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On (Book) Covers & Controversy

January 27, 2010

Everyone loves a good book cover. That’s indisputable—good covers catch our eye and drawn us in. Every good cover requires hours of work by the designer as part of a painstaking process to accurately reflect the content while appealing to the tastes of the target audience.

To see book covers come under fire is a truly fascinating look into what we have come to expect from a cover. Last summer, Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel Liar was originally featured a young white girl with long, straight hair, while the protagonist is clearly described as a black girl with short, textured hair. Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass has just been released with a cover featuring a young white woman, whereas the protagonist has dark skin and ‘exotic’ features. As Mitali Perkins described it in “Straight Talk on Race,” publishers want the cover “to sell more books, [so] the main character may be portrayed on the cover as less foreign or ‘other’ than he or she is in the actual story.”

Teen book reviewer Ari pleaded with publishers to consider the audience they alienate: “Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?” Bloomsbury changed Liar’s cover prior to its official release and is re-issuing Magic Under Glass with a new jacket design. Their original response to the controversy mentioned that the covers were “intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup.”

Book buyer Catherine Linka of Flintridge Bookstore reveals the intrinsic difficulty of chalking this up to discrimination or carelessness: “The cover works symbolically… [but readers want a cover to give] an honest representation of the experience that they will have with [a book].” And therein lies the rub: what was in dispute was not the stylistic choice, but rather the audience’s expectation that the cover should more literally match the inside the story.

Different designers approach the process in different ways, but generally they read the book or have a detailed synopsis. They aren’t designing blindly. Choices are being made all the time between what is obvious and what is complex. There is a certain level of independence, but the designer will still ultimately be answering to the publisher.

What may come as the bigger surprise is that the author rarely has any say in the book cover design. Traditionally, design lies solely in the hands of the design team, perhaps with some input on behalf of the editorial or marketing department. But the author does not factor in, as is obvious from Larbalestier’s response to her book’s cover design.

There are some smaller and independent publishers who offer a more collaborative design process, with designers and writers working together toward a final cover design. Open communication between the two can prevent many of these issues by allowing each to explain their process to the other. But even this presents its problems—an author may have his or her own artistic vision and not always understand what types of covers sell, which is the ultimate job of the designer: to make a cover sell. That is not a particularly romantic view, but it is a realistic one. Still it is important to remember that the design is still art. It’s merely art meant to encourage a purchase. And as an author, you must be prepared to deal with the ramifications of having other people interpret your work.

If you do find yourself in a more collaborative environment with a designer or team, remember that their experience in the field may give them a different vision than your own, and it is important to respect some of their more unconventional suggestions or design ideas. It’s all a part of the process.

A selection of fantastic book cover design blogs:

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Submit and Get Noticed: Advice from Greenleaf's Review Desk

January 20, 2009


Tip #1: Tweak Cover Design Conventions—But Don't Discard Them Entirely

Business books don’t look like self-help books don’t look like fiction. This may seem obvious to some, but it is a common problem I see when we're evaluating new books for publication or distribution. When consumers want to buy a business book, for example, they expect certain imagery, fonts, colors, and layout styles, whether they realize it or not. The best-selling business books often use large, simple fonts and bright colors to keep the focus on the title (like this or this).

If your book cover or layout doesn’t make sense for its genre, it could hurt your sales.

That means that it might be a better idea not to make the cover of a book about investing neon pink with pictures of your dog, no matter what your artistic sensibilities are. Now that’s not to discourage innovation—there is always a new and better way to do things. The mold can be broken, but for new authors this can pose a risk (although sometimes ugly covers work). Whatever the case, choosing a genre-appropriate cover will signal credibility and familiarity to customers, which can translate into more sales.

A quick way to get some ideas is to go to Amazon or your local bookstore to check out titles similar to yours that are selling well. Notice the styling of other books, what imagery they use, and what that conveys to you as the reader. If you like what you see, figure out a way to adapt those principles to your cause. A book can stand out to buyers by employing creative cover art and a well-thought-out interior while staying within the bounds of the genre.

Katie Steigman reviews Greenleaf’s submissions for market viability and helps determine what books to take on as projects at GBG. She reads everything—the good, the bad, the ugly, and all genres from personal finance to cookbooks.

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Color Matters: How to Use Color in Your Book Design

March 21, 2007

"Hot pink is the navy blue of India."
--Diana Vreeland

Color is beautiful, but she is much more than mere decoration. Color communicates. If you treat her right, she can support and add impact to your book's message. Treat her wrong, and she will undermine your message and confound your audience. Do not make the mistake of choosing a color scheme solely on personal preferences--color can profoundly influence the impression your book makes on potential buyers.

Color Wheels are Useless

Most of us learned a little color theory in school. Wavelength, primary and secondary, cool and warm, saturated or subdued. These terms are specific and informative, sure, but I'd guess they did little good when it came time to choose a wall color for your first home. Don't let color theory convince you that there are absolutes and rules to which you must adhere. In the field of graphic design, confounding expectation is the best form of innovation. Color doesn't fit purely in the realm of science or completely in the realm of art: She lives in the mysterious cultural territory between the two. To understand whether a color "works" or not, you must understand the emotion it evokes, its symbolism, and--most importantly--its context.

How Color Makes you Feel

Color affects us on a subconscious and emotional level. Certain colors have the ability to raise blood pressure, speed up breathing, and increase pulse rate and adrenaline. Our visceral reaction to various shades can even be measured by Galvanic skin response. Reds, oranges, and yellows have been shown to promote appetite, since they tend to be positively associated with food. Not coincidentally, most chain restaurants use these colors for their logos, signage, and décor. Greens have a calming effect, which is why concert halls and theaters have "green rooms" to relax performers before showtime. For a fun, animated look at mood and color, check out this site by graphic designer Maria Claudia Cortes.

More Than Meets the Eye

Colors also have symbolic meaning. Culturally-rooted color associations can vary widely from country to country, or even region to region. In American culture, white signifies the concepts of peace and purity. In China, however, white plays a very different role as the traditional color of mourning. We often don't realize the deep messages basic colors communicate to us on a daily basis, and how much certain connections have been ingrained in us. Diana Vreeland, fashion columnist and longtime editor-in-chief of Vogue, is famous for noting that even the neutrality of colors is a cultural construct. And there are many distinct cultures--youth culture, corporate culture, gender culture, professional culture--each of which abides by its own constructed color symbolism. This table from Grantastic Designs illustrates the concepts colors convey in company websites and is a good example of how context can drastically alter a color's meaning. (Not a lot of positive color associations in the medical field...)

Color Finance Engineering Medical
Red Loss Hot, danger Danger, emergency OR healthy, oxygenated
Yellow Important, substantial Caution, warning Jaundice
Blue Reliable, corporate Water, cold, cool Death, poison
Green Profit Safe, environmental Infection
Cyan Cool, subdued Steam Poison, lack of oxygen<

So... What Color Should My Book Be?

When choosing a color scheme, you and your designer must consider the target audience of your book, the mood you want to evoke, and the symbols that best connect to your book's content. Then capitalize on the power of color to send your audience cues about how perfect this book is for them. The covers below show how color, paired with compatible symbolism, serve as emotional triggers and help support a book's primary message.

The Power of Nice by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

Power of Nice.jpg

Target Audience: general business readers
Mood: happy
Symbolism: the happy face
Predominant Color Scheme: canary yellow

Dying Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me by William Hablitzel

Dying Was the Best Thing.jpg

Target Audience: self-help/inspirational, gender neutral
Mood: hopeful, peaceful, introspective, tranquil, spiritual
Symbolism: cycle of life, death and rebirth
Predominant Color Scheme: pale green and yellow

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

Memory Keepers Daughter1.jpg

Target Audience: general fiction readers, predominantly female, parents of children with Down syndrome, book club members
Mood: somber, nostalgic, distant, detached
Symbolism: x-ray imagery, memory, regret
Predominant Color Scheme: black with ghostly blues

Fish! by Stephen C. Lundin

Fish!.jpg

Target Audience: corporate managers, gender neutral
Mood: upbeat, fun, child-like, playful
Symbolism: childhood, simplicity, water
Predominant Color Scheme: white with bright orange, yellow, and blue

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Shotgun Publication

January 9, 2007

shotgunwedding.jpgRushing a book to market without understanding all the consequences of your decision is about as bright as marrying someone you meet in Las Vegas after a fifteen-hour drinking binge. Even if the reasons behind the rush seem legitimate, beware of the beer-goggle effect—your book won’t look nearly as attractive when it comes off the press as it does in your head when you’re deciding to skip vital steps in the publication process. There are three areas where rushing will come back to haunt you with particular vengeance:

Editing
Your content has to deliver the goods. Editing isn’t just about making sure your book is free of typos and grammatical errors—it’s the part of the process that focuses on sharpening the reading experience for your customers. If you don’t invest the time and money to have experienced book editors work with your book, success in this industry will be an uphill battle. Don’t try to justify your rush by duping yourself into believing that you can save time-consuming editorial work for the second edition or the next printing. Crappy books don’t go into multiple print runs or second editions. It’s like not showering before a first date and thinking that you can always wash up for the second date—unless you’re meeting the Vegas drunk from the scenario above, there’s no way you’re getting the second date, stinky. It’s worth the delay in your book launch to work with an editor who can help you develop a rock-solid title, unique hooks, a smart structure, and a compelling voice. If you rush the editorial process, you’ll compromise the integrity of your work for short-term gains. Is a goal like having books in time for one event really worth that?

Design and Printing
While powerful marketing, a strong author platform, and compelling content are essential for a book to succeed, production quality is equally important. And yet there are countless articles that downplay the importance of quality, often making the obtuse argument that anyone with Photoshop or InDesign can throw a book together in no time, or that the difference between top quality and bottom quality is negligible due to advances in technology. Both assertions are appalling fallacies. The quality of your design and printing determines what kind of first impression your book will make. Retail buyers, book reviewers, and consumer make gut decisions based on this first impression, so while good quality costs money and takes time, this is not an area in which it is okay to be either cheap or hasty.

Sales and Publicity
Sometimes, we’re at the mercy of others. Pitching your book to retail buyers and media outlets is one of those times. If you want to sell your books in bookstores or other trade outlets like Costco and Wal-Mart, know that it takes almost twelve months to get your books ready for distribution. This time is spent setting up the title in wholesale and retail systems, presenting to buyers, and preparing the logistics for an on-time launch. And there’s similar time sensitivity inherent in a proper publicity campaign. You only have one book launch, and if you don’t get advance review copies to reviewers at least four months prior to publication, your print campaign has virtually no shot at success.

Deciding to produce a book on an abbreviated timeframe may be possible from a purely logistical standpoint, but you shouldn’t rush your book launch unless you’re prepared to have a product that isn’t set up to reach its full potential. So take a breath and slow down. The book of your dreams will wait for you. If you follow the rules and wait too, the launch will be much more special. If you know what I mean.

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Can You Buy Your Way onto the Front Table at Barnes & Noble?

October 11, 2006

co-op.image.jpgShort answer: yup. More accurate answer: sort of. Answer you will likely hear from a publisher or distributor: “It depends.” Answer from a retailer: “You’ll have to talk to corporate.” Corporate’s response: click.

Translation: premier shelf placement, face-out arrangement, and positioning on promotional stands (e.g., end caps, new release tables in the front of the store, and virtually all placements in airport bookstores) are paid for by publishers, distributors, and authors. It’s a common misconception that store employees select the titles to be featured and base their decisions on the quality of the content or perhaps the power of the author’s message. Pshaw. Not only do retailers sell the front-of-store placements, but they also sell obscure arrangements such as “in section, top shelf, face out” and “regional placement on end caps in section.” So, does this mean that any author—regardless of the quality of their work—can pay their way into the most trafficked areas of bookstores? Are we being fed content based on riches instead of richness?

Not exactly.

Authors cannot simply walk into Barnes & Noble’s corporate headquarters with a check for twenty thousand dollars and demand premier placement across the country. Though publishers, distributors, and authors do pay for the placement, retailers are very selective about which books get the opportunity to be promoted. They base their decisions on sales potential, which boils down to

  1. Author’s platform and name recognition
  2. Cover design
  3. Quality of content
  4. Author’s marketing plan

If you want premier store placement for your book, make sure you have

  1. All of the items listed above
  2. A publisher or distributor with a history of negotiating strong co-op promotions
  3. Six months of lead time

So, how does a book end up on the new release table at the store’s entrance or the holiday table in the children’s section? Here’s a quick breakdown of the process:

Publisher or distributor’s sales rep meets with the category buyer.
WHEN: The reps generally pitch buyers five to six months in advance of publication. By that time, they already have dust jackets; galleys, blads, or review copies; and marketing plans to add weight to the pitch.

WHO: Each rep must have at least five titles in the category in order to get a meeting with the buyer, so note that sales reps are not self-published authors with no distributor.

WHERE: The reps meet with the buyers at the retail outlet (if the outlet is independent) or the corporate headquarters (if it’s a chain). Unless the retailer is a small independent, store employees and floor managers do not decide on what books to carry or promote, so do not waste your time pounding the pavement. (Exception: some stores will support local authors with small displays, but in general, placement decisions are made by buyers, not managers or clerks.)

The rep solicits a buy and a placement promotion if co-op money is available.
WHAT: Co-op is what retailers call placement promotions. The term comes from “cooperative advertising,” stemming from the major publishing houses’ practice of allocating a set percentage of the previous year's sales for co-op to be divvied out between titles as agreed upon by the publisher and bookseller.

HOW: After the sales rep finishes pitching a book, the buyer typically tells the rep how many copies that particular retailer will likely carry when the book comes off the press. If the publisher, distributor, or author has a budget for co-op promotions, the rep negotiates the placement directly with the buyer.

WHO: The buyer will only offer a co-op placement for the book that he or she believes will sell the most copies in that space at that time. Retail 101: location, location, location. Buyers will not sell the best real estate in their store to a title that won’t perform. If Dr. Phil’s diet book will outsell your book of poetry on the front-of-store table, it is not likely that the space will be available to you.

If the title performs well, the rep can negotiate an extension.
WHEN: Co-op placements are usually sold in blocks of two to four weeks. If the book sells well during that time, reps can negotiate extensions.

HOW: Extensions are based on sell-through. If a book sells well and the retailer believes the demand will be sustained for a notable period of time, they will offer to extend the promotion. Time your consumer marketing efforts (such as publicity) to coincide with your co-op promotions. If you do not drive consumers into stores while the book has the premier spot, your product will likely move to a spine-out placement in section the moment your co-op promotion expires.

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How to Make Your Book Cover a Knockout

June 15, 2006

redglove2.jpgIf you want your book to be a contender, don’t underestimate the importance of your cover—more than any other single factor, it determines whether or not your book sells. The average consumer spends just eight seconds looking at a front cover; consider that your book's "standing eight count." Printing technology gives a cover a potent visual punch. Read on to find out how you can use special effects in sharp, non-tacky ways that will make consumers see stars all the way to the cash register:

Embossing
Embossing is the process by which a die is used to raise an area of paper to create letterforms, shapes, and textures. There are several types of embossing, including sculptured, multilevel, chiseled, platform, and dome.

  • Lightweight Use: Use embossing to emphasize the title.
  • Welterweight Use: Emboss images to give them dimension. Or try embossing the edges of faux stickers for a more realistic look.
  • Combination Punch: Combine embossing with foil stamping to give a more "finished" look to the foil. (Using foil stamping and embossing together is called “stamp and bump” in printer jargon.)

Ringside Tip:

  • Don’t emboss spines or back covers. Embossing really only packs a punch on the front cover.
  • If possible, only emboss areas that are close together. This reduces the size of the embossing dye and consequently reduces the printing cost.

Hall of Fame: The Loch by Steve Alten (the title, monster, paddle and boat are embossed)

Foil Stamping
The foil stamping process covers paper with a super thin, flexible sheet of metal. The foil comes in a range of colors and levels of sheen. Mirror foils are the most reflective, while dusted foils are more subdued, and nonmetallic foils offer shiny solid colors that look a little like plastic. The foil is carried on a plastic sheet and during the printing process, stamping separates the foil from the plastic and makes it adhere to the paper.

  • Lightweight Use: Use it to emphasize the title. Foil can also be used in decorative elements.
  • Welterweight Use: Printing ink over foil is a very dramatic effect. "Ink on foil" can be done on a small area or over the entire cover. For more information about ink on foil, check out Cutting Edge Technology Guaranteed to Make Your Book Cover Pop.
  • Heavyweight Use: Foil stamp the entire cover and print on top of the ink.

Ringside Tips:

  • When using foil over the entire cover, use opaque white ink to cover the foil in specific areas where you don't want the foil to show (for example the area for the ISBN barcode).
  • Foil stamping is the most effective way to achieve a metallic look on uncoated paper. Do not use metallic inks on uncoated paper stocks. The rough texture of the paper absorbs the ink and eliminates the metallic look.

Hall of Fame: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling, The Lost Van Gogh by A. J. Zerries

Holographic Foils
Holographic (or diffraction) foils have a "rainbow" or patterned light reflection.

  • Heavyweight Use Only: Use holographic foils with caution. Holographic foils can overwhelm a design and look tacky fast! However, used in the right way, they can be show-stoppers.

Hall of Fame: Spook by Mary Roach, Confessions of an Heiress by Paris Hilton

Uncoated Specialty Stocks
Uncoated paper is usually rough to the touch and is manufactured in a great variety of finishes, colors, and weights.

Ringside Tips:

  • Use uncoated papers to create eco-friendly, historical, literary, journalistic, or nostalgic looks.
  • Use a photographic texture that mimics a textured or antiqued paper to get the specialty paper look without the cost (example: Season of the Snake by Claire Davis).
  • Due to its rough and absorbent surface, uncoated paper becomes dirty more easily than a coated paper. If you opt for a white or light-colored cover design on uncoated paper, be prepared for more damaged/returned books. (Note: That didn’t stop Blink!)
  • Remember, metallic inks on uncoated paper lose a lot of their sheen. Opt for foil stamping instead.

Hall of Fame: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Blink by Malcom Gladwell, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Follow these guidelines and your contender will have more than just a fighting chance.

For more information about printing technology, see Cutting Edge Technology Guaranteed to Make Your Book Cover Pop.

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Cutting Edge Technology Guaranteed to Make Your Book Cover POP

March 30, 2006

Special technologies can be used on dust jackets and covers to make books stand out to consumers and national retail buyers. Two such technologies are Elkote (also called JagKote, depending on the vendor) and ink on foil, which only recently appeared in bookstores. Because they are newly developed, not all printers can produce books with these technologies, but several vendors are starting to leverage Elkote and ink on foil to create brilliant covers designed to attract buyers.

What do the new technologies offer you? Simply put, Elkote and ink on foil make your book stand out on the shelf. The Elkote process blends superb special effects with practical resilience. It is an alternative to matte lamination coatings, where books are run through laminators that apply a coating to the cover. Elkote applies a liquid coating to paper similar to the application of ink. The coating is printed onto the surface with pinpoint precision. It stands up against scuffing far better than matte lamination and offers new aesthetic possibilities. Elkote makes it possible to produce a gradient from gloss to dull, when desired.

For a sleek metallic appearance to be added to your cover, take a look at ink on foil. This breakthrough technology applies foil to paper and allows for inks to be printed on top of the foil. Most book covers currently using this new process are covered completely with foil before being printed, but it is also possible to apply foil only to select areas on the cover. Less costly alternatives to ink on foil are available, such as foil with no ink overprint and metallic ink instead of foil.

Before starting your next cover design, give some thought to the impressive new technologies, Elkote and ink on foil, and make sure to hire a designer who is familiar with cutting edge materials and technologies. With the right design, they could help you get noticed by the big buyers.

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Judging a Book by Its Cover: A Case Study

March 30, 2006

I don't know about you, but gasoline prices have been on the forefront of my mind these days. So I've decided to take a look at books currently on the shelves about the coming oil shortage.

My favorite in this category is The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg.

cover-partys_over-new1.gif

This is a perfect marriage of title and image. The dark humor is shocking yet completely appropriate for the dire subject matter. The type is well-placed and does not deter from the powerful image.

Now, compare the revised and updated cover to the original:

cover-partys_over-old1.gif

It is clear why this cover needed a redesign. The typography used is almost identical, but the image is so much less effective. It took me several minutes to even realize that the illustration is a tipped over wine glass. This is not a horrible idea, but it is undeveloped.

Now, compare these two covers:

cover-twighlight_in_the_desert1.gif cover-hubberts_peak1.gif

The photographs used are very similar, an oilfield during sunset. But in Twilight in the Desert, the image is reduced to its bare essentials: a single tower and the setting sun. The Twilight in the Desert cover succeeds where Hubbert's Peak fails because Twilight's title and the image on the cover work together and all the design elements are clean and simple.

I have two final covers:

cover-the_bottomless_well1.gif cover-out_of_gas1.gif

Both of these covers work. The words of the titles are reinforced visually, and the type is handled well. For example, on The Bottomless Well’s cover, the title is slightly obscured by the gasoline and the pump. This overlap serves to marry the image and the type. In Out of Gas, the subtitle visually completes the trajectory of the drop of oil. If I had to choose, I prefer the more contemporary approach of The Bottomless Well, but both designs are truly well executed.

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