A couple weeks ago I saw an article about Peter Mendelsund’s new book on book cover design; and I scoffed. Now I just saw another article on Wired, shared by Tim Ferriss.
Peter is obviously doing the rounds (and quite well) to promote his new book. Kudos to him. Here’s the big problem: Peter’s had a luxurious career as a cover design rebranding already famous and classic works of fiction, and breakout bestsellers – amazing books – supported by a heavy media campaign and a major publisher.
As reported by Wired,
He’s said that he prefers an ugly cover to a cliche one, and looking at his body of work, the thing that holds it together is that nearly all of his jackets have something weird going on, in one way or another.
Looking at Peter’s work, I agree with his own take on his design philosophy. They are all creative, potentially clever, and ugly. And that’s fine – for literary fiction appealing to high brow readers. The tragic mistake is in applauding Peter’s work as a “golden measure” for book cover design, because it absolutely will not work for most books.
You see, most authors start out with no platform and have to catch reader’s attentions. They don’t have a big media or marketing campaign. Readers aren’t going to spend more than a couple seconds looking at their cover while browsing thousands of others in the same category.
The cover has to tell readers, immediately, what the book is about and what genre it fits into.
This can’t be done by by being clever or thoughtful. Nobody is going to appreciate the cognitive associations and playful visual metaphors. Not to mention that a vast majority of authors are writing popular genre fiction or non-fiction (not literary) – and while literary authors may want to adopt Peter’s style to ‘fit in’ with other literary fiction, that in itself can be accused of being cliche; in other words, books in the same genre should look similar.
Some of the rejects for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I would love to design covers for literary fiction – in other words, covers that don’t have to sell the book at all, and can really be exercises in creativity, because the book will sell itself regardless of the cover. I would love to have that job, and I’d be damn good at it.
Instead, I make book covers that have to sell the book because nobody has ever heard of it, the author isn’t famous and has no platform, there is no media campaign. The book cover quite literally is the advertisement – and the only one the book is likely to get. It can’t afford to be creative, or mysterious, or ugly, or avoid genre conventions. Instead, it has to be bold, colorful, beautiful, obvious, and appeal to the lowest common denominator.
I pick the cover that is going to sell the most copies – and I’ll test it out with paid advertisements if I have to (though I’ve gotten very good at knowing which will perform the best). Selling more copies is all that matters for most authors. If you have a literary career, or are a professor, and are writing a book just to make yourself look good, then sure – go for something smart and obtuse and a little hard to figure out; something most people won’t like but a few people will think is brilliant.
But if you want to make money as an author, don’t be swayed by the sirens warning you to avoid the obvious and focus on something deeper and non-representational. Don’t worry about avoiding book cover cliches. Don’t focus on being creative. Get a damn fine cover that looks professional and immediately broadcasts the right genre. It SHOULD look a lot like the other bestselling books in the same category.
After you get enough people to buy it, read it and love it, and your name is so famous that people will buy anything you write, then you can start having fun with your book cover and taking risks with the design.
I’m not saying Peter isn’t a brilliant cover designer, of course he is. Another designer I like a lot is Chip Kidd.
And I’m obviously jealous of their talents. I’m not saying I’m a better designer than they are; only that, if they had to design covers that would sell popular fiction, they would probably look entirely different – and a whole lot more like mine – than the creative samples they’ve built their careers on.
So which do we hold onto as the ideal cover design, the Platonic form? Is it these creative examples that are “pure art” divorced from the business of publishing?
If you think so, test it out on your next book, and let me know how it goes.
I’m willing to bet I could double your sales with a more practical, less “frontiers of human thought experiments”, more obvious book cover.
So you have to decide what kind of author you are.
1. Are you the artist, who just wants to make an amazing book, even if nobody recognizes it in your lifetime and nobody loves and understands it like you do; you get no acknowledgment until decades after you die? Or, are you writing professional literary fiction with an established marketing campaign and recognized name? Great! Your book cover is a blank canvas.
2. Do you want people to read and like your book? Do you want hundreds of reviews? Do you want to make a bunch of money so you can write full-time? Then you better make sure your book fits the conventions of bestselling books in your genre, and appeal precisely to the readers who love that genre, and broadcast the core story message, and most importantly, make an emotional connection (in away that literary book covers almost never do, being purely conceptual).
In other words, the publishing methods that apply to famous authors are not and should not be the same for unknown authors on a small budget. You need to be more careful with how you do things. Your cover needs to look like it belongs in the top 10 books in your category.
While Peter’s new book should in no way be used as a manual for commercial book cover design, as an exercise in creative thinking and design it’s definitely worth perusing.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.