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The Book Deal

Designing the perfect book cover: turf battles over art, fonts & money

bestsellerjackets1.jpgNothing in the publishing process seems to provoke more conflict than designing the book jacket.

Every editor, designer, sales person and publicist in the company can have a different point of view, often causing intense turf battles, expensive start-overs, blown production schedules, and snarky rants hurled between colleagues like:

“Sure, go ahead with that pretentious Picasso rip off, but my buyer at Barnes and Noble hates the blue period and will never order a book with that jacket.”

Or: “If we don’t use that retro Boy’s Life type design I showed you, we’ll sell 20,000 copies less and kiss our year-end bonuses goodbye.”

Or: “This book will sit on the shelves if we use that cheesy drawing of the two women kick-boxing on the cliff.”

Or: “We can’t afford an original piece of art for this mid-list book that’ll only sell 5,000 copies — if we’re lucky! We have to use one of those cheap stock illustrations.”

Who’s in charge?

A jacket should truly represent the content, artistic intention, mood and style of the book. It should be beautiful and meaningful, but also have the punch, drama, and color to rivet any potential reader’s eye once they see it face-out on the shelf or table of some crowded book store.

Take a look at the covers pictured here. These are the current #1 best selling books in their respective categories on the New York Times list. What’s your opinion? Do you think any of these jackets helped the book’s success?

The lines of authority regarding directing and approving a book’s jacket tend to shift with the case-by-case politics of each situation. The numbers of participants with strident opinions in any given project, moreover, are proportionate to the size of the advance, projected sales, and budgeted net revenues.

The players

The Editorwho acquires and develops the book from scratch, maybe even inventing the book, commissioning the idea with a chosen author. Either way, the editor is the original champion and producer whose job it is to shepherd the book through the production process while maintaining the book’s integrity, and at the same time satisfying the need to sell the book. That means playing ball with the requirements and opinions of the sales, publicity, and marketing people.

The Art Director…who’s responsible for interpreting the often inarticulate and muddy-headed ideas of the editor. For example, attempted dialogue between editor and art director can regress to something like this:

Art Director: “Who’s the book for?” Editor: “Well, uh, hmmm, well there are millions of people who will just love this story as much as I do!”

Usually overworked and underpaid, a good art director can be a brilliant creative partner, but unfortunately is often handling 40 other covers at once and they’re all due next Thursday.

The Authorwho probably wants complete approval over the jacket — but only a tiny percentage have the leverage to get it. Most have to settle for some kind of guaranteed “consultation,” meaning only that they get to see a nearly final proof. Nevertheless, editors want their authors to be happy and will often listen seriously to their wishes.

coverfl1.jpgHunter Thompson, for example, came in with a friend’s drawing of the leering skull we used so effectively for the original edition of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Many authors have excellent ideas for what their jacket should look like, and good taste too. So as their front-line champions, editors often struggle with their colleagues to keep the author’s best ideas in currency, despite opposition from all sides.

The Agentwho can be a powerful force in the process, especially if the literary rep is one with whom the editor may want to do a lot more business in the future. Agents may not necessarily agree with the author, in fact they often have their own idiosyncratic notions of what it the cover art should be. Editors ignore these wishes at their own peril, and often have to shuttle back and forth to caucus between superstar prima donna agents and recalcitrant sales reps.

The Sales Reps…those hard-nosed denizens of the real world, who are compelled to present 60 new titles in half an hour, and are most concerned with the idiosyncratic taste of key account category buyers, like the guy at Books-A-Million who doesn’t like Garamound or any other type over 16 points. Sales reps have a frightening amount of power since you literally can’t live without their support.

The Publicity People…whose interest may be to have the author on the front cover, if she’s famous or attractive. Or the opposite if not, and then not even on the flaps. Their clients are the national TV producers, bookers at National Public Radio, columnists for the New York Times and other media. These days they also want a jacket that will reproduce well on a screen for internet blogs and websites, where more and more books are publicized.

Five tips for what an author can do to help

With all these conflicting parties stirring the pot, the actual book jacket often suffers from the compromises of consensus. So if you’re an author trying to influence the jacket design for your book, here are five tips:

1. Try not to assume that you know what’s best for the book, even if it’s true. Cultivate good relations with everyone at the company and maintain a position of modesty, humility, and cooperation.

2. Don’t bring in your 9-year-old child’s cute little pencil drawing of her horse for the cover, even if the book is about how to ride bareback Western Style. The only exceptions to this rule are genius-level kids with their own TV show.

3. Muster empathy for the sales and publicity people who may seem to be marching to a different drummer but have mutual interests to share. Keep in mind that they have to sell your book, and without their enthusiastic efforts you’ll be severely handicapped.

4. Remember that in the end, this isn’t a science and we don’t always know what ultimately sells a book. Books with less than fabulous jacket designs have become huge sellers anyway. Take a book I published, the Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum. I thought the cover was boring and that it didn’t say anything about the book itself. Nevertheless the historical thriller was such a hit that the design was used again for subsequent titles. See it here.

5. Once the jacket is designed and chosen, put aside any regrets and do everything you can to help sell the book, including your own strenuous on-line web marketing, blogging, twittering, and other brilliant new techniques that emerge in these rapidly changing times.



The Book Design Review blog has released a compelling list of favorite covers for 2008. Take a look and see what you think.


  1. says

    “Do you think any of these jackets helped the book’s success?”

    The cover for Outliers: The story of success and the cover for The Last Lecture bores me. Those two covers would not attract my attention. Unless I thought, ‘Boring.’

    The cover for Cross Country captures one’s attention and says, ‘Read about an exciting chase.’ The cover for The Audacity of Hope is simple, keeping the focus on a smiling Barack Obama.

    That’s all I have to say about that.

  2. says

    Justin, I agree that the Outliers jacket is boring, but I do admire the cover on The Last Lecture, which is handsome and appropriate if you know the content. I don’t like Cross Country, though, not at all. There’s nothing in the actual illustration that says “chase.” To me it just looks like a guy staring at the sunset. I agree that the use of Obama’s face on the cover of his book really works. Just goes to show how subjective these opinions are and how difficult to measure if a jacket’s impact on sales is positive, negative, or makes no difference.

  3. says

    In my book publishing class for grad school one of our exercises was to go to the bookstore and pick out book covers we loved and book covers we hated. It was interesting to discover that a lot of us totally disagreed with one another on what good book design was (part of the critique was also the overall book design as well). The covers were the most contentious issue. Some of us liked abstract art covers where others of us thought covers with flowery detailing were more attractive. But then again, readers tastes are just as subjective about content. That said, I have to agree with you on the cover for Cross Country. What does a guy standing in the sunset imply about a “chase”? Shouldn’t there be more motion in the cover art to express the dynamic story?

  4. says

    Great post and with some valuable advice to help authors in understanding the process.


    >”Do you think any of these jackets helped the book’s success?”

    Heck no. :-)

    Of course, I think covers are very important but this isn’t a good sampling….Three of the authors – Patterson, Gladwell, and Obama – will sell truck loads of books regardless of their covers. The Patterson and Gladwell covers simply follow the style set for their previous titles. And if you have a book by someone as famous as Obama, then you better put his photo on the cover. (The opposite of that is also true: so many debut non-fiction authors with small platforms want to have their photos dominate the cover, but with an unknown then that’s often not a good idea.) And the teacher guy had so much Internet buzz that it was bound to sell tremendously.

    The Last Lecture actually has a great cover and book design but it still would have sold well without, but nice to see the publisher put the effort into the design. And I applaud the publisher for not going with a photo of the dying author on the cover.

    I think that book cover design is much more important for the midlist and newer author than for those with astronomical sales.

    Anyway, still a great post.

  5. says

    Dear Jeff

    You make a very good point about book cover design being more important for the new or midlist author who needs attention on the retail shelf or on Amazon. The challenge is to find the budget for excellent art and design when the expectations are less certain. This is when an author, editor, and art director need to be most creative and entrepreneurial in finding inexpensive or stock art.


  6. Brad says

    Great article, thanks for exploring this process of book covers.

    “The challenge is to find the budget for excellent art . . . ”
    So why don’t we save them the time and money by sending publishers our friends/own or freelance artist’s artwork. haha

  7. says

    “Or: “We can’t afford an original piece of art for this mid-list book that’ll only sell 5,000 copies — if we’re lucky! We have to use one of those cheap stock illustrations.””

    5,000 copies is midlist? Really? Is there no “lowerlist”?

  8. says

    I love this discussion because as a book designer I find my aesthetic preferences are often different from non designers. I really like the cover “Outliers”, for example, because it has breathing room around the title (a.ka. “white space) and that would attract my attention when placed next to other busier covers. Nevertheless it is good to remember that I am designing for the general public and not other designers. Also, I always recommend that instead of using a cheap stock illustration that an author consider an all type cover. Those can be really effective and there are no copyright issues involved since type usage is not rights managed after the font is purchased.

  9. Bobbi says

    I loved the cover of the original paperback version of The Life of Pi.

    I still hold that image in my mind when I think of the book.

    There were subsequent other covers for the same book and I felt lucky to have bought the first one because the cover appealed to me so much.
    Just like, as children, we like to have our stories illustrated, as an adult, I like to be able to imagine the cover art into the story or visa versa.

    I think a book is something you want to hold in your hand, collect, look at, admire, put on the table or in a handsome bookshelf, so beautiful or artful covers appeal to me tremendously. I don’t want to look at something generic or distressing or embarrassing or ugly or cheesy and I find that books with same old same old get put behind other books. Even though most of my books are not art books or coffee table books, I am really attracted to both beautiful covers that I want to have around me and look at.
    Likewise, I am also attracted to intriguing titles.

    Also, I went to that site and went over all the titles briefly. My acid test was then to pull up the strongest visual title that I could remember immediately afterward.

    When a writer is also an artist, do they get more sayso in the cover decision (not meaning that they have to have their own work on the cover, but some credit for approval?

  10. says

    Dear Bobbi

    It depends on your leverage when negotiating the contract. If you’ve done another book with this publisher and it did well, and if you have good personal relationships, and if you have a good idea or actual art for the jacket design, you can be influential. Actual approval is rare. It’s usually a matter of influence, compromise, and consensus, with sales and marketing always having the balance of power. Alan


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