PUBLISHED MAY 2015
by Cathi Stevenson, Book Designer
“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts,” Mr. Brownlow observed in Oliver Twist. Back in Oliver Twist’s time, book cover content usually consisted of little more than the title and the author’s name on a plain background. Since then, book covers have become an essential marketing tool, sometimes credited with making or breaking a book’s success.
One of the most difficult aspects of designing a book cover is trying to predict what the public will like. Everyone has theories and ideas, but after years of studying cover designs, I’ve come to believe there are two good predictors:
First, if it’s popular in the UK, it will probably catch on in the US within a year or two.
And second, if it’s a trend on YA covers, it will probably become popular in other categories. The covers produced for young adult fiction have been consistent trendsetters, appealing to adult readers, who are quickly becoming major consumers of YA books.
Design Trends Today
Over the years there have been countless design trends on book covers. Covers sporting images of trees, for instance, became such a big deal that last year we had the “acacia tree scandal” making headlines around the ’net when Columbia University PhD candidate Simon Stevens posted a graphic of three dozen African book covers on social media, all featuring an acacia tree silhouetted against a sunset. Similarly, the Twilight series set off a firestorm of copycats with its black background, brightly colored lone images, and distinctive font.
Last year was a boon year for birds, particularly flocks in silhouette. Photoshop brushes for creating the effect have been popping up on resource sites for a while, so it’s a safe bet the motif is being used in design work throughout the graphic design industry, not just on book covers. Save Me by Jenny Elliott and A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith are prime examples of this trend.
Taking that trend a step further, the Hatchette YA imprint Books With Bite in the UK animated the birds on Witch Finder by Ruth Warburton. You can find the animated cover at BooksWithBite.co.uk.
Another trend that’s picking up momentum is the use of old-school illustrated ribbons and banners to frame a book title. The Book Designers created a wonderful cover in this style for S. C. Barrus’s Discovering Aberration. In the UK, All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews has been released with two versions of a ribbon cover, although neither the US nor the Canadian versions of the book use the design.
Slanted text has been popular in the UK for a while, and is gaining momentum on this side of the ocean. It was first brought to my attention when my client Mark McKergow requested the style for his nonfiction book Host, which he co-authored with Helen Bailey.
Achieve the Impossible by Greg Whyte, Better and Faster by Jeremy Gutsche, Sales for Non-Salespeople by Robert Ashton, and Think Like a Freak by Stephen J. Dubner are all newer UK releases that have covers with slanted text.A hot trend in America right now is chalk and handwriting text treatment on covers. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green are good examples. Puffin Chalk has reintroduced several classics, including Pippi Longstocking, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz, with magnificent chalk designs by Dana Tanamachi-Williams of Tanamachi Studio. Both Time magazine and O, The Oprah Magazine featured chalk covers in 2012. Many sophisticated fonts mimic the look of chalk and handwriting, and more are showing up on the market every week.
Incorporating the title text with tree branches is a trend that’s kind of fun. I first noticed this one a decade ago on the DVD case for Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. A quick search yields several books using the motif, including the reissue of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and In The Woods by Tana French.
Last year, a nod to ’70’s cover design started appearing on books such as Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. It’s a style that seems to be catching on surprisingly slowly, considering how easy and inexpensive it is to produce. Perhaps its popularity was stalled because cover guru Chip Kidd was quoted by NewRepublic.com saying, “For me it’s sort of like everything that I react against when I’m designing a book cover.”
My Take on Tying In
Whatever the trends, the question is, should publishers follow them or go with something unique? I tend to think the safe bet is to go with the trends, but to add your own signature—an element or feature other covers don’t have. Sure, you can try to be a trendsetter and go in a completely different direction, but it might be like trying to sell bell-bottoms when everyone is wearing boot-cuts. Few small businesses have the capital to gamble on such things.
Cathi Stevenson has been designing book covers for 15 years and has been a writer for almost 30. To learn more: CathiStevenson.com, BookCoverExpress.com.