Everybody loves a beautifully wrapped present. There is an art, both to the design and folding of the wrapping paper, and the embellishing with ribbons and ornaments. I’m pretty good at gift wrapping, and quite enjoy it, actually. This is why it’s not uncommon for my Mom, when I arrive on Christmas, to ask me to wrap all the gifts that aren’t for me before we leave for the family feast.
In terms of math, wrapping a gift box is the same as wrapping a product box of the same shape.
In terms of business, however, they are worlds apart.
Book covers aren’t gift wrap, they’re product packaging. They are the first and last advertisement a customer sees in the process of choosing, purchasing, and consuming the product that is the book. They’re not illustrations, and they’re only art to the degree that art makes good advertising. The same way movie posters are almost never taken directly from a still of the movie, book covers are almost never a depiction of a specific scene in the book.
Everything on a book cover (or movie poster, or even a cereal box) has a language to it. As a designer, every choice I make tells the customer something about the book, from color palette and art style to font choice. (More on those in later posts!)
Some things are really obvious and overt: “This story is about a male-presenting character with short brown hair, tanned skin, and hazel eyes.”
When the customer is seeking a story about someone they’ll find sexy, details like that could matter quite a bit. I happen to really like stories about redheaded women paired with dark-haired men, for example. And, especially where genre fiction is concerned, there are always some fans who are especially particular about everything matching the canonical details as precisely as possible.
But it’s often not as important to the reader as you might expect. When I’m the reader, I really only mostly care how a character is described, and even less how they are depicted in peripheral materials like the cover. Sometimes the provided description even goes right out the window if it conflicts with the picture my mind creates in response to the personality of the character.
In one of my favorite romance novels, the main character spends the book falling in love with young prefect nicknamed “Sorry”.
The book is quite clear: Sorry is blond.
My brain is quite clear: the book is wrong.
Sorry is unequivocally brunet in my brain. It doesn’t matter how many times I look at that book cover or read the description, Sorry is brunet. This may have something to do with my being way more into spooky dark-haired goth boys than clean-cut blond prefects. I don’t know. I just know that I consistently gloss over the description of Sorry as blond, and have done so for over 20 years now.
That’s fine when I’m just the reader – nobody has to agree with the image in my head, and it doesn’t bother me (or anyone else) as long as it doesn’t conflict when a plot point arises. If there were a scene where Sorry had to dye his light hair brunet, I would probably have cared more to remember he’s described as blond in the first place.
Now, it certainly CAN be a problem in promotions when the cover design doesn’t match the descriptions in the text – but it’s not as much of a problem as you might expect. I know several readers who love Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. The gorgeous tattoo depicted on the cover has enticed several fans to have it marked on their own bodies. You may or may not have noticed that it doesn’t match the descriptions in the books! I’ve heard several complaints about this, but only from people who bought and read all the books anyway. The mismatch between the tattoo on the cover and the tattoo in the text did nothing at all to hinder the book covers as an advertisement to sell the books.
Similarly the covers of my favorite urban fantasy series – Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye novels – consistently depict Toby the way she was described in the first book. Yet the character changes appearance several times throughout the books in dramatic ways that the later covers directly contradict. I suppose it would be a bit of a spoiler to show her appearance changing back and forth, as it’s always a plot point when it happens. But far more importantly, it’s very clear from the art style, the fonts, and the girl on the cover, that these books are all about the same character in the same series. I always know at a glance when I’m looking at a Toby Daye book – and I know that I want that book RIGHT NOW.
At the end of the day, my job as a cover designer involves exactly two things:
- Sell the book
- Don’t contradict the contents of the book in ways the reader is likely to notice
1 matters way, way more than 2.
You’ll note there’s no 3 that says even “match the description in the book”, much less “match the image in the reader’s mind”. Which is good, because even matching the image in my own mind is rarely an option, and telepathy is not on the table at all.
On the one hand, the more physical description the author gives me, the more closely I can try to match the character with art or photography. On the other hand, the more physical description I have to match, the harder it’s likely to be to find suitable graphic resources. Contrarily, sparse descriptions can be a little frustrating, but also very freeing – I can focus on communicating the feel of the story, and what makes it sexy, instead of worrying whether the main character is supposed to be clean-shaven, or if this model has curly enough hair.
Detailed descriptions are very helpful to me as an illustrator or reader, ensuring that my mental image more closely matches what the author had in mind (unless you want me to fall in love with a blond prefect, then all bets are off). But as a cover designer, it can be very difficult when I’m trying to do a realistic photo comp, which is what we do for almost all our contemporary fiction. The character, no matter how vivid, is entirely fictional. I do not have photographs of any imaginary people. I only have photographs of real human models doing whatever the photographers could convince them to do, edited at the whims of the photographers, whom I have never met.
If I’m very lucky, I’ll find a photo which:
- Is of a model similar to the character I’m trying to depict
- Shows them posed in a reasonably attractive manner
- Is not cropped too closely or otherwise photographed tight-in
- Is in color (or a palette I can work with, at least)
- Will not be too hard to edit the background out of
- Has light and perspective which will go with the background and other model images I need to use
- Is available on a royalty-free basis
And if it’s a series
- Is of a model who is in many other photos which meet these criteria, for future use
Most of the time I’ll get only some of those. Making it work is where all the work happens, but in a way, that’s also where all the fun comes in. Can I get rid of that ridiculous jewelry? Can I make the light directions work with the background? Can I believably change the hair color? Can I mix and match body parts? (Yes, I really have done that on multiple covers! I will give a free FFP anthology of your choice to the first two people who can find a cover I did this with! [You must give accurate answers, and you can’t both win for the same cover.])
What makes my job emotionally satisfying is the positive feedback I get that the covers I’ve made are good work, make the author, editor, and/or publisher happy, and make the book look good. But praise from my co-workers and clients, while a huge influence on my morale, has no effect at all on our royalties checks. That has to come straight from the market. If I do a good job, all those readers will probably never give me any feedback on the quality of the cover, other than having been moved by it to buy the book.
That, ultimately, is what we all really want.