How much of the story should a book cover tell?

This is a question we get asked a lot. And this is one of those places where there is a great distinction between a movie poster and a book cover. Both movie posters and book covers have a lot in common, mainly their ultimate goal; to sell the story to the right audience. But while movie posters don’t have to leave much to the imagination (although there certainly are some that do) and a movie has more than enough visuals (hundreds of thousands of individual frames) to base the posters on, a book cover has limited resources. Not only are there scarce materials for the cover, but there is also the problem of creating something visual out of something that was not meant to be visual in the first place. Just like the reader, the designer too never knows how exactly a character looks, or what exactly landscape it is that the author is describing. No one knows how Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird actually looks. And no one knows what kind of planet Arrakis is in Dune. The designer is as clueless as the reader is when it comes to these things. When the author talks about a misty valley in spring or a busy downtown street, it’s up to the book cover designer to fire up his or her imagination and try to visualize it. To make things worse, many authors actually have some real-life examples that they base their characters, their streets, and their worlds on, but the descriptions are usually too vague for the designer to “paint” and both the reader and the designer is usually left to themselves to try to patch things together. And while this is actually the joy of reading, it’s one of the greatest challenges for book cover designs.

The designer has to find out a clever way to be faithful to the content and at the same time, make a cover that stands out, and at the same time, he or she can’t be too explicit about it. If s/he is, s/he’s bound to make some factual mistakes.

When the author gets too involved in the design process

Interestingly, this “leave the imagining part to the reader” idea isn’t something many writers pay much attention to. Yes, the designer should be careful about not taking too much away from the reader’s imagination, but neither should the author. Yet, many times the author will try to convince the designer to create something that is too materialistic, too “flesh and blood”. While the character might have been based on the author’s sister or father, there really isn’t much point in putting those characters on the front cover. A protagonist on a cover mustn’t just be intriguing but also look intriguing. And while the author’s father might have been one hell of a character, if there is nothing in his look to show this, there really is no point in putting him on the cover. Or the author might have created the whole story around his or her hometown, when in fact there is nothing imaginative or noteworthy (or marketing worthy for that matter) about that specific hometown. Still, many times, the author will insist on using a picture of the place. It is then up to the designer to try to convince the author of letting go of this idea. There is a reason book cover with blurry faces, dark silhouettes, or back shots are always very popular. An openly portrayed character on the front cover or a geographically specific location must be used only when there are some solid reasons behind doing so.

The main goal of the book cover

…is of course to sell the book. But artistically, it is to convey the overall “feel” of the story, to give an idea about the story, maybe to show the period, and of course to represent the genre of the book (which is actually the most important aspect). The main idea is not to try to describe the story. If the story is about an old, one-eyed evil murderer and it takes place in a dark alley in downtown Memphis, it’s not the Memphis part that is important for the book cover. Neither is it the one-eyed protagonist. It’s ideas like “evilness” and “darkness” that are the building blocks of the cover. These are the elements that have to come out on the cover. While the cover does not have to be fully abstract, it has to be able to show abstract ideas.

Again for science fiction or fantasy novels, it’s more important to convey the simple message that it is a sci-fi or fantasy novel than it is to try to explain the plot. The hard part is to do this with style and uniqueness. Almost all science fiction novels can be designed by adding a fancy spaceship to some mystical, deep galaxy background, and in fact, this is what most sci-fi novels do. They do it because it works. A sci-fi reader’s eyes will look for space ships, galaxies, astronauts, aliens. There is absolutely nothing wrong with putting these on the cover. From Arthur C. Clarks Songs of Distant Earth to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, many great sci-fi novels have been using this formula from the birth of sci-fi as a genre. However in today’s world, for a truly impactful sci-fi cover to come up, there has to be an extra layer of content on the cover; something intriguing, something original. The cover should distinguish itself from other covers in the same genre, either through a bold concept (think two fingers putting out the sun in Howard Fast’s Not With a Bang) or through some other clever usage of graphic design. Typography too can do wonders.

Where typography comes into play

Typography is not just there to put things in writing, but to explain to the reader what kind of a book is to be expected. An action-paced typeface with lots of bolds and italics with bright colors will explain to the reader that there is an exciting page-turner to be expected here, (although not necessarily something very deep or meaningful.) Minimalist typefaces, with letters set wide apart from each other, on the other hand, will give the idea that this novel is of a more philosophical or psychological nature -one where the sci-fi genre is actually more of a backdrop, and that what’s being discussed here is more in the realm of society, human nature, etc.

For romance novels, a close-up image of some tender lips or some beautiful, meaningful eyes will immediately show off that this is about love and passion, without being too explicit about the content. Which is great. Here too, the feel is more important than actual characters or places. Putting a misty moon in the background will tell something different than putting a bright morning sun. A couple walking in autumn is different from a couple walking in summer. Again typography comes to play. A stroked modern script typeface tells something wholly different than a Victorian handwriting. Didot with its sexy slopes and bold weights in its strokes will give a whole different attitude to the cover than what an italic, soft Garamond will do. The reader does not have to be experienced in typography to understand these differences. It’s hardcoded into our brains, through our cultures, thanks to many excellent graphic designers.

One clear distinction that should be made though is that there is a difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction can more easily use full flesh and blood people on their covers (as is evident from many bestsellers, some who even use their movie characters), while literary fiction novels usually try to leave more of the character build-up to the reader. We do not want to see how Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment looks like in real life, but there is nothing wrong with seeing John Krasinksi as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on a book cover. Even without seeing his face, we would more or less imagine him that way. And these are novels where the cleverly designed plots are more important than the characters.

In the end, where book cover design is concerned, there are two imaginations at play here; the imagination of the author coming together with the imagination of the reader. And the designer has to sit on the sideline, and mustn’t be too involved in this dance of imaginations. While at the same time he or she must try to convince the reader to purchase the book. Hence why there aren’t many book cover designers in the world. Most designers find this balancing role too much of a pain to invest their time and energy in.

Diren Yardimli
Co-founder, Creative Director