How to Judge a Book Cover

David Rotstein, the art director for Minotaur Books, recently launched a Web site devoted to a discussion of the fine art of designing book covers. It’s a pretty interesting peek behind the curtains at a process that is widely misunderstood by writers and readers alike.

People often ask me how much input I have into the covers of my books. The answer is “not much.” I can weigh in on the photograph or illustration the designer would like to use, and I can suggest that the type be bigger or smaller. But I don’t have a veto in my contract. And that arrangement is fine by me. If I wanted that level of control over every aspect of the book, I could always self-publish. But I prefer to avail myself of the expertise of a publishing house with thousands of titles in its catalogues. Authors don’t always like to hear it, but publishers are the one spending tens of thousands of dollars to design, print, and market our novels (after having already paid healthy advances, we should all hope). My name may be on the book, in other words, but their money is on the line.

Still, it’s natural that writers grouse when they feel a design fails to fully capture their stories. The essence of good marketing is delivering on a promise. That’s why most of us do judge books by their covers—in the expectation that what’s outside somehow represents what’s inside.

Here, for instance, is the design for the hardcover version of The Poacher’s Son. Minotaur wanted to market the book as a work of “literary suspense.” When they used this term, they had two audiences in mind: fans of traditional mysteries, of course, but also readers who wouldn’t normally pick up a whodunit, but would relish the father-son relationship at the book’s center. Most of the action takes place in the vanishing Maine North Woods, and so there was also a desire to capture the majesty of the setting.

When the time came for the trade paperback, Minotaur decided to switch out the design for something that emphasized the suspense. The book was going to be sold in airports to harried travelers who wanted to relax their brains for the lengths of their flights. Notice how the new design angles and fractures the font to suggest a fast-moving plot. The letters seem to hide behind the trees like a character on the run in the forest. I prefer this design to the hardcover. It’s closer to my own sense of the story—and it continues to sell well!

With the sequel came a new challenge. Minotaur wanted to brand my series so that the second book connected with the first book visually. But Trespasser was set during a different month (March) in a different place (the stormy coast). It was also more of an out-and-out thriller than The Poacher’s Son. Here is the solution David Rotstein’s team devised.The gray and orange are dramatic. They definitely leap out at you from across the bookstore.

The Trespasser paperback saw a few minor tweaks, aimed primarily at marrying the design with that of the The Poacher’s Son paperback since the two books would end up side by side on store shelves. The softcover gives you a chance to add blurbs from positive reviews, which we did.

My name also got smaller.

Not that authors care about such things.

Bad Little Falls was a combination of the title and the design clicking at the same time. We’d been debating two alternative titles (I’ll share that story in a future post) until David came up with his ominous illustration. Suddenly, the right choice seemed self-evident.

Will book buyers agree? We’ll know on August 7 when the novel arrives in stores.

Postscript: All three of my books will be coming out in the United Kingdom in 2013 from Constable & Robinson (the original publisher of Dracula, I always add). Recently, I got a look at the covers. You can see right away the totally different approach C&R has decided to go with. They have the advantage of bringing all three completed novels out together, so branding the books becomes an easier task. But it’s also a bigger gamble since choosing one design scheme for the series means it had better work, since the success of the entire enterprise is riding on the one template.

When you think about how the right cover can make or break a good book, it makes me glad all I have to do is write!

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3 Responses to How to Judge a Book Cover

  1. John Clark says:

    I think the UK covers are terrific. I know there have been numerous instances where I bought a book solely because the cover grabbed me. Oddly enough, most of the time the book was as good or better than the cover art led me to believe. Maybe there’s a cover art god lurking out there who rules such things.

  2. Tony says:

    I really like the UK covers, and they clearly do have an advantage by having the three books at once, but I have to say–I’m a big fan of the Bad Little Falls cover. When I first saw it I admit a bit of a “huh?” reaction, then you put up a larger version, I can’t remember if it was here or at your site and I almost had a moment of vertigo.

    I bought The Poacher’s Son partly because of the cover (trade paperback) but also because of the recommendation given by the nice people at Kennebooks (recommended as a nice place to spend a couple of hours on a rainy day!). And after I read the first one I wouldn’t have cared if the second one was bound by a paper bag.

  3. Amy Canfield says:

    “If I wanted that level of control over every aspect of the book, I could always self-publish.”

    I understand the popular appeal of self-publishing, especially these days. But there’s a huge trade-off. As for what Paul says, above, if only every author could sincerely admit that. If you want a bona fide publisher to give you credibility in the marketplace—as in, someone with book/editing knowledge has vetted your book and deemed it worthy AND helped you with the intricacies of your plot and structure and grammar and so on AND can get it sold more than you can as a self-published author—there are some things you need to let go of. Only mature authors know this, and you, Paul, are one of them. Go, Paul! Looking forward to your third!

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