Clarity vs. Mystery: More Things You Don’t Know about Book Cover Design

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of an amateur aficionado of book cover design. I grew up on the amazing artwork of fantasy and science-fiction book covers, and I’ve always been fascinated by them: Do they represent something in the book? Do they conceptualize the theme? And perhaps most importantly: How did they do that?!

The Art of First Impressions

Everyone knows the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Typically, we use this phrase for a wide variety of topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with books and covers, but rather as an admonition against discrimination against people for things over which they have no control: race, gender, orientation, disability, and so on.

The phrase is almost never used when talking about books themselves. Every day, in any city in the world, you can walk into bookstores and watch millions of people judging books by their covers.

  • Hmmm, that artwork is interesting. What’s the title? Meh. Never mind.
  • Oh, look at that one. Hmm, title seems interesting. I know the author’s name. What’s the blurb? Meh. Never mind.
  • Yuck, that artwork is awful. How good can the story inside be?

And so on. So what is it about book covers that attracts or repels a reader?

Chip Kidd has been a graphic designer since the mid-80s. If you don’t know his name, you surely know his work. That iconic cover on Jurassic Park? Yeah. That’s Chip Kidd. He’s received the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award for Communication in 2007, the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Design in 1997 and the AIGA Medal in 2014. So if Chip Kidd says something about book design, it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice, particularly if you’re an indie author trying to figure out how to sell your latest book.

In this video from his 2015 TED Talk, Chip Kidd describes the two most important elements that go into book cover design: Clarity and Mystery. These are the gold standards toward which any book cover should aspire. Why? Because clarity “gets to the point. It’s blunt. It’s honest. It’s sincere.” While mystery “demands to be decoded, and when it’s done right, we really, really want to.”

Book Cover Clarity

On the one hand, you want certain elements of your book cover to be clear. “Is this a Young Adult Paranormal Romance, or is it a Historical World War II Non-Fiction title?” Some readers might not care, but most, I imagine, would. The line of demarcation between those two readerships seems to be fairly bright, despite the probably small union of those two populations in a Venn Diagram.

And this is why clarity is important. If your Young Adult Paranormal Romance looks like a Historical World War II Non-Fiction title, you’re probably not going to reach the right audience for your work. You’ll get some World War II history buffs who might flip open to the front flap or have that “Look Inside,” but once they realize this book has the wrong dust jacket on it, they’ll put it back down and walk away. And your YA-PNR audience might not even get that far.

Book Cover Mystery

On the other hand, you also want to entice your potential audience to actually buy the book. If it’s clear, but it looks like everything else on the shelf, then there’s no mystery, no motivation for the reader to decode and solve that mystery. And therefore, no interest in shelling out their lunch money for your book. Mystery is why we read, it’s why we communicate at all. I guarantee you, the very first communication between two human beings started with one person showing up back at the cave with blood streaming from a garish head-wound, and someone else grunting, “What in the world happened to you?” If we don’t provide our readers with a sense of mystery and wonder, we’re not going to pique their curiosity enough to earn their trust and their money.

A Merchant’s Tale: The Book Cover

When I approached the cover designer of Hedge King in Winter to do my second book cover, I found him to be unavailable on the schedule I needed. These things happen, no one’s at fault, but I hadn’t “planned to fail,” and had left myself not much time to find a new cover artist. In desperation, I turned to 99Designs, which offers you the opportunity to make your book cover design process into a contest. There are advantages and disadvantages to such an approach, but that’s a topic for another post.

That being said, I was very fortunate. Vacaru George-Florin, a Romanian artist who goes by the profile name “Homer_Illiada,” found my contest. He’d clearly read my brief when he submitted his first sketch. When I commented back on his concept, he soon came back with a second version, had addressed every single one of my notes, and then continued to work with me to further refine the vision. He just seemed to “get it.” Several other artists submitted some good work, but none were as responsive and as understanding. And that’s how Vacaru George-Florin became my cover designer for A Merchant’s Tale.

Original artwork by Vacaru George-Florin for "A Merchant's Tale" (click for high-resolution).

Original artwork by Vacaru George-Florin for “A Merchant’s Tale” (click for high-resolution).

A Merchant’s Tale is a very different sort of a story than my first book, Hedge King in Winter. Whereas that latter tale is an intimate portrait of a man who could be king, and the difficulties he faces, both internal and external, to assuming that role, A Merchant’s Tale is a journey of discovery in which the setting itself is a major character. As such, I wanted the cover to reflect this.

The land itself features prominently in the cover. The plumes of smoke in the middle ground hint at both habitation and danger. What land is this? Is that a village over the next hill, or is an uncontrollable fire raging? And the bear in the foreground, what about those spears that have skewered it? Who has attacked such a monstrous bear? Judging from the postures of the human characters in the foreground, one can imagine that they’re just as surprised as the bear.

And what about those human characters? Not a one of them is facing the viewpoint? Who are they? What are they doing? How did they get into this situation?

Thus, mystery is established and questions are raised.

But there is clarity as well. The bear is fantastically large, the apparel and accoutrements of the characters are clearly medieval, and so the setting is undoubtedly a medieval-style fantasy. The wagon, the track that it’s on, and the wide scope of the landscape all suggest a journey. The bear is monstrously huge and clearly dangerous, and the characters clearly armed for just such hazards on their adventure.

Thus, clarity is established, and the fantasy reader assured that yes, this is the book for them, while the Historical WWII buff is alerted that he’s wandered into the wrong aisle of the bookstore (not that he wouldn’t love the story, but it’s ok, I understand).

Then I went to my book designer, Glen Edelstein of Hudson Valley Book Design. Knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to get my Hedge King in Winter artist again for A Merchant’s Tale, it became doubly-important that I work with the same book designer for the typography, so that the series would be tied together typographically with the previous title.

The Matter of Manred

It was also important that the title and cover text continue to both clarify and mystify the reader.

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.indd

“A Merchant’s Tale,” with typography by Glen M. Edelstein of Hudson Valley Book Design

With the final title and blurb copy, several more elements of the book are made clear, and yet more mystery is added: This is literally a merchant’s tale. But isn’t fantasy literature about barbarians and knights and wizards and hobbits and dragons, not merchants? Isn’t the crass and pecuniary world of commerce too mundane for a fantasy novel? Can an author really write a compelling story about a merchant? Hmmm… And yet the blurb gives us the merchant’s name, spells out his companions. We can look at the artwork and say, “Oh, yes, here’s the young priest, there are the two bodyguards, and that must be the merchant.” But then we tally them up on our fingers. Who’s that fifth guy?

The blurb goes on to both explain and mystify even further. What is the land of Iathrann? Why does the merchant know so much about it? Why have many desired a practical guide to Droma? Why is it the most troublesome hedge kingdom on the High King’s Road?

That’s how I took Chip Kidd’s advice about clarity and mystery to heart. A good book cover simultaneously tells you very clearly what the book might be about, while also presenting you with a mystery to solve.

So that was the process I went through to design the cover for my book, and I think it works well. To find out more about A Merchant’s Tale, go here.


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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.

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Posted in A Merchant's Tale, Cover design, Fiction, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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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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