The most discussed aspect of a book, other than whether it’s any good, is its cover. But looking around online and off- at gazillions of different cover discussions the cover’s main function is sometimes forgotten. Thus I’ve decided to devote today’s post to talking about what a cover is and how they’re made.

When a publisher buys a book one of the first things they start thinking about is how to sell it. Who is its ideal audience? How can they position the book so those readers will find it? How can they position it so they expand beyond those readers? These discussions quickly wind up with ideas for the cover. That’s because the most important function of a book cover is

To sell the book.

That’s right, folks, a book cover is an advertisement. Typically, ads don’t go after the existing customers, they go after new ones. A cover that’s totally true to the book might make the author’s heart go pitter pat and please mad-keen fans, but if it works only for author and hard-core fans, it is not a successful cover.1 A successful cover calls out to people who’ve never heard of the book or the author and says, “Pick me up! Read me! Buy me!”

A successful cover expands your audience. Other than word of mouth, the cover is the most important factor in selling a book. Often it is the biggest and best, or even, only advertisement for the book.

Uglies is Scott’s most successful series. The first book in the series, Uglies, was an original paperback that went out into the world with little fanfare. But, wow, did that cover attract a lot of attention. Scott has had countless letters from fans telling him that they picked the book up because of the cover. That it called to them from across many aisles. That cover is a huge part of why Uglies did so well.2

How is a cover made at the big publishing houses?

Typically3 the first step is for editorial to put together a cover brief and send it to the art department. A cover brief is a description of what they’d like the cover to look like and/or the element of the book they’d like to see reflected in the cover.

The artists who design the covers tend not to read the books they’re working on because they don’t have time. They’re working on so many books in a year and their deadlines are so tight they barely have time to read the cover brief. On top of that sometimes the book they’re working on hasn’t been written yet. (Or, at least, not finished.)

Next a series of rough ideas are sent back to editorial. There is discussion and one or more direction is pursued. Then editorial okays one and the art department completes it. Sometimes editorial changes its mind and sends art in another direction. Once editorial likes the cover it’s sent to sales and marketing to be approved. Sometimes it isn’t and the process has to start over. The next important approval comes from the big accounts, the stores that order the books. Sometimes if they don’t like a cover it gets redesigned.

Something else to remember: all of this starts a long time before the book comes out because—have I mentioned this already?—the cover is the single most important part of advertising the book. Sometimes the book isn’t even finished and the cover is. The cover of Magic’s Child was completed before the first draft of the book was, which was weird, though it gave me time to add more butterflies to the text.

Another important consideration that you can’t actually do anything about is how the book will look when it’s in the bookstores. I.e. will the cover pop. You can design the most gorgeous eye-catching cover in the world in luscious golds and browns and rusts and then have it disappear on the new releases table because guess what? Every book that season is a a luscious blend of golds and browns and rust. But that book in the white and teal that everyone was worried about? Pops like you wouldn’t believe. You can see that book the minute you step foot in the store.

See how random that is? And because of such randomness no one really knows what makes a cover sell. Lots of books fail utterly despite everyone—from author to publishing house to the big booksellers to reviewers—believing the cover to be utterly gorgeous. There are last-minute, emergency covers that everyone’s nervous about that sell like gangbusters. Sometimes you’re sure a cover’s going to sell great and it does; sometimes it does not. The unpredictability leads to all sorts of superstitious nonsense in publishing houses. Green doesn’t sell! Illustrated covers on YA never works! Never put a chicken on the front of a middle grade! A skeleton on the front means the book is doomed! Etc. etc.

There are also house styles. Publishing companies that have had a lot of success with a certain kind of cover are keen to keep using that look and loathe to experiment. Especially if past experiments have failed. Now, with the recession, publishing companies and the big accounts are being more cautious and conservative than usual with the result that are an awful lot of same-same covers out there. But many of those covers are selling.

I’m sure I’ve missed some important aspects. Remember that I’m an author, while we’re part of the publishing industry, we’re also at a remove from it. There are authors who’ve published multiple books, who still don’t understand how their royalty statements work,4 or what co-op, or a P&L is. Yes, I am also a publishing geek and have spent the last decade asking questions, but I’ve never worked in a publishing house. Actual people who work at publishing houses no way more than I do about this.

If you have any questions or information to add fire away!

  1. Ideally you want a cover that works for those who know and love the book as well as for those who’ve never heard of it. But such covers are rare and wonderful beasties. []
  2. Initially, that it keeps on selling is due to its own goodness. []
  3. It varies from house to house and book to book. []
  4. I’ll admit I’m one of them. []


  1. Harry Connolly on #

    Yes! I received the cover art for my second novel just this week and I’ve been “Whoo-hoo!” and “When can I post this on my blog?” all week. It’s a great feeling.

    But I was lucky enough to see a couple of preliminary sketches of my first cover, and I made a case for the one I liked. The decision wasn’t mine by any means (and I’m glad, because cover designers really do know their stuff) but it was nice of them to take my input seriously (once I demonstrated that I was not talking crazy author talk).

  2. Brenda Kahn on #

    Thanks for summing that process up. If you don’t mind, I’d like to print it and save it for sharing with my students. I’m a middle school librarian.

  3. Samantha on #

    Wow, this is interesting. I never thought of covers that way before. Thanks for sharing a little bit about the cover process. 🙂

  4. Paige Y. on #

    When i booktalk books, I frequently discuss the covers with the students (especially if I think it’s a cover that doesn’t do a good job selling the book). It’s interesting to hear their opinions of a good vs a bad cover.

    One other important aspect of the cover is the blurb inside. I’m a middle school librarian, and it continually amazes me to pick up a book and find a bland description of it on the flap. If a publisher is going to pay to have the book printed, you would think the things that are going to entice children to read the book (cover and description) would be well done.

  5. Kristan on #

    Wow, great look at the process. Thanks! And you know, your point about a cover needing to attract new fans more than needing to please the author or current fans? DUH, and yet I never thought of that.

    Also, I’m sure you’ve blogged about it before, but I am a little surprised you didn’t mention the Liar cover debacle in this post at all. I’m interested to see your take on that whole thing, because the impression I got (albeit, from just a few posts on my usual writing/publishing blog rounds, which didn’t include yours at the time) is that you weren’t given veto power, and it wasn’t until teh interwebs got all in a huff that your publisher actually considered a change.

  6. veejane on #

    Based on a totally unscientific survey of the shelves behind me, I would posit that YA novels have undergone a bit of an upmarket swing in the past decade, with cover images more abstract and less obvious. (Uglies being a prime example.) I’d like to think it’s related to the popularity among my relatives of the plainer, less kiddish UK editions/covers of Harry Potter (and the lengths/expense gone to to acquire same), but I don’t think I have that many relatives.

  7. AliceB on #

    Thank you Justine. Folks are always surprised when I tell them how little input most authors have about their covers. (In my case, zero.) They are particularly surprised when I tell them that the only real say I have had is in the bio, and that the flap and back copy were written entirely by someone else.

  8. Carrie V. on #

    A really great example of “covers as advertising” is the whole urban fantasy/supernatural/vampire romance genre right now. Those covers get no love at all — they all look the same, they’re cliche, they’re ridiculous, etc. etc. But boy howdy do they sell books. The thing about those repetitive cliche covers? The readers who want them can identify them instantly and know what they’re getting.

  9. Malinda Lo on #

    So interesting to read this! The only thing I’ve experienced differently is the issue of whether or not book designers read the books they’re designing covers for. I think that in many, many cases you’re right — they may not have time to read the book. I’m lucky that the designer who designed the cover for ASH did read the manuscript. I’ve even talked to her about it. I’m positive that the reason I love the cover so much is because she read the book and really understood the point of it. I’m pretty sure from talking to several other authors also at Little, Brown that their designers also read their books. But I don’t think it’s the rule, that’s true.

  10. cathy on #

    In addition to the factors you’ve mentioned, I’ve always (at least since adulthood) assumed that a big factor in cover design was “what will catch the eye of the buyers for Borders and B&N and make them want to buy zilions of copies, esp. when they’re only going to glance at the cover for all of 30 seconds”

  11. Diana Peterfreund on #

    This sounds pretty accurate to me. Some times the book is read, sometimes not. Sometimes you’re asked to change the title/details of the story in order to fit with a cover they think is perfect. I had three different covers for my first book and two different covers for my fifth. Ironically, sometimes the person who reads the book has a more inaccurate take on it than someone who just hears a blurb.

    I think sometimes authors concentrate on the wrong things with their covers, like insisting they get photoshoots or somehow believing that commissioned artwork means their publisher is more “serious” about the book. TWILIGHT was stock art. And not even exclusive stock art. I’ve had covers made from stock art, from commissioned artwork, and from photoshoots. maybe it’s just my aesthetic by my favorites have been the stock art covers.

  12. Sandy Shin on #

    Thank you for such an informative post! Both readers and writers often forget how fluid the reception of a book cover is — there’s no guaranteed. Some of my favorite book covers are ones others dislike, and vice versa. Even a ‘bad’ book cover is a combined effort of so many people — and somebody out there probably likes it.

  13. Philip on #

    My supposition had always been that the typical author (if there is such a thing) didn’t have much input in the design of a cover because they had little strong opinion. Selling the book wasn’t their concern so much as writing it was. I assume there’s been exceptions to the rule, authors who can paint or have experience with photography and they push to have a say in the cover art. This is also my guess with directors and film posters/trailers, or musicians with album artwork. I could be wrong about that, however.

    But it seems like a short-sighted route to take, because like you say Justine, the artwork is what sells the book. At the very least an author wants the book to sell well enough to justify the publisher’s expense in printing and selling the book, yes? That plays a role in being able to sell future manuscripts, even if the book doesn’t become a bestseller. A return on investment should mean something to the author, I figure.

    So why aren’t the authors more involved? They’re the ones who know more than anyone else what the theme of the book is, what the important scenes are, what defines the books as a unique work. They should have ideas on how to visually define or sell the story.

    Speaking personally, if I had any kind of deal with a publisher for my first book I’d be making a nuisance of myself, pushing ideas I had for the cover design, the artwork, the blurb on the back, etc. It’s my book and I’m trying to sell it in the way I feel best. Probably wouldn’t win me any favors with the publishers, but if I ever get that close to realizing the dream I want to do everything I can to make it work.

    Or maybe it’s just that I’m different in how I’ve noticed the blandness and uniformity of so many movie posters and book covers. I really don’t understand how even the advertisers could phone it in so often, using the most generic ideas. How many movie posters have shown the cast walking towards the camera in a single row? Ugh.

  14. Justine on #

    Kristan: I’ve said a lot about the cover of Liar. You can find the posts here and here.

  15. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Philip, I doubt you’d find an author who didn’t imagine the cover of their book while writing it. But that doesn’t mean they get any say about many, MANY aspects of the way in which the book is handled. From the genre in which the book is shelved (I know many folks who thought they wrote a fantasy that got shelved as a romance, and vice versa — just google some stuff about Diana Gabaldon for an example of this) or who got a cover they didn’t like, or whose books got slapped with a flap copy that gave away the ending.

    I’m not a designer by a long shot, but I have VERY strong opinions about what should (and, more importantly) what should NOT be on my covers. Have I always been successful? nope. And yes, publishers want their authors to be happy with what is on the cover, but often what the author wants is not what the publisher (or accounts) think will move the most copies. And so their opinion doesn’t hold much weight unless they are a mega bestseller who can call all the shots.

    You can want to be as much of a “nuisance” as you like, but are you willing to let a contract stipulation such as cover approval be a deal breaker to you? Would you be willing to buy your book back a few months before its release over a cover snit?

    This is how it usually goes when an author HATES his or her cover:
    1) Author receives email from the editor. “Here is the cover of Title. We love it, sales went mad. We hope you like it as much.”
    2) Author: “Oh, HELL no.”
    3) Author emails agent. “This is so awful what are we going to do, can they change it?”
    4) Agent talks to editor and gets some variation on, “Oh, but sales/the major accounts/the VP of the publishing company love it sooo much. We really think we’re going to get a great response.”
    5) Agent relates this to author, then asks, “What are your 1/2/3 most egregious problems with the cover? Maybe we can get those changed.”
    6) Author and agent list their three worst issues with the cover. Maybe a few minor changes are made (color, cropping, some tiny little detail of the cover such as the color of a character’s hair or her clothing). The font of the name might be adjusted. Stuff like that.
    7) Under EXTRAORDINARY circumstances the author holds her breath and waits, hoping that a large account will come out against the cover, or there’ll be a huge public snit about it, and the publisher will ditch the cover and try again.

  16. Rebecca Herman on #

    Interesting post! I guess that explains why SO many covers look the same and I get so tired of it. Like the headless cover trend – I wish it would go away!

  17. Philip on #

    Diana: I’m not sure if I’d go far enough to end the contract over a bad cover design. But I can’t see myself having no opinion or not wanting to fight for it as much as I could. I think it’s primarily that one of my main interests has long been film, a visual medium, so it’s natural for me to think of an image or shot that can represent an entire work.

    Coupled with what I said before about identifying so much usage of generic designs that don’t actually SAY anything about the story, and I’m left with the idea of a terrible cover design being a worse nightmare for me than getting screwed out of royalties by a soulless corporation (money comes and goes, after all).

  18. Melissa on #

    As a freelance artist/illustrator with some experience in doing book covers, the only thing I can think of that you might have missed in this is something I’ve had to deal with a LOT, especially from very new authors. The kind that are so new that they squeak if they turn a corner too quickly.

    Every so often I’ll get an email from a new author who hasn’t even sent out their manuscript for consideration yet. Not to an agent, not to a publisher… sometimes not even to their mother. But they’re contacting ME because they just know that their book is going to be the Next Big Thing (I’ve been told by no less than three authors that their book was going to outsell Harry Potter… … … yeah. Okay. Moving on)…

    They’re contacting me because they want me to do their cover. Sometimes they offer right up front to pay me to paint their cover and, being a mostly ethical person, I’ll usually take the time to explain to them why they’re wasting their money by hiring me before trying to get their book published. Sometimes they promise me royalties, or payment once the book starts selling—I’m a little less gentle with these people.

    If they’re self publishing I take the nice client’s money and paint whatever they want. At that point they’ve appointed themselves Art Director and I’m not going to quibble. Their battles are going to be uphill anyway.

    Basically it boils down to new authors simply having no clue how publishing works, and specifically how book covers (and interior illustrations) work. They think they need to have the whole package completed and ready to send to the publisher, or that having a pretty cover will give them a leg up—when it’s really such a waste of their time and money, and might be detrimental to their manuscript if they try to include it.

    Having to explain this so often usually makes me feel like I’m kicking puppies, but I feel like it’s something that must somehow get missed when new authors are looking for advice on how to get their books published.

  19. Diana Peterfreund on #

    But, hey, Melissa, it’s flattering they want you! I definitely know of cover designers that if my editor told me they were hiring those people, I’d do a little Jig of Joy, because I love their work.

    Very few people outside the industry seem to understand how it works. I’ve been asked nearly a dozen times if I’m the girl on my “headless” covers, and probably as many times if I’m the girl on the cover of my book that HAS a head, which really baffles me.

  20. Justine on #

    Diana: Exactly so. Thanks for that!

    Melissa: And thank you for the freelance artist/illustrator’s perspective. That’s why I wrote this post—so few people outside the industry seem to have the faintest clue of how it all works.

  21. Sarah Allen on #

    Great post! I always love browsing book stores, looking at covers, seeing what works. Thanks for these fun, insightful ideas!

    Sarah Allen

  22. AudryT on #

    Melissa, you’re not kicking puppies. You’re being gentle but firm with them. As for the ones who promise to pay you later (out of royalties, etc.), feel free to kick them. They’re not puppies; they’re hyenas.

    Philip: “Phoning it in.” Do you “phone it in” at work some days? It’s almost impossible not to, even in creative industries. Or especially in creative industries, where you have to deal with insane, often erratic deadlines, irrantional expectations, and a final product that will almost always be altered, re-done or critiqued by folks in the pipeline who have no idea what they’re talking about. On top of which there is Sturgeon’s Revelation: 90% of everything is crap. That applies to covers, just like it applies to everything else.

    And the truth is, the author is rarely qualified to direct a cover, especially when they know nothing about art direction, being a freelance artist, marketing to their target demographic, pitching a product to a retail buyer, or standing out on the bookshelf.

    We fancy ourselves experts because the book is our baby, but in most cases, we’re really just starry-eyed parents wearing blinders.

  23. Philip on #

    @AudryT: point on the ‘phoning it in’ explanation. And yes, I phone it in every day I’m at work; but my excuse is that my work is beyond soul-crushing and is in no way related to anything I care about or can take pride in. I would hope art directors at least want to be doing something creative, even if they’re dealing with deadlines or unrealistic expectations from others.

    Anyway, I don’t think an author is ‘rarely qualified’ to have some input in the cover design.

    Although I think I should stop right now and elaborate on what I’m thinking of when I talk about covers. I’m specifically thinking of covers that have actual illustrations/pictures on them. I realize this strikes most books from the discussion, as most covers are just a combination of fonts and backgrounds. (Right next to my laptop is a paperback copy of Cryptonomicon, whose cover is all gray with a black print of the triangle/cross icon from the story on it. What can I say about the effectiveness of that cover? The selling point is Neal Stephenson’s name, and maybe the “New York Times Bestseller” line right above it, not the icon.)

    As I said in a previous comment, I’m used to thinking more in visuals, so when I think of selling a book I mean by summing it up in a single image or providing an interesting scene to catch the potential reader’s eye. Hence, I think the writer should have some idea of what that might be, and the publishers or artist might as well hear them out.

    Sometimes the best idea might be obvious and the author already thought of it, or sometimes it might be more obscure and the art director will surprise the writer with a better idea than they had. I said last night if I ever get my foot in the door I’ll be a nuisance about everything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be obstinate.

    I have two book ideas in mind right now; one of them lends itself to a couple cover ideas so obvious I’d be surprised if an artist working independently didn’t come up with them on their own (even if they’re phoning it in that day), and one that involves a plot device that I still (a couple months after I began writing) am not sure how to depict in one or two images. With the latter, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else came up with a better idea than I ever could. Frankly I’d hope somebody else could.

  24. Nalo Hopkinson on #

    Justine, what a great post; thank you. I’m going to save that one for my students. For my last novel, The New Moon’s Arms, my editor didn’t like the commissioned artwork she received for the cover, so she turned to the internal art department. Two people there worked into the wee hours of the morning, going through stock art. They found and blended two beautiful images that so closely fit my book that even the little boy’s toy truck was in the picture. It was red-and-yellow in the picture, whereas I’d made it red in my story; so I went in and changed it in the story. My main worry was that the woman on the cover looked very young, when not only was my protagonist in her 50s, the novel was about women and aging. I did kick up a fuss about that. And bless them, they put a couple of crows’ feet around her eyes. People are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t have much input at all into the cover art and jacket copy. But I have noticed through the years that art I think is lovely invariably looks like high holy hell when turned into a book cover. And often vice versa. I’m slowly admitting to myself that the marketing department knows its job better than I do. They’re not infallible by any means, but who is?

  25. Jerry J. Davis on #

    This is an excellent post, thank you!

    It has me thinking. I mean, to the point where my head is sizzling and hair is smoking. In the new landscape, it’s not just the bookstores where the cover has to stand out — it’s online too, as a tiny little thumbnail lost in a sea of thumbnails. So you also have to design one that looks good as, basically, an icon. Which means large graphic and big font.

    Again, thank you. I found this exactly at the right time.

  26. Catherine Walder on #

    Great post, Justine! I’d just like to add: I’m thinking of the “extra text” on the cover and how it is if it’s not what the author believes in. To give an example, I really liked this book which I read in the late ‘90s. A few months ago, I found a copy in Shakespeare & Co. and thought it would be a nice present for someone, as it would have the stamp of said bookstore. I was put off because the copy was a recent edition and had a heading “(title of one book) meets (title of another book).” I am not a fan of one of the books with which the work was compared so in the end I didn’t buy that edition. That’s my feeling as a reader so I wonder sometimes how an author deals with it if he or she isn’t very comfortable with his or her work being likened to someone else’s but that’s what the publishers would like to push.

  27. Kristan on #

    Thanks for linking to the relevant posts, Justine! Going off to read those now. To clarify, I was just surprised there wasn’t a footnote about the incident in this post. I know how you love your footnotes. 🙂

  28. Bridget on #

    One of my friends went to a bookstore a few weeks ago and complained that Pride & Prejudice and some other classics had been redone (coverwise) in red/black/white to look sort of like Twilight. She was pretty annoyed, probably because Pride & Prejudice is amazing enough that it doesn’t need the Twilight association. But I guess classics are constantly being recovered and the people who KNOW how amazing Pride & Prejudice is will buy the book regardless of the cover (or have it already!).

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