Thursday, March 12, 2015

Judging Your Book By Its Cover

Over the years, whether I realized it or not, I judged each book I read by its cover. Now it could be because on some subconscious level, my designer’s eye influences my decision  on whether or not to invest my leisurely time (which, like most of us, is precious and few) in reading a book. Sure, there may be other factors that go further to either convince or deter me, such as reading the back cover copy or the first page of the book. But it is that initial glance, that spying from the corner of my eye as I pass the book aisle that makes me stop, turn, and lift the book from its place to examine it more closely.

I like to wander in bookstores, libraries and stores with book departments to check out the latest books being displayed on the shelves. Part of why I do it is to keep up on the current book design trends. Another reason is to see if I can understand the narrative the cover design is attempting to convey. Just like the story within the book’s binding, its cover has a narrative. This narrative is created through the photos, illustrations or other design elements arranged on the book's cover. And just like imagery in a story’s narrative, a cover’s images can reflect elements of the book or serve as thematic metaphors.  The tricky part is creating enough of a (graphical) narrative to provide a glimpse into the story without overwhelming or underwhelming the reader.

When I tell someone that I design books, the conversation usually veers toward discussing a book’s cover. Most assume that book design is all about the cover. And they’d be right, on some days. (The book’s interior design doesn’t usually get to shine in the limelight, for good reasons I believe, but that’s for another post.) On some days, it’s all I can think about. I’ll even dream about a cover’s design, especially if I’m working out issues I’m having in trying to make it match the design I’d originally envisioned.

Sometimes, I’ll obsess over a book cover, because I don’t have a vision for it. I don’t normally read the book before sitting down to design its cover.  The book summary and the first couple of chapters are usually enough get the design started. But on occasion, there will be a book that defies my design sensibilities. 

I recently put together composite covers for a three-book series that Reputation Books just acquired. I had designed another three-book series last summer and really enjoyed coming up with cover concepts, especially the series’ branding. Those books had a distinct sense of place, which is reflected on each cover. 

This time, however, I wanted to design the three books in a different style. After several days of cover design fails, I finally went wandering down the book aisles of my local Costco, and found Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books for sale. The contrast of colors and stark imagery made me take notice.  I liked how the covers had common elements that were used differently on each book. I couldn’t help but pick them up.  

A book cover provides a way to graphically represent the book’s tropes. Tropes are the figures of speech writers use to render meaning. We’re all familiar with tropes of comparison, such as metaphors and similes, which are used to create figurative connections in our stories. The same goes for a book cover.  But a book cover can also create metaphoric or figurative connections through principles of synecdoche and metonymy, tropes of substitution, which I think the book designer of the Flavia de Luce books does quite well. 

 As my former MFA professor explains:
“Synecdoche [is a] substitution of the part for the whole; the part stands for the whole. Synecdoche comes in several types. The genus can be substituted for the species (vessel for ship, weapon for sword, arms for rifles, vehicle for bicycle) or the species substituted for the whole (sail for ship, hands for helpers), or matter substituted for what is made from it (canvas for painting, silver for money, steel for sword). . . . Metonymy [is the] substitution of some attribute for a thing, such as crown for royalty (crown belonging to the crown), miter for bishop, pen for writer.”
Whether you are designing your own book cover or hiring a book designer, you can save some time and money, if you come prepared with a few ideas of what you’d like for your book’s cover. One way to generate ideas is to do what I do: go into bookstores and libraries and look at covers of books in the same genre as your book. When I see a cover that stands out in particular, I’ll take a picture of it with my phone. Here are some other tips in coming up with a cover design: 

  • Explore a sense of place; the right picture with the story’s setting can help to show not only where the story takes place but also imply the emotional tone of the story.
  • Look for images that can metaphorically represent themes of the story, character attribute or elements of the plot.
  • Try focused imagery or specific elements to imply a broader theme, more complete scene or larger object.
  • Consider the balance and symmetry of images, words and other design elements placed together on the cover. What pulls at your attention? How does the information – language and imagery – flow, both down and across the cover?
  • Watch out for clichés. Just like in writing, clichés occur in book design. Research other books that are in your book’s genre. Taking into account the design elements that are common to that genre, you still want to make your cover specific to your story. The problem with cliché covers is that the overused imagery often bears little or no relationship to the book’s actual content.

I think of the cover as the book’s invitation. It is the first, and sometimes last impression. It should reveal enough to whet the reader’s appetite and peak his or her curiosity.  Interpreting a book cover can sometimes seem like reading runes, but what gets it pick up off the shelf isn’t how closely it resembles the story but how well it communicates a meaningful narrative to the potential reader. 


  1. I also try to keep an eye out for trends in cover design, because when I look at my books, the cover I like the best is the one I designed myself. I know probably just enough to be dangerous, and hope some day to take a class in cover design. If you know of a good one, I'd be interested...

  2. Great post, love seeing the design process!

  3. Oh great wizard thanks for a peak behind the curtain. I'm just glad there are talented people like you that can do cover design for the rest of us. Great post!

  4. Thank you everyone - I appreciate your comments!