The Crisis of Book Cover Design

(Here’s Toro!, who runs a book cover design website and has designed posters for FOX and HBO and covers for J C Sum and John Kemmerly, and shares here some of the lesser-known challenges and tribulations of his career. — Levi)

The cover: a one-page ad forever bound to its product, the most ubiquitous piece of marketing a book will ever have. The cover, a glossy cherry on top of a cake of words, chapters and (maybe) a story. The cover, an aide, a friend, a guiding beacon in that mind-boggling, panic-inducing, head-scratching state we often enter when inside a bookstore. Yes, it can be daunting to be surrounded by hundreds of books, all begging for our attention, all silently wishing to spend the next few days, weeks or months with us. (Very persistent books have been known to hold on to their victims for centuries).

The designer lives in a constant state of stupor, a sort of lethargy, waiting for a stranger (a writer, that is) to show up with a piece of literature, any piece, to be attached to. Designers rarely consider writing quality, they will design whatever is thrown at them, the same way a dog wouldn’t reject a steak because it is not true Kobe.

A sudden email, an unidentified call, vague smoke signals; the author has made contact, and so the designer is awaken by the project coordinator. If the designer is lucky, this brother or sister in arms is not only the administrator/coordinator but a creative partner, a decision maker, a quality control obsessive and the practical-minded side of the business; the perfect comrade to any designer. You see, at the end of every project the designer will keep adjusting the cover with extra tweaks. As the deadline approaches, it is the business partner who ties the designer up and puts him/her back to sleep. This will happen time after time; remember, designers design, whatever the circumstances.

Where was I? Oh, yes, an urgent call comes in. A cover is needed. First, the business partner clarifies the terms with the client (author, publisher or such), including the tedious technical specs and the money-talk. Designers often have trouble discussing money; they don’t understand it and so it is easy to take advantage of them. The business partner, on the other hand, is usually a tough bone, possessing innate survival skills. Finally it’s time to read the material: ALWAYS READ THE MATERIAL. One may think it a good idea to cut some corners, maybe read a couple of pages and fill in the blanks with the synopsis. Wrong! Nail biting and hair pulling will rapidly ensue, and the core of the story, the magical idea for the perfect cover will rarely come this way. Read it once and you will be assaulted by a handful of concepts, from general all-encompassing approaches to tiny nods; something good shall come. (The bird that book designer Rodrigo Corral came up with for Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby is surely not on any synopsis, but it quietly conveys the spirit of the book).

The designer and his/her partner read the book and discuss it, its strong (and weak) points. Obviously, the better the book, the easier it is to make a good cover, but there are exceptions. When a designer says it was tough designing your cover, please don’t take it as a sure sign that he hates your book. He may have been overwhelmed and/or too intimidated to do it justice (we are all friends here). And, before starting, it’s time for the designer to have a quick conversation with the client, but only if the partner hasn’t gotten the author.s notes beforehand, in which case …

Wait. I must take a small detour now that we are entering the core creative process.

Books, cinema and music; these three have a lot in common, oftentimes overlapping each other. They all require covers, be it for albums, books or posters. It is easy to understand why movies provide the least creative covers: much of the visual work is already in the film. On the other hand, music albums usually lack a hard narrative, inspiring the most abstract cover designs. Books sit somewhere in the middle, they hold a great balance; a lack of visuals but a concrete storyline, a path to follow and, most importantly, tone. Book covers can be abstract like music albums and they don’t need the specificity and practicality of movie posters. It still surprises me when fiction authors ask to see the faces of their characters on their cover.

Isn’t that against the very nature of what a book is? Wouldn’t this hinder your reader’s experience? .I thought the deal was that you describe the character and the reader imagines it however he/she wants? This is what I’m tempted to tell these writers, but I never do. Instead I politely offer an alternative.

In this sense, book covers are often conceived to be similar to movie posters. Some authors want to market their novels as a sort of blockbuster experience, as attractive, easy-to-digest entertainment. A book, in my opinion, should try to be something greater. Movie posters are mostly made in committee with heavy influence from studio marketing people. Therefore, they are probably not the best style to follow for something as personal as a book.

So, BANG! The actual designing starts! No set rules here. One may try to keep it within the computer realm, but every once in a while it is refreshing to create something by hand; ultimately it is about capturing the essence and tone of the book and, with a bit of imagination, almost any object in your studio can work for any given book. Take the cover of A General Theory of Love by designer John Gall to see a great use of mundane objects, or look at Isaac Tobin’s pin-inspired cover for Obsession (the latter not without the aide of his wife, by the way).

Though the marketability of the cover is of utmost importance, nothing works better than an honest cover. Avid readers are generally smart and they can appreciate when a cover stands out. Of course you do want the buyer to judge the book by its cover, but one must remember that books are displayed next to each other (whether online or in bookstore shelves), and it is always a good idea to be different. So, I would try not to copy every other best-­.selling book of the same subject.

Spines, blessed spines. Many authors forget that spines are the most common display of their book in stores. Make them different, get them right! With the advent of e-¬≠books, we should keep in mind, the role of the spine is being taken over by the thumbnail …

The design process can take two days or two months, but let’s be honest; you are lucky if the author gives you three weeks.

It is peculiar how authors spend months, sometimes years, writing a book — and then expect the cover artist to spend a week or two. You would be surprised by how many authors want the cover made in less than a week. Eventually the batch of concepts is sent to the author. It’s not much pressure, to be honest, the worst that can happen is the author hates it and you have to go back to the drawing board (pretty rare, though); the second try is almost always successful. After a couple of revisions the cover is finished, well, almost; there is the necessary adjustment on the spine width, the bleeds, the this and that. If the book is going for print, then color profiles may have to be checked; if electronic, then it is a resolutions and color depth, finding a good balance between image quality and file size, and making sure the it displays well on all devices.

Throughout this very personal process of collective reimagining and stylizing, the author will always be your toughest critic. The author is also the one you should most listen to, and will be the most rewarding to please. A good experience can help keep you warm if you go into hibernation before the next project.

When the author gives the go ahead, and hopefully is proud of his cover, it is all worth it; then you realize that you, the book cover designer, were part of a pretty special process.

4 Responses

  1. Great, informative post! I’m
    Great, informative post! I’m not sure I agree that the eBook and print book covers should be different for a novel. Of course, they CAN be, but should they be entirely different? I self-publish my own books and the one thing I don’t do is this.

    Putting the odd-numbered pages on the left, when they should always be on the right. I’m curious as to why the odd-numbered pages need to be on the left?

  2. Excellent essay on the
    Excellent essay on the creative process. I’d like to add my comments as the designer of more than 300 jacket designs for most of the major publishers.

    The assignment comes from the publisher and the author has little or no say in the choice of designer or finished product. As a designer I’d like as little help from the writer as possible. Happily I have received many compliments from the author after publication. The other thought is that of the famous author, who is guaranteed to sell no matter what the cover is. Just think of Dan Brown or Danielle Steele.

  3. Contemporary fiction covers
    Contemporary fiction covers are becoming very self indulgent. It’s a classic graphic designer’s weakness, coming up with work which is clever but doesn’t sell the product. Covers are becoming diagrammatic, with minimal illustrations which when they do appear, usually look like the illustrator hates to draw.

    Never under-estimate the reader’s eyes, they need to be enthralled before the brain then instructs the rest of the reader to open their wallet/purse and fork over the cash. And that’s what design is ALWAYS about, ditto with illustration.

    Modern cover designs look increasingly like they’re made for the designers to win awards, not sell books.

  4. This really is a great read
    This really is a great read in that it gives us a taste of the creative process once the words leave your desktops. We as writers often muse about the book cover a bit as we are writing but tend to think, “Oh! I’ll worry about that later.”

    Meanwhile some graphic designer is waiting with bated breath for us to finish our novel so s/he can get to work on the cover!

    I enjoyed reading this post!

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