What You Don’t Know about Book Cover Design

Every author, whether traditionally or self-published, should be deeply invested in the design of their book cover. Why? Because people do judge books by their covers, and the art and science of good cover design isn’t going away anytime soon.

I know. This is the digital age. And yes, I’m coming to you via blog from the Command Deck of my Orbital Death Ray. Even so, I rather prefer print books. For one thing, there’s that smell. Mmmm. It’s like sex on hot toast.

But I also love the typography and design, how the use of artwork can tell a story. Growing up, I studied the covers of my favorite books, puzzling about the story told in those images. Sometimes they were scenes straight from the book, and I would ponder over why such-and-such character looked thus-and-so. Other times, they were abstractions. Or classic iconic poses (the infamous barbarian leg-wrap, or the sword stretched to the sky, or both). Sometimes they were just plain cool.

I think I feel the same about book covers as many music aficionados feel about album covers. The artwork adds something potent yet undefinable to the aura of the object around which it is wrapped.

Most of all, though, I love what a book cover communicates. Books don’t just speak with words. They also speak with their design.

Unfortunately, a lot of authors, and sometimes publishers, get this wrong. In fact, we may be facing a problem in the world of publishing, as we see more and more people taking ownership of a process they don’t fully understand.

Many of the self-published authors and indie publishers whom I so often champion seem to think that a good book design is just about having a pretty cover. It’s not.

I’m no expert, I’ve no particular training in art and design, but I’ve made it my business to become a student of the form — an amateur aficionado, if you will. So here’s what I know.

First, Ask an Expert

The first thing I do, as an amateur aficionado about anything, is ask an expert. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in traditional publishing for nearly 20 years, so I know a lot of experts. One of them is Chip Kidd, who recorded a now-famous TED Talk some years ago. His talk is worth watching in its entirety.

Chip Kidd: Designing Books is No Laughing Matter (TED Talk, March 2012, 17:13)

The cardinal rule of book design

So what’s the take-away? Good book design is about giving form to content but also appreciating the balance between the two. A book designer’s job is to ask, “What do the stories look like?” What is the face of the story? How is the story going to be known on sight by the world?

Respecting your audience

The second rule is to know and respect your audience.

In his TED talk, Chip Kidd explains that on his first day of graphic design class in school, the teacher drew a picture of an apple, then wrote the word Apple and said: “Listen up. You either say this,” pointing to the word apple, “or you can show this,” pointing to the picture of the apple.

“But you don’t do this,” he said, pointing to a picture of an apple with the word Apple beneath it. “Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”

In other words, you can show or you can tell, but you shouldn’t do both. You should never treat your readers like they’re stupid. This is the first rule of book design.

All art has an audience, and books are no different. Good book design, then, is not just an expression of the story or idea behind a book. It is a piece of the marketing. As such, it needs to matter to the people for whom it is intended. Interestingly, those people are not the author, and too many authors forget that. Sometimes, young graphic designers even forget it. They bend over backwards to fulfill the author’s vision of the cover, when the author isn’t the person to whom the book has to be sold.

If the author and the graphic designer are doing their job well, they aren’t thinking about the author’s vision, or even the designer’s vision. They’re thinking about the audience’s expectations. They are respecting their audience, trusting them to “read” the “text” of the cover art as adeptly as they are going to read the interior. After all, any given reader has seen thousands of book covers. Even if they aren’t able to articulate the elements like an art-school grad, they know what they’ve seen before and they know what they like. Trust and respect your audience to “get it” if your designer is any good. And if your designer isn’t any good? Well then, why are you working with him or her?

Books are not created in a vacuum.

Books are not a manifestation only of the author’s creativity. There are literary influences, lifetime experiences, family, friends, critics, agents, editors, proofreaders, and yes, even book cover designers who have each contributed something to the manufacture and creation of this thing called “book.” All this creative content and input needs a form if it’s going to be delivered to an audience. And that form will influence the way the content is consumed (or not).

Chip Kidd says that as a book designer, he has a responsibility to three groups of people:

  • The reader
  • The publisher
  • The author

The ultimate goal of a good book design is to get people to respond. For the reader, you want people to say, “Wow! I need to read that.” For the publisher, you want them to say, “This is something we can print.” And for the author, you want them to say, “Yes! This expresses my idea better than I could!”

How do you do that?

You make something that matters not just to you, but also to the audience. Kidd says, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku, if you will, of the story.” It must summarize, as clearly and mysteriously as possible, exactly what the book is about, without giving away anything at all. It must leave a true impression in the reader’s mind of the author’s intent, the story’s plot and purpose, and the designer’s artistry.

My thoughts

So let’s summarize. There are three things most people don’t understand about book cover design:

  • Book design is about giving form to content but understanding the balance between the two.
  • A book cover should not show and tell. Don’t treat people like morons.
  • Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Respect your audience and understand your responsibilities as a creator/designer.

Personally, I think good design is a little counter-intuitive. A book cover should make you think, should make you puzzle a little, wondering, “Now what’s that about?” You can see how my cover designer did this with the cover for my novella, Hedge King in Winter.

Cover design by Glen M. Edelstein Illustration by Grafit Studio

Cover design by Glen M. Edelstein
Illustration by Grafit Studio

Who are these characters? Where are they? What are they doing? It doesn’t make complete sense at first. You have to think about it. And that’s intentional — it’s rule #1 and #2 of good book design. But be careful with this. If you do this too much, you’ll confuse the reader. If you do it too little, you’ll bore the people you’re supposed to be impressing.

Good books don’t just tell you what you want to hear. Good books provoke. They make you think. And so should their covers.

This was the process I went through to design my own book cover, and I think it works well. Hopefully, it will persuade my audience to give the book a try. To find out more about my book, go here.

And before I leave you, a big shout-out to Victor Titov and the folks at Grafit Studio for the incredible work that went into the illustration of this cover, and to Glen Edelstein of Hudson Valley Book Design for the marvelous cover design. Thanks, Victor and Glen! It was an incredible experience.

What kind of book cover catches your eye?


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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