It turns out that an old saying may not be true — you can judge a book by its cover after all, authors and book designers say.
“When you have that shirtless cowboy looking out over the field, his truck around, you know what’s going to be in that book,” cover designer Brigid Pearson told me. The Sunday Magazine.
Pearson, a New York-based cover design artist, has designed thousands of book covers, including the paperback cover for the New York Times bestseller pachinko, a historical fiction novel by Min Jin Lee. She says each genre has its own unique approach.
“I designed for romance… It’s a very specific language,” Pearson said.
“Those meetings are really fun, talking about made-up cowboys. There’s a lot of talk about pecs and their shirts and features and their jeans.”
Whether the genre is romance, thriller, or fantasy, artists, designers, and authors who collaborate on book covers say they are more important to a book’s success or failure than most people understand.
Author vs Designer
When artist Jaya Miceli approaches a new title, she has to capture a lot of information in one image.
“I’m really trying to get a feel or a feeling or a mood from the story,” Miceli said.
Miceli, senior art director for the Scribner imprint at Simon & Schuster and freelance cover designer in Brooklyn, designed the cover for the hit thriller The girl on the train by Paula Hawkins
For that book, Miceli said she moved away from a literal interpretation of the title and went more abstract.
“I was trying to create the feeling that I’m that real person on the train, this girl who’s drunk and untrustworthy. And so the letters, you know, get double and not quite clear,” she said.
Miceli said what comes out of the design process is sometimes profound, like when she designed a cover for The ready-made thiefa thriller by Augustus Rose.
“The author said something along the lines of, ‘Thank you for designing the cover I never knew I wanted.'”
But Toronto author Naben Ruthnum said things don’t always run smoothly, and the relationship between writer and artist can sometimes be contradictory. Ruthnum has written books such as: Curry: reading, eating and racing; Hero of our time; and Find you in the dark.
And, he admits, the author doesn’t always know best.
“You can’t rely on an author’s aesthetic values to be the right marketing decision,” says Ruthnum. “I think authors can often be very unfair to designers and think they know exactly what the book should look like.”
He said there is often more than just the author and designer. A sales team, a publicity team and the editor of the book all participate in the process.
“Those are valuable opinions because those are the people who interact with the public the most and see which cover the book will actually sell,” says Ruthnum.
But Omar El Akkad said the design process is completely different from writing the book. The Canadian Egyptian author of What a strange paradise says that writing is a very individual task, but what comes next is not.
“All of a sudden you see someone else take a work and they can interpret it in a very different way,” said the Giller Prize author.
“It was a reminder that this thing I had made was now going out into the world to be interpreted in many, many different ways.”
Like the shirtless cowboy in a novel or the double letters on The girl on the traincovers can tell you what genre the book might be.
And the repetition, Ruthnum said, can be helpful.
“I was worried that my thrillers in particular would seem a step too general, that they would look just like any other thriller,” said Ruthnum.
“What really helps your thriller sell is its resemblance to two other books in the genre.”
The cover and title of a book are often a product of their time. There was a time when many thrillers had the word girl in the title, from gone girl until The girl on the trainsaid Ruthnum.
One of the popular cover trends is known as blob books, which are composed of abstract art titled.
Ruthnum theorizes that these types of cases are popular because they look good on a phone screen, but Pearson points out another benefit: cost savings.
“We used to be able to design custom photography and hire photographers, models, and stylists, but there’s no money for that anymore,” Pearson says.
“But we can all go to our iPads and draw some typography and make some really nice abstract backgrounds, and they come out great.”
As seen on TV
It’s also a popular trend these days to slap an “as seen on Netflix” sticker or swap a cover for the book’s movie poster. Ruthnum said it can give a book cachet.
“I think sometimes we get more perspective on these things as they get older,” Ruthnum said.
“If you have a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence that has [actor] Peter O’Toole in his Lawrence of Arabia outfit on the cover, that’s a pretty cool book, isn’t it? Because it is now associated with something else. It’s a beautiful cultural artifact.”
But not everyone is a fan of the trend.
“I’ve never liked it… I’ve never picked up any of these things and thought, ‘Oh, this was a great artistic decision,'” said El Akkad.
But El Akkad jokes that he’s willing to change his tune, for the right price.
“If it ever happens to one of my books, because of the amount of money involved…I will come back to this show and tell you how much I love the new cover that is a movie poster and how much it means to me personally. And I will lie because they gave me a lot of money.”
And that gets to the heart of the cover – money. A beautiful cover helps a book sell. That is Kevin Buckley’s experience. He has worked at TYPE Books in Toronto for 16 years and says it’s very important to have a cover that grabs a client’s attention.
“It’s very important for the simple reason that you’re sorting things out with your eyes when you’re looking at a table full of books,” Buckley said.
And El Akkad said that in a sense you can also judge the quality of a book by how it is displayed.
“If you pick up a book and it has a beautiful cover, chances are a lot of people involved in that process were so moved by the book that they went above and beyond and really tried to capture the essence of it.”
Produced by Andrea Hoang.