Should we judge a book by its cover?

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An unusual brief came across my desk recently – to design the book cover for Silent Crossroads, a historical novel that would be available in both print and as an e-book. Back in the ’80s, book cover design was a core part of our creative output with Mills & Boon providing a steady stream of work for the agency. I wondered how much the design process had changed over the years and what kind of challenges we might encounter in designing a book cover that also had to capture the attention of the online buyer.

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The answer is the process hasn’t changed – good design is good design, and the fundamentals of what makes a standout cover are the same now as they were 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Think about the most memorable book covers of the last century – David Pelham’s design for ‘A Clockwork Orange’ immediately comes to mind. It stands up as well today as it did when it was published back in 1972. Personally, I still love Raymond Hawkey’s classic ’60s designs for Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. The appeal may be partly nostalgic, but those designs were so original when they first appeared, and went on to inspire countless other covers.

So what makes a successful book cover design? It must be intriguing enough to draw the reader in and give them a sense of what the story’s about without giving too much way. Think about ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Jaws’. Those book covers set the scene so perfectly that they also became the posters for the movies. As with any form of marketing, determining who your target audience is, and what will appeal to them, is essential. When we were designing the Mills & Boon covers, I often tried to push the boundaries with something a bit different, but the publishers had a very clear idea of who the average Mills & Boon reader was and what they expected so my suggestions were rejected if they were too off piste. It’s also important to consider what genre the book sits within, and what its competitors look like.You want it to feel at home within the genre, but different enough to pop off the shelf.

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Designing the cover for ‘Silent Crossroads’ was a real challenge because it didn’t fit neatly within a specific genre or target audience. After reading the novel and distilling the story down to the key elements that we felt were essential to the cover design, it became clear that this was not your typical war novel. The story incorporated so many different strands, all very valid when we considered what we wanted a potential reader to take away from the cover. Military novels tend to be quite male-orientated in their style, but the author was keen to emphasise the family drama and romance to appeal to a broader audience, particularly women. However it was a delicate balance to portray this without taking the cover in a direction that would alienate fans of historical or military fiction.

We presented a few different options, dialling up and dialling down different elements of the story. The route that was chosen – the one I considered to be the least gender-specific version – incorporates all the key milestones in the plotline. The background is a distressed map, the type used in World War I. A pocket watch, set at 11AM, the time of the armistice, represents the protagonist, Harry’s time fighting for England; and a German military cross at the centre of the image reflects his transition to the other side. A red ribbon that forms the shape of a heart traces Harry’s journey across Europe, driven by a romantic liaison.The author was satisfied that we had been able to express the softer side of the story without it looking or feeling like a pure romance.

We also had to consider that some readers might make a decision on whether to buy the book based entirely on the thumbnail served up to them by Amazon. We felt confident the final design would not only catch the eye of reader browsing the shelves of a book store, but was clear enough to convey the essence of the story to someone scrolling through book listings on their mobile.

So what about the old adage ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’? If you’re to believe the #Bookstagram trend on Instagram, people are buying books purely for their covers – to the extent that once they’ve snapped them, they fling them aside without even being read! For me, that’s a step too far. I think most of the books I remember are based on an intriguing cover design and title – books that I wouldn’t have considered if I’d based my decision purely on the author or blurb on the back.But a book cover should not only look beautiful; part of its magic is to draw the reader in and start them on their journey to another time or place. It may be a stunning design, but if we can’t create enough intrigue to get the reader to open the book, as designers we’ve failed in our duties to the author.

Simon Wright

Simon is the Managing Director of Greenwich Design, a family–owned branding and design studio and also Co-Founder of The Chemistry Works, a collective hub of creative talent which offers a flexible alternative to the traditional agency model.

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Simon Wright

Author: Simon Wright

Simon is the Managing Director of Greenwich Design, a family–owned branding and design studio and also Co-Founder of The Chemistry Works, a collective hub of creative talent which offers a flexible alternative to the traditional agency model.