on his tie, there. Not sure about that choice, but still.

Jumping ahead a few decades here, I’m loving the combo of the title’s bold claim, and the twinkly sunset people living the stock photo dream circa 1993. Robert Willix looks like he got lost on the way to that Sizzler’s promotional reel:

Women

You know what makes psych nerds want to buy books? WOMEN.

This is a completely naked woman on the cover of a book written by one of Freud’s students. The premise is that it’s not Eve who’s born from Adam’s rib, but rather, it’s the second birth of Adam into the world of men, leaving the world of the mother! And you know what says “male puberty as coming of age”? HEADLESS SIDE BOOB.

Not digging the vibe of this scene (Did she enthusiastically consent to the hair-pulling? The entire picture is a big ol’ gender microaggression!), but I’m seriously digging the composition of the cover and the tone of the photograph. Like, what filter did they use tho?

For a moment, I thought this woman was the author, but no. It’s a book about how to be more emotionally open, with a cover that shows a woman looking distinctly suspicious and unsure. Silly, but it does make you look — as does the daring choice to put red text on the blue background. I also am super into the crazy line art photo. Talk to me about that filter, too.

I don’t know why you’re single, but it’s got nothing to do with your hair (perfectly backlit) or your blush (impeccable!). It’s probably more attachment issues, introversion, or not buying into amatonormativity.

I’d truly love to believe that that’s the author on the cover, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Groovy fonts

Such a clean, simple cover (red on white!) but that font choice turns it into something different. And the way that Y stretches through the e is so unexpected. I dig it!

The typography on both of these covers is beyond! I’m obsessed with the groovy colorful fonts, and then the mix with that bold san serif subtitle on the second one? Divine! I love dreaming of what From Shitshow To Afterglow: Putting Life Back Together When It All Falls Apart would have looked like with that second cover design. Can you even imagine!? I would have died!!

Bold graphics

Now we move into the realm of super bold graphical choices. Lots of groovy fonts in here too, but holy wow the design choices on some of these…

Primary colors with a hint of purple, and then your double question mark logo, all locked and loaded for your social media marketing campaign?! Edward E. Ford must have been stooooked back in ‘74.

Fuck, I hope you brought your defibrillator — because I just died! The solid orange cover, the diagonal line, the subtle lowercase author name, and then the bad-ass title font?! This screams at you from the shelf.

Ok, I don’t actually like this one aesthetically. Still, I appreciate that somewhere in mid-60s New York, there was a book cover designer who was like, “I dunno, let’s make a dude out of some colorful blocks together and add some shadows?” A cover like this now would stand out like crazy these days.

Not one but TWO killer retro fonts!?! Are you kidding me? The red, white, and black color scheme is so great… and that SON RISE book logo in the bottom right, damnnnn. (Can you imagine if they’d put Offbeat Bride’s logo in the bottom right of Shitshow’s cover? That’d be weird as fuck, but it would catch your eye.)

Also, it looks like SON RISE was actually about raising an autistic child in the ’70s. Based on the font, I would have thought it was a trippy sci-fi, but my friends with kids on the spectrum might think that it sometimes feels like a trippy sci-fi, so maybe that’s appropriate?

Rainbows

Granted, I was born in 1975, so ’70s rainbows give me visceral flashbacks to preschool and apple juice, but I LOVE THIS AESTHETIC. Bring it back!

Red, bold, faces, rainbows, one little tear… The only thing missing is that comma between BESTSELLER LOVE. Again, imagine this book on the shelf today! So eye-catching.

Ooh, monochromatic rainbows. I’m here for it. Also here for that trippy face. Everyone was doing acid. I love you,‘70s vibes.

Ooh, it’s a rainbow and a circular chart! This feels heavily influenced by the Twister spinner.

Landscapes

Why does this cover remind me of the shots I saw of the Rajneeshpuram cult valley in Wild Wild Country? Regardless, there are NO self-help covers like this these days. Groovy font over a painted landscape? They just don’t exist.

I love the bold color (YELLOW!) combined with the clean lines of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a bit of a stretch to have a Bay Area landscape on a book about work methodology, but whatever. I’m feeling the circle and just everything.

Vintage style

These last two aren’t really retro, they’re more truly vintage, since both were published in the ’40s. I love the cleanliness of the first and the starkness of the second. I’m seeing some new book covers nodding to these old Penguin and Pelican styles, but Anchors To Windward is a cover that you would just never see now, EVER. Also, that second book sounds trippy AF, and I wish I’d bought it.

Thanks to covers like these, I’ve mostly accepted my lot with my stupid sinking couch …

MY QUESTIONS FOR YOU

  • Separate from reading them, how do you organize, display, and relate to the books around your home?
  • What books do you hide, and why?
  • How do you interact with your books — do you bend the pages and mark up the margins, or do you treat them as pristine objects? Where did those values come from?
  • What are your favorite book covers of all time, and why?

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Ariel Meadow Stallings

I'm a product manager at Medium, but I'm also a whole-ass person living life: author, publisher, devotional dancer, Seattleite, mom, and just a human humanning.