by Erin Mitchell
Books are about words and our world is all digital now so covers don’t matter as much as they used to, right?
Nope. Wrong. Horribly and completely wrong.
Yes, books are about the words, the story. Of course they are. But storytelling is a visual medium—whether those visuals are on a screen or in our imaginations—and as such, a book cover is hugely important in giving people a feel for your book…and thereby encouraging readers to buy and read it.
The covers of the books I read tend to fall into three categories: images of people (usually female), abstract images, and nature/landscape images. I don’t know anything about graphic design, but I do know when a cover speaks to me. And when it speaks to readers, it tends to have an enormous impact as a valuable marketing asset.
Three covers that have struck a strong chord with me this year also belong to three of my favorite books. Accident? I doubt it. Here they are:
James Lee Burke has described FEAST DAY OF FOOLS as his finest work to date. I’m still awfully partial to JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE, but this one is among his best by any measure. The cover is a perfect example of an abstract image that is tied to the story, recalling the medieval tradition upon which the title is based. If you asked me my least favorite color, orange would probably head the list, but it works here. Makes the book stand out. It’s also simple enough that it works in various sizes.
Everyone I’ve talked to about the cover of Megan Abbott’s THE END OF EVERYTHING loves the cover. In addition to being a striking image (of a girl…see?), it also uses an unusual color palette. This cover also contains a hidden meaning for readers, one you won’t know until you finish the book.
There would have been a certain logic in using an image of a cypress tree for the cover of Michael Koryta’s THE CYPRESS HOUSE. Some of them are quite interesting visually. But I’m glad they didn’t because this image captures several elements of the story, and like those above, does so in a striking color palette and is an image that works in just about any marketing context.
I have no idea what process a graphic designer undertakes when creating a cover, nor why sometimes they’re a home run and others they just fall a bit flat. I’ve heard some authors talk about objecting to a publisher’s first crack at a cover, and I can understand why you might—indeed, you should object if the cover doesn’t look or feel right. Practically speaking, when you get the cover, it makes sense to me that you would show it to people you trust and also play with it some. Resize it….wrap a block of text around it…print it and bring it to a bookstore to see whether it looks right on the shelf.
And if it doesn’t work, by all means explain to the appropriate powers—your agent or publisher or publicist or all of the above—why you think it’s not right and how it could be improved. Because it matters.