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Designing Covers with Markets in Mind

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The more I share experiences
with others, the more I see and appreciate the different ways we all go about
our business of publishing and marketing books. Recently, at a regional trade
show in Seattle, I was on a panel with a bookseller and a designer. The topic
was creation of covers and dust jackets.


The purpose of the discussion, the
organizer told us, was “to communicate that book jacket design can make or
break a book, so energy, thought, and investment should be a priority in the
design of a book cover, since it is a significant factor in potential sales.”


The designer and bookseller spent
much time reviewing artistic elements of literary fiction covers like patrons
at an art gallery, but with what seemed to me a puzzling lack of curiosity as
to whether the titles had been commercial successes and, if so, with little
attention to how all elements of the cover and jacket—including the
type—may have contributed. Compared with those covers for literary
fiction, many of our covers for regional trade nonfiction from Alaska and the
Pacific Northwest, are, shall we say . . . brash.


Our differing perspectives can be
understood partly in terms of the ways literary fiction and regional nonfiction
are categorized and displayed at the retail level.


In bookstores, trade fiction from
the major New York houses is displayed along with other fiction. Covers may
hint at the nature of the story, sometimes through abstract design and
illustrative elements. Usually, they make the author’s name prominent because
it tends to be important in readers’ fiction-buying decisions.


With nonfiction, the subject
matter is more likely to get bookstore browsers to pick up a book. In my world
of regional nonfiction, we cannot risk being too subtle. Regional trade
publishers tend to favor covers that define content quickly, like a commercial
billboard seen briefly while whizzing down the freeway at 70 miles per hour.
The message we are sending—This is what this book is—must be
clear, because our titles are usually displayed with other regional books,
often books on subjects that are related minimally or not at all. Thus, in the
regional section of an Alaska bookstore, a memoir may sit next to a book of
aviation history, or humor, or true crime, or adventures from the Iditarod
Trail Sled Dog Race.


We try to position our books with
a carefully written title, a highly informative subtitle, and one or more
blurbs that give additional clues to the content. And of course we pay
attention to the design, the colors, the illustration or photograph, and the
orchestration of all the elements. We believe all this is important
because—despite promotion and publicity designed to make impressions on
the reading public in our market—our books are bought on impulse more
often than not. The best advertising for a book is its cover. No sale is made
if, in a second or two, nothing on the cover attracts interest. (See “Show Me
Some Spine” on page 1 for tips on attracting interest even when your books are
spine out.)


The Key Cover Question


So, here’s my point. There is no
one right or wrong way to design a cover. Even the all-type covers we looked at
during our panel discussion served their purpose. Considerations to keep in
mind include current design trends in relevant niches (especially when a
publisher is moving into new territory) as well as type of book (fiction or
nonfiction? travel? reference? self-help?) and sales channels (will the book be
sold primarily at conferences and private events, or will it have to compete
for retail shelf space and the fickle book-buyer’s wandering eye?).


I’m not suggesting that you
conform to what other publishers are doing, but you should understand that some
buyers may pass on a nonfiction title if its cover design strikes them as odd,
vague, or ambiguous, and some certainly will hesitate about buying nonfiction
if they cannot infer the content from elements of the cover. Try to make the
cover answer the question, “What is this book?” And remember that a beautiful,
dazzling cover is not necessarily the right cover if all elements are not
working together. Be careful of fancy fonts, too. They might look good, but can
they be read from a distance?


I believe publishers should resist
the temptation to select a cover designer based on price. The best designers
offer not only artistic talent but also a sophisticated understanding of how a
certain look sends signals about category and content.


In my little corner of the
publishing universe, a successful cover is a happy marriage of art and


I welcome your comments and ideas
for PMA. Contact me at gksturgis@earthlink.net.


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