Category Archives: covers


Naughty books

A few weeks ago, someone who saw me reading on my Kindle while my son had his karate class asked me if I’d heard of a book called Fifty Shades of Grey.  As I usually am when anyone asks me if I’ve heard of a book and I haven’t, I was a little embarrassed (never mind that with a gazillion books published every year, it’s not possible to know about every last one of them or that my memory for titles and authors’ names is shockingly poor for someone who, well, works with titles and authors—do I sound a little defensive?).  I asked her what it was about and she told me it was a romance that she was trying to get a copy of without success.  I suggested Amazon and promptly forgot all about the discussion.

Of course, I now know that Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest publishing phenom (an allegedly not very well written kinky sex fest for Twilight fans who thought the vampire saga was too squeaky clean, according to Jezebel) and that Vintage has plopped down a ton of money for the print rights to a book that is currently selling like hotcakes…online.

Which raises a number of interesting questions.

As the Wall Street Journal  points out in a piece about the rise in sales of books that women have traditionally been embarrassed to be seen reading in public, e-readers have made sales of romance and erotica skyrocket precisely because of the privacy they afford.  So, how wise is a seven-figure investment for print rights to a book that people may not want others to see them reading?

And, does all of this mean that books in these categories will go exclusively digital in the near future?  I know lots of smart, professional women with a weakness for what we used to call “bodice rippers” in the good old days (before Kindles and romance branding) who didn’t want to be caught dead on the subway behind a cover of some buxom lass being ravished by a half-naked Fabio type.  I can also imagine all the soccer moms who don’t want their kids to know what kinds of books they’re devouring while they extol the virtues of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter.

Personally, I do think that e-readers are liberating in that way.  In my line of work, I occasionally have to read things that may be a little hard to explain to casual acquaintances or even my six-year-old.  What about you guys?  Do you find yourselves sneaking around reading naughty things on your e-readers?  And, do you think this is one of the “intangibles” that publishing people have overlooked when trying to figure out the value of e-books vs. print books?


Cover Design

One of the pleasures of working with books is the opportunity to see how different publishing houses and language markets package the same project. Last week, I was admiring the German cover design of a young adult novel that Stacey represents. The US and UK covers were attractive and effective, but the fairytale/art nouveau/Aubrey Beardsley influenced jacket that the German publisher put together was exquisite. Wunderbar. I was ready to learn German just to dig in.

Further to this, the online journal the Millions again features a handy (albeit too brief) side-by-side comparison of US and UK covers for finalists in this year’s Tournament of Books.   Predictably, I find myself gravitating to the American aesthetic. Call me parochial, but cover designs can be more culturally specific than their contents. When I was an editor, the awfulness of UK covers was something of a running joke.   But perhaps that schadenfreude was misplaced. Here, the British designs for The Cat’s Table and the 1Q84 are (I think) far stronger than their American counterparts.

What say you? For those inclined to see even more examples of cross-cultural cover design on display, have a look at:


Fine art and books

Hope everyone saw the great piece by Geoff Dyer in the Times Book Review this past Sunday by on the use of Victorian paintings for the jackets of the Penguin Classics back in the 1970s. Yes, it’s quite a stroll down memory lane, but I was really struck by Dyer’s point that the paintings featured on the jackets not only did their job of getting him to read the books, but that they afforded Dyer an introduction to fine art and art history as well. And I love the idea of him joyfully stumbling upon his favorite book jacket images in art galleries and museums!

Coincidentally, I’d been kicking around a blog post on the intersection of books and fine art for a while now, though at a slightly younger level. Through the generosity of my children’s book editorial friends (and my raiding the shelves at Penguin before I left), we’ve got a number of picture books at home that feature fine art—James Warhola’s Uncle Andy’s, Babar’s Museum of Art, and the first Olivia, to name a few. And one of the proudest (and cutest) moments of fatherhood for me so far was when we took our son to MOMA and he recognized not only Warhol’s Marilyn from Uncle Andy’s, but the Jackson Pollock painting that Olivia could do “in about five minutes”—luckily, our boy didn’t pull an Olivia and try it at home!

More seriously, I’m hopeful these book/art connections will instill a lifelong interest in fine art as much as reading. And like Dyer, I’m counting on the Penguin Classics to further this interest for my son as he gets older. Moreover, in this age of eBooks, where book covers have the potential to go the way of record jackets in the CD age, I think it’s a strong argument for publishers to continue producing intelligent and intellectual book packaging.

Okay, let’s have some fun—if you were picking a fine art masterpiece for your book jacket, what would it be?


Clearly this book has a Christian Slater/Minnie Driver vibe

One of the myriad joys of foreign rights (beyond the mixed blessing that many of the people I want/need to contact right now are spending the month on vacation) is getting to spend time perusing foreign book covers.  The ones I love most are the ones that emerge from their packaging to a chorus of “Whaaaat?”s.  So I was pleased to stumble across this delightful piece by Sam Kean in Slate about his efforts to understand how his book on the periodic table of elements wound up with a cover in China that features smiling anime sperm.  Instead of just sharing the joy and confusion with others, as I usually do, he actually tracked down the designer and asked her to explain.  In the end, it actually makes much more sense than I’d have guessed it ever could, and her explanation sums up quite clearly what foreign book covers try to do: “I have to build a bridge to connect our culture to your book!”

But while most publishers are admirably bridging a gap, some make choices that are strangely, impenetrably delightful.  My first experience with this was years ago when Michael handed me a foreign edition of a thriller we represent to send to the client.  Then I noticed something odd.  Christian Slater was on the cover.  With Minnie Driver.  The publisher had, inexplicably, used a totally unrelated movie still as their book cover.  Leaving aside the questionable legality of doing so, it’s a very dubious choice.  Unless Slater and Driver are some kind of cult heroes in Russia, I’m not sure why that was supposed to be a selling point for the novel.  In Holland, one author’s books are stunningly gorgeous, designed just for that market.  Her publisher always asks her opinion before finalizing the cover, which is actually quite unusual in foreign publishing.  The author’s reaction to the latest cover draft was something along the lines of: “I love it, it’s beautiful.  I really don’t understand why they keep putting wolves on the covers, since there’s nothing remotely wolf-like in the books.  But don’t tell them, because I think the covers are great anyway.”

Book covers are, if nothing else, a glimpse into what the publisher has decided the book can be successfully marketed as.  In foreign publishing, sometimes things get lost in translation, but at times others are gained.  Like a wolfish Minnie Driver subtext the author could never have imagined.


As the saying goes.

Jane’s post earlier this week about how book covers come into existence, got me thinking. We know we’re not supposed to, but I know that I, at least, will almost always judge a book, and my willingness to read it, by its cover. Its cover, spine, type face, page layout, even its binding. The simpler, the better. I’m drawn to plain, unassuming books; preferably paperbacks with French flaps and those roughly cut, thick, and slightly uneven pages. That’s just me being really particular, though. If I had it my way, almost all covers would be extremely sparse, perhaps designed, but without actual pictures or photographs if these can be avoided. The words on the front don’t have to be a specific size or font, but the text inside does—preferably with serifs and not too spaced out. I sound picky, I know, but we’re talking ideals here! Book cover utopia!

Obviously, there are exceptions, and there are covers that feature people or animals or what have you, that I fall in love with, too (I’m thinking the applicable covers of Lolita, The Virgin Suicides and this series of Evelyn Waugh’s oeuvre, for example), so maybe it’s not that easy to classify. All I know is that when I’m drawn to a book initially, it’s on the spine or cover alone—aided in part by the title, I suppose—and I am always surprised when I find myself really enjoying a book whose cover I dislike and am more disappointed when a book with a great cover turns out to be less than satisfying.

In any case, the merit obviously lies in the writing itself, no matter the form in which it is presented, but I thought I’d indulge a little in the most famous literary taboo. What are your preferences? Are there any book covers that stand out in your mind as the pinnacle of perfection?


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).


Save the unicorns!

by Stephanie

Cover art is constantly a topic of discussion here—it seems like whenever a new cover draft comes in, everyone crowds around the conference table to get the first look. Judgment gets passed, fights break out. It’s a generally healthy exercise.

I have to say though, for all the times I’ve joined in on this opinion party, I’ve only ever considered these new covers in relation to the book itself. But this piece over at Orbit Books gives a different perspective by mapping out the most frequently occurring cover elements, specifically in the fantasy genre, from the past year. According to their not-so-scientific research, several newly tracked graphic elements show a strong presence in 2009, while others seem to fall off the map between 2008 and 2009. All I’ll say is this: I’m sad to see the unicorn lose the prestige it deserves, but I’m also thankful that there’s now a clear delineation between “damsels (in distress)” and “damsels (no distress).”

As I turn it over to you, I’m curious to get your opinion—why do you think certain images gain or lose popularity and therefore show up more or less frequently over the course of a given year?


It’s alive!

by Michael

While the serious, business-minded e-books news continues to unfold at a rapid pace, I thought I’d take a moment to show a creative insight into what books can be. And this one is simple, doable, and doesn’t change the nature of the reading experience: the digital book cover. Instead of just a static cover, why not have something that’s animated or video? And if all covers are as elegant as this clip, I say bring ‘em on!


Expensive covers

by Stacey

We’ve talked a lot on our blog about covers, but I haven’t weighed in yet, and it’s always a topic that people seem to have strong opinions about. A book of mine whose cover changed no fewer than half a dozen times throughout its development, just changed again after it went to print when they learned that one of the images didn’t print well! I was also able to catch glimpses of the photo shoots for a couple of my books recently, from Matt Bites and editor Justin Schwartz.

So I thought this recent piece from PW was timely and pretty interesting to learn a bit about how much thought and discussion takes place before the shoot to get it just right. There are so many people to please, and so many subjective thoughts on what makes a cover work, or not work. This particular piece focuses on a YA series, and they emphasize just how important the cover is for this market, and perhaps the most interesting piece is at the end when they disclose how much money they spend on a shoot like this. Given slashed budgets and limited resources, it’s amazing to me that publishers are willing to spend so much on the jacket. Of course, this is for an established series so they pretty much know it’s going to make money.

I’d love to hear what our readers think about this. Is it worth it to spend up to $25,000 on the making of a jacket?


An author’s responsibility

by Jane

The other day I came upon this piece about bestselling author M.J. Rose and it made me realize that there are still many authors who don’t take the bull by the horns and accept responsibility for the process of publishing their books especially in the area of promotion and marketing.

So often I hear clients say that the publisher is postponing publication of their books yet again, and I wonder why they don’t realize that publishers won’t put a book into a final publishing schedule until the final manuscript has been accepted. When the author is late with either his initial delivery or returning his edits, of course his book’s publication is going to be affected.

Then, there’s the author who hates the cover art for his or her book but then doesn’t suggest an alternative. This is part of the authors’ responsibility and it’s why we insist that there be language in the contract offering them consultation on the cover, and while it can be challenging it can also be fun. Ditto for the title. So many authors hate the titles their publishers like; they object, but they don’t come up with any alternate suggestions, and as a result, they are often truly unhappy with their work’s title.

Finally, of course, comes the promotion and publicity and it is here, as M.J. Rose so correctly says, where the author really needs to take full responsibility. No longer are most publishers willing to foot the bill for extensive publicity campaigns for two reasons: 1) they don’t have the money in many cases and 2) most of the methods that were once effective in publicizing a book are no longer working. Today, it is the author’s “job” to promote and sell his or her book—by using social media like Facebook and Twitter, by blogging, by calling on independent bookstores themselves and by doing this every day, especially for the initial six weeks after their book’s publication.

No more can or should an author complain about his or her publisher. This is counterproductive. Instead, the author should take charge in every way possible to get his or her book out into the marketplace and reach a wide reading audience. Only when that has been done effectively can the author become a writer again.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so let me know.