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War of Words--Over Imagery

Author, unhappy with cover art, gets publisher to change it.

May 31, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Theodore Taylor calls it a case of David versus Goliath, with the 78-year-old Laguna Beach author casting himself as the underdog against publishing giant Random House.

Taylor said he waged the extraordinary battle with the only weapon he had--words.

At issue: new cover art for "The Cay," Taylor's award-winning young adult novel that has sold more than 4 million copies since it was first published by Doubleday 31 years ago. The new cover, Taylor said, misrepresents the tone of the story and does not accurately depict the main characters.

"The Cay" revolves around two characters shipwrecked on a tiny Caribbean island during World War II. Phillip is an 11-year-old white boy who is forced to confront his racial prejudices. Timothy is an old black seaman from the West Indies--a gentle and patient man whose death at the end of the book moves many readers to tears.

On previous covers, Timothy has been depicted as white-haired and white-bearded; on the new cover, he appears much younger and has what Taylor feels is a "severe, threatening face." Timothy and Phillip (who now looks "more like he's 13 or 14") are shown standing on the beach in the middle of a tropical storm, bathed in what Taylor calls "almost sinister orange and black Halloweenish colors."

The overall effect, Taylor said, "is threatening," and the cover is "not only false but in the worst possible taste, damaging to the book and potentially financially damaging to me."

At the center of Taylor's concern is an obvious fact of life: Books are often judged--and misjudged--by their covers.

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"The Cay," like many long-selling books, has had a number of covers over the years. Early versions had calm seas; a more recent cover has a storm raging in the background--but one that Taylor does not interpret as threatening and which he feels accurately depicts the two characters.

When Taylor signed his contract for "The Cay" in 1968 with Doubleday, which is now part of the company that owns Random House, he had no say in cover art and design. Now, all his book contracts require that he be consulted.

Gloria Loomis, Taylor's literary agent, said that in book cover disputes normally a compromise can be reached before publication. But in this case, Taylor was never consulted.

"This is an instance where it's deeply offensive, and Ted was right to fight tooth and nail," she said.

And, in a highly unusual move, Random House agreed to revert to the 1987 hardback cover.

Kay Murray, general counsel of the Authors Guild, the largest U.S. organization of published authors, said she has never heard of another case in which the publisher has changed a disputed book cover after it has gone into print.

"It is not unusual at all for authors to be unhappy or not satisfied with book covers," Murray said. Some writers who have a "right of consultation" built into contracts can successfully influence decisions about covers while they are still being developed. But even in those cases, the final decision remains exclusively with the publisher.

That "The Cay" is a classic and that its author has the loyalty and respect of readers likely made the difference in this case, she said.

Since its initial publication, "The Cay" has spawned 14 foreign editions, a 1974 NBC-TV movie starring James Earl Jones (he's featured on the current paperback cover), a 1992 audiocassette read by Levar Burton and a 1998 children's play.

Last year, the International Reading Assn. included "The Cay" in its list of the 100 best children's books of the 20th century.

The book is required or recommended reading for middle-school students in 38 states, including California. It presents a subtle message of racial harmony as the boy, who learned prejudice from his parents, grows to love and respect the sailor.

Taylor said he was struck speechless in April when he first saw the jacket for the new hardback edition published by Delacorte, an imprint of Random House.

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He immediately considered taking legal action, but a lawyer for the New York-based Authors League of America (an umbrella organization that includes the Authors Guild) told him not to waste his money.

"Random House has lawyers who will eat you alive," Taylor said the lawyer told him.

Taylor said he fretted for a couple of days, his anger building until he came up with an idea he hoped would force Random House to change course: He would enlist the help of booksellers and teachers.

He began by contacting half a dozen children's bookstore-owner friends across the country, asking them to fax protests to Random House.

Taylor then sent out a mailer expressing his dissatisfaction with the cover to all 238 independent children's bookstores around the country. He also wrote to 25 teachers who use "The Cay" in class, inviting them to do the same.

So far, he's received copies of upward of 250 letters written to Random House by store owners, teachers and students.

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