Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

Designing Book Covers

Writers dream about the perfect book cover to wrap around their baby novel, how it captures the essence of story within, but still hinting at mystery and the promise of adventure. Covers give stories a face and create a first impression for the potential reader.

I was very much struck with a talk by Chip Kidd, book cover designer and entertaining speaker. (Yeah, it’s another TED talks video, but I’m in love with the site right now, and I’m not apologizing for it, so there!)

Three things jumped out at me from this presentation:

1. Don’t call an apple an apple. How many book covers have we seen that are perfect representations of the apple within… and vaguely disappointing? Since independent authors have more control over book cover design than Big Five authors, they need to be aware of this aspect of marketing. Genre fiction can take a cue from literary fiction and spend more time dressing before rushing off to the party.

Jim Hines has quite a few posts lamenting bad genre fiction covers, especially where women are portrayed in unlikely poses.

I also want to mention dressing an apple like a romance novel when it is a fantasy adventure story or dressing an apple like an urban fantasy novel when it is erotic fiction is a disappointing trend that needs to stop. Discovering two hours into a book that the product advertised does not match the product received leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

2. E-readers lessen the book experience. I’m not saying e-readers are evil and that I’ll toss my Kindle off the overpass on the way to work tomorrow, but I do agree that the reading experience is changed when the reading platform is changed.

Paper books come with a sense of tradition. Just try going into a bookstore or library, walking down the aisles trailing your fingers across the spines, and not experiencing a moment of awe, reverence, or excitement. I can’t do it. I still have shelves full of books, read and unread, and I look at them as dear friends, shared experiences contained within a concrete form.

But e-readers do have ease of use, convenience, and portability on their side, and that’s pretty nifty too. Just don’t try to smell them.

3. Don’t take the responsibility of book design lightly. The book designer is accountable to the reader, to the publisher, and to the author. “From my head to my hands to his leg.”

Responsibility to the reader goes back to my comment about apples not being who they say they are. Misrepresentation or tricking the audience will seem like a betrayal and not lead to repeat business.

Whether or not the publisher is one of the Big Five, a niche press, or an independent author, the book designer needs to create a visually marketable cover, which can be optimally tied into the rest of the marketing strategy. Marketing and selling a book is a business and should be treated as such.

The author is the final person the book designer must satisfy, and his emotional needs are by far the largest. When I was twelve (and fourteen, sixteen, and so on), I had a vague idea for a story, a hint of characters, the merest impression of plot, but I knew down to the font I wanted to use how the book cover would look, where the title would be, my name at the bottom, and the cast of characters artfully arrayed across the front. The Necromancer’s Daughter will never see the life of day, too many witch-vampire-werewolf books have come to pass since my first inklings of the story twenty years ago, but I am still in love with the cover. When I read about authors working with the large publishers and their dissatisfaction with book cover offerings, I feel a bit sick. To spend all the time, the effort, the love to craft a story, then to skimp on the packaging is sad.

I dream of books that are beautiful inside and out.

2 comments on “Designing Book Covers

  1. katemsparkes
    March 18, 2013

    That’s one of my favourite TED Talks! That guy is incredibly entertaining, and his talk is so insightful. I’m going to pop back up there and watch it again.

    It’s something I’ve started thinking a lot about. I know what I don’t want for the series I’m working on right now, and have a few ideas for what I do… but capturing the essence and the mood of a story on a book cover isn’t as easy as I used to think it was before I started considering publication. There are book covers out there that are absolute perfection, and there are covers that make me put a book back on the shelf without giving it a chance, unfair though that may be.

    And then there’s the question of standing out among a sea of other books…

    PS- one of my new favourite book covers is “Tithe” by Holly Black. It’s visually appealing, and I think it reflects the story well. I had a hard time getting into the story and almost gave up, but the cover kept pulling me back until I was hooked. Can’t beat that!

    • katemsparkes
      March 18, 2013

      Ooh, forgot how distracting his glasses are. O.o

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This entry was posted on December 18, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

Weekends are reserved for my Music Playlist.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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