Jacket design is crucial in attracting readers, so choosing a look has to be a team effort. But what, Ailin Quinlan asks, makes a great cover?
BOOK covers are the cause of most rows in publishing. Readers judge books by their covers.
“There’s more trauma and more rows, in publishing, about book covers than about anything else — it’s the hardest thing to do,” says Patricia Deevy, editorial director of Penguin Ireland, whose London-based art department designs all of their book jackets.
“The cover is a type of visual shorthand that quickly tells the reader if it’s the kind of book they are looking for. Next to the quality of the book, the cover is the thing that counts,” she says.
Designing a good jacket is not easy — it has to be reminiscent of other successful titles in its genre, while also being fresh and original.
Because there are so many issues and because a cover can make or break a book — if the design is a turn-off, sales suffer — the final decision on a design is collective, says Deevy.
It is, she says, “very much a group decision, very interactive, bringing all the different skills of the team together, from design to sales and marketing. Everyone has an input.”
When a promising book fails, publishers will often conclude that they simply “got the package wrong. A cover will affect the sales. It’s vitally important.”
The wrong package sends out the wrong message. “It’s a case of ‘if we had a different cover it would have sold better’,” she says — which is why designs are decided upon in conjunction with the sales and marketing team.
A book cover is a crucial marketing tool, says Sarah Liddy, commissioning editor at Cork’s Mercier Press, which has its own in-house designer, Sarah O’Flaherty. Mercier, which recently published the successful Cotton Wool Kids, by psychotherapist Stella O’Mahony, opted for an eye-catching design to tie in with the book’s message about the negative effects of over-parenting.
The cover has an image of two running children made of pixel-like coloured dots. This reminds of cotton wool, and hints at how childhood is being eroded — some dots are “floating away” from the children.
“It gives a sense that something’s not quite right — you look at that image and you see something is going on with these children.”
There’s much consultation on a book-jacket design, Liddy says. Once the designer has a draft cover with which both Liddy and the author are happy, the sales and marketing team is consulted.
More work is done if there’s a consensus that the cover needs tweaking. Generally, says Liddy, as commissioning editor she has the final say, but if, for example, the author isn’t happy, they will discuss it.
“Conflict happens from time to time. We want to avoid that, but there are occasions where you might have different ideas about what should go on the cover. We always try to work with an author to find a cover that everyone is happy with,” says Liddy.
It can be a long process, says Deevy: “I know of one book coming out this year which has a fabulous jacket, but it took five goes to get it right,” she says.
“Any book published is a huge investment of money, time and effort and that means you have to get the cover right. There can be other reasons a book does not sell, but the cover is a huge part of it. The cover needs to be good. People don’t know anything about the book, so the cover is what they’ll go on.”
Many readers know what they want because of reviews, but a good cover will catch the eye of browsers in a bookstore.
Sometimes, authors don’t always understand that a book cover is an advertisement, she says.
The author might have their own idea for the book cover, and, while it might appeal to some readers, Deevy says it’s the job of the publisher to “make it appeal to the greatest possible range of people who would potentially like this book.”
Covers have become more subtle and sophisticated in the last few years, but if an author can make a strong case for a different style, says Deevy, the team will discuss the matter.
Many a successful Irish writer started out as an unknown with the iconic Poolbeg Press, in Dublin, so for publisher Paula Campbell — whose stable also includes highly successful authors like Cathy Kelly and Marian Keyes — the book-jacket is crucial.
“We do a lot of debut authors, who are brand-new names, so you’re trying to put hints on the cover to remind the prospective reader of books in a similar genre and lure them to read it”.
People judge a book by its cover, Campbell says, especially when it’s a debut author, because that’s all they have to go on. “A lot of people will purchase on impulse, so a cover has to strike the person. You might put a quote from a well-known author on the front cover.”
While there are all sorts of criteria to guide the design, such as the topic or the historical period in which a story is set, Campbell says choosing a cover can also be instinctive: “Some covers come to us quite early on, and, on other days, you are literally feeling that nothing is coming to you! The book cover is extremely important, because it encourages someone to pick up the book and look at the cover, then turn it over and read the blurb, so the blurb at the back is really important. It needs to draw in the reader”.
Again, it’s a team effort at Poolbeg, because of the different perspectives required to design a successful jacket, says Campbell. “I’ve never had a conflict with an author over a cover,” says Campbell. Her authors are onside, “because they see it as it goes through the process.”
However, she says, if an author “says she hates pink, you’d listen, but sometimes you simply have to put it on the cover anyway, because there are reasons for it. You’d always explain them — for example, the particular image you are using might only work against this background.”
However, for commercial fiction such as chick-lit, book-jacket designs have improved, she says. “You cannot mislead people and put an abstract, literary-style cover on a book which is a contemporary story about a young woman.”
However, Campbell says: “Commercial fiction doesn’t have to be all pink, fluffy covers. Nowadays, the covers are more subtle, because they try to incorporate more of the story. You have to mirror the book’s content as closely as possible in the cover.”
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