It’s hard not to, isn’t it? Judge a book by its cover, I mean. First impressions matter. Often there is a subtle reaction playing out on a subconscious level. I have shied away from books because I didn’t find the cover appealing. But what makes a book cover appealing? I assumed the answers are as varied as there are readers. Then I attended a publishing industry seminar about cover design, and I realized that personal taste is only one small part of the bigger picture.
Book covers have to tell their own stories, but they are “in service to another piece of art,” says Chip Kidd, the art director at Knopf.
We attendees were divided into the decision-making groups as you might find in a publishing house:
- Publisher: Responsible for the commercial success of the book. Wants the cover to have maximum consumer appeal across all platforms.
- Associate publisher: Ensures the book reaches its target consumer so the cover needs to speak to a specific audience.
- Editor: Makes sure the cover speaks to the content of the book.
- Publicity: Wants the cover to have an impact no matter where it appears: Amazon, a banner ad on Goodreads, or this blog post.
- Author: Yes, the author has a say-so, though some authors have more say-so than others.
A designer will often provide five to seven completely different mock-ups of each cover and circulate them for feedback from the aforementioned groups. The designs are narrowed down and tweaked before showing one or two to the author. In the seminar, we reviewed each mock-up and considered the following questions (among others):
1. What category does this book fall into? As many of you know, book categories have gotten very specific in recent years! Contemporary women’s psychological thriller? Humorous performing arts memoir? Coming-of-age dystopian fiction? The cover design should suggest the genre.
This book is nonfiction, but it’s going to be humorous. The mouth illustration is whimsical. The title is placed on the tongue and the subtitle playfully follows the curve.
2. Who is the specific audience? “We’re looking to reach readers who liked The Girl on the Train.” What does that mean? A cover that has abstract elements that evoke mystery.
3. Is the cover trying too hard? The cover design should convey the heart of the story. Without a doubt, my group gravitated toward striking images.
This cartoonish outline speaks to the author and the silly nature of the movie (the inspiration for this behind-the-scenes book) without trying to incorporate all of the elements of the movie.
4. How will this cover look as a thumbnail? A book jacket needs to look good on store shelves and as an image attached to an email newsletter. There were several sample covers we saw that used a script too difficult to read when scaled down.
Some other takeaways:
- Don’t forget about typography. As someone who admits to having used ComicSans, I was often surprised by my different reactions to the mock-up covers based solely on a change of font.
- Clarity versus mystery. Should the cover be sincere or intriguing?
Every time I look at this cover, I want to find a pool and take a dip. The background color, the spot of red on the girl’s bathing suit, and the clean, white type give me a hint about the story. (Read my review of The Vacationers over at Great New Books.)
This cover gives the reader nothing. No information, no intrigue, no hints. If it hadn’t been written by Ann Patchett, I would have never read the book.
- Negative space can be your friend. We overwhelmingly felt frustrated by covers that were cluttered with images.
No worries about clutter here. Even if you didn’t know who David Rakoff was, you might be interested enough to give this essay collection a chance. You know it’s nonfiction rather than fiction because “Fraud” is written over the author’s name.
- Give the reader credit. Readers need enough information to grasp the gist of the story, but give them the credit for the knowledge they already have about this subject/author/book.
What book covers do you love? Hate?
Plug for my new online class! The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity offers guided exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity. Consider this class a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there!
Have a great weekend, everyone!