Not Just a Pretty Picture: The Art of a Great Cover

Posted on Posted in Resources
Part Two in a series on self-publishing vs. professional publishing

A book is sold by its cover, and if you care about selling books to readers, you’ll find there is a big difference between the covers of most self-published books and the covers designed for Barlow Books or for major publishers.

A great cover starts with a clear strategic vision about the book and its potential audience. Before we even talk to the designer, we do some deep thinking to answer a simple question: What is going to sell this book? Our marketing expert looks at the market for the book: What other similar books are written for our target market? How will this one be different, or better? What do the books in this market look like? There are trends in book design, as in all things, and you have to know what the trend is and decide whether you want to fit into it or stand out.

As part of the process, we talk with the author to understand his or her brand. What does the author want to accomplish with this book? We make sure the strategy for the book design fits the author’s needs. The author can speak directly with the designer if that helps. Then we do a creative brief for the designer. Among other things, it says what kind of book this is. What tone is the author using? Who is the target audience?

In the case of The Mommy Mob, the core audience was easy to identify: The four million moms who become mommy bloggers once they’re at home with the kids.

The real question, as far as the cover design was concerned, was how to sell to this audience. Author Rebecca Eckler had a great idea to play off the famous picture of the T.V. Sopranos. In our creative brief to book designer Kyle Gell, we imagined Mob Mommies: “Each a little different but all judgmental. Hiding behind the anonymity of the blogosphere. Stabbing in the back, as women tend to do so effectively.”

“Yet,” as publisher Sarah Scott said in the brief, “the cover has to show just how hilarious Rebecca is as she deals with this world. It’s not often that I laugh out loud while reading a manuscript. But I did, and readers will, too.”

Rebecca had another great idea: an R rating on the cover with the line This book contains sexual content, violence, and is intended for mature audiences. The line, and the censorial tone, was perfect for the cover we imagined.

Marketing strategist Yvonne Hunter studied the humor market for this category of readers: The tone of the cover should be “bitchy but sweet, “ she said. She wasn’t so sure about the Sopranos look. The retro look that was popular for humor in this mommy market would be best, she said.

Kyle went to work. His challenge was to create an image that played off the Sopranos, showed a Mommy Mob, had an element of retro, and was bitchy but sweet. Not long after, he delivered three roughs—three different covers that tried to capture the spirit of Rebecca’s book and sell to the intended market.

The image we chose was a bit of a gamble. It wasn’t like the retro imagery you’ll find in funny books about parenting. In fact, it was quite different. But then so is Rebecca. She chose to take the risk and ended up with a great cover for her book.

The signature of a professional publisher, said Kyle, is a clear strategic vision for the book. This kind of thinking, he said, ends up in the creative brief that begins the cover design process. It’s crucial. If you don’t think about how to sell the book to the audience, if you don’t have a strategy or a clearly defined creative brief, you’ll end up with a pretty picture perhaps, but not a cover that helps to sell the book.

The title, once again, is crucial: “What I look for as a designer is a visual "rhythm" to the title content, something I can then play with,” said Kyle. Often with a longer, weighty title it is more difficult to find a visual rhythm that will work on the front cover of a book. The Mommy Mob, on the other hand, evoked strong visuals and sounded great and looked great on the cover.

Next: Three key questions that the pros ask when they start reading a manuscript. These are the questions that self-published authors rarely ask, or answer.