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Judging a book by its cover

October 8, 2010
Dedication to George IV in a book of 1827

Don't judge a book by its cover - NH Nicolas's dedication to George IV is just one of the hidden gems in this 1827 edition

You should never judge a book by its cover – or so the saying goes. It’s probably true: my 1827 edition of Nicholas Harris Nicolas’ Battle of Agincourt has hardly the most inspiring cover (marbled card) but the inside is a treasure trove. This is why “search inside” is now a fundamental part of book buying – even if, it appears, Amazon wants even to charge people for that privilege.

Yet cover design is a dark art and design is subjective. Despite this, opinions in publishing houses have a habit of creating weak brands through force of personality. If the MD doesn’t like a design, this can cause huge problems. Or if money runs out and there have been too many design drafts, all of which have failed, compromise designs are foisted on the poor book. Or the sales director steps in and says it “won’t sell”…

All of this highlights how book design can often be seen less as a strategic marketing factor and more as the preserve of those who “know”. Sadly, one director’s view of what will sell is often as meaningless as the janitor’s. As Peter Gabriel once sang in an old song by prog-rock band Genesis: “I know what I like and I like what I know”.

But publishing should not be about the hagiographic pronouncements of the industry’s dynasties and dinosaurs. The new demands of e-media and social communications places more emphasis than ever on brand qualities. E-books will not be¬†judged by covers but by perception – and brand is all about perception. Those books which continue to sell in print will require greater reason for people to pick them up than something which looks nice.

Strategic design is now crucial. Every publisher should think less of their own opinions and ask instead “how and why will someone choose my book – this book – in an evironment were there are millions of books to choose from in a declining print market and a burgeoning online market?

Design, therefore, becomes a complex approach which needs to address:

  • What does it do? – business solution; pleasure; erotica; reference, STM, legal etc
  • Who wrote it? – track record, public perceptions, background, insight etc
  • What are their credentials? – personal experience, academic, views of others, testimonials, reviews etc
  • Why should I believe it? – credibility of reviews/reviewers/testimonials
  • Paper quality (print only but typography could be crucial to retaining e-book brand values) – smooth, rough, heavy weave etc
  • Colours – colour signals, cultural meaning, colour circle performance, corporate colour cues
  • Typography – elegant or aggressive, business or pleasure, happy or sad etc, typography brand cues
  • Where does the publisher fit? – niche, part of a portfolio, reputation in an area

Such complexities are understood by competent designers who work within and understand strategic frameworks. Such frameworks are created by those companies who understand their relevance.

Successful cover designs include those such as Wylie’s Dummy” series, Penguin’sClassics“, or more subtly, Faber’s literature imprints. All work in their own way for a defined target market and jealously guard their hard-earned brand perception

But today’s online challenge represents significant issues for strategic design. Where readers encounter a publisher and its products, they need to understand quickly a series of emotional messages and cues more rapidly than before. Ignoring consumer perception is no longer an option.


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