Every good book needs a great cover. It’s a powerful billboard for conveying the spirit and content of your book.
An eye-catching cover can persuade readers to pick up and buy a book. But a jacket that’s confusing or boring or worse, can stop a potential buyer from giving that same book a second glance. Covers also need to pop as thumbnails, for all those online shoppers.
Publishers rely on talented jacket designers to create great covers. These specialized graphic artists are either on staff or hired as freelancers. Staff designers frequently cross over, creating a jacket for their own publisher one week, freelancing for another house the next week and taking on an indie author client the week after that.
Attention indie authors
For self-publishing authors, the ability to hire a professional designer is a new and important development, because nothing shouts amateur louder than a lousy book jacket. “There’s no reason why a self-published book should look “self published,” says Laura Duffy, a senior art director at Random House.
Hear hear! Read on to learn how four highly successful book jacket designers create stunning, memorable covers, along with their practical advice for writers who want to understand and participate in the crucial process of getting it right.
How 4 professional designers create great covers
Laura Duffy is Senior Art Director at Crown, a division of Random House, where she has worked in the art department for 15 years.
Kimberly Glyder is principal at her own book-design firm based in the Philadelphia area.
Henry Sene Yee is the Creative Director of Picador, a leading literary trade paperback imprint of Macmillan Publishing.
David Drummond is founder and principal of Salamander Hill Design, based in Québec, Canada.
What’s the most important thing to accomplish in a jacket design?
Laura Duffy: My goal is to create a cover that stands out, gets the correct message across, and looks interesting and even exciting. In the olden days our only goal was to have a jacket standout on a crowded bookstore shelf that would inspire someone to cross the store to pick it up. Now we also have to consider how covers will look online, so we’re doing things like making fonts thicker and subtitles bigger and really paying attention to how designs look when they’re shrunk down.
Kimberly Glyder: It’s been said before, by Chip Kidd [one of the industry’s best known designers] that a successful book cover is one that gets you to pick the book up in a store. I would add to that in this day and age, if someone “clicks” on a book online I’m doing my job well. Book covers are still marketing tools and a good design is one that makes someone want to take a closer look. My fear with e-books is that a large image and big type is what ebook publishers consider successful. Clickable covers are not ideal though, I still hope people buy their books in bookstores!
Henry Sene Yee: My goal is that the reader has an emotional response and connection to the story and characters or ideas. The minimum you can do is give out info, but how you say determines how it will be received, like hey, by the way, your house is on fire.
David Drummond: To surprise the viewer – not in a gimmicky way – but hopefully by solving the visual problem in an intelligent way.
How do you begin the design of a new jacket?
Duffy: Here at Random House we have concept meetings at the beginning of every list where we sit down with the editors and listen to what they’d like to see on the cover, as well as offer ideas of our own. I try to read whatever is available in order to have as much to work with as possible. Occasionally I work directly with an author. I look at other jackets in the same genre (comp titles). I also research online to get a bigger picture of what I’m working with, perhaps looking at an author’s website.
Glyder: I do like to read the manuscript in its entirety. Typically, I’m given a pub sheet with information regarding the sales handle and competing titles. With about 90 percent of my cover jobs, my interaction is limited to working with the art director who acts as a go-between with the editor, publisher, sales, marketing, and the author. I do sometimes see email exchanges with the author, but mostly I’m kept out of that discussion. The benefit of working with a traditional publisher, rather than with an author who’s self-published, is to make use of the specialists who deal with books on a daily basis.
Yee: In my meetings, I may ask for plot summary, characters and description but what I need to know is the theme, tone, mood, point of the book, what makes this different than other similar books, the meaning of the title, etc. An author & the editor can get too personally close to the project and know and want too much on the cover. I need to reduce and suggest using symbols, metaphors, tone. Not say everything. I do not want to illustrate a scene or turning point in the book but the subtext of that scene and what it means to the overall theme.
Drummond: I read the book if it’s fiction. If it is non-fiction I try and get a really good brief. I am always looking for a hook or a way into the material. If I need more information I talk to the editor and on occasion the author although that rarely happens.
Have you taken on self-publishing authors as clients?
Duffy: Yes, many times. I love working with these authors because I can bring all my experience to the project, including marketing ideas. Many times I’ve helped them evaluate their copy and its emphasis, perhaps changing wording or including elements in the design that make information pop that they didn’t realize was important. I’ve also helped them create selling back cover copy and discussed ways to market their books. It’s a lot of fun. My advice to them, is that if they’re hiring me they’re in good hands, so let me do what I do best and not over think the design. There’s no reason why a self-published book should look “self published”.
Glyder: Up until last year, I rarely accepted self-publishing authors. However, it’s hard not to notice that the publishing environment is changing rapidly and self-publishers have many more resources available to them. Still, I’m picky–I tend only to take on self-publishing authors whose work I find very interesting. As a designer, it’s difficult to take on authors directly who may not understand the publishing process and how books are marketed, especially just how important it is to consider the audience in finding a successful tone for a design. My experience working directly with authors is that they become set on one vision, rather than being open to understanding that the way they view their book may be different than how a book needs to be marketed so it appeals to a wider audience.
Yee: I have. The best advice is to hire someone good and then trust them to do their best job. Have all your information ready for them to create.
Drummond: Lately I have been doing quite a few covers for self-published authors. The ones I have worked with have been really good about letting me do my thing with a few exceptions.
Do you have a standard contract with mutual expectations, dates and other terms? What’s the typical cost range for a jacket design?
Duffy: Some of the houses I do freelance for send me very specific contracts with design direction, due dates, and budgets. The costs vary from house to house with the smaller ones paying $500-$800 a cover, and the larger ones $1200-$1800.
Glyder: Most of my contracts come directly from the publisher. Dates and terms are included, covering all expectations, including (sometimes most importantly) the kill fee. When I hand off the initial comps and can bill for half the fee, that’s already a large amount of time spent. Typical fees range on the low end for university press clients approximately $800, all the way up to $3000 for some trade publishers.
Yee: In general, two weeks for sketches/comps for the art director and another week to refine an idea to show the editor. And then the game of a thousand cooks with their own opinions of the cover begins. The base amount is $1500. But can range as low as $1,000, and as high as $5,000
Drummond: The process is usually quite informal. I do sign contracts for the bigger publishers. My range for cover designs runs the gamut. Average fee is about $1000.
DIY book jackets
Many authors feel strongly about having a hand in their own jacket design. The late Steve Jobs reportedly loathed the initial cover design of his own biography by Walter Isaacson. Jobs, although not the author, insisted on redoing the cover himself with the clean white aesthetic typical of Apple products.
In the case of author Bruce Spitzer, a background in advertising led him to design the jacket to his debut novel Extra Innings, a sci-fi baseball thriller about Red Sox legend Ted Williams, who is brought back to life with cryonics in the year 2092. Spitzer, experienced working with graphic print media, had a strong sense of the front cover photo and design he wanted, and a creative way of achieving his goals.
Spitzer had a limited budget, so he recruited a graphic design college intern who could translate his rough sketches into a polished jacket. He then found a photographer online who turned out to be a huge Red Sox fan. A neighbor with a young son fit the bill perfectly as the tall, lanky Ted Williams and Johnnie, a child who plays a central role in the novel. Then he located a vintage Ted Williams’ jersey with his famous number nine, bought some cleats and authentic red socks, and they were ready to go.
Spitzer’s garage became a photo studio using the photographer’s lights, a white backdrop, reflectors, shades, power cords and cameras on tripods. He found a model release online, always a good idea. A few days after the photo shoot, Spitzer and his designer sorted through the shots to pick a favorite, choose the jacket’s colors, the type, and to organize the copy Spitzer had written.
Costs so far for his jacket, still a work in progress: Art Direction/Graphic Design: $300. Photography: $300. Props:$200. Models: $1. Collaboration: “Priceless!” Spitzer says.
What about you?
As authors, what’s your take on all this? Have you been satisfied with your jacket designs? Did your publisher involve you in the process? If not, do you wish you’d had the opportunity? And if you’re self-publishing, what are your plans for your cover design?
Any thoughts on the jackets pictured in this post? Which stand out for you?