Buy Me! Some Thoughts on Book Cover Design... by Rosalie Warren

‘Buy me!’ yelled the cover. ‘This book is for you.’

One of my all-time favourite covers

 - and books
 What is it about a book cover that makes you want to read the book? Like much of advertising – for, of course, that’s at least partly what cover design is about – the process is shrouded in mystery to many of us mere authors. You can often see which bits of you a particular cover is getting to – part of it is genre and sub-genre information but I think there’s more to it than that.

Those new(ish) style moleskin-like covers have the feel of ‘quality product’ about them, perhaps with the attendant ‘you’re worth it’ and ‘you deserve it’ connotations which, even though we can see what’s happening, are hard to resist.

Some book covers have tactile appeal – ‘Stroke me!’ – and of course, once you’ve checked to see if anyone’s looking and then run your finger across the front cover and received the thrill, it’s difficult not to take a respectful peep inside or at least glance over the back cover blurb. Perhaps it’s just me, but with some new books there’s something verging on the erotic about them. (OK, maybe it’s just me. Sorry.)

Of course, the review excerpts blazoned across the cover help too – if another of my favourite authors, or indeed anyone I’ve even remotely heard of – likes this book then it must be good, right? No, not necessarily, but once again it’s hard to resist.

Of course, publishers of actual physical books have to work that much harder these days when many of us have e-readers. Covers on e-books are still very important, however – and much more so, I’ve recently discovered, if the potential customer can view them in colour. Every time I turn on my Amazon Kindle Fire (other makes are available), I’m bombarded with the latest publications, displaying their covers in glorious technicolour – and, of course, those interminable ‘lists’ of books they think I’ll like. (Oh dear, they know me so well...) 

Another favourite - book and cover

 I resent being manipulated, of course I do, but it doesn’t stop me buying books in one form or another, or even both. As an author, it took me a while but I learned the lesson eventually that people like me (non-artists, non-designers) should not even think about creating their own book covers. (I’m sure there are a few exceptions to this – all due respect if you are one. Some people are multi-talented. I’m not.) After a few disasters – and these were solely my own fault and not that of the people who helped me – I finally conceded that I needed a professional book cover designer to produce my covers.

It’s kind of ironic. I’m a copy editor and proofreader and I spend so much time gently (or otherwise) reminding people that, however good they are at English grammar, spelling, etc, they really do need a professional copy editor and proofreader before they go to press. So yes, I should have realised earlier that the same thing applies to book covers. Ah well, it’s never too late, and I had the cover of Lena’s Nest done professionally and was delighted by the results. Except… and this, again, is completely my own fault… I told them it was science fiction, which it kind of is, but the problem is that this classification immediately cuts out huge swathes of possible readers who think they don’t like sci-fi. Lena is also psychological fiction and women’s fiction – at heart, it’s the story of a mother separated from her children, as well as raising lots of questions about our present-day society. If I had to line up my potential readership with that of another author, I think Margaret Atwood would be the closest I could get. (Not comparing myself with her – merely wishing I could steal or even just borrow her readers!) The Amazon classification system is not too helpful and I don’t know where a bookshop would want to place my books – I haven’t dared ask them yet. 

Another favourite - of many people, I believe

In retrospect, perhaps I should have asked for a cover that reflected rather better the non sci-fi aspects of Lena ­– if that’s even possible. Perhaps it’s better just to get on with writing my next book, which is going to be even harder to ‘place’. Genre-busting is all well and good if you’re already a well-known author. Doesn’t work so well for the rest of us (though once again, I’m sure there are exceptions, and I admire you if you are one of these).

Was there ever a day when books were ‘covered’ in a way that simply reflected their content and caught their spirit, contributing to the book’s production as a work of art? I collect first editions, some of them fifty years old or more, and in many of the covers I can see an idiosyncratic slant that would not stand up in today’s world of rabid marketing. Looking through my collection yesterday I chose a few favourite covers, which I’ve included in this piece. I have a feeling that at least some of these would not work to sell the book today. 

How much does the cover of a book matter to you? Would a particularly bad cover put you off buying a book you really wanted to read? Have you ever put a brown paper cover on a book to avoid seeing its awful cover while reading it? Or have you ever read a book whose cover you loved so much you kept sneaking a look at it between chapters? I’d love to hear what you think.

Just don’t get me started on titles. That’s a subject for another day.

Happy reading (and cover-stroking)

Here are links on Amazon UK to all the books whose covers I've featured above:


Rosalie Warren said…
Could this be the first post ever on AE to get no comments at all? Do I get a prize?

Umberto Tosi said…
Au contraire, Rosalie! Thank you for a very illuminating post, a keeper for we author-publishers tempted to do everything, including design. Great cover on Lena's Nest! When I edited magazines, the cover was critical not only to sales but identity but bringing an issue together.
Really interesting and thought-provoking post. I would have commented before but I'm supposed to be taking a break from work. As both a writer and a fledgling designer, I am particularly tempted to have a go at designing my own covers but after reading this post, it has made me more cautious about the wisdom of doing so. And I'm delighted to discover that you are a Barbara Trapido fan. I haven't read her now for years but I absolutely loved her books when I discovered them and maybe it's time for a re-visit. PS. As you already know, I really rate the cover of Lena's Nest!
Anonymous said…
AT LAST! My laptop is allowing me to comment, I'm away from home and have been struggling with this for days. I'm afraid you come WAY down in the stakes of EA posts receiving no comments at all - obviously you are out of the running now but even before you had no chance of coming first. There is already a Highly Select Group of us you will have to try much harder to join.

Very good points about book covers. Yes, a designer is a must - as well as the aesthetics there are some vital basics like making the font size and colour easy to read so your title and name jump out at the reader. And don't forget the spine! Lena's Nest works brilliantly.

Incidentally, one of the most irritating maxims (annoyingly common), is that old 'Don't judge a book by its cover'. Because of course all designers and publishers set out to make books look as dreary as possible... grr.

Rosalie Warren said…
Just returning to my post after a couple of weeks, having been prompted to look for further comments.

Melissa, thank you, and I'm glad I made you stop to consider... However, I know your design skills are excellent so I would hate to put you off completely. Book cover design does seem to be a very specific art/craft/skill, but if anyone can learn to do it I'm sure you can. We must chat about Barbara Trapido sometime - I've never met anyone else who is familiar with her books!

Griselda, thank you for the prompt to check my post again. Disappointing to hear that I come so far down in the no-comment stakes on EA - I must try harder! :-) Glad you like the Lena's Nest cover. I've just commissioned the same company to design the cover for a new book about copy editing I'm going to publish shortly.

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