We all know the famous saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – the truth is, however much as we try otherwise, we do appraise a tome in such a manner. After all, it’s our first encounter with whatever the book is – a well-designed cover will draw us in, inspiring us to read the back-cover blurb to see whether that implied promise is worth our money. I’ve bought books solely on the resonance I felt with its cover image, along with the blurb: some I’ve regretted and quickly consigned to the charity shop, the contents failing to live up to expectations, but still others happily remain on my bookshelves. We are, above all, a visual species: in whatever arena of life, first impressions are mostly gained through subtle physical cues. This is as true of book-cover design as it is of encountering one’s life-partner for the very first time. It’s simply built into us and completely unavoidable.
I’ve had pause to reflect on the issue of cover designs recently, prompted by two things: firstly, becoming a publisher myself and also being made aware of how important it is to approach publishing from a ‘holistic’ perspective. Secondly, my excursions through the ether of the internet has inevitably meant coming across prime examples of atrocious cover-design work, underlining the fact that sometimes people seem more taken with the idea of being a published author than of putting something worthwhile together. It has also underlined that, however much it irks those cheerleaders of the e-book and self-publishing phenomenon, the processes put in place by ‘traditional’ publishing were instituted for a very good reason. Put more concretely: you wouldn’t expect a car stylist to do the job of the engineer who designs the engine. Even though they’re working on the same project, their aims and expertise are entirely different, and so it is with books. Traditional publishers expected their writers to write and their editors to edit – and if they wanted a professional-looking cover they commissioned an artist.
Fresh out of school
Before I delve into the subject of this month’s column, some personal background is necessary. Way back in the mists of my youth, my late teens to be specific, I’d decided that I wanted to become an artist. And, indeed, after leaving school in the summer of 1982, I was looking forward to not only striking out on my own and getting out from under the parental feet, but also to starting art college in the September of that very same year. Now I was going to be allowed to learn to be a ‘real’ artist and foist my somewhat leftfield vision onto the rest of humanity. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way, in line with the normal manner in which these things pan out. But that particular part of it is irrelevant to the present columnar excursion.
What is relevant, though, is the fact that I came away with something less tangible than qualifications or techniques learnt: a well-developed sense of design. Or a knowledge of what works visually and what doesn’t. And the realisation that this extends not just to art itself, but also to things like product design in all its myriad forms, even to objects like cars, kitchen utensils and yes, even books. Individual humans possess an innate sense of what ‘feels’ right to them, even if they can’t articulate why they like what they do – it’s simply knowing that they prefer that design over this one. We call it personal taste (or lack of).
Don’t trust a stylist with a car engine!
So what has this to do with horror publishing? Let’s go back to that analogy I used above, the one about engineers and car stylists. As I said, these particular experts, whilst working together on a single project (the design of a new car), each have their own areas of special expertise and are, generally speaking, at the top of their professions. Extending the analogy, it should be apparent that the stylists wouldn’t be asked to design the engine, or the engineers the looks of the vehicle. In other words, just like the traditional publisher insisted, if you’re a writer, stick to writing: if you want a decent cover that will add that extra something to what’s been written, employ an artist or graphic designer. That’s what they’re good at – more to the point, it’s what they’ve spent all those years training for.
It seems, however, that such considerations hardly enter into the overall vision of some writers, most of them in the self-publishing arena sadly. A book blogger friend of mine showed me an example recently – without going into detail, it truly saddened me that what might have been a good book was being let down by such a shoddy and hastily-produced cover. It told me nothing about what to expect the contents to be like, plus there was no indication of the book’s tone or style – it was horror apparently, but it could have been anything from sci-fi to some kind of exposition of New Age philosophy. If I’m brutally honest, I had absolutely no idea what it was meant to be. A few examples wrapped around some of the same author’s other books fare little better.
Concentrate on your writing
The bottom line is, just because you have access to image manipulation software on your computer doesn’t mean that you should use it. In fact, I would wager that in a lot of cases said software should be forcibly removed from their machines. I started and nearly completed a degree in Digital Media in the early to mid-nineties, learning about programs of the order of Macromind Director, Stratavision 3D and the ubiquitous Photoshop, but the whole vocation has evolved out of all recognition in the intervening years. Even though I achieved a good level of proficiency with Photoshop and I could probably manage something passable if I had a go now, I wouldn’t even consider having a go at a cover design, not even for my own imprint or with my knowledge of design. Quite simply, I ask someone who knows what they’re doing and who I know will create something stunning. I have ideas swirling in my head, but lack the technical know-how to translate them onto the virtual canvas.
My point is, if you want your book to stand out for all the right reasons (and not because it’s so risible that people click on it just to laugh at its ineptitude), then find yourself an artist, in other words someone who understands about design, composition and the power of image. If the cover’s awful, then people are going to assume that what’s inside is as well. Some may think this is unfair, but that’s just how people work. I’ve been thoroughly turned off by a badly designed cover, which is a shame because the book may have been fantastic. All it says to me is that the author hasn’t cared enough about his product or about his readership. Every writer out there wants their work to be well-received and well-liked – so, whichever format you release your book in, take some time to ensure that you give it the best chance it has by thinking about it as a whole package, not just that you’ve written it and want to get it out there as soon as you’re able to. It may be great to claim that you’re a published author, but what you don’t want is for someone, upon hearing the name of the book and author, to say “Oh yeah, the book that’s got that really crap cover picture on it…”