Monday, February 9, 2009

Cover Me

From the desk of Ms. Sally Spitfire

Darling Suzie-Cutie,

Since I began working in publishing, Suzie m'dear, I've learned many surprising things. I hope, over the course of these letters, to share many of them with you. But of everything I've learned, I think I have been most surprised by the amount of work (meetings and emails and mock-ups) that goes into designing the cover of a book.

Now don't get me wrong--there are certainly some lucky books out there that are handed over to the care of a designer who puts together a perfectly appropriate and attractive cover which promptly gets approved by the editor, publisher and sales dept. with a few minor changes to font size or background color and---hurrah!--off to the printing press it goes.

More often than not, the cover design for a book ends up being a long and tremendously taxing process. Remember the phrase "don't judge a book by it's cover"? Well, apparently no one in publishing has ever heard this phrase; you wouldn't believe how many arguments take place about which picture, font and color on the cover of a book will best represent the book's subject and attract the correct audience.

Perhaps I'm being too vague. Imagine you're designing the cover for a fiction novel about a girl who meets her first boyfriend who turns out to be the love of her life. Picture in your head what the cover looks like. (Got something in mind?) Now, imagine that I tell you this book is actually a women's erotica novel? (Has the cover changed?) What if I tell you that this is a non-fiction memoir about a women who survived a domestically abusive first marriage? (Cover changed again, correct?) What about a scathingly, sarcastic yet humorous graphic novel for young men? What about a perfect book club book for city women? Southern women? African Americans?

I'm sure you're beginning to get the idea.

And as if it isn't confusing enough to charter the rolling seas of fonts, photos, clip-art, colors, and placement of author's name and subtitles... the cover often has to be approved not once, not twice, but as many as 8 times. In a best-case scenario, the art designer designs a perfect cover, the editor loves it and runs it by the agent and author, both of whom love it as well, and the book (ahem, cover) is in business.

In worst case scenarios (and often when a potentially best-selling book is involved), not only the editor, agent, and author but also the publisher, the sales team and the marketing staff get involved. There are weekly "cover" meetings in which the art dept, editorial staff and publishers meet solely to discuss, discard and discover disastrous and delightful cover designs. There are private phone conversations. There are frantic emails. Of course, more often than not when so many people get involved, it's impossible to make everyone happy. The cover that the publisher and sales dept. love is hated by the agent and the cover that the agent loves is detested by the editor.

It's time to call in the big guns.

That's right. Borders, Barnes & Noble, Wal-mart... whichever major account (book chain) the sales dept. is hoping will place a large order of the book is given a copy of the book jacket. Because here's the thing: if Borders loves a jacket, they may place an order for 10,000 and if they hate it, well... it's back to the drawing board so as not to lose that order.

Between the agent/author team, the publishing house (sales, publisher and editor), and the major booksellers (Borders, B&N, Amazon, etc.), sometimes it amazes me that any cover gets chosen at all! But it's all worth it when a cover comes out so spectacularly that you simply have to pull it off the shelf.

Can you think of any books that you picked up--or even bought--simply because you craved the cover? Please, please do share! I'll tell you the first book I ever bought just for the cover: Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Ah. I loved that book.

Oh my! Look at the time! I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date! (More on that next letter, Suzie!)

Your luvin' cuzin,

(Ms.) Sally S.

Question: How much does a book cover affect your book purchase? Do you have any favorite book covers?


Chris Eldin said...

Good Morning Everyone!!!
I missed Ms. Spitfire!
Hope everyone had a great weekend!

Miss Susanna said...

Good Mornin' Cuz,

I snuggled right up with your letter and a cup of coffee out on my porch swing this morning. That's right! I finally got myself a laptop! We'll it's a hand-me-down from our cousin Jebediah-Bo. But it works just fine.

What a wonderful letter about book covers. My word, I never imagined so much went into a cover!

I must admit, I do have a tendency to buy cookbooks based only on the cover. Why if there's a picture of something delectible on the cover, I'll just go on ahead and buy it.

But of course, I do still have a penchant for Ms. Jodi Picoult's novels in general. And her book covers are nicely done. In fact, the last time Chloe and I were browsing B & N, we noticed a lot of the covers of "chick lit" had the same idea ... almost sparce...kind of a lightish background and only one or two elements but they seem to really pop and catch your eye.

Oh Lawd, listen to me go on and on. It's just that I miss you so. Hugs to you dear!

Charles Gramlich said...

Years and years ago I bought a book because it had a very surreal picture of a man floating in a hotel room with his head disappeared into the cieling, and an attractive woman sitting on the bed. I still haven't read it. And it was a used book anway that cost about 50 cents.

I know I'm probably pretty weird. Covers can influence me to pick up a book and look at it, but they don't affect my urge to buy a book at all. I'm not going to spend 7 to 25 bucks on a cover. I buy books strictly for the words inside. Cover blurb type stuff is far, far more influential for me than covers.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I loved Jeremy Thatcher. Book covers are key for me in picking up books by authors I don't know. If a cover catches my eye, I'll read the first page. Title is another key trigger, too.

Sarah Laurenson said...

For me, title is more important for older books since the majority of books in the bookstore are not face out. Cover is more important for a new release since those tend to be displayed face out at the front of the store.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Miss Susanna!

Charles, that sounds like an interesting cover! I would've picked that one up as well.

Sarah, I've always wondered why book spines weren't more decorative. I'd forego my name on the spine if it had eye-catching artistry.

Barrie said...

I DIDN'T USED TO buy a book based on its cover. BUT now that I've seen what all went into designing my covers....Well, now I really pay attention to book covers. I even check the fine print for the name of the cover designer! I buy books for lots of reasons, but I definitely pay attention to covers these days. ;)

Anonymous said...


It's about time you get a new laptop--even it if it a hand-me-down. It's got to be better than that old clunky desktop sitting in the den.

Wish I could chat, but as always, it's a busy day here in the office. I've been on the phone for the IT dept. at least 5 times today, legal dept. 3 times, and--with 5 minutes to go before an important meeting--I just spilled a cup of coffee in my lap. With milk. No sugar. *Sigh*


McKoala said...

Hm, wow, it is a process, isn't it?

I sometimes work with a group of designers who also design book covers. I love their work, to be honest I sometimes wonder why the publisher every goes anywhere else! They seem to produce a wide range of styles, appropriate to the book and audience, from YA to non-fiction.

From what I've read, the author doesn't have that much input in the process. Kind of sad, but I can see why.

Covers do affect me. Example - I bought 'Twilight' before the hype. My copy has an 'alternative' cover on my Twilight - not the fabulous apple that I think most people know, but an anonymous kind of a girl in a distorted 80s-style photo that gives her a huge nose and made me think twice about buying the book, although the story sounded interesting. The cover screamed corny and cheap. I would have picked up the apple cover in a heartbeat. It's dramatic and suggestive.

Miss Susanna said...

Oh Sally,

Coffee in your lap! Oh sugar. Please tell me you weren't wearing that lovely cream skirt you bought last weekend. I'm sending up my special home made stain remover. Last weekend I used it to get tomatoe juice stains out of cousin Hildegard's underwear...don't ask. (But, yes, she is still having those spells - poor dear.)

Sounds like you could use a nice bubble bath and glass of wine when y'all get home.

Take off early and have that dear boy Antonio cover your phone.

Hugs -

Your cuz.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks for dropping by, everyone!!

Please stay tuned for fabulous authors this week!!!

Carleen Brice said...

The Red Tent's cover made me have to read it. And almost every time I like a cover, the same designer, Honi Werner designed it.

Vicki Delany said...

Hope I'm not too late to contribute to the conversations. I can't say I've ever bought a book for its cover, but I've certainly NOT bought one because of the cover. The cover might lure you into picking up the book and reading the blurb, but a bad cover will make you walk away. Favourite cover of all time - the Alienist by Caleb Carr. Perfect sense of time and mood.

Anonymous said...

Can't Borders, etc., just have a permanent rep who works in the pub house's art department? Seems like that would make everything easier.

We actually just discussed this topic at my blog, so I'm glad you've gone into some helpful detail here.

Parker P

Pamela Hammonds said...

I think the most recent book I bought--based solely on the cover, having not known the author--was Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch. Ended up not loving the book so much, but still love the cover.

Anonymous said...

I didn’t start purchasing my own novels until I was in high school. This was in the mid eighties and Waldenbooks was top dog. Maybe my memory is spotty, but is seems like a lot more books on the shelf used to face outward. I most definitely made my purchasing decisions based on the poise and promise of the cover illustrations. Since I read scfi-fi almost exclusively, Michael Whelan’s fabulous cover art definitely caught my eye, though it wasn’t until years later that I realized most of my favorite book covers were painted by one person.

So when I went to school for my art degree, I aspired to be the next Michal Whelan, hoping to make a decent living designing and painting book cover illustrations. By the time I graduated from college (mid nineties), however, the market for Whelan’s work no longer existed. Whelan himself decided to semi-retire and started doing non-commercial work. When I go in to the bookstore today (usually Borders), I see the author’s name filling half the page and maybe a little splash of color to grab the audience’s attention.

Look at Romance covers. How many of them actually have paintings on the cover? Nowadays it’s all photoshopped folks with their heads/faces obscured. The only genre still putting forth an effort to put artwork on the cover (art that actually ILLUSTRATES what the story is about) is Fantasy, which has never really been my cup of tea.

Now I make a living doing illustrations for an architectural firm and do fantasy art commissions on the side (but mostly art for role-playing games or card art). I will probably never make a living painting book covers (sigh). The last two novel purchases I made were based on the strength of famous author endorsement blurbs on the front cover or internet research/reviews. I think it’s fair to say that I no longer judge books by their cover (at least not as much as I used to). But is this because my own tastes have changed, or because the marketing strategies of the publishers have changed?

Anonymous said...

Juding from the book covers I see, it doesn't seem like the publishing people work so hard on them.