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.)

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 8: Four Non-Obvious Aspects of the E-book Revolution

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 10: A Picture of One Hundred Thousand Words

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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.

8 responses to “Publishing Primacy – Folio 9: 8 Book Jacket Design Essentials

  1. dwoz says:

    I was a graphic design professional for 20 years, and did my fair share of book work, though I’m certainly not in the league of Whitney Cookman…

    Here’s my list:

    1) Remember that your book can sit on a shelf or on a table in three different orientations, front, spine, and back. Make sure it works and conveys the primary design from all three.

    2) Typography is a craft until the letters get big, then it’s an art. Don’t let the computer design your large cover typography. It will get the spacing wrong, 90 percent of the time. Differences are subtle but hugely obvious.

    3) Have a good cry, then suck it up and realize that there will be a big honking ugly UPC code taking up precious real estate on your design. Work with it. It can either be like the unavoidable smear of barbecue sauce on the breast of a brilliantly white blouse, or it can be like the green child’s crayon on the foyer wall that all-but-disappears behind the potted plant.

    4) The typography should have a theme, unless a lack of typographic theme is your actual theme.

    5) Typographic letterforms are like pop song production effects. They seem fresh and alive today, but in 25 years they will at a glance scream out the exact year that they were born and died. CASE IN POINT: the “distressed gothic/stencil” forms seen everywhere the last two years. Yawn. 2008. August.

    6) Your (insert family member category here) does indeed do very nice colored pencil, pastel, or watercolor drawings. Bring the drawing downtown, have it professionally matted and framed, and hang it in your upstairs hallway across from the bathroom door, and enjoy it always. Don’t even let it in the same room as your book jacket.

    7) If you make the author’s name larger than the title, then that author better be Michener or Grisham or Steele or have been on TV or run for office or be a brand outright and/or it’s a memoir. Otherwise, screw you and the ego you rode in on.

    8) Blind embossing is always, always cool. Matte and gloss varnish are too, and spare use of foils. like, White Album cool. Embossing an illustration image CAN be cool, but it’s usually Macarena cool or Harlequin cool.

    9) White is the new black.

    10) Squint or take your glasses off, to look at the jacket and get a better context read of the color scheme, layout, and balance of the design. Sometimes the little tiny details can fool you into thinking you have a good overall design.

    11) this list doesn’t go to eleven. No, wait. It does. Within limits, you can choose the paper too. Choose wisely, it affects everything else.

  2. I’m so fascinated by this series of yours, Joel. Cover design is something I know excruciatingly little about, and yet, I’d love to.

    I once worked as the overseeing editor for an in-store magazine, for a chain of video rental places – my promise I made to myself, going in, is that I would never, ever, take any of my own suggestions over the suggestions of any of the designers.

    It really worked out well for everyone concerned.

  3. Tom Hansen says:

    Interesting stuff JE. (and dwoz) When I/we were debating covers for American Junkie the press liked one and I liked another–the one the press liked was simpler and they were able to convince me that the one I liked was “too busy” as it contained four charcoal drawings that they had commissioned–some of which ended up inside the book to mark section breaks and on the few book posters that were printed. I’m waiting now for them to show me what they have for my forthcoming novel, which I will definitely consider in an expanded light because of this info. So thanks. To be honest I haven’t had an “aha!” moment regarding the cover of this new book. It’s such as odd (or unique, maybe haha) book and covers such an array of themes that it’s difficult to say it’s about ‘one thing’ which makes the process of choosing a cover more complicated–imagine if Hemingway wrote “Fight Club” and you get the idea–but there are recurring images/motifs which I have begun to consider.

    • dwoz says:

      It’s clearly a conundrum.

      to what level do you push your singular vision and expect the audience to “get it”, and to what level do you acquiesce to the madding crowd and give them something that they can cut teeth on.

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

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