The myth of the right book cover

Several times over the past months we have written blog entries about book jacket art and design—what we like, what we don’t, and why.  But because this is such an important part of the publishing process I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the thinking behind the cover of your book.

Contrary to what most authors think, the main purpose of a book’s cover is to sell the book.  It should undoubtedly reflect the book’s contents as much as possible but, more than anything else, it has to attract a buyer very quickly.  In fact, it is common knowledge that when a consumer walks into a bookstore he or she views each title for no more than five seconds, so it’s the cover’s job to make the consumer want to pick up the book.

If the book is on a serious topic, the cover might be all type with an attractive background color.  Or, for general non-reference non-fiction and fiction, pieces of well known (public domain) art might be used, or a photograph or illustration that is not only reflective of the book’s content but also seductive to the book buyer.

The author almost always should have “consultation” on the book cover.  This means varying things to various publishing houses.  Sometimes, the publisher makes significant changes when an author objects to what they have originally suggested.  This happens a lot when the agent gets involved, as it did recently with my client Mary Ann Esposito’s new book Ciao Italia Family Classics—we are very excited to see the new cover for this book.  Sometimes, unfortunately, publishers do not take the term “consultation” very seriously and simply show the author the cover after it is virtually a done deal and nothing can be done to change it.  This is really unfortunate because by giving the author serious consultation (authors almost never gets “approval”), the author and the publisher become partners—and publication process is much more congenial.

Once the publisher has a cover that everyone likes, they show it to the account buyers—especially at the bigger accounts—if these folks don’t like the cover and the publisher is unwilling to change it, the account will order fewer books, so publishers generally listen to book buyers very carefully.

Over the years, even though I have had some “unusual” experiences with the process of cover creation, generally my clients have achieved what they wanted and this has made the publishing experience much more enjoyable all around.

I would love to hear what your experiences have been with the development of your book covers so please tell us your feelings about covers you’ve especially loved (or hated).

7 Responses to The myth of the right book cover

  1. josin says:

    I think it’s interesting to look at covers for the same book, but in different markets. Sometimes the cover will vary wildly between different countries, and other times it’s more subtle, like the image being flipped or cropped in a different place. (Some of them make no sense to me whatsoever.)

    As I can’t speak to the process of professional cover design from personal experience, I’ll go with a few I’ve seen on shelves. The GotYA blog has a semi-regular comparison of international covers for books. The stand-outs I’ve seen there are the German cover for “The Agency” which is more elegant than the US version (and the cover model looks less like a nanny on the run). I was in the minority on 16 Moons, but I preferred the French cover with its simple image and clean lines. Ditto on the Hungarian version for 13 Reasons Why — true, the bubbles didn’t exactly fit the book’s tone, but the cover’s eye-catching.

    Wicked Lovely is definitely a case where the US cover outshines the others. The frosted flower is gorgeous and it stands out on a shelf.

    Shattered Souls is absolutely breathtaking the way it’s designed. The girl’s dress transitioning into falling petals is simple and striking.

    Paranormalcy is an awesome cover. It reminds me a bit of the cyclone scene out of Wizard of Oz where the normal girl’s just caught up in something beyond her power and comprehension.

    The Replacement has one of the most awesome, no-model-needed covers ever. It’s bleak and dangerous and spooky, in the same way an old Hitchcock movie is – no gore needed.

    The Unbecoming of Marla Dyer is visually interesting because you can’t tell if the person in the water with the cover model is trying to save her or drown her – it could be either, and that creates intrigue.

    With something like Magic Under Glass, I wish they’d recreated the original cover with the second model. The first cover was more dynamic and intriguing, IMO. The second is more static.

  2. Kelly Klem says:

    I am personally seduced by really GOOD photography, especially NOW (color and style being of the utmost importance). When my 5 year old chooses a book from the school library, I believe she chooses this way, too. I notice also that she will be curious see how the story unfolds from the cover (having recently read her a book on wolves).
    I have read books with the thought (in back of my mind), “that’s not what the COVER promised me” and seen movie trailers which gave me the same sense.
    Visual sensitivity is essential. I think the author should be able to hash out the cover until all parties are agreed.

  3. Suzi McGowen says:

    My favorite recent cover, as josin said, is The Replacement (hardcover version). Wonderful, artistic, and tells what the story is about.

    My least favorite book covers are the “headless women” covers. I’m sure the selling point is that without a head, every woman can see herself as the character. That’s not what is says to me. I hope the trend ends. Soon.

  4. Bethany Neal says:

    A friend of mine just went through the cover design process with her debut novel ACT OF GRACE by Karen Simpson. She had a small publishing house, so she had more input than, I’m sure, most authors do.

    I’d almost rather have someone else in a marketing department who knows what the heck they’re doing whip up a marvelous cover that will wow readers than be responsible for mucking it up myself.

  5. Joelle says:

    At the beginning production for my first book Restoring Harmony, and recently, for my second book The Right & the Real, my editor asked me for ideas as well as my likes and dislikes. I am not sure if anyone read this email or not, but I do know that when I got my first cover (still waiting on the second) I LOVED it and none of the two things I listed as pet peeves were there (a body-less head or half a head, so popular in YA, the title or my name in all lowercase), plus it was just gorgeous. It was also pretty much done, so I’m not sure that if I had any input it would’ve mattered.

    The only thing I would’ve asked them to change (if I’d known at the time it was going to be the way it ended up) was I would’ve wanted a synopsis on the back cover. Instead, they put my (great) blurb, which was nice, but not preferable. I know that librarians, and especially teens, really want a synopsis on the back of the book, not just inside.

  6. What I’ve always been curious about is how often the buyers at major chains reject a cover. Nobody seems to have any statistics (or guesses) at that, or if they do, they haven’t shared them.

    I like to compare book covers in different markets, and find it interesting when one cover is wild and crazy and the other is more somber. This happened with the children and adult covers of the Harry Potter books in the UK, which were both very different from what we got in the US. And books that have been out for ages seem to get reissued with different covers periodically, such as the Narnia books. There always seems to be a new cover if a movie version comes out as well, featuring the actors’ faces…

    One of my favorite videos on YouTube shows the production of the cover for BLAMELESS by Gail Carriger and it’s amazing to see how much work can go into a great cover.

  7. Amy Lewis says:

    One of my major Book Cover Questions right now is why books with a paranormal bent (SF/F, etc), when they are geared toward “adult” audiences have a signifigantly less sophisticated cover than the same types of books aimed at “YA” audiences. The YA books often feature simple elegant single images (Twilight had a great cover, as does Shiver and Ash), but Caitlin Kiernan’s The Red Tree shows a waifish teen girl in a half-shirt (when there’s no character in the book under 30). Also, see the Headless Woman commment above. I’m not even going to get INTO the Headless Woman.

    My problem is that, especially with SF/F the covers of the book are drawing the wrong kind of reader. The readers who WANT butt-kicking demon-slaying awesomeness are certainly going to be disappointed when they find the book is just…not that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>