Here at HZ, we’re not usually the kind of people who judge a book by its cover—but today we are. We’ve been keeping tabs on this year’s National Book Awards (the 2015 winners will be crowned later tonight), so we decided to take a closer look at how book jackets can communicate big ideas.
Having worked at HarperCollins prior to joining HZ, I’ve dipped a toe in the publishing world, so I teamed up with HZ’s senior copywriter and resident bibliophile, Joey Tarbell, to hash out what makes a cover intriguing enough to grab a reader at first glance.
Flipping through the covers of the finalist titles, Joey and I discussed what we felt were the strongest contenders when it came to jacket design. Of course, there’s a strategy behind each, because—as in all successful design work—there’s a purpose to the process.
Among these 20 books, the means of communication varies wildly. Three utilize black-and-white photography, capturing a moment and setting the tone for their respective stories.
Two showcase illustrations that play off the titles.
But others have a more symbolic connection to the pages inside, forcing readers to pick up the book and flip to the back cover for more intel.
Why, for example, does a bee grace the cover of Bone Gap?
Having not read the book, I can’t say, but the unexpected juxtaposition of the words and the image drew us in. Likewise, the graphic cover of Fortune Smiles might seem like a hodgepodge, but the design treatment conveys the collection of six stories inside.
Joey and I were drawn to covers with stylized typography or hand-lettering. For some of the finalist books, graphic treatments and type are embedded with a sense of power that stems from the material inside—Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is simple, rendered in black and white. Its austerity reflects the weight of the subject matter—a personal narrative woven with scenes from America’s racial history. Within this category, we also see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, with a typeface so bold that it bleeds off the page. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s an elegance to the simplicity of Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith.
While marketing strategies certainly play a part in the design of a book cover, the artwork must go through several channels before the book hits the shelves—the publisher, editors, marketing and sales staff, and—finally—the author. Given that so many different stakeholders weigh in, it’s no surprise that so much variety exists. And while there are many strategies in bringing a book’s cover art to life, there is no single correct way to go about it. Ultimately, a book cover designer’s greatest challenge is to balance internal expectations with the consumers’ preferences—and to create something so beautiful that we put away our Kindles and iPads.