Covering Up: Two Designers on the Business of Book Covers

Text Publishing’s W.H. Chong and freelance designer Anne-Marie Reeves open up to Thuy On about the art, the pitfalls and the pleasures of book cover design.

This year to mark 50 years after the death of Sylvia Plath, her UK publisher, Faber & Faber, released an anniversary edition of the poet’s only novel, The Bell Jar. Despite its sobering themes of mental illness and oppression, the book looks like a chick-lit novel: set against a garish red backdrop, a woman pouts into an open compact case. A new reader would be forgiven for thinking that Plath was going to be a breezy beach read. Similarly misleading, on the cover of a recent edition of Anne of Green Gables, the orphan with the ‘very thick, decidedly red hair’ had been transformed into a blonde cowgirl. So indignant were fans of L.M. Montgomery’s classic tale that the edition had to be withdrawn.

This cover had to be withdrawn, after readers protested redhead Anne's transformation into a blonde cowgirl.

This cover had to be withdrawn, after readers protested redhead Anne's transformation into a blonde cowgirl.

Clearly, despite that oft-repeated proverb, potential readers do judge a book by its cover, whether they are conscious of doing so or not. It’s human nature to be attracted or repelled by outward appearances and a striking cover design can play a big role in whether or not people pick up a book and take it to the register – or even clicking ‘buy’ on their device of choice. Readers, reasonably, expect a cover to reflect the book’s content; even the mildest bookworm will turn if they feel misled. So given the potential pitfalls, how does a visual artist capture the essence of a written work and effectively convey that to a prospective reader?

Anne-Marie Reeves, a freelance designer who has worked for a variety of Australian book publishers, explains that her job usually begins with a brief from the book’s editor. This generally outlines the book’s genre (say, ‘Crime’ or ‘Romance’), gives a synopsis of the narrative and explains what kinds of people are likely to read the book. Editors will even specify the sort of artwork they’d like. For example: a photograph, an illustration or a typographical cover (one that uses fonts creatively, rather than an image). But, Reeves says, briefs can be variable. Some are open to interpretation; others are more prescriptive. ‘I use them as guides to play around with possible font, colour and imagery combinations,’ Reeves says.

Jane Sullivan's *Little People*: Anne Marie Reeves' favourite cover design.

Jane Sullivan's Little People: Anne Marie Reeves' favourite cover design.

The question remains though: should designers actually read the book they’re commissioned to work on? Reeves doesn’t think so: ‘It’s not necessary to read the book if the brief is well written or if it’s a non-fiction [book],’ she says. ‘But when I’m designing fiction I like to read the book first. I often come up with ideas that might not happen if I simply relied on the brief.’

W.H. Chong – an award-winning designer who has covered books ranging from young adult fiction (aimed at the teen crowd) to more highbrow literary works – agrees. ‘Even good designers can’t read all the manuscripts,’ he explains. Chong has designed 62 jackets for the Text Classics series, with at least another dozen planned for 2014. He points out that just because a book is compelling, that doesn’t make the work of producing its cover any easier. ‘And it is work: head work, hand work, dream work,’ he stresses. ‘The process is led by your relationship as a reader to the text, filtered by your experience of what will translate into an image or type design. You’re trying to end up with a cover that’s appropriate to the book, doesn’t look like everything else out there (or, actually make it look like everything else out there) and is instantly appealing to old and young.’

So, ultimately, a successful cover is a complex combination of creativity, marketing, branding experience and insight into readers’ expectations. How much control does the designer have over the process? Chong is coy: ‘I have as much freedom as I claim, or if not, as much [as] I can create by my solution.’ Reeves is more expansive: ‘It depends on the people involved on the project and the type of book,’ she says. ‘Occasionally a cover image may already have been chosen by the publisher, and the designer simply has to make it work with the right typeface and any other elements. But mostly the designer is given quite a lot of freedom to explore the ideas presented in the brief.’

Helen Garner's *The Spare Room* is one of W.H. Chong's favourite covers.

Helen Garner's The Spare Room is one of W.H. Chong's favourite covers.

One of Reeves’ favourite covers, among the many she has designed, is Jane Sullivan’s Little People (2011; published by Scribe) – a historical novel based on famed circus performer General Tom Thumb’s 1870 tour of Australia. ‘I love the Victorian era and I had a lot of fun looking for images and then putting it all together to get that late 19th century Australian music hall feel,’ Reeves explains. Her most challenging project? ‘Probably Gentle Satan. I was given a black-and-white photograph and had to make it interesting,’ Reeves recalls. The book (published in 2008 by Penguin) was about author Alan Saffron’s infamous father, the 1960s–70s underworld figure Abe Saffron. With an old picture of the Saffron men as her starting point, Reeves had her work cut out for her: ‘I tried tinting the image and cropping it in different ways, but nothing I tried worked until I cut out the figures and tinted the background in gold. I wanted it to have a tacky retro feel. I never felt happy with that cover despite receiving a lot of great feedback.’ Chong has a soft spot for the hardback cover he designed for Helen Garner’s The Spare Room – it was ‘very spare, yet touch-feely’ – whereas Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers gave him the most trouble because ‘we all thought it was An Important Book. So it was very hard to find consensus – that took 30 trials and three months.’

But, as much as designers work hard on each individual cover design, trying to make sure books stand out on increasingly crowded shelves and online stores is trickier than ever. These days books may end up having many covers – each one competing for a different market. As author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) writes on British design blog We Made This: ‘The days of the iconic jacket illustration, the image that forever becomes associated with a much-loved novel, are nearly gone. The stakes are too high now.’