Guidelines for a Good Book Cover

The Dictionary of Film Quotations cover

Figuring out what art to put on a book’s cover is a process fraught with more perils than those faced by Jason Bourne in one of Robert Ludlum’s books.

But as random as the cover creation process may seem, there are some basic guidelines that you cannot ignore.

1. Your art choice must work in a very small space. Most commercial books are 6 x 9 inches. When you take out the spaced needed for the title, subtitle, and author’s name, that doesn’t leave you a whole lot of acreage. You’ll note that designers who use fine art work on a front cover most often use a detail from a painting, not the whole piece. There’s a reason for that.

2. Understand your book’s target market. Who will read your book? What do they expect to see on a book cover? If they like mystery novels, is there some representation of blood? If they like biographies, do you have a picture of your book’s subject on the cover? If they like novels set in Italy, how do you convey that without words?

3. Keep it clean and simple. Unnecessary verbiage and imagery on a cover kills its potential impact.

4. Pay close attention to your book’s spine. Be sure your font and color choices can be clearly seen from ten feet away. In a bookstore, potential readers will see your book’s spine before its cover.

5. Blurbs or back cover copy? This is an endless debate in the book publishing world—whether to put blurbs on a back cover or information about the book’s content.

My advice is this: if you have a very short, extra-special blurb by someone well-known in the field covered by your book, see if you can find a way to put it on the front. That way, when your cover is seen online, the blurb will be right in your reader’s face.

As for the back cover, personally, I like to know what a book is about, not what someone else thought about it. But you may be attracted by good blurbs. Bottom line: author’s choice.

I put an example of a cover that obeys these guidelines at the top of this post, The Dictionary of Film Quotations compiled by Melinda Corey and George Ochoa. Here’s why this cover works.

It uses only a portion of a Clark Gable image (arguably one of the best-known faces among film buffs) in the top right corner. The image is slightly fuzzy so it does not dominate the title.

The title is large, in white against a darker background. This is maximum contrast for maximum visibility.

The designer put enlarged quotation marks in red in the top left and bottom right of the title and subtitle, framing the text and emphasizing the utility of this book.

You’ll have to take my word for the spine and back cover, both of which are printed in white on a black background, again for readability. There are no blurbs on the back but there are four short paragraphs explaining what the book contains. The language of the back cover copy is direct, no nonsense, cut-to-the-chase, suitable for a reference book.

Since I’m a film buff, and have a tendency to collect good quotes for different occasions, I represent this book’s potential market. Does the cover do its job? I bought it, didn’t I?

Fonts and Your Cover

Sunday Morning Quilts cover

There are trends in the quilting universe just as there are in every other facet of our culture. One of the most noticeable at the moment has been dubbed Modern, and Sunday Morning Quilts is a good example of this trend.

But we’re not here to talk about quilting trends. Today we’re here to talk about font choice on covers.

Authors and designers and editors and booksellers agonize and argue over what fonts should be used on a cover. I’ve witnessed situations when an author falls in love with a particular font, insists on its use, and ruins a cover. Designers can do this as well but not often, in my experience.

The cardinal rule about everything on a cover is that it serve the purpose of the book’s content. Nothing else matters. No favorites allowed.

Take a close look at this cover. The descriptive adjective that immediately comes to mind is—clean. There’s a great deal of light here, a marked absence of clutter.

Now look at the font used for the title. My guess is that it’s in the Lucida family because of the form of the small letter i in the word quilts. This font belongs in the sans serif type family. It’s a spacey font—clean.

Notice the the line of demarcation close to the center of the cover where the light changes from almost over-exposed to moderate. All of the text is in that right-hand, over-exposed panel so that the fine lines of the text do not have to fight with much color in the background.

The subtitle of the book—Sort, Store, and Use Every Last Bit of Your Treasured Fabrics—lays across a rectangle of moderate pink, a tone that also appears in the quilt draped over the child descending the stairs on the left.

This is a nice bit of design work where the choice and placement of the text serves the purpose and flavor of the book.

Does Your Book’s Title Match Your Cover?

Cover of PrairyErth by William Least Heat Moon

It took me longer to read PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon than any other book I can remember. Not because it was complex or one of those books that leans on style more than substance, and gets boring after the first flush of admiration fades.

No, PrairyErth, by an odd confluence of choices, fits the way I read better than most books. So I was able to make it last longer than most.

I often read more than one book at a time, particularly if I’m in a non-fiction vein. I might peruse something political while enjoying a history of bread making, and a natural history book such as the Outermost House at the same time. Depending on my mood, reading about oceans or food might win out over politics or vice versa.

In a way, Prairyerth combines many of my interests: botany, history, mythology, the intersection of geography and the cultures it spawns. And William Least Heat-Moon is a writer who pleases my palette.

I chose the cover of this book as an example of how title choice is as important as a  cover’s image.

PrairyErth is an in-depth examination of Chase County, a section of tall grass prairie in Kansas. Least Heat-Moon’s work is so extraordinary, this smallish parcel of land moves its readers out-of-time, as if you enter another realm.

This feeling starts with the title. The mashup of two familiar but misspelled words—prairy and erth instead of prairie and earth—could easily be the title of a fantasy novel filled with elves and the clashing sound of swords.

The cover’s imagery, a painting called Chase County by Judith Mackey, does not intrude on the flight of fantasy but enhances it. The painting’s dominant feature is a cloud, part billow, part swirl, with touches of peach and pink on its underside. The land, with its flat horizon, beckons one to come in.

No obstructions here, it seems to say.

Imagine, however, how different the impact of this cover would be if Least Heat-Moon had insisted on calling his work Prairie and Earth. Would we ho-hum over that flatlined horizon and move on?

I think so. What we choose to call a work can be as important as the work itself.

The Accidental Cover

The Year of the Turtle cover with the colors all wrong
Year of the Turtle cover just right

Sometimes, the accidents of technology are inspiring.

When I scanned The Year of the Turtle‘s cover by David Carroll for this piece, I had an extra button selected on the scanning software which made the colors all wrong.

Or at least the colors are not the way the designer intended.

This accidental cover is, in my opinion, more arresting than the original. Its coolness, and slightly off-hue color scheme (lily pads are never quite that shade of green) catch the eye because they are just that—off.

The shadow cast by the turtle on the right jumps out, carrying the action of the illustration to the bottom right where one’s vision bounces at the corner of the paper, and then loops up to the title.

The turtles themselves are darker, more commanding.

I can certainly understand the choices made by the designer of the original cover. They are more in line with the tones of the natural world Carroll describes. On the other hand, his book is haunted by changes in the turtles’ environment, changes that are not for the better.

This book was published by Camden in 1991. Twenty years later, as we witness daily degradation of the natural world, does my accidental cover serve the purpose of the book better than the original?

I wonder.

By the way, this is one of my favorite natural history books ever. Highly recommended.

Judging Books by Their Covers

Cover by Harlequin

Since I’ve started working on the cover for my upcoming novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, I thought I would spend this week judging other books by their covers.

Take this one, Venetia by Georgette Heyer, a classic (so I’m told) of the romance genre.

Georgette Heyer is, in my opinion, a pretty darn good writer, a penner of thrillers, romances, and historical novels, a total of nearly 60 novels in a career that lasted more than 50 years. She is considered the founder of Regency romances of which this book, Venetia, is an example.

I tripped across Heyer’s work years ago while sorting books for the 5 Colleges Book Sale here in the Upper Valley. One of the woman I was working with at that moment in time recommended the thriller, entitled Penhallow, that I held in my hands. It was pretty good. Heyer’s got more wit than Agatha Christie and her writing is smoother.

That’s why, in spite of this cover, Venetia was on my shelf. Now that I’ve finished it, I can honestly say I’ll stick with Heyer’s thrillers.

The plot of Venetia is predictable—bad boy meets good girl, romance ensues. Heyer’s wit does much to rescue it from the depths of the completely hackneyed but still…

This version of Venetia is a reprint put out by Harlequin, the Canadian purveyor of more romance novels than any other publisher on earth. To my mind, they invented this cover style—blonde woman, dark-haired man, soft focus. The fact that the couple are not in a clinch and her bodice is all in one piece is part of a code that says “here lies chaste romance.”

Without words, this cover conveys the book’s level of overt sexuality through its placement of the two figures, the fact that she’s looking down demurely at a flower, and the choice of golden yellow instead of a blazing hot red for the backdrop.

Take a look at what you have on your own bookshelves. What cover codes speak to you?

A Whole Lotta Appliqué Going On

Kamon Garden by Janice Cunningham at the 2012 Vermont Quilt Festival
Magical Mystery Garden by Leslie Justice Cook at the 2012 Vermont Quilt Festival

I think I mentioned earlier that there were a number of samplers at the Vermont Quilt Festival in what I would call the Baltimore Album style. In other words, a whole lotta appliqué going on.

One of these days, I want to tackle a quilt like these but with my own twist, just like the makers of these incredible pieces.

The one at the top, Kamon Garden by Janice Cunningham of Bennington, Vermont uses traditional Japanese motifs in each block, not the folk symbols from Western Europe common in the Baltimore album quilts here in the states.

I love the soft but striking color palette in this piece, and the precision just takes your breath away.

The second quilt uses more familiar motifs but just look at the fabric choices that maker Leslie Justice Cook made here. These are not your traditional solids but the rich tones of Kaffe Fassett fabrics.

The overall impact is so different from the tradition handed down to us from the 19th century needlewomen in the mid-Atlantic region of this country.

Just for comparison, here’s a Pinterest page of Baltimore album quilt images. Some of these are historical, some are reproductions. Compare the color and motif choices to the ones pictured here.

Just one more piece of evidence that the quilting universe has no bounds.

Sailing Away

A single sailing boat block from Spinning Sailboats by Anne Gallo and Susan Raban exhibited at the Vermont Quilt Festival 2012
4 blocks together in Spinning Sailboats by Anne Gallo and Susan Raban exhibited at the Vermont Quilt Festival 2012
Spinning Sailboats by Anne Gallo and Susan Raban exhibited at the Vermont Quilt Festival 2012

I’ve been writing about the arts forever (or so it seems). Over the years, I’ve watched virtual wars between two teams that I call the “Tradition Keepers” and the “Heck with Tradition” non-keepers.

For Tradition Keepers, you play music the way it was first heard or you paint portraits according to rules set down by artists in the mid-19th century or you quilt only by hand.

The Heck-with-Tradition folks refuse to acknowledge the past.

In fact, they often declare they are free of the past, that everything has to be new, new, new or it’s invalid. None of that hand-sewing stuff here, thank you very much.

But you know what I like? Moments when the two get blended, and something simultaneously new and old is birthed.

This work is a mild example of that process at work.

The single sailboat block at the top of this post is part of a quilt created by Anne Gallo and Susan Raban called Spinning Sailboats that was at the Vermont Quilt Festival this past weekend. This sailboat block is about as traditional as it gets, and is most often featured in quilts where all the boats float in the same direction.

But Gallo and Raban played with this traditional block, sewing four of them together, each headed in a different direction. That’s picture number two.

Now look what happens to the movement of color in this whole quilt when you view these foursomes put together. The single sailboats disappear, and you have something old and new at the same time.

Cool, eh?

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.