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!
- 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. [↩]
- Initially, that it keeps on selling is due to its own goodness. [↩]
- It varies from house to house and book to book. [↩]
- I’ll admit I’m one of them. [↩]