by Sarah Diamond
Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the old adage, but readers will do it anyway. Donna Bray, Co-Publisher and VP of Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins says that “not only does the [book] jacket have to convey mood, suggest plot, and generally look amazing, it is the #1 sales tool for the book.” When that book is a novel with no illustrations, the jacket design becomes the sole defining image of the work. Bray explains that there are many approaches to creating a compelling design, but the ideal cover is “a perfect marriage of illustration, type, palette, and composition that conveys a sense of the book.”
Publishers and booksellers want covers that are attractive and evocative, but also timely, which is why successful backlist titles are sometimes repackaged with a fresh look. Designers must closely monitor cultural trends in fashion, film, television, and of course, other best-sellers. Alvina Ling, Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, cites recent trends in Young Adult design, including “Gossip Girl in the early 2000s (girls in beautiful clothes), Twilight (hands holding things) and Beautiful Creatures (gorgeous title type), then Cassandra Clare (characters in background, landscape in foreground) and The Hunger Games (a central symbol).” For YA fantasy right now, the trendsetter is Victoria Aveyard’s series The Red Queen. “There are lots of crowns on covers these days! I think there are some books that publishers want to feel “part of” a cover trend, and other books that we want to feel really different. Usually it’s finding the balance of both.”
Because the cover design is decided by the publishing house, some authors fear they will end up with a cover they hate. This occasionally happens to newer writers, but Ling says that at Little, Brown, consulting the author is the first part of the designing process. “For example, are they vehemently against showing characters on the cover? What other covers in the market do they love or hate? The editor fills out a cover positioning form with this information and more, and then the designer uses this as a jumping-off point to start concepting.” Different houses have different practices. Donna Bray explains that at HarperCollins, authors are shown design concepts after they are approved by sales and marketing. “If they really dislike the artist or approach we will go back to the drawing board. Because in addition to all of the above, the jacket has to be a piece that the author can look at and live with and be proud of every day.”
Erin Fitzsimmons, Art Director at HarperCollins, explains that all of this occurs early in the publishing timeline. “Aside from the editor, the designer is often one of the few people at the publishing house to read the manuscript in its early stages. The design team (consisting of designer, art director, and creative director) will have an initial discussion with the editor and share ideas, and discuss the positioning of the book in the marketplace.” From there, the designer will start creating “cover comps”, which are like rough blueprints for an artist to follow. “This can range from rough pencil sketches to more fully rendered images that look nearly like finished covers.”
Marcie Lawrence is Senior Designer at Little, Brown and her work includes the high octane cover design for The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, due to be released in August. She describes her cover comps as “usually a mockup created out of shutterstock or found imagery, but many times it is a doodle I’ve sketched out. The point is to get my idea across to the editor.” Lawrence brings her work to a Jacket Meeting where the team regroups and revises the different ideas. Once they’ve settled on a direction, they can hire freelance illustrators to create the real cover image. Then the designer puts everything together.
Throughout the design process, the team’s goal is to capture the essence of the manuscript, but not give away too many plot points. “Many successful YA covers try to be evocative of a feeling,” says Fitzsimmons. “With an older readership, you can tease readers into a world with a hint of what’s to come. Middle-grade covers tend to do a bit more explaining on the cover.” Fitzsimmons art directed The Poet X, the National Book Award-winning novel by Elizabeth Acevedo. That book’s jacket design, an exuberant illustration by Gabriel Moreno of a girl melding with ink spots and poetry, challenges the old conventional ideas of what would sell in the Young Adult market. “A number of years ago, illustrated covers were avoided for the YA market because they felt either “too young” or “too sophisticated.” It was difficult to find that sweet spot where the style of illustration was pitch perfect, but once it was found, the floodgates opened.” As of 2019, illustrated covers are all the rage. Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, has noticed designs with “more color blocking of characters and less distinct features,” noting that “a cover that depicts a photographic image of a character will immediately exclude a large portion of the potential reading audience.”
It can take a few years for these ripples to become waves. The YA trend towards illustration and away from photorealism has been “years in the making behind-the-scenes”, though the change could only start to be observed around four years ago.” As Erin Fitzsimmons explains, “photographic options tend to be limited to stock imagery (which can feel ordinary) or commissioned photo shoots (which can be cost-restrictive.) With the push for more representation in the type of cover models and cover imagery, YA designers pitched more and more for illustration on covers.”
This curve towards illustration coincided with a much bigger discussion in the kid lit community, which framed these design choices as a matter of politics as well as aesthetics. In instances that online critics have dubbed “cover fails”, several characters of color were represented by images of white people or people racially ambiguous enough that they could be read as white. This practice of whitewashing is decades old and has misrepresented characters conceived by authors like Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Rick Riordan, and Nnedi Okorafor. Backlash against these mistakes led to discussions about how to improve diversity on covers as well as the content between the pages.
Alvina Ling says, “If things have gotten better, then I’m sure the uproar over those well-publicized “cover fails” played a huge role. Overall, I think a lot of it is education. I’ve found that most people just don’t think about issues of diversity if it doesn’t affect them.” Rosemary Brosnan, VP and Editorial Director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, credits We Need Diverse Books and similar activist groups for having “a profound effect on the publishing landscape. It’s become easier for me as an editor to advocate for books by diverse creators; there is more of an awareness among folks in the industry that we have a responsibility toward all readers and all creators.”
This conversation gained new traction in 2012 when author/blogger Kate Hart reported that out of a group of 624 traditionally published YA books in 2011, only 1.2% featured a black character on the cover. This stands in contrast to 2019, when The Poet X continues to garner awards and last year’s Morris Award-winner The Hate U Give features the now-iconic image of a black teenager holding up a protest sign. Donna Bray, who edited Angie Thomas’s book, believes that “editors and designers have become much more attuned to accuracy of representation, and we do involve our authors from the very beginning in order to get that part right.” Booksellers are also cognizant of the demand for more own voice stories and representative visual design. Brein Lopez says the buyers at Children’s Book World are “more inclined to bring in titles whose covers exhibit color inclusivity. If the kids represented are primarily or exclusively white Anglo-Saxon (with no particular reason) we will hesitate to bring in that title. It is an active part of our curation process.”
“There is no dearth of talent out there, just access,” says Marcie Lawrence, who also credits Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and other public movements for shedding light on marginalized groups. She sees room for improvement not only in terms of diverse content and characters, but in the staff who make those dreams a reality. “I know I can count on one hand the African American book cover designers–of which I am one of–in the industry, and I think there should be more representation in sales, marketing, and publicity in addition to editorial departments.”
This February, in honor of Black History Month, consider buying a book with a black protagonist on the cover. You can also make a donation to We Need Diverse Books or browse the beautiful winners of the 2019 Walter Awards at WeNeedDiverseBooks.com.