Heather McGhee Knows Readers Judge Books by Their Covers

DIVE IN Like most authors, Heather McGhee had strong opinions about what her book’s cover should look like. This former president of Demos, a progressive think tank, was well aware that “The Sum of Us,” her exploration of the economics of racism, had the potential to be packaged in a dry, boring way that would appeal to a narrow audience.

So she created two Pinterest boards: one consisting of covers she liked, and the other of covers she did not like — jackets with primary colors and lots of text, loudly telegraphing, “This is going to make you smarter.” In a phone interview conducted shortly after she learned that her book had debuted at No. 3 on the hardcover nonfiction list, McGhee explained, “I wanted my cover to be an invitation. I wanted people to have an emotional response; for it to look more like a book of literary fiction than a book about the economy.”

Stories of individual Americans are what propelled McGhee to write “The Sum of Us,” so she was pleased to see humanity on her cover, which was created by the Random House senior designer Rachel Ake. In a painting by David McConochie, we see a white boy taking a flying leap into a swimming pool while, just below him, a Black girl grips a bright red ladder with one hand. The image seems to pose a question that speaks to McGhee’s subtitle: “What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”

McGhee was pleased with the result — and has been “agog” at the response to the book, which is the result of a three-year series of trips from her home in New York City to Maine, Mississippi and California, among other states.

“I talked to hundreds of people and they all shared their America with me,” she said. “Each one thinks of their lives as a series of choices they made, but you can find all the doors that were open or closed because of decisions we’ve made as a country. The closer you get to the inside of any individual’s story, the more the collective is revealed — the more the policy is apparent.”

Above all, McGhee wanted to deliver a message of hope to readers. It’s a realistic, roll-up-our-sleeves note of optimism, and the feeling is there, front and center, beginning with the cover. “I tried to include stories of people who are living in the America we want for everyone,” McGhee said. “Even when the book tells a very hard truth about racism, I want people to see the world we might have.”

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