Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Go Ahead and Judge a Book by its Cover. Publishers Do.

If you’re reading this, then I owe you a huge thank you for sticking around through my long, long hiatus. Thank you! It’s been a long couple of months as I split my life between Baltimore and New York, finally uprooting it altogether. Since I last popped in, I’ve settled into both my role as Assistant Marketing Manager at Bloomsbury and Walker Books for Young Readers and my new (hard-won, as any of you who have searched for an apartment in New York will know) home in Brooklyn. Some semblance of sanity is finally returning to my life, and I’m so excited to be back in action, and ready to share some insights picked up in my new role with you.

Making the switch from Editorial to Marketing has shed a whole new, fascinating light on the bookmaking process, and marketing meetings offer so many gems of wisdom for you writing and publishing folks that I hardly know where to start. But today I want to talk about the incredibly important work of a department that’s not my own—but which my department relies on even more than you might expect: Design.

Since you follow reading trends and keep up on publishing industry blogs, you no doubt know already that the statement “You can’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t absolute truth. You probably know that the time and effort put into a book’s cover is usually a reflection of how much its publisher believes in it, and that in many cases a really great cover actually does reflect really great content. And if you’ve been reading industry blogs (including this one) for a few years, you know that a cover can—rightly or wrongly—decide where a book gets shelved in a bookstore and whether a certain type of reader picks it up.

The truth is that cover art has always been a priority for readers. Scott Westerfeld pointed this out at an event celebrating his (gorgeously illustrated) Leviathan trilogy a few years ago; projecting the image of an early-twentieth century cover of War of the Worlds on the ceiling with his phone (that’s Scott for you), he pointed out that its illustrator had been even more important to the publisher than its author—the illustrator’s name was plastered over the top of the cover in huge, bold letters, and H.G. Wells was scrawled along the side only as an afterthought (I wish I could find the image to show you all, but I can't!).

That may seem like it’s no way to treat a writer who’s become one of sci-fi’s defining voices, but there’s no doubt that the book’s publisher created that cover with a mind to what would give the book the best possible chance of selling, and in this case that was the well-recognized name of a celebrated illustrator. But there have since been countless redesigns of the book, each reflecting the changing priorities of its target audience.

That’s not at all uncommon in the book world, and whether it’s repackaging a classic for a commercial audience, reprinting a book with the movie poster for its cover, changing an original cover to appeal to audiences in another country, or repackaging a book to sell to a different age group, publishers are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating book covers as tools for reaching untapped audiences.

What I didn’t realize until beginning this new position was just how much the onus for recognizing the success or failure of a book’s cover falls not on the design team, but rather on marketing and sales. The marketing department lives at the crossroads of the industry’s artistic side (your lovely manuscript, your editor’s vision for it, and the designer’s interpretation of the story) and its business end (the positioning of your book in relation to others, its ability to compete in a crowded marketplace, and the sales numbers the company needs to keep thriving). Through our sales team, we receive constant feedback from buyers at local, chain, and online bookstores about what readers are looking for.

Buyers are intensely aware of what readers are drawn to and what they skip right over, and they have the sales numbers to back up their opinions. Their knowledge is very market-specific; they know, for instance, what fourteen- to eighteen-year-old readers of dystopian fiction with a paranormal bent will prefer, and they might even suggest slight modifications that will attract some paranormal romance fans too, without alienating the book's primary market. They know what covers flop in certain geographic regions or with certain age groups, where and when to design a cover to appeal to its audience’s parents rather than the audience itself, and from their communication with multiple publishers seasons before a book’s launch, they know what new cover trends are cropping up and can predict which will take off.

All of that knowledge, gleaned from direct interaction with readers and buyers of books, trickles down from retail buyers and store managers to a publisher’s sales team, and through them to its marketing team. We communicate that back to design, and they listen, because getting a book into the hands of as many readers as possible requires the full support and confidence of everyone who has a hand in selling it. Book buyers make decisions on how many books to stock and how much prominence to give them on shelves based, in part, on their prediction of a cover’s success, and that push makes an immense difference. So every publisher does its best to make a buyer drool over as many of their covers as possible.

I’m very happy to be part of a small house in which every single book gets the very best cover treatment we can give it. Knowing just how far a cover goes towards making a book a success, my coworkers often redesign covers numerous times before printing a book, seeking feedback from the marketing and sales teams on each new look. And even after a book is printed and released, the marketing and sales teams carefully monitor feedback on the book's cover from its target audience, often suggesting creative ways to attract even more readers in reprints or new editions. We—or any other publisher—might create a new cover for a paperback edition when we don’t see the sales numbers we’d like, or when we think we might be able to interest a new audience in the book and thus reach readers we might not otherwise have found. Sometimes we release a new cover because readers are asking for it and we like to make them happy! In the instance of this special edition of Shannon Hale’s Forest Born which is coming out soon, the special edition cover appeals to older readers who remember the Books of Bayern from years ago, whereas the newer series covers appeal to a younger audience discovering the books for the first time.

It’s fascinating stuff, this cover design business, and I hope to be able to talk about it even more in the coming months. But enough of my chatter. What appeals to you in book covers? Do you think that marketing and sales should have so much say when it comes to a book's design, or should that be left to the creatives? What are your hopes—and fears—for the cover of your own book when it’s published?


  1. Great post! I've always believed that a polished, well designed book cover is a sign that the people behind it were really invested in it-- I'm glad to know that the industry does work that way!

  2. When I was younger I used to buy books because of the covers, now I buy if I see them recommended. Wonderful that you've found a place to live. Thanks for the post, & good luck with everything.

  3. I like a nice clean cover. On the dark side (color wise, not thematically) with bold font. Sometimes I like faces, and sometimes I don't. I haven't really thought too much about the covers of my books. Can't decide if that's a good thing.

  4. Thanks, Ashley, Simon, and Mary Kate!

    Ashley, I was glad to know that, too! And I have to say, the designers in the industry really give it their all.

    Simon, for my part, I usually buy a book when it's been recommended to me and it has a great cover. If I don't like the overall package enough to need it on my shelf, I usually go for the library. And I think that a great image goes a long way in helping build buzz, especially in the blogosphere!

    Mary Kate, it probably is a good thing that you haven't thought too much about your covers. You might have guessed from this post that a lot of it is out of the author's hands -- publishers almost always try their best to do right by the author and create something the author will love as much as the fans will, but if you have a precise vision of what you want you're more likely to be disappointed.