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Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism

17 January 2012

From book designer Joel Friedlander:

A couple of days ago the latest edition of e-Book Cover Design Awards went live, and I once again had the pleasure—and the frustration—of judging a whole slew of covers.

The problems come at the extremes. Commenting on the covers is fun, and selected out the best ones is never difficult. But when it’s time to narrow it down to the final few and then, at the end, the winners, it can be excruciatingly hard, because saying “yes” to one means saying “no” to so many others.

At the other end of the spectrum, the same errors happen repeatedly every month, which isn’t all that surprising.

. . . .

We’ve been buying and reading books most of our lives. Almost all of those books were produced by traditional publishers who hired professional designers and artists to create them. So we expect book covers to look a certain way, and whatever way they look, they need to look professional. There’s just no getting around it.

An amateur book cover announces itself from across the room, there’s no mistaking it. A few of the tell-tale signs of amateur book covers include:

  • bad font choices
  • confused graphics
  • colors that don’t work
  • meaningless or overused stock photography
  • too much copy

. . . .

One common cover design error you may not have thought of is particularly difficult for many authors to overcome: they know their own books too well.

What I mean is that when you wrote the book, you invested it with lots of meaning, and perhaps you wove in symbols throughout the story to make it that much more enticing. But when it comes to the book cover, professional designers know that usually, “less is more.”

The problem is that authors are so attached to their own symbolism or to an image they have lodged in their mind that would be “perfect” for the book cover, they lose sight of the role their book cover is intended to play. One of the quickest ways to kill any good effect of your book cover is to include too many elements. In fact, this is one of the most common failures of amateur designers.

. . . .

Book covers work best when they combine simple yet powerful elements together in a unified whole that tells, at a glance, what the reader can expect from the book. If you try to tell the whole story on the cover, it will fail. If you try to load up all the symbolism that’s in the book, the cover will fail.

What readers are looking for is an indication of what kind of book it is, what genre, and a sense of the tone.

Is it dynamic, fast-paced and exciting? Is it a contemplation on our own mortality? Is it a romance? This information can be delivered to the potential book buyer quite easily.

One of the best ways to find out how book cover designers achieve this is to go to a bookstore and look at the book covers in your genre. Stay within your genre and look at lots of books.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

Covers, Self-Publicity, Self-Publishing

3 Comments to “Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism”

  1. One of the conundrums of cover art for indies is going to be the creation of new categories. We haven’t seen real pulp fiction in decades. (When I say pulp, I mean it in the original sense of the word — cheap, fast, roughly put together. Could be any genre, not just the action pulp we think of when we hear the word.)

    We’re going to see the rise of new genre “looks” to go along with new genres. Pulp niche writers will imitate each other’s styles. More literary writers will try not to look like those pulps, but find stylistic choices of their own.

    And the result is going to be that sometimes that group look will triumph over good design.

    A good example might be a cover he has toward the top of his list — a Zombie holiday story — which is too cluttered, but he mentions that it was someone else’s favorite cover in the bunch.

    That cover reminded me of pulp covers (as well as some retro pulp covers in the 1980s). Also magazine covers.

    I can see covers like that signalling very fast to a reader what they’re getting. The cover styles that are most successful, though, are going to be those which can make that signal at 100 x 150 pixels.

  2. Thanks for the insights from Joel!
    I work with writers every day and also with artists designing their covers. Many of the writers come in with a vision of what the cover will be, and when they do, I know we have a place to start. But that’s all it is, a starting point, because the artists see the world differently than writers. They also know the language of fonts and size and proportion.
    They show me the visual side of the story, but the best ones, too, show me what the potential reader cares about, what will entice them to open the book.
    Thanks for the great advice, Joel. My next rainy afternoon in a bookstore I’ll spend NOT reading, but looking instead.

  3. These are always useful to study! I look forward to being able to submit some of the covers that I’ve recently commissioned.

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