Designing Fulcrum’s Book Covers: An Inside Look at ‘Endangered’

For those of you who follow a certain award-winning NBC show on Thursday nights  (or, I guess, if you work in an office yourself), you know just how unique and hilarious office environments can be. At Fulcrum, we have our own zany set of editors, designers, marketers, and salespeople, and this is never more telling than during our twice-yearly book covers meetings. In graphic designer Jack Lenzo’s perfectly light-calibrated office (the lighting and paint were chosen to create a color neutral proofing environment. Pretty cool, huh?) we battle for the perfect cover for each and every one of our books. To those outside the book publishing industry, this design process may be shrouded in mystery, but I think it’s time to lift our metaphoric skirts, if you will.

No, this is not a transcript of one of our meetings (if those were shared, I’d have to kill you), but instead a peek inside the mind of Jack and our featured author, Mitch Tobin, author of Endangered: Biodiversity on the Brink. This is one of our most controversial covers. Read on to see why.

JACK LENZO: Before we get too far, let’s consider the value of a title. We started with the title Legislating Noah’s Ark. What does that evoke in your mind? Probably something very different than Endangered.

No one ever saw my first ideas, but it’s fun to reflect on what came to mind. Where on earth did I find this picture?

JACK LENZO: Obviously Endangered didn’t fit the imagery I had been collecting for the original title, so we turned to the author for a new perspective. He had a photographer friend. Nice!

The humpback chub plays a role in the book, and it just so happened that Mitch and his friend hiked to the floor of the Grand Canyon on a research mission and came home with this photo. Perfect.

But apparently not everyone empathizes with a fish. What!?!? This fish made me cry, at least on the inside. His eyes scream, “The cold water from the dam is killing me!”

No? You can’t hear it?

The Southwest doesn’t have polar bears stranded on melting ice or cute penguins with nowhere to go…

JACK LENZO: How about cats? Cats are cute. After looking up the list of endangered species in the Southwest, I found a picture of an ocelot. Think mini leopard. Everybody loved it. Yeah! We’re done.

We send it to Mitch to hear his enthusiasm. Mitch is a nice guy…and he seems to be holding something back. Well, ocelots are endangered, but climate change, oddly enough, is likely to increase their range and chance at survival. We picked the one animal that is an outlier to the narrative. Seriously?

MITCH TOBIN: One of the first covers that Jack produced showed a cat perched on a ledge. Aesthetically, I loved that cover, but there was a slight problem. The species depicted, an ocelot, is one that I only mention in passing. It’s true that ocelots are listed as endangered and they once occupied the American Southwest, where my book is set. But I chose instead to focus on another borderlands cat, the jaguar. I figured the ocelot would be mistaken for a jaguar (in parts of South America, ocelots are called jaguaretes), and because many people associate both cats with the tropics, I thought the cover would suggest the book was about endangered species in some exotic, far-flung jungle, not their own backyards.

I was still tempted to go with the ocelot cover because it was so beautiful, but what sealed it for me was the fact that no one had seen an ocelot in Arizona or New Mexico in recent memory. Sure enough, a few months after the cover was finalized, two ocelots turned up in southern Arizona—one dead and one filmed by a remote camera—marking the first time the species had been recorded in the state since 1964.

JACK LENZO: Well then, what would be more relevant? I know what you’re thinking. He should have read the book. That’s why covers often make no connection to the story. I hate designers!

Keep in mind that the cat was a knee-jerk reaction to the lack of love for my fish. I still love that fish. I read the manuscript, thank you very much, and the section on condors was pretty darn compelling.

But if you don’t feel anything for a fish, what are the chances that a condor tugs at your heartstrings. Talk about fugly…

JACK LENZO: What to do, what to do? I went through the images I had been collecting along the way. I’m not sure the average person is ever going to think a condor is cute, but they are intriguing.

This shot of a condor with his head down turned out to be just what we needed. It’s unexpected, colorful, visually interesting…and it doesn’t hurt that the expression is kind of a downer in that projecting-human-emotions kind of way. Book it!

MITCH TOBIN: People often question me about the cover for Endangered. “What is that thing?” they ask. “And why is it upside down?”

Despite the occasional confusion, I’m a big fan of the cover depicting the California condor. Endangered begins and ends with the story of one such bird, condor 134, and the species has become emblematic of our attempts to protect biodiversity through the Endangered Species Act. When you see a condor in person, one of the most striking things about its appearance (aside from its nearly ten-foot wingspan) is the rainbow-colored gooseflesh that covers its neck and head. That featherless head isn’t exactly pretty, but neither is the story of our endangered species. I especially like that the photo is a close-up and the bird’s eye is so prominent on the page. As I write in Endangered, “When I could see the birds, bats, fish, and frogs eye to eye, I felt farthest from the tired talking points I was transcribing on deadline and closest to the truth.”


Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has served as our nation’s legislative ark for imperiled wildlife. But our toughest and most controversial environmental law has failed to recover all but a handful of the 1,300 species under its protection. In Endangered: Biodiversity on the Brink, award-winning journalist Mitch Tobin uses firsthand accounts to show why so many species are at risk of extinction. For nearly seven years, Tobin reported from the front lines of Endangered Species Act battles. He crisscrossed the Southwest in search of wildlife driven to the brink of extinction and solutions to the crisis. Tobin discovered that this region, with its urban sprawl, wasteful water use, and vulnerability to climate change provides a snapshot of the issues facing species throughout the world. Tobin also found compelling examples of collaboration. Mitch Tobin’s year-long series on Arizona’s endangered species was a finalist for the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. Today, Tobin serves as a consultant to leading conservation groups and foundations.


About fulcrumpublishing
Founded in 1984, Fulcrum Publishing is one of the largest independent publishers in the country, with more than 450 active titles. The company maintains a high standard of quality and pride in its books, with the objective of encouraging readers to live life to the fullest and learn something new each day. Fulcrum Publishing specializes in general-interest nonfiction titles with focuses in public policy, education, Native American culture and history, travel and outdoor recreation, environmentalism, and gardening. Fulcrum is headquartered in Golden, Colorado. The Fulcrum Publishing blog is run and updated by Dani Perea. Please feel free to get in touch with any questions, comments, or ideas by e-mailing her at Dani[at]fulcrumbooks[dot com].

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