Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The cover conundrum

As mentioned several times before, I wear many different hats to earn my daily bread. One of them is graphic designer. I’m currently designing a crime novel for a friend and today is Cover Day.

The biggest problem in coming up with a successful cover design is its “tone”. Are you going to sell sizzle or steak? Let me explain.

Sizzle is something that will transmit the feel of the book. In crime novel covers an important ingredient is letting readers know the type of plot they will encounter. You must be honest about that because you don’t want a cozy reader to be put off buying the book because the cover looks like the story is going to be a hard-boiled police procedural. There has to be something about the cover that accurately broadcasts what the reader is going to find inside or you risk their wrath or indifference.

Steak refers to showing something that actually happens in the book. For instance, is a body found in a library — and do you want that to be your cover image? Quite often this will work well. Other times you might want to stay away from it.

The problem is that the designer only has a limited number of things to play with: title, author and background image. The real wild card is budget. Is the publisher willing to spring for a custom illustration or photo shoot? This can really add dollars to the bottom line. Given the current state of publishing, you can imagine what the answer usually is: the big guns get custom anything and the pea shooters get stock output (and the cheaper the better).

Given all these constraints, how then do the really good covers happen, those covers that just call out to be picked up and studyed more closely (which is the whole point)? I’m sorry to say that basically, it comes down to luck. There are some pretty horrible covers out there, ones that almost scream at browsers, “Don’t pick me up!” If one of these is from a large publishing house, you can be sure that someone seasoned and competent designed it. How could it have gone so wrong?

Answer: other people meddling in the design, usually the editor or marketing department, sometimes the author. Here are a few samples of comments I’ve received or designer-friends have received. Read ’em and weep...

• “Personally, I don’t like green. Why is the cover green?”
• “The author’s name is so ugly. Can’t you do something about that?”
• “This cover just doesn’t speak to me. Make it speak.” After inquiring as to what the editor felt wasn’t working, this person responded, “I don’t know. That’s your job, Ms Expert.”
• “Why is the title so big and my name isn’t?” (Maybe it’s because your book has a great title and you’re a first-time author?)

and my personal favourite (from a friend):

• “I want the cover of this book to look just like _________.” When the designer did that, the response was, “I didn’t mean just like it, only sort of like it.” After the next revision, “No, now you’ve gone too far the other way. I want you to split the difference, okay?”

It’s at that point the harried designer starts thinking of what we refer to in the biz as “Kill it and bill it”.


Hannah Dennison said...

Wow - I didn't know that. What a huge responsibility! I'm so impressed. The cover is so incredibly important so I found your post fascinating. I might have to talk a little more about it tomorrow ...

Rick Blechta said...

For even a well-known author, a good cover can make a huge difference in sales. Ditto for a bad cover.

One of the things I didn't say yesterday was that if the author complains about the cover ("This has nothing to do with what my book is about!"), they will be firmly told, "Sorry. It's a marketing decision."

Most of the time this is total BS. The reason another cover is not going to be designed is that the publisher has invested in the first one. Even if the author (or occasionally, the editor) has a very valid point and the current cover might well hurt sales, the publisher is not going to shell out for another cover. It can be that stupid sometimes.

Elaine Hurst said...

As a newbie to writing, actually, even newer than a newbie, but I also am an artist. A painter. What is the likelyhood of someone who writes a novel, also designing the cover? Is there some sort of unspoken rule about that not being done?