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What a Difference a Book Design Makeover Makes

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What a Difference a Makeover Makes

by Tamara Dever


Why do we love to watch extreme-makeover shows? Homes, yards, vehicles, restaurants, our bodies. Everyone loves to see something improve, especially when the transformation is wildly impressive, with changes that are much more than superficial. Yes, the car looks great, but it also runs better. The kitchen is gorgeous, but also more efficient and user-friendly. Although I’ve yet to see a makeover show about books, makeovers can be dramatic for them too.

We’ve all seen far too many sad-looking books trying to bust out of their lackadaisical or obnoxious skins to show their true inner selves. While most may scream, “I’m self-published,” you’ll find them everywhere in the publishing world—even on books by big-name authors from big-name houses. Don’t you feel sorry for these guys? They wait like a stray at the pound for someone to see their true potential. “I’m a gem, really!”

Doing a makeover on a book with a mediocre design isn’t an indulgence. It’s important for the publisher’s reputation and its ability to land a quality distributor, for the readers’ perception of the book and its author, and for the book’s bottom line.

Now, I won’t pretend that a design makeover will cause an average book to become a bestseller. We all know there’s more to it than that. What I am saying is that the purpose of design goes beyond aesthetics. Design is a proven sales tool.

Companies of all kinds use design to propel their brands, convey information, and grab potential buyers’ attention. When used properly, design not only reflects but elevates your message. (Think about Coca-Cola. It’s essentially extremely well-branded sugar water. Yes, it tastes good, but its brand has become at least as powerful as the product.)

Potential buyers take just a few seconds while looking at a book’s spine or front cover to decide whether the back cover is worth perusing. If the back does its job properly, they will then flip the book open to scan its pages. If the interior isn’t inviting, if it isn’t easy on the eyes, those potential buyers are likely to put it back and buy your competition. ouch.

The same process happens in the online retail world, and all through the marketing process. When distributors, reviewers, booksellers, and readers see a book cover, they quickly form an opinion about the quality of the content based on their first visual impression. Ideally, they will think, “This publisher cared enough to spend time and money on great packaging, so the publisher must care about quality overall.”

Unfortunately, their first responses are often “Not good enough,” not worth reviewing or carrying or reading. Fortunately, makeovers can change that, even for books that are already out.


Before-and-After Examples

The New Social Story® Book (Future Horizons). When it was time to launch this book’s 10th anniversary edition, the entire book had to move into a new decade. The new cover uses photos instead of clip art, a fun color scheme, a timely anniversary banner, and a CD icon to show off a new feature. And the design balances all these elements despite their number and variety.

After the release of the new edition, sales of the book skyrocketed 97 percent over sales one year prior.

Turtle Town (Longtale Publishing). Turtle Town is the first in a series of books for preteens. We thought the original cover concept wasn’t age-appropriate; the titles were hard to read; the illustration idea was predictable; and the design wasn’t conducive to use on a branded series.

The final cover, inspired by surfing decor, is designed to grab readers and lure them into Snap’s world. The title is dynamic and works well for a series. The faux sticker toward the bottom shows where the book takes place, as each book will have its own locale. A sign indicating the book’s rank within the series is theme-appropriate and useful. The main graphic was compiled using parts of several illustrations as well as stock images to make a believable scene and introduce the main characters.

Most people glancing at the original interior would probably have thought it was fairly nice. When we viewed several pages, however, we discovered typesetting errors and a lack of dynamics that readers in this book’s age group appreciate and even expect.

Bringing in more elements from the cover, using a full bleed (at no extra printing cost), and tightening up the typesetting made the final text more fun and easier to read.

Dark Talisman (by Steven Booth). The first cover idea for this fantasy novel shows no intrigue and doesn’t hint at the true story behind the talisman. The title is crammed at the top and the author’s name looks like an afterthought. Although the cover copy mentions that the book is part of a series, it offers nothing that will continue its branding visually.

The eye-catching, mysterious final cover provides a symbolic glimpse into the plot line with its intertwining bicolored vines. The treatment of the title lends itself well to future titles in the series. This cover was designed to show that a high-quality and exciting story lies within.

Sunbelievable (Story Quest Books). When the publisher learned that this children’s book needed a redesign, the book was already in printed galley form and the galley design was nicer than the average “before” in many respects, with its use of photos and illustrations together, its child-friendly colors, and the catchy title.

After speaking with marketing experts and reviewers at IBPA’s Pub University, however, the publisher realized that the text on the cover was getting lost and the colors were dull; the trim size was too small; the photos throughout looked pasted into the background; and the text inside competed with the imagery, making the book hard to read.

The final design reflects the topic with its glowing title, beautiful and readable layouts, more realistic combined imagery, and a simple arch on the cover to be carried throughout the series. The end product has garnered many national awards, making promotion easier and lending credibility to this first book of the series.

Special Diets for Special Kids (Future Horizons). This title was popular printed in a two-volume binder format before its dramatic makeover as a full-color, perfect-bound book. The original cover looked dated, did nothing to whet a reader’s appetite, and was pretty institutional. For the new cover, the publisher wanted to emphasize healthy foods rather than typical kids’ foods.

As a person who actually eats a restricted diet, I knew it was important to offer assurances about still eating many foods loved prediagnosis. Not showing this on the cover could turn potential readers away, giving them the impression it’s all about boring health food that their already picky kids won’t want to eat.

The final cover, designed to be attractive to both kids and parents, expresses a can-do attitude. The updated interior is miles from the original, being well-organized and using color, space, and photographs to present information and recipes in a much more pleasing and user-friendly way. This redesign garnered a 2012 Benjamin Franklin Award. (Even if the updated interior didn’t have the benefit of full color, the design would still stand strong and do its job well.)

Sell Your Business for More Than It’s Worth (Arabella Publishing). The original cover does nothing but show the reader what the author looks like. The type is terribly tiny; the title is too long; and using “The Book on How to” means there’s no room for a valuable subtitle.

The author, while very successful, isn’t famous enough to earn two-thirds of the front cover. Since she gives presentations across the country, we agreed that her image was appropriate on the back cover. The front, however, needed to fit its genre by looking businesslike while adding a glimpse into the life that readers could look forward to after accomplishing the title’s promised goal.

The back cover of the original wasn’t organized to attract readers; instead it seemed likely to cause people to feel overwhelmed and turn away from the information. The new back cover still offers plenty of information, but the testimonials are organized with better spacing and use of color to provide the information quickly and clearly. (For those of you wondering about the missing bar code, this “after” is an ARC.)


Better Than Before

After their makeovers, all these books not only look great; they are getting great reviews, winning awards, and selling well. Those that were redesigned as new editions are showing better sales figures than earlier editions did.

Now that you’ve seen the dramatic effects a professional makeover can produce, think about your own books, whether published or still in the manuscript stage. Don’t be afraid to ask librarians, bookstore managers, or other industry professionals to comment on the effectiveness of possible cover and interior designs. Take the opinions of your family and friends lightly, however, both because they often err strongly on the side of flattery and because design is not a matter for amateurs. And remember that it’s never too late for design that will let you capture your audience and hear them say, “Wow!”


Tamara Dever is owner of TLC Graphics, an award-winning publishing consulting and design firm based in Austin, TX. For more information and samples, TLCGraphics.com.

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