Independent book publishers know that, despite the familiar expression, books are judged by their covers - as well as their interiors, and just about everything else.
Author Kwame Alexander, recipient of the coveted John Newbery Medal, knows a thing or two about reaching an audience—he has sold nearly a million independently published poetry books. Responding to a question that followed his keynote address at the 2016 IBPA Publishing University, Alexander noted that award recognition begins with one simple accomplishment: Make sure your book looks like everyone else’s. In other words, a book must first distinguish itself through a design that screams professional. “Professional design tends to follow the Duchess of Windsor rule: To avoid overdressing, take one thing off before you leave the house,” says Valerie Andrews, an assistant professor at Loyola University, who has judged several communications and book award contests, including the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™. “The design sets the tone for the book and either calls out to the reader or sends [the reader] on to the next book,” Andrews explains. “Amateur design tends to be cluttered, an almost desperate attempt to grab the reader’s attention. Professional design tends to be leaner, with fewer competing elements.”
Interior layout, font choices, trim size, even binding and paper stock—all of these contribute to the overall design of a book. But before readers can appreciate these, they must be drawn to the cover. “Cutting corners on your cover is one of the worst places to try to save money,” says Don Daglow, founder of Sausalito Media, whose cover for The Fog Seller took top honors in cover design, small format category, of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards. From working with package design in the games industry, Daglow learned the effect of covers on buyers who browse without knowing exactly what they want to buy. “If the cover doesn’t make someone pick up the book, they can’t take it to the register,” he says. “If it doesn’t make them click on your item, they can’t place it in their cart and buy it online.” To create his award-winning cover, Daglow worked with veteran designer Momir Borocki. “The toughest part of the job was communicating the unique and quirky nature of The Fog Seller’s characters and the way in which the setting works in the novel,” he says. “Once I figured out how to share these points, it was easy; Momir Borocki is one of the best designers I’ve worked with in my 35-year career in publishing. Working with a great designer always makes you look good.” When perfecting a cover, Daglow notes that many principles of video game packaging apply. “It’s the same advice we read everywhere but that so many books don’t follow,” he says. “The title has to be clearly readable online in small formats, the title font and illustration have to fit the mood of the book, and the cover has to draw the eye in both small online and large in-person settings.” Andrews agrees that the best covers are those that make good use of color and visuals to convey the tone of the book. When judging, she also looks for covers that reflect a book’s topic and target audience.
Tone, topic, and audience were key considerations for New York City Publishing Company publisher Hanoch Teller as he fashioned the cover for Heroic Children, winner of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Book Award for cover design, small format nonfiction. The aim of the book, which Teller researched for 14 years, was to tell the personal stories of nine children who survived the Holocaust. “What I wanted to do in the cover was highlight one child to show it’s not just a statistic,” he explains. To accomplish this goal, he worked with graphic designer Jeremy Staimen. To achieve a tone appropriate for the somber topic and to illustrate that the book highlights individual stories, they decided to use a sepia-toned photo and to use color to highlight a single child. Faced with a “draconian deadline” from his printer, Teller and his team—his own children—combed through archival photos until they found the perfect image, held by the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The process of securing permissions took the cover project down to the wire. Through a chance connection with a museum board member, Teller obtained a general release in record time, but there was a caveat: No alterations could be made to the image without permission from the individual he wanted to highlight with color. The museum offered no contact information for this person, and with less than two hours to press time, Teller had to shift into high gear, using his research skills to track down a possible surname for the individual and make an educated guess at his first name and location. Twenty-four minutes to press queue, Teller had his permission—and a great story for the afterword of the book. The award-winning cover has definitely boosted sales, Teller says. The key to a great cover, he adds, is that it resonates with the audience and the content. “If you have a great cover and it doesn’t speak to [an] audience, you’ve missed the mark,” he explains. “It must also speak to the subject. It’s not just to have a theme that relates, but how much better [it is] if it’s really zeroed in on the content of the book.” In designing a winning cover, images are a major concern, but other elements factor in, as well. “I want [the] title to be well-placed, as well as the author’s name,” Andrews says. In addition, she advises publishers to pay attention to the back of the book, too. “On the back cover, or dust jacket, I want a brief teaser-type synopsis that tells me I want to read the book (or that it’s not for me),” she explains. “I don’t mind a short author bio and photo, but those shouldn’t overshadow the book at hand. I don’t want to see a whole back cover of testimonials, particularly from irrelevant or unfamiliar sources, and I don’t want a back design that looks like it came from a different person than the one who did the front.”
Behind every great cover, there’s a great designer. There’s also a budget—not always as large as a publisher might want—as well as the keen eyes that evaluate the results. “I have two design companies I use for my covers,” says Deb Porter, publisher at Breath of Fresh Air Press. “One is for the covers that have strongest market appeal. I am willing to spend more for those covers. The other company I use is not as expensive but still provides good cover design for the books with a niche market. I would love to design my own, but I think part of indie publishing is knowing your strengths and being prepared to outsource for your weaknesses.” Finding the perfect designer is easier said than done, Porter admits. “Like editors, there are a lot of people who say they have the skills but really don’t,” she says. “I was particularly blessed to come across my perfect match at the first [IBPA] Publishing University I attended. The connection between us was instant. Once you find a good designer or two, you stick with them. It’s an expense we have to bear if we want our books to look professional.”
Like Porter, Jon Wilson of Fish Out of Water Books always hires a designer for his covers. “This is most definitely not an area to skimp or rush,” he says, noting that he learned this from attempting to self-design the cover of his debut release, Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine. After several months and various renderings, he opted for professional assistance and couldn’t be more pleased with the results. “The bright yellow background instantly attracts readers in a crowded bookstore or as a thumbnail image in a list of search results online,” Wilson explains. “The fonts are original and playful, suggesting playfulness and humor, of which the book contains plenty.” Subtle but crucial design elements, including a liquid “splodge” representing the map of Ukraine, work almost subconsciously to deliver a strong message, he says, while the use of negative space allows the overall design to breathe. Wilson attributes a portion of the book’s success to the design. “We have received many complimentary comments on the cover,” he says, “and this only enhances the importance of making sure that our covers must always be ‘just so.’” Successful covers don’t come cheap, however. “Our first attempt at finding freelancers resulted in sticker shock when some of the top designers quoted us $1,200 for a cover,” says Tricia Reeks, editor-in-chief at Meerkat Press. “Their work was fabulous, but as a new press, we simply didn’t have that in our budget. We’ve now found several resources who do superb work and also fall in a range we can afford.” As Meerkat has grown, Reeks now assigns some projects in-house, relying on Adobe products and a subscription to Adobe Stock for photos. One disadvantage to stock photos is that the same images tend to appear again and again. “I don’t mind using stock photography when necessary, or as elements of the design, but, if possible, I like to use a photographer to get a unique cover shot,” Porter says. As with her designer, networking led her to a photographer who’s a great fit for the press. To avoid an over-reliance on stock photos, Nancy Cleary, publisher and designer at Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, suggests approaching artists about licensing their original work. “Often they’re thrilled at the idea, especially if it’s something they never imagined or pursued,” she explains. “We benefit when they share the news—and the cover—with their fan base as well.” Authors obviously have a vested interest in their covers, but they can also impede the design process. “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to convince an author that her original ideas, artwork, or photo might not be the perfect fit,” Cleary notes. “Often the only way to prove it is to execute the idea and let her compare.” For opinions on potential cover designs, Elizabeth Cauthorn, publisher at Material Media LLC, consults professionals at IBPA webinars and Publishing University. She also uses focus groups to test outsourced cover designs. “Naturally, the freelancers aren’t as invested in the book as I am or as the author is,” she explains. “The author and I are too close to the book, so I like to see what the focus group picks up.”
The Inside Scoop
Crucial as the cover may be, it’s the interior design—along with the content, of course—that fulfills the promise of the book. “I want readers to feel embraced by the layout and the font choice in the interior,” Porter says. “If something turns them off, I’ve failed. As far as design of the interior goes, I think you have to invest in the best programs available. For me, it’s Adobe Creative Cloud, specifically InDesign.” In terms of judging potential designs, Andrews warns that “creative” and “readable” may be mutually exclusive. “I’ve seen too much design that the designer thought was clever but that fails to take into consideration the contrast, legibility, or target audience needs,” she explains. “This is especially true for novice publishers who don’t understand serif versus sans serif uses of type, color blocking and contrast, and printing considerations.” As a starting point for design, Andrews suggests browsing the shelves of libraries and bookstores, looking for what catches the eye. “If you pick up 20 books,” she says, “what do their designs have in common?” She also advises publishers to peruse the results of design competitions, noting features that winning books have in common.
One of those winners is Kathryn Troutman’s Creating Your First Resume, which took top honors in the 1-2 Color Interior Design category of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards. Because the book emphasizes the importance of design in the preparation of resumes, Troutman says its appearance is especially important. Whether the end product is a resume or a book, Troutman notes that it’s a combination of content and appearance that generates results. “It is definitely a highlight of my career to have this book win a design award,” says Paulina Chen, editor and designer at Troutman’s Resume Place. “I love to tackle a difficult subject and make it interesting to look at and easy to understand.” Browsing both online and in bookstores, Chen sought inspiration for page layouts, fonts, and colors from books aimed at a target audience of new adult readers—everything from college entrance books to teen magazines. “To balance the need for color versus economical printing, we went with our usual choice of two-color printing for interior pages, which ends up dictating many of the design decisions,” she explains. “Also, we were fortunate to be able to use some photos taken by a high school student in the book.” For the font, she used one of her favorite sans serif options, Bertold Akzidenz Grotesk. “It not only looks clean and modern, but also all of the different variations of this font look great, so there is a lot of flexibility with this one font,” Chen says. For the header/accent font, KTF Roadstar proved a fun, readable choice. Audience was a key factor in selecting the trim size and binding. “All of our books are workbooks that we actually use in training at government agencies, military bases, and universities,” Chen explains. “The size and binding that works best from both the usability and cost standpoint for this application is 8.5 x 11-inch perfect bound.” Because the book is aimed at first-time jobseekers, Chen tested design concepts on her teenaged son. “His insight and input made a big difference in the final product, so it speaks to how important it is to involve your end user in the development.” Troutman affirms the importance of design in a competitive market. “The visual presentation of content, samples, charts, and graphs can make the book readable by iBook, Kindle, and other e-pub methods,” she says. “You have to do it all in today’s publishing world. It is intense, but to make a book work, this is the effort required.”
Publishers agree that design—both cover and interior—plays a huge role in the potential success of a project. “Consumers are drawn to packaging,” Reeks says. “Certainly a book can be successful without good design, but when there are so many options for today’s reader, the cover and design shouldn’t be the reason a great book gets passed over.” To achieve winning designs, publishers must first sidestep potential pitfalls. “Poor design—cover and interior—is a turn off. It doesn’t matter how perfect your message or writing— if it looks like a hot mess, people are not going to be drawn to it,” Porter says. “When I see something homemade, it jumps out at me as amateur, a bit like the early websites with all the whistles and bells and clashing colors—type crammed together on one line and over spaced on another, widows and orphans, all that sort of thing. If we fail in this area, we shouldn’t be surprised if the book fails.” Fortunately, the road to a winning design isn’t all that difficult, as award-winner Daglow points out. “Give yourself lots of lead time, so you never have to rush to a decision,” he advises. “Invite multiple designers to discuss the project initially, so you get a feel for both how well they respond to the theme and how professional and responsive they are to work with.” Give clear feedback to your designers, he adds, and don’t sign off on anything until you’re proud of it. Like the proverbial glass slipper, design is all about achieving the right fit. Once you’ve landed on it, there’s a good chance your book will live happily ever after.