When I was in college, we English majors used to learn a concept that is often expressed in the Latin epigram, ars celare artem — usually translated as, “true art conceals art.” (This phrase is often attributed to Ovid, but Wikipedia says it wasn’t him and The Yale Book of Quotations, which I normally take to be definitive, doesn’t mention it at all.)

The phrase holds significance, of course, when considering great painting, sculpture or literature — or that which aspires to literature. But one might easily argue that it is at least as relevant in the realm of commercial arts.

Sadly, in this day when so many around us are bootstrapping their own creative careers, ars celare artem seems as honored in the breach as it is in the observance. I’m not talking about the content of novels — although the problem often exists there, too. I’m talking about the jacket or cover designs for those novels. In too many of them you can discern the labor, as if Photoshop were up on the screen at the desk next to yours with a novice working the mouse and employing techniques he discovered a few minutes ago. True mastery, however, conceals its own efforts.

Now, I’m not an expert on book jacket design by any means, but I do know that many book jackets today make me cringe. Most of those come from self-publishers or micropublishers, but plenty more bad ones arise at the major houses, for some reason usually (but not always) from divisions that publish direct to trade paperback.

The process of creating a good book jacket can go wrong in several ways. The designer may feel uninspired by the subject or may be asked to execute something that lacks authenticity — for example, to design a jacket that communicates something he or she knows the book doesn’t contain inside. Often, jackets suffer from design by committee — the designer trying to cobble together too many ideas suggested by others, to please too many constituencies. Or, alternatively, an inexperienced designer may be given too much leeway and not understand the demands of packaging for a given genre.

For the Primacy jacket, I tried to forestall most of these problems by hiring a top design pro, giving him only a broad idea of what I was looking for, and keeping the feedback team small. My instructions were simply to make it look like a thriller with big commercial potential. I shared with the designer the manuscript itself and an early draft of potential catalog copy, which suggested how the book would be positioned in the marketplace. That’s all any good designer should need. After that, my only instructions were: do your magic. There’s no point in hiring (and paying for) big talent and then getting in the way.

In case you don’t know already, Primacy is the story of a researcher in an animal testing lab who discovers that one of the bonobos upon whom she’s working has mutated for speech. Moral dilemma ensues, not to mention heart-pumping plot twists.

The designer first produced thirteen sketches. They looked like this:


The fourth of these in the top row (moving left to right) looked too much to me like a travel book, even with the band across it that said, “A Thriller.” (I had a sense that the designer put the band there because he knew, perhaps subconsciously, that the design didn’t speak to the genre.) The fifth design looked literary. The sixth and seventh suggested non-fiction to me.

On the bottom row, the second and fourth looked literary, too. The third just didn’t pop; it looked like it would disappear on the bookshelf. The first intrigued me, but the car headlights gave it the feeling of a mystery novel, rather than a thriller. I asked the designer to tweak that one and keep it in the running.

This process of elimination left a number of versions that might accomplish what I was looking to do. All of the remaining sketches, you will note, told a story. Some did it better than others.

Based upon that feedback and some other comments, the designer executed revisions. The next set of sketches — six in all — looked like this:


Of these, I liked the addition of the fifth and sixth, but they looked like horror novels to me, not thrillers. The fourth was sort of handsome, but it just didn’t make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

The first sketch was interesting, but the bars as represented felt too much to me like an old-fashioned human prison — sort of Count of Monte Cristo — rather than a cage. Still, I didn’t reject it out of hand. The second one was the most beautiful and told the story of the novel best: the eerie lab, the clouds suggesting moral ambiguity, the ape face calling us to judgment. But I worried about whether it would jump off the shelf.

Number three was initially my favorite. It evoked a kind of moral seediness that I liked, and I thought it would stand out on a table in a bookstore (if I were ever lucky enough to get placement like that).

I ran these six past a number of people, including — most important — select sales representatives at the distributor. These are the folks in the field who have to push product out to book buyers. As such, they have a well-schooled sense of what works.

The salespeople — along with several of my “lay” test subjects — liked the second jacket best for the story it told and for its beauty. One of them suggested putting the title in red. Bingo:PRIMACY Final Jacket

This jacket accomplishes everything a great book jacket should: (1) the big red title jumps off the shelf; (2) it tells a story; (3) it suggests complexity; (4) it says “thriller”; and (5) it’s just damn good-looking.

Undoubtedly there are a dozen tricks the designer used to push all the right buttons, but these tricks do not call attention to themselves. The art is artless.

Does any of this make a difference to the potential purchaser of Primacy? Of course it does.

Consumers of anything — whether it’s soap or art — might not be able to tell you exactly what makes a package look amateurish or professional, half-hearted or authentic. But they process all the cues and draw conclusions in spite of their lack of expertise.

To paraphrase Associate Justice Potter Stewart (who was then famously trying to define hard-core pornography), you might not be able to articulate what makes one book jacket fail and another one succeed, but when the designer gets it right, you know it as soon as you see it.

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 9: 8 Book Jacket Design Essentials

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 11: A Good Website is Hard to Find

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Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

22 responses to “Publishing Primacy – Folio 10: A Picture of 100,000 Words

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m finding your cover series very interesting.

    Does verisimilitude apply to covers? I suppose one could argue that it doesn’t necessarily.

    But — speaking as an anthropologist — your designer didn’t appear to know what a bonobo was.

    In the first set:

    Line 1 #2 = baboon or macaque of some kind
    Line 1 #4 = might be a bonobo
    Line 1 #5 = also might be one
    Line 1 #6 = baboon
    Line 1 #7 = something in the genus Cercopithecus, most likely
    Line 2 #2 = looks like a Saki (S. American)
    Line 2 #6 = same problem as Line 1 #7

    I think the cover you chose is dynamite. It works perfectly for me.

    But still . . . making sure that’s really a bonobo would be a good idea. It looks to me more like the common Pan paniscus , but it’s hard to tell.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Don. I do believe that the species of ape is relevant in the final design, and I might have mentioned that the animal in the test tube designs is in fact a monkey! That said, I checked with the designer long ago and he assured me the photo in the final design was a bonobo. I think, because it’s a partial shot, that it might be mistaken for another ape, but there you have it.

      By the way, pan paniscus is the bonobo. The common chimp is pan troglodytes.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    . . . and, pant-hoot . . . Pan paniscus is the bonobo. I meant to type Pan troglodytes but obviously did not.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Man, if I didn’t get that bit right, I’d really be dead in the water!

      • Don Mitchell says:

        For sure. Now that I’m dead in the water, I’ll change the subject.

        Did you ever read “Great Apes” by Will Self? I had trouble getting through it, but I thought it a gutsy attempt.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          No, I haven’t. I imagine it’s meant to be satirical. My novel, as a thriller, is undoubtedly more earnest.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          I’m sure it will be (more earnest), and I’m anxious to read it. What are you looking at for a publication date?

          (I seem to be in forgetful/slip up mode today so if you’ve already talked about that in the series, excuse me please.)

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          No need to apologize. If I did mention it before, I certainly can’t mention it enough: September 1 is the official pub date. The book can be pre-ordered now on my website (www.verbitrage.com) for shipment then. In another 6-8 weeks, it should be available for pre-order on Amazon, B&N, etc.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Thanks for your order, Don!

        • Don Mitchell says:

          You know, here we are in your comment space, swapping messages as though we were on IM.

          I don’t understand why nobody seems very interested in commenting on cover issues.

          Your first cover posting was really useful to me (I was in the process of designing my first cover, for a micro-press), but as I remember there were only a couple of comments.

          And in this one we get to look at the drafts and see what your guy tried, what worked, what didn’t. Talk about a look into someone’s creative process.

          I find the entire cover business fascinating because of all the threads that need weaving together to have a successful one. Sure, the content is primary. But then — as you said — you have to think about how to express that content visually, while not forgetting marketing . . . to me, it’s a great combination of problems to try to solve.

          It ought to generate more comments.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Hah! I can’t comment on the lack of comments. All I can do is emphasize that book jacket images are super important. It does amaze me how little thought goes into them sometimes. Poor execution on a book jacket can mean a year or two of work (on the author’s part) down the drain. Authors who are looking out for their own interests — whether self-published, micro-published or mainstream published — should probably think more about this aspect of their book. There are some pretty awful jackets out there. Worse: some pretty ineffective ones. I sure hope I’m right that mine works. The feedback so far has been excellent, including from the people who count most so far — those at the distributor.

  3. Great piece! I love this series.

    I went through this recently, and much of this rings true. I feel pretty lucky to be working with people who were patient and receptive to feedback. But once it was all over, I still wasn’t sure my tastes were at all in line with the average reader’s (If there is such a thing).

    Doing occasional novel reviews, I also see some beautiful ARC covers that don’t make it onto the final product…

  4. I agree with the above… this has been an enlightening series of posts, and I’m particularly enthralled by the ones relating to the cover. It’s something I suppose I never gave a lot of thought to when I was writing, but now that I’ve been moving into publishing, it has obviously become much more important.

    I think you’re very lucky with the ranger of fantastic designs you have there. Personally I like the fifth one on the top row. I’m not even sure why, but it just jumps out at me as something I’d take off the shelf.

    For my book I was lucky enough to get my favourite artist, a young Frenchman named Isaac Bonan, to produce the cover.

  5. I am sorry to see my favorite cover on second row, fifth, with the monkey paw clutching the worn bars, did not make it to the final. I like that cover because it seems constricting and stressful which would lead me to think the story harrowing. Thanks for sharing the inner world of publishing, I am learning a lot from this.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      That one wasn’t telling the right story for me. I agree that it suggests a harrowing story, but it looked to me more like a mutant horror tale of some kind, which just wasn’t concordant with the actual story that the novel is telling.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    If I’m in a bookstore, I don’t buy a book I don’t know about unless I read the first few pages and it gets to me. On the other hand, I don’t read the first few pages of a book whose cover doesn’t catch my eye. The cover is what makes me pick it up in the first place. Great series, Fishman!

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Absolutely. It’s the cover’s job to make you pick up the book. After that, it’s the author’s job to close the sale.

  7. […] thing? Honestly, I don’t know, but I wonder. A book jacket’s job (as discussed in a previous post) is to get a potential reader to touch the book — either in a physical store or by clicking on […]

  8. […] Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 11: A Good Website is Hard to […]

  9. […] week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 10: A Picture of One Hundred Thousand […]

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