Designing a Book Cover
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
I'm taking a short virtual class to learn some basics of book cover design through the Center for Book Arts. I thought it might be fun and I was very grateful for CBA's pay-what-you-can model. Visually speaking, I don't consider myself an artist. I think I have an eye, but not the execution. At least, not yet. But I like to learn and it's only seven hours total, spread over two Wednesdays.
In the first class, our instructor, Faride Mereb talked about the history of book design and things to consider when designing a book jacket. She also showed us several examples of book covers done by designers past and present, and from different countries. Mereb, who is from Venezuela, reminded us not to just look to the United States when considering printed materials for inspiration. I may be a member of a minority group, but I am very much American and my relationship to books is largely influenced by Western culture. There's a lot of great shit in the Western canon, but it's also good to broaden what we consume and not limit ourselves to only what we were raised with/educated in. I think about this from time to time in terms of what expanding what I read (what is inside the book), but I had never thought about it in visual terms (what the book looks like on the outside). In fact, I hadn't given that much thought to covers at all. I mean, some of them, of course: I've been moved a few times to pick up a book and read its description based solely off the cover; books I would not have picked up otherwise just from reading the title. So I know that covers matter. But they weren't something I usually spent a great deal of time dissecting and analyzing like I did other works of art. Until now. I will never look at a book the same way again. I'll walk up and down bookstore and library aisles thinking about the designer's choice of size, font, and slant. The color(s). How the work is bound. Mereb also admonished us on using fonts made by morally objectionable parties, which I certainly hadn't thought about before. There are certain fonts that she will not use in her work because the people who created those typefaces are people whose actions or positions she cannot abide. I don't know that I will do the same, but it is something to consider.
A useful resource I got from the class is the Letterform Archive website, which has recently made its online archive free and available to all. I also learned that there is a worldwide Most Beautiful Books Award competition. (Sidenote: if you look hard enough, there is usually a competition for anything. Last year I discovered the World Memory Championships (yes, as its name would indicate, it's for people who are amazing at memorizing things, either through rigorous training or natural gifts; sometimes both)). It's incredible what some people come up with, from the minimal or understated to the more ornate.
People in publishing agonize over these decisions in some cases. What usually wins is what publishing houses think will sell (now that is something I did think about before taking this class) but I've heard of some authors standing firm and fighting for their choice. And of course one book can have a variety of covers (different editions/translations, for example. Or when it is adapted into film, the book might have celebrities on the cover instead of the abstract art it once did). One thing I don't like about marketing decisions is how frustratingly apparent it is sometimes that the designer hasn't read the book at all. I suppose I should be more understanding that designers are busy, you know, designing stuff and may not have time to get absorbed in a 300-page novel. But I don't like when the characters, for example, look nothing like they're described. I used to read my mom's steamy historical romance novels when I was a kid and the heroine might be a fiery redhead but they'd draw her as a brunette (but what else matters as long as she's got the heaving bosom?), or the man would be a swarthy on the page but look like Fabio on the cover. This didn't always happen, but it happened often enough. With other, non R-rated materials too. There was a series I used to read during adolescence called Fearless and the girl on the cover was nothing like Gaia, the protagonist. The girl on the covers often wore makeup, for example (not only did Gaia not wear makeup, but this is central to her character; she is vehemently anti-makeup.) If I wrote a book and the cover felt inauthentic in some way, I'd be vexed. I'm happy that I'm taking this class for a few reasons, but a minor one is so that I might be better equipped to advocate for myself in the event that my (hypothetical) book cover isn't right.