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Book cover design

The book cover design is one of marketing tools a publishing industry uses for ensuring and increasing sell ability of published manuscripts. In following article(s) I will try to outline its place, importance and purposes within the entire publishing process, its future and trends and most importantly describe design process and set of rules that can - according to array of book cover designers living and working in different countries around the world - lead to successful, desirable cover design.

Factors affecting sell ability of the book

Publishing constitutes a unique branch of a commercial design. It has its own pace, customs and rules, but still heads many principles used widely across the graphic design industry. The number of publications is steadily growing and with hundred thousands of new titles and editions distributed each year in U.S. alone (Bowker, 2011), the market became exceptionally competitive.

The need of a seductive cover design has probably never been greater, for a new title must shine in a presence of many other publications that are all trying to be chosen by a potential buyer. Kirk DouPonce (2012) believes that: ‘There are three main reasons for someone purchasing a book; author name recognition, subject matter, and the cover’. While the title’s genre and author are a matter of personal preferences and are usually influenced only through advertising campaigns run around the time of the new book’s release, the cover is an indivisible part of the volume and as such advertises it during the whole time of its existence.

Purposes of book cover design Generally, the cover design is perceived as a marketing instrument, intended to be a first trigger of interest for the potential buyer. It is believed that through impressive, unique and eye-catching artwork, the cover can pull the reader towards the volume, encourage him to pick it up and explore it further. ‘Then, the book will sell itself, or not,’ Chip Kidd (2012) adds. Secondary benefits of having an alluring cover design are in adding a professional credibility to the author and desirability to the manuscript by creating visually ‘enticing, aesthetic object that one wishes to purchase and own’ (Abrams, 2012; DouPonce, 2012).

Design process For many book designers the design process starts with the manuscript. Majority stated in their interviews that it is profitable to read the manuscript to gain a complete understanding of the piece and its style of writing before coming up with ideas for the cover. By fully grabbing the essence of the volume, the designer can construct a concept or concepts that primarily invite the reader into the story simply through initiating a mood, without relying too many details or information to the reader. This is important for several reasons; firstly, about ‘64 percent of book buyers are women’ (Parks, 2012). Women often perceive their surroundings through emotions and therefore a large portion of book covers should evoke sentimental reaction in the targeted audience. Furthermore, ‘serious readers love reading for the engagement of their imagination that takes place during the journey’ (Parks, 2012). In many cases, the best solution is to be general and try to stir up feelings rather than show a portrait of a main character or place (Pearson, 2009). By expressing too many details on the cover the designer dictates a visual look of characters and places from within the story and denies the reader the opportunity to dream it up on his own or – in case the reader is already familiar with the title – subjects it to an unearned criticism. However, there are some circumstances that can prevent the designer from going through the manuscript. Firstly, according to Andrew Haslam (2006, p. 160), ‘Cover designs are often required for promotion purposes, often before the writing is completed’. Many publishers make edition plans every six months or annually. It means that cover is frequently produced for scripts that were recently approved by an edition board, but are not necessarily finished. Especially if an experienced author is involved, the manuscript is ever so often non-existent at the time of final decision to publish the book. It leaves the designer with no script to read. Secondly, the genre of the publication might not require that deep exploration of its content. This might be applicable to – for example – dictionaries, photography based textbooks, academic scripts, schoolbooks and other non-fiction volumes. Thirdly, book designers tend to be very busy. Yvonne Parks (2012) reveals that it is quite usual for her to originate more than 400 covers a year. Because of the time pressure a multiple of the designers interviewed developed their own system of fully grabbing the understanding of the book without having to read it through, cover to cover. These methods frequently consist of engaging the author and/or editor (publisher, art director…) in a planned conversation about the manuscript. Yvonne Parks (2012) says, that asking ‘What is your book about?’ gets the author talking about the content, context, era and feel of the book. It is usually more than enough to give a good representation of the book if you have enough experience in cover design. You are trying to ‘woo’ people who have never read the book… so standing in their shoes and ‘seeing what they see’… communication only the essence of the book (and not all the details) is more than enough (Parks, 2012).

Some authors, however, might be hard to reach or communicate with, and – as Yvonne Parks (2012) just mentioned – it might take some time and experience to develop a successful, productive system of questions that provides the designer with complete set of information he requires. Often enough, reading as big portion of the script as needed is called for - assuming it is available - to ‘get a sense of the writer’s voice to communicate it via the design‘(Abrams, 2012). The amount of surveyed text might vary in relation to the particular book; it might be a few pages, chapters or the whole script.

Fig. 1. Rodrigo Corral, Cover design of Rant by Chuck Pahniuk, 2007

Fig. 1. Rodrigo Corral, Cover design of Rant by Chuck Pahniuk, 2007

Then again, some designers like to read the text simply because it gives them greater confidence that their design shall communicate the copy’s message successfully. Rodrigo Corral (2010) for instance states that he likes to read the entire manuscript – and sometimes even more than once - so he can search for deeper concepts. His design for Chuck Palahniuk’s book called Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (fig. 1), for example, is strongly conceptual and in Corral’s own words ‘a little more obscure, because his [understand Chuck Palahniuk’s] readers generally responds to it’. Rant’s main character is Buster Casey, who is ‘destined to live fast, die young and murder as many people as he can.’ The book is a testimony of Casey’s short life full of violence orally reconstructed by his friends after his death (Publishers Weekly, 2007). The visual style used is very strong and symbolic. The design is startling and distinctive to other covers, very much like Palahniuk’s style of writing. It is one of the covers the reader gets to fully understand once he has read the story. The illustration made by Jacob Magraw-Mickelson features well the deep concept of the book and letter R printed on bottom layer that is viewed through cut circle in the dust cover creates nice last touch. From reading a manuscript and/or talking with the author (editor, art director…) much information can be concluded. Once the designer gets a broad understanding of the brief and book itself, he can start researching and gathering inspiration. Many designers start with visual research of images. Webpages such as DesignRelated, Pinterest or Tumblr are considered to be a great source of inspiration as well as any other commercial design such as packaging, magazines or old adverts. Bookstores, libraries, galleries and museums of any kind are also highly popular places to seek inspiration in. Designers say to simply look at everything, whether it is design/art related or not (Brock, 2012; Casalino, 2012; DouPonce, 2012; Gelotte, 2012; Henderson, 2012; Heuer, 2012; Parks, 2012).

Yvonne Parks (2012) also declares that it is a good practice to look at work of other book designers and try to find out why some covers stand out. She strongly believes that examination of both bad and good design helps the designer grow and learn to be better in his profession. Next stage is to consider colour choices and appropriate typography and imagery. There are several areas to look at while doing so. The era the story is placed into might affect the whole idea of the cover. For example, the cover for book placed into 19th century is going to have severely different look from book placed into future. Same consideration is needed for demographics and political situation of the narrative. Firstly, political situation of the country the book is to be published in should be taken into account. It might affect the whole concept of the book and/or restrict it in some ways. Secondly, the political situation and believes of both the characters from the narrative and the publication’s audience might affect the look also, for example in colour or theme choices in order to highlight this connection to the potential reader straight on the cover. After putting all possibilities on paper and doing more extensive research, a wide array of designers like to come up with one to three strongest ideas and develop them further. Evidently, there are some visual elements that covers of bestsellers have in common. These components are highlighted in next part of this thesis, forming a guideline to a sell able book cover styling based on work and opinions of well known, successful cover designers from around the world. While some of the principles listed below are universal and applicable across the whole trade, others are specific to book cover design.

The text is taken from my thesis Book Cover Design written in 2012. To view the full manuscript with interviews and reference list please contact me through my email.

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