All round the web you’ll find lists of favourite or iconic book covers, competitions for book cover design, requests for opinions on covers designed by indie-authors, etc. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover but, whether the book is to be printed or published digitally, the cover has a major role to play.
When someone recommends a book to you, they talk about the plot, the writing style, how they connected with the characters… In other words, having read the book, they recommend it on the basis of what’s inside – factors that are within the control of the writer. When you choose a book without a recommendation, you have to base your choice on other factors: you look at the cover, you read the title, you read the jacket blurb and the reviews: your selection is based on factors that are, to a great extent, outside the writer’s control.
In traditional publishing, the author may not have much say in the choice of cover design, and even the intended title may be replaced by something the editor or publisher thinks is more commercial. If you are publishing your own book, you are far more in control; you have to take your own decisions, and to do that, you need to be informed.
For printed books, the cover – and sometimes just the spine – is the first thing potential readers see. Unless it catches their eye, your marvellous story may not even get a chance: if the cover doesn’t attract, no one will pick up the book, open it and actually start reading. It’s not quite the same for digital books, as some additional text and ratings may be displayed on the store page where the cover thumbnail appears. Even so, humans react to visual information very quickly, so the thumbnail needs to be eye-catching.
The cover should also be legible: on the tiny images you get on online stores it’s often hard even to read the titles and the author names, never mind the great cover quotes that look so good on print editions. It’s clear that a cover may be a brilliant professional design, but that doesn’t mean it is right for the context and a lot of traditional publishers are now producing different covers for print and digital editions.
As well as being legible, the cover has to be attractive: it has to make the reader want to pick it up – or click on the thumbnail – and start to find out more. Once again, though, a design may be professional and attractive, but not what’s needed: however good the book inside is, if the cover attracts the wrong reader and they pick it up expecting something it was never intended to be, you will end up with an unhappy reader, which is not what you want. If the cover attracts the right reader, the one who will enjoy the book and look for more of your writing, they are likely to recommend it to friends and generate good online reviews, which will lead to more sales.
So at a minimum, a book cover has to be legible, attractive and genre-appropriate.
But there are many other things the designer will take into account for cover design, including the book’s content or story, as well as general design elements such as colour, font, layout, spacing etc. So many factors need to be taken into account that many indie-author advice websites recommend that even if you don’t buy in any other services during the book publication process, you should pay a professional to design the cover for you.
With a novel, it’s common to use a particular scene or setting from the story to illustrate the cover, but when the book in question is a collection of perhaps unconnected short stories, this can be very tricky as a scene from one of the stories may be entirely unrelated to the rest of the pieces and may give a very misleading impression.
One option is to use a typographic design, focusing on the title of the book and the name of the author. Even when there is little in the way of title, as in the case of Alonso Ibarrola’s untitled short story collections – which are simply numbered – it is possible to be creative: here, the four separate volumes were published as a series of ebooks with very bold, simple cover designs using the numerals one to four. The thumbnails are eye-catching and it’s possible to see at a glance that the four volumes are connected.
Cover art serves one purpose, and one purpose only, to get potential customers interested long enough to pick up the book to read the back cover blurb.
Ibarrola is a Spanish journalist, critic and travel writer, and the style of his fiction is stark and spare. The stories touch on all aspects of the human condition, particularly of Spain in the Franco years, and Ibarrola deals with the situations with black humour, sarcasm and satire, accompanied by a logic and objectivity that at times approaches a surrealist vision.
When the decision was taken to produce a compendium edition of the four volumes, the challenge was to design a suitable cover for a collection of well over 200 unconnected stories. There were certainly a huge number of possible scenes and images to choose from, but none of them would be sufficient to sum up or represent the wide range of situations covered.
Instead of taking an idea from the content, then, our designer opted to illustrate the cover with an image of the author himself. Ibarrola didn’t want to be too heavily foregrounded, so large CMYK dots were used to obscure the image – a visual pun on Ibarrola’s long career in journalism, for which he is equally known in his native Spain. In addition, as a four-colour process, CMYK had additional relevance, as this compendium edition combines the four volumes of stories previously published.
The result is a relevant, but simple, image that allows the reader to glimpse the author without betraying too much information; it is particularly effective as an ebook cover, where reducing the cover image to thumbnail size appears to reveal a more complete image – much as Ibarrola’s flash fiction vignettes reveal far bigger truths. At present Ibarrola’s fiction is only available in Spanish, but for the benefit of English readers, we are including translations of two of the stories here.