May 18, 2011
Craft. If there is a concept in the arts more overlooked by novices, I don’t know what that concept is.
We non-architects look at a building by Lorenzo Piano, say, and note the play of light, the relationship of lines, the creation of space, the height or sprawl, the novel use of materials…but we rarely wonder about stress loads, geometric ratios, how he hid the plumbing, where he placed the fire exits. Yet without those things, too, the building doesn’t work.
In the realm of fiction it’s the same. On the most overlooked element of story, a writer friend of mine once echoed others when he said: “Without structure, it’s just words.”
And so, too, it is with book jacket design.
Every wordsmith who ever wrote a book (or dreamed of writing one) and every reader who ever plucked one off the shelf or even just clicked on an image in the Kindle store has a sense of what he or she likes in jacket design — the same way a theatergoer knows what she likes on stage, or a museum goer in the gallery, or a diner in a restaurant. We know what we like, but we may have little idea how that thing got there — to that place where it won our liking.
Over the years — as editor, agent, author — I have from time to time been required to express my views on a particular book jacket or cover. From having seen thousands (as a consumer) and considered scores (as a publishing professional), I can formulate an instant opinion on a jacket. But if you asked me to execute one myself, I’d be lost.
Why? Because I don’t know the first thing about the craft side of the ledger.
Fortunately, I am well acquainted with a few people who do know the craft of jacket design, and I hired one of the best in the business, Whitney Cookman, to design the book jacket for Primacy. Whitney (who you’ll see credited usually as W.G. Cookman) has been designing book images for more than a quarter century for some of the biggest publishers in the business. He’s done jackets for major commercial authors like John Grisham, but also was among the favorite designers of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a woman of greatly refined tastes.
In my next column, I’ll walk readers through the process that arrived at the final book jacket for Primacy (along with the images, if I can manage to load them). But, wanting to introduce the subject with something more basic, I recently asked Whitney what, in his estimation, are the basic rules of cover design.
He replied initially that the first rule is “there are no rules.” But I think he was being a little coy — that he really meant any rules that apply, such as they are, have become so internalized that they operate subconsciously in him. In fact, in the next breath he came up with eight “exceptions” to that statement: elements that reveal not only some pointed insights into the way a creative director must think to keep his mojo going for so long, but also practical attitudes that can enable talented people to thrive in commercial arts.
W.G. Cookman’s Eight Rules of Successful Cover Design (Plus Commentary):
1. Create a “what’s that” or “that’s cool” reaction in the viewer’s mind. (JEF: I would add that a great cover tells a story, but not the whole story. It’s not enough to have a cool image if that’s all you have. Whitney’s “what’s that” is akin to the opening passages of a book. It captures the attention and drops you into a world, giving you just enough information to want to go on.)
2. Create something that will drive the book buyer across that 10, 15, or 20 feet of visually-crowded retail space. Once the book is in their hand, the flap copy, back-ad and actual book have to take over and seal the deal. (JEF: Whenever I have to go into a bookstore on a professional — as opposed to personal — errand, I can’t help feeling a little let down. How will anyone find the book in which I have an interest among all this noise? I great cover doesn’t merely appeal to you; it calls to you.)
3. Quaker consensus never created a great jacket; go with your gut and your initial reaction – soliciting too much opinion will water down a good idea and create a cover that is mildly acceptable to the group but won’t appeal to anyone in the real world. (JEF: I did solicit opinions for Primacy, but not too many. If possible, be in the same room when people first react to the image; in that instant you can see more in their face than they can articulate. Past that first impression, when people have to explain what they like and don’t like, you can get yourself all in a muddle.)
4. Don’t let e-books dumb down your cover approach. Remember, you want to engage the potential reader, not just give them readable information — that’s the job of the Colorado Department of Highway Signs. (JEF: The old advertising way to say this is: sell the sizzle, not the steak. Let the flaps or the back ad inform (and, even then, don’t overdo it). The main job of a book cover is to intrigue.)
5. Don’t personalize your design decisions. I use a lot of colors I would never use in my home. (JEF: I mentioned in another post that a publisher confuses his own taste with the market’s at his peril. Sometimes a cover can be pretty and effective. But if you have to choose between the two, go for the latter.)
6. Fill up your design “shopping bag” with lots of stuff in the beginning. It’s always easier to take stuff out later on than to add stuff in. (JEF: One might note, however, that it’s important not to fall in love with the stuff that you used early in the process. Similarly, writers sometimes have to cut their favorite scenes.)
7. Never overreact to opinions. Filter feedback through your own storehouse of knowledge and experience, and assign or deny validity. The point is to create great covers, not go crazy. (JEF: Whitney has one of those personalities that are always on an even keel, whether carefully cultivated or luck of the draw. But filtering opinions through your storehouse of knowledge — that is the mark of a true professional.)
8. Lastly, never lose your perspective. They’re books, not a heart transplant. (JEF: Well, we can’t agree on everything, Whitney. Books are much more important than heart transplants.)
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