[Note: a magazine commissioned me to write this article, but for various complicated reasons the article never ran. I thought I'd post it here for your edification and delight. If you're interested in reprinting it in any way, please contact me beforehand.]
It’s a magical moment in your writing career: you’ve sweated over the prose, you’ve found the perfect publishing house, and now your book is really going to exist, with pages and an author photo and a copyright page. Then, out of the blue, your editor drops you a note: “Here’s your cover! We love it, and hope you do, too!”
With trembling fingers and thudding heart, you gaze upon it the first time – this is the image which thousands (nay, millions) of people will now and forever associate with your book.
You hate it. It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. Or:
You love it, it’s gorgeous. You immediately want to frame it.
Either of these reactions is fairly common – but “I hate it” or “I love it” may not be the reaction that covers should evoke in an author.
Your book cover may be critical to its success. “The cover may very well be the single biggest piece of marketing that book will receive,” says Paul Buckley, the Vice President Executive Creative Director at Penguin Group USA. “For first time authors and writers that have not yet built up a big following, the cover may be the only thing that gets a reader (or reviewer, for that matter) to physically pick the book up.” Talk about pressure.
Steve Kleckner, Vice President of Merchandise Sales for Macmillan, says that although there’s no way to know for sure, he feels that sometimes the cover will almost singlehandedly sell the book – he believes that Target chose Jeanne Kalogridis’s I Mona Lisa (which they sold very effectively) based in large part on its arresting cover, for instance:
The Witch of Cologne by Tobsha Learner sold ten times more copies than her previous book – and Steve credits this largely due to the cover, as well:
Books, it turns out, aren’t all that different from other packaged goods – cereal boxes, gum, or laundry detergent – and loving or hating the packaging really is beside the point. That said, the packaging – the cover – is hugely important in the entire purchasing process. “Specialized package designers bring art and science to visual effects that have impact on how consumers see the product relative to other competing products,” says Jehoshua (Josh) Eliashberg, Professor of Operations and Information Management Marketing Department at The Wharton School, who studies new products and their marketing strategies. The success of that packaging is quantifiable: they’ve done hundreds of studies to determine how people purchase – what colors, images, and packaging almost force you to grab the box with one hand and your wallet with the other. Color, for example, is a critical element: the darker the orange on the can, the sweeter consumers believe that the drink is inside.
A successful package has generally three elements working for it:
Product researchers outside the book industry have performed studies that apply to books, as well – strapping headsets onto prospective buyers, for example – to track how people look at covers. (Apparently most readers hone in on the upper left of the package, then spiral clockwise into the center.) So, I concluded, book cover design is a science. If we can harness the science, then all we need to do is to be sure that each cover reflects the cutting edge of market research.
Not so fast: book covers are a lot more complicated than other packaged goods. For one thing, only a handful of laundry detergents line the shelf, and they’re all displayed face-out – as opposed to the chaos of thousands of spine-out books presently lining the shelves of your local bookstore. For another, spending thousands of dollars to scientifically design a new product-line makes sense since the manufacturer will, in theory, be selling millions of units; but such volume is, alas, less likely for an individual book. Combine low profit margins, limited display availability, and an industry founded on the belief that much of what it’s creating – i.e., literature – is art, and all of a sudden the scientific research seems harder to quantify.
As every publishing professional will tell you, books often defy science – they evoke emotion, memory. They tell stories. It’s not as clear-cut as a swoosh on the side of a shoe, or using a hip shade of lime green which the latest survey has shown will appeal to young women between age 19 and 27. There’s an art to it.
Art – coupled with instinct, and a lot of science thrown in as well. “It’s actually a lot of gut instinct with a lot of science backing it. Science is allowing us to produce more interesting covers that people are more interested in looking at – and actually buying,” said Mike Federle, the CEO of Advertising & Marketing at NextJump, Inc. (and formerly Group Publisher of Fortune Magazine, Fortune Small Business, Money Magazine, Business 2.0, and CNNMoney.com). Like books, magazines are often sold by cover alone; unlike books, magazine publishers often have extraordinary research capabilities. For magazines, Mike says, “it’s all about immediate response.” The best cover is often a simple image that packs an emotional punch – like the prize-winning October 8, 2001 Cover of Fortune Magazine. The image, text, and message all worked together to provide that instant reaction.
It often takes years of experience to really develop the instincts to know what works and what doesn’t, in order to design such a cover. Great designers use what Anne Twomey, Vice President, Creative Director, at Grand Central Publishing, calls “visual thinking” – a vocabulary and skillset made up of images, titles, and how they interact. Designers are plugged into pop culture, history, music, film, art, and politics, for instance, and use that host of visual cues (image, color, font, and so forth) in order to figure out and articulate the essence of the book. Books with flowers on them, for example, will appeal to women, but most men will steer clear. Adding the color red may evoke passion, heat, or intensity – but it can also look cheap and unappealing. Blue, on the other hand, will be calmer and more relaxing. White can disappear on a shelf. Golden retrievers are always crowd pleasers. Small type is hard to read, especially at a distance.
Once you know the rules, you then have to design a cover that readers want to pick up. After all, if the reader doesn’t know the author – as is often the case in a first novel – and if the book can’t catch the reader’s eye, the reader doesn’t pick the book up. Game over.
How, though, to get that reader to pick up that book is still the subject of debate; publishers and designers have a lot of different types of criteria for how it happens. The experts seemed to whittle it down to three interconnected and overlapping qualities: (1) Distinctiveness; (2) Clarity; and (3) Connection.
Distinctive. Many publishing professionals use phrases like “distinctive,” “stand-out,” “elegant,” “beautiful,” or “surprising” to describe an effective cover. Sometimes knowing the rules and breaking them is the way to develop distinctiveness. “Guidelines get very predictable,” said Charles Brock, creative director and principal of DesignWorks, blogger at Face Out Books, and designer for for many U.S. publishers. “For that thriller novel, you need to signal the thriller reader that this is a thriller – but you want to bring in a new audience, as well.” When Anne Twomey set about designing the literary thriller Child 44, she wanted to function within the standard rules (thrillers are generally darker, use large type, and depict shadowy men) but expand beyond them: she didn’t want the focus to be on “Child”, so made the “44” particularly memorable, large, and black. Red added suspense; red and black made the white stand out; the star and railroad image were nods to the novel’s setting in Stalinist Russia. In total, the cover worked within the rules but broke out of them. (Her cover clearly worked – people know it’s a thriller, but the book’s reach has expanded considerably beyond that market.)
Katie Dublinski, the Editorial Director of Graywolf Press, has a slightly different take on distinctiveness: since, like many literary presses, their books “tend to stretch boundaries and bend genres,” they’re often looking for an unusual cover: “We acquire books that surprise us, and we tend to go for covers designs that don’t look like other books, that we hope a reader will pick up because they’re intrigued.” An example she gave is the poetry collection, An Aquarium, by Jeffrey Yang. The author mentioned that he liked the colors of the drawings of Ernst Haeckel, which she found “out of the world bizarre and interesting” – and, most important, she believes totally works for a book of poetry, which can test boundaries and be more distinctive, she believes, than other book genres.
No matter the genre, though, distinctiveness can often be a critical element in making the reader pick up the book. It is by no means the only element, though – some books with distinctive covers still don’t leap off the shelves, as Paul Buckley admitted with David Bajo’s The 351 Books of Irma Acuri.
Clarity. Besides distinctiveness, many publishing professionals refer to clarity as a guiding principle. “A person has three to five seconds to look at a book – you want to help him find it,” Steve Kleckner says. For First Daughter, an adventure story by Eric von Lustbader, the book needed to appeal to people who like puzzles: so they tried to make Washington DC look like a maze. Clarity, for Steve, is everything. If the image and the title don’t match, don’t clearly identify the book and the market, if they leave the reader confused, they just don’t work.
Katie Dublinski, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press, agrees. “We can’t mislead people.” She sited as an example the recently published Black Glasses Like Clark Kent by Terese Svoboda – it’s a lyrical memoir about the author’s uncle, who served as a military policeman in Japan at the end of World War II. Graywolf didn’t want the reader to believe that the memoir was straight military history – but wanted to make it appeal to military history enthusiasts as well as readers of literary memoirs. So they used collage elements, bold type, bright orange, and the image of barbed wire to convey a message that they hoped would be both clear and evocative.
A confused cover, Steve Kleckner says, will literally impact the way the books are sold to bookstores: the biggest chains and the smallest independents use covers to weed out books they don’t want to see or buy. “The bookstores will tell us, ‘I don’t know what it says, I don’t know what it’s about, so I don’t like it, I won’t read it. It’s gone.” More and more, there needs to be a reason for the book to occupy the retail space – packaging is more important than it’s ever been. So a book with a muddled message may be a book with a very short shelf-life.
Connectedness. Distinctiveness and clarity are useful terms, but a third contingent says that both are part of a much bigger issue: that of emotional engagement – the same criteria as for magazine covers. The book must connect, immediately, with the reader’s emotions.
One of the first steps to determine how to connect emotionally with the reader is to figure out what that reader is looking for. Harlequin, which has its own research department, focuses first on what the reader wants – on her motivation behind buying the book. Janet Finlay, Director of Research, and Don Lucey, Senior Writer, PR, at Harlequin Enterprises, said that their researchers take prospective book buyers into a real store (focus groups were too artificial, and it’s necessary to compare the publisher’s books side-by-side with the present-day competition), where all the books are laid out, all crying for attention. “Shop the way you normally would,” researchers tell the buyers. Readers first gravitate toward their subject matter (Random House recently did a study that said 40% of book purchase is based on subject matter), specific storylines, or themes.
Once the reader finds the shelf she’s looking for – paranormal suspense, or new literary fiction, and so forth – something speaks to her, piques her interest, engages her. It may be the “distinctiveness” factor, but quite often Harlequin found that the chosen covers weren’t as distinctive as their counterparts. So the researchers ask, “What are you thinking? Why did you pick up that book? What interested you about that cover?” – and the publisher modifies covers accordingly.
Keep in mind that most readers go to the bookstore looking for some kind of benefit, Janet Finlay said. For nonfiction readers, the benefit is often educational – military history readers want to learn more about a specific time period. Diet readers want books that promise weight-loss. Novel readers, on the other hand, are often looking for an emotional benefit – they buy the book to be emotionally moved, so Harlequin’s design team tries to find an emotional hook – an image, a typeface, a color, or more likely all three – that answers the expectation: the cover engages the reader emotionally, and once that happens, everything is set in motion.
Nowadays more publishers are doing the kind of product research that Harlequin pioneered – hiring, for instance, The Codex Group, a research company dedicated to book audience research. Codex uses an email survey to about half a million bookbuyers, and receives between 8000 to 12000 responses, so the sheer number of participants, over a huge swath of the bookbuying audience (from literary to commercial, fiction to nonfiction) allows for a unique perspective in the industry. Peter Hildick-Smith, Codex’s president, a former Marketing Director at Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, was passionate on the subject of emotional engagement: “The cover telegraphs the story – when you see the title, you should have a flash of intuition; you should have a sense of an impending story” – and as soon as that happens, you’re engaged. The beauty or distinctiveness of the cover, he said, was actually secondary, or could actually prohibit book sales: “Gorgeous isn’t what the bookbuyer’s looking for – they don’t want a pretty cover, they want a visual that pulls them in.”
Readers bring their own intuition and passions into each read. Part of a book’s appeal is the unstated promise that a book will exercise the reader’s own imagination. It’s different from seeing a movie, where we know that the hero looks exactly like Brad Pitt, or Tom Cruise with a mustache; reading is much more subjective and intuitive, so part of what makes a cover really work for a book-buyer is its ability to lure the reader in – to connect. Codex’s highest-scoring cover, for instance, was The Thirteenth Tale, which shows a dusty stack of old books with the title and author’s name superimposed over them – pretty simple, not particularly beautiful or distinctive, without a lot of bright color or shiny paper to catch your eye. But: There’s a story here, the cover tells you. Something secret, something that perhaps you should have already known or read or guessed.
Another such evocative book is Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson: “The cover,” Steve says, “is perfectly set: just a country scene with a couple of horses;” but the images and and simplicity, as well as the contrasting dark and light tones, were evocative of the mood of the writing.
In order to determine connectedness, Peter finds early reader feedback to be absolutely essential – especially when you’re pushing beyond the boundaries, the way Anne Twomey did with Child 44. “When you look at covers for a living, it’s hard to get the intuitive flash on what people are taking away from the book.” All publishers will look for outside opinions – Graywolf, for instance, provides a design questionnaire to their authors; publishers will solicit feedback from their sales force, bookstore owners, and account buyers from big chains like B&N or Costco. As Paul Buckley at Penguin put it, “Bookstore owners comment; author’s friends comment; authors take covers into their classrooms and poll students before committing to a cover; they are passed around at agent’s bbqs and dinner parties; 22 year old editorial assistants comment; sales comments; marketing comments; the guy who delivers the pizza comments. The fact that a cover ever sees the light of day is a minor miracle.”
For the book itself, though, everything comes down to the reader, and that moment in front of the bookshelf – and sometimes, it turns out, the author and/or publisher and/or designer didn’t quite have it right.
One such example is “An Interpretation of Murder,” which Holt published a few years ago. The cover and title were both distinctive and clear; the publisher and sales force were all behind it. Codex’s research demonstrated that the cover performed poorly – and, indeed, readers didn’t come to the book in the numbers that the publisher hoped they would: the cover, which depicted a rather gruesome (but extraordinarily distinctive) corpse, made the book seem too edgy – too much of a murder mystery, and historical readers in the U.S. avoided it. In the U.K., however, the cover was much more evocative of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (dark, intriguing, mysterious), polled extremely well with Codex, and the book hit #1 on the U.K. bestseller lists (with a little help from the U.K.’s version of Oprah).
So when you see that book cover for the first time, don’t think about whether you love it, or whether you think it’s beautiful. Before you even look at it, prepare yourself. Think:
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink: “… when you first picked up this book[, h]ow long did you first hold it in your hands? Two seconds? And yet in that short space of time, the design of the cover, whatever associations you have with my name, and the first few sentences … all generated an impression — a flurry of thoughts and images and preconceptions – that has fundamentally shaped the way you have read …”
That first impression created a flurry of responses. The response wasn’t “I like this cover” or “This cover is beautiful” – but a lightening strike of emotion, of connection. The cover was distinct enough for you to pick it up; its message was clear enough for you to understand; and you could engage on an emotional level with the cover treatment in front of you.
Only connect, E.M. Forster wrote in Howard’s End: the cover is your first, and best, chance of doing so with your reader.