Goodbye to the Gallery

When I sold my first novel back in 1979, I didn’t know much of anything about how publishing worked. I’d never met another published writer, unless you count being introduced to Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement as a kid, when they were talking with my father about teaching chemistry. I’d never heard of cover proofs. When I got a cover proof for The Lure of the Basilisk in the mail it was a complete surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a vaguely surreal experience, seeing my name on something resembling a book cover, and a representation of my character — neat, very neat, but very strange. That silly armor Darrell Sweet had given him didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the cover or not.

I studied that cover proof intently, and showed it to everyone I could, and then wondered, "Now what am I supposed to do with it?"

I didn’t know any other writers to ask. I didn’t have an agent. I suppose I could have asked my editor, Lester del Rey, but he was Lester del Rey, not a mere mortal I could pester with trivia.

So I did what seemed to me the obvious and logical thing to do — I framed it and hung it in my office. (Or maybe back then I called it my study; I don’t remember.)

To this day, that still seems like the obvious and logical thing to do, but I have never yet seen another writer’s home where cover proofs were framed and hung on the wall.

In September of 1980 the house was struck by lightning and my study was burned out, destroying that cover proof, but in November I got a cover proof for The Seven Altars of Dûsarra and framed that and hung it on the office wall. The cover proof for The Cyborg and the Sorcerers followed suit, and then The Sword of Bheleu, and so on.

We moved to Gaithersburg in 1986, and the cover gallery went with us and was hung on the wall of my new office. It got moved around a couple of times as I rearranged furniture, added new bookcases, and added more cover proofs, so that it didn’t fit where I’d had it before. Eventually I gave up on keeping it in my office, and moved it to the basement den, where the proofs were hung along the top of the walls — they started above the row of IKEA bookcases along the south wall, then turned a corner onto the soffit covering the main air conditioning duct, and ran the length of that. As I kept publishing, they rounded the corner onto the north wall, above the antique secretary and across the top of the door to the storeroom where I kept my comic books. They reached the corner and continued onto the east wall in the late 1990s — by this time it had become something of a ritual, framing each proof in an identical cheap metal frame (black with gold trim), backed with black construction paper. They ran over the top of the window, and were approaching the sliding door to the patio, where there wasn’t room for them to continue — I estimated there was room for one more, two if I squeezed a bit. I’d taken to buying the matching frames in bulk, and had half a dozen left, but I didn’t know where I’d be putting them.

This was just mass-market paperbacks; when I started I didn’t think I’d ever be published in any other format, and when hardcovers and trade paperback editions did come along I didn’t include those proofs in the gallery. Some dustjacket proofs did get framed and hung in the stairwell, some other proofs got hung behind the big TV, but the main gallery was just the mass-market editions.

For one thing, I didn’t always get proofs of other editions. Small presses like Wildside and FoxAcre didn’t always produce proofs, let alone send any of them to me. Even Tor didn’t always send proofs, at least not without nudging. Proofs had always been primarily a marketing tool, and by the 21st century more and more of that was being done electronically, with JPEGs, rather than actual paper or cardstock proofs.

Still, I’d maintained a complete (except for that destroyed first one) set of framed mass-market proofs in that basement gallery.

Then we moved to Takoma Park.

Here my office is in the basement — the study on the first floor is Julie’s, as it’s too small for my purposes. I have lots of room, and have been gradually getting it arranged to my liking. I put in seventeen IKEA bookcases and a big new desk, a map cabinet, and so on. Much of the stuff from the old den is also here in the basement — the elliptical trainer, the projection TV, etc.

Obviously, this is where the cover gallery would go. The idea of putting it on the soffits around the ductwork, like the west side of the old gallery, also seemed pretty obvious, as there are many such surfaces to work with here — the basement ceiling is divided into five separate sections by these things. There must be at least a hundred feet of soffit.

Julie thought it might look a little tacky, though I’m not sure why she thought so or why that would be a real concern, but she declared it to be my business, not hers — the basement, and the gallery, were both mine to do with as I pleased.

So a couple of weeks back, when I’d gotten more urgent stuff (like getting books sorted and onto shelves) done, I decided it was time to put the cover proofs up. I picked up the first one on the stack, which happened to be the Avon edition of Denner’s Wreck, and held it up to the soffit above the elliptical to see how it would look there.

It didn’t fit.

That possibility had never occurred to me, but sure enough, all these soffits are 7.5" high, and the frames are 8".

So that wasn’t going to work. I’d need to find somewhere else.

Well, most of the walls here are covered with bookcases, and there wasn’t enough space above them for the proofs. I didn’t have a lot of options, not with forty or more of these things to fit. Really, the only place that made sense was the wall right at the foot of the stairs, where I hadn’t put any bookcases because it would have been too crowded.

That wall had gotten a bit scuffed up, what with movers and workmen and so forth going through there to get up or down the stairs, or in or out of the utility room, so I didn’t tackle hanging the cover gallery immediately; I wanted to clean the wall, first.

Then we got snowbound for several days, and Julie got bored and cleaned the wall — not at my suggestion, but just because she was tired of seeing the smudges whenever she came down the stairs.

So yesterday I got out the framed proofs, and a tape measure and spirit level and hammer and picture-hook nails. I figured out how they’d be arranged, what the spacing would need to be — I could fit fifty-six, and I don’t have that many yet. I used a pencil to mark where two of them, the two at the top corners, would go. Then I stepped back, and imagined what the finished gallery would look like.

I didn’t like it.

In fact, I realized that no matter where I put it, it wouldn’t look good. There are simply too many of the damned things, and they’re too varied, to look good in a collection like that. The last time they’d been on a single wall, rather than a long line on several walls, there were only maybe a dozen and they’d mostly been Darrell Sweet covers from Del Rey; now they’re everything from Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin to the pseudo-Celtic Ethshar reprints Wildside did. They’d just look like clutter.

Fewer and fewer publishers bother to send out cover proofs now, anyway.

So I decided that it’s time to say goodbye to the cover gallery. I won’t be putting them back up, on that wall or anywhere else. Instead I’m taking them out of their frames, and filing them away — I may put together an album, rather than hanging them in a gallery.

And Kiri wants the frames for her drawings, which means they may well be turning up at SF convention art shows. That’s probably a better use for them than hanging them here in the basement.

But there’s a certain wistfulness at the end of a thirty-year tradition.

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