Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nan Beams, Queen of Book Covers

Todays guest is Nan Beams, who is responsible for book production for Poisoned Pen Press.  Ever wonder what makes a successful cover?  Nan tells what a cover is designed to do.   And now for Nan.  Learn and enjoy.

You CAN tell a book by its cover.

When Donis invited me to write about book covers, I thought it would be fun. After all, I really love the part of my job at Poisoned Pen Press that involves working with several very talented artists, each of whom brings a unique approach to the covers they’re assigned. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m far from expert and that I learn more about what makes a good cover (and what does not) from those designers with every cover we create together. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

The first function of the cover of a book is to attract—and hold—the attention of the book shopper. It’s classic point-of-purchase advertising in an extremely noisy visual environment. Think of the cereal aisle in the grocery store. Everything on those shelves is roughly the same shape and size (like books), the contents vary somewhat but have the same purpose (also like books), and the images, colors and type are all demanding your attention so that they can convince you to buy. Most bookstores present a similar dizzying experience for their customers, and they make it even tougher by displaying most of their merchandise spine-out. So our first challenge is to make cover art that is so beautiful or striking or disturbing that it draws the shopper’s attention, makes him or her stop, maybe pick it up to examine more closely, and then, if we haven’t given away too much, buy the book to find the answers to the questions the cover has set up.

As publishers of mystery fiction, we have more artistic freedom (and more fun) than, perhaps, publishers of nonfiction. If you are looking for a cookbook, for example, the spectacular cake on the cover is intended to convince you that you, too, can make one like it. A picture of a car wouldn’t make sense there. And the cover of a self-help book needs to be immediately clear about what problem it purports to solve. If you don’t have that problem, you don’t need that book. And you won’t buy it.

But mysteries are about puzzles and challenges. And I try to see that our covers begin to intrigue shoppers/readers right off the bat. One of our designers, Patrick Hoi Yan Cheung, once told me that he designs covers to work like movie posters. And it makes great sense. The posters we dash by on our way to our chosen movie get our attention for only a few seconds at the most, and they have to convey some important information in those seconds. There’s the title and the names of the stars of course, but that’s not all that sells tickets. The illustrations must also say something about the setting and time period (Is it historical? Action? Romance? Noir?), the tone (Will it be funny? Sad? Sexy? Bloody? Scary?). And they have to do all this in seconds, while you’re juggling popcorn. 

I also think the best cover asks a visual question that you can only answer if you buy and read the book. On first glance, I hope you’ll quickly read the title and the author’s name and see something appropriate to the plot. But on second glance, on most of our covers you’ll find something that doesn’t seem to belong. The cover of Fire Prayer by Deborah Atkinson is a good example. At first, it appears to be a stunning hibiscus blossom: tropics, Hawaii maybe.... But look closer and you see that the center is blood. Why? Buy the book! Or the cover of The Unraveling of Violeta Bell looks like your great-aunt’s antique-filled parlor. Cozy, a little over-ornamented maybe. But why is the glass broken out of the frame? Buy the book!  

Of course, none of this works unless the designer also understands typography and color theory and knows how to use them appropriately. Again, because we can hope for only a second or two of the book-browser’s attention at best, the title needs to be clear, readable and easy to find, and appropriate to the art, the setting, and the tone of the book. Historical mysteries call for different type treatments than contemporary chick-lit. Or a hard-edged noir PI novel needs a different type face than a book that takes a lighter, maybe even slightly funny approach. 

Using the right colors with the right amount of contrast can make a huge difference, too. Blood red letters on a dramatic black background might sound like a good idea, but the values of red and black are so close that our eyes have trouble separating them. And their intensity makes it hard for us to focus on them for any length of time. If the font is too fancy or too fine or too condensed or the color combinations hurt our eyes, we have to work too hard to read it. It’s likely a browser won’t bother. 

Even if you’re lucky enough to have developed a devoted fan base that will buy anything with your name displayed prominently on it, (I know, from my keyboard to God’s ear!) a hard-working cover by a skilled book cover designer can have a powerful impact on the sales of your book. Booksellers will be more willing to display it, your fans and readers will be drawn into the story by it, and you and your publisher should see a difference in the bottom line.


Vicki Delany said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks Nan. Have a look at Rick's covers, Nan. He does them himself, although he is with a reputable publisher, and I think they're some of the best around.

Eric Mayer said...

Very interesting. I commented on my own blog:

Rick Blechta said...

I think it needs to be said that the only reason I get to submit cover designs for my books is that I make a good part of my living as a graphic designer. I don't think I'd be let within sight of the cover design if it weren't for that -- nor should I be. I also deal with "design rejection" every day at work, so if my publisher doesn't like a particular design, I don't take it personally. You just shrug and try again.

You made several excellent points, Nan. The one on color values is especially important, and sadly, some cover designers don't understand it well enough. The title, and to a lesser degree, the author's name has to "pop", and if you're using color values that are too close to the background image, that ain't going to happen.

It always surprises me when a cover has problems in this regard because it's so easy to avoid if you simply pull a proof in grayscale. It's a small trick, but boy, does it reveal problems quickly.

Thanks for stopping by, Nan!

Erin Aislinn said...

In the ever-growing e-book market, the ability of covers to attract and hold attention becomes even more crucial because we often see cover images in smaller sizes and do not get the visceral impact of holding the book.

When I evaluate covers for my weekly Book Cover feature program, I ask myself whether a particular cover would intrigue me enough to click on the link and read the book's blurb. If I'm ready to do that, then some part of me has already decided to buy the book.

Congrats to Deborah Atkinson on such an intriguing and beautiful cover for Fire Prayer. I'd want to show it off if I got the chance.

As an author, I feel my book isn't real until I see the book cover, and when I'm lucky enough to get a book cover that depicts the spirit of my work, I'm truly in heaven.

Erin Aislinn
Book Cover of the Week

Neil Plakcy said...

Debbie's book cover is absolutely stunning (but then, the book is great, too.) Thanks for some insight into how it came about.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Hey, not only have I learned from Nan's post (and I lucked out when she had Patrick do my cover!), but everyone here had something interesting to contribute. Rick, Erin, Eric, Vicki, Neil. And this is a learning business, isn't it?