Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism

POSTED ON Jan 17, 2012

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Cover Design, Self-Publishing > Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism

A couple of days ago the latest edition of e-Book Cover Design Awards went live, and I once again had the pleasure—and the frustration—of judging a whole slew of covers.

The problems come at the extremes. Commenting on the covers is fun, and selecting out the best ones is never difficult. But when it’s time to narrow it down to the final few and then, at the end, the winners, it can be excruciatingly hard, because saying “yes” to one means saying “no” to so many others.

At the other end of the spectrum, the same errors happen repeatedly every month, which isn’t all that surprising.

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Cover Design is Challenging for Authors

One of the most challenging tasks for a new independent author is dealing with the design for the cover of his or her book. There’s no place I know of that’s the subject of more anxiety, scrutiny, second-guessing, crowdsourcing, opinion-mongering, and general unease than the small space of your book cover.

There are good reasons for this. We’ve been buying and reading books most of our lives. Almost all of those books were produced by traditional publishers who hired professional designers and artists to create them. So we expect book covers to look a certain way, and whatever way they look, they need to look professional. There’s just no getting around it.

An amateur book cover announces itself from across the room, there’s no mistaking it. A few of the tell-tale signs of amateur book covers include:

  • bad font choices
  • confused graphics
  • colors that don’t work
  • meaningless or overused stock photography
  • too much copy

Why does this happen? You might ask yourself why some book covers appear amateur since there are so many examples of really good book covers all around us.

Do You Know Your Own Book Too Well?

One common cover design error you may not have thought of is particularly difficult for many authors to overcome: they know their own books too well.

What I mean is that when you wrote the book, you invested it with lots of meaning, and perhaps you wove in symbols throughout the story to make it that much more enticing. But when it comes to the book cover, professional designers know that usually, “less is more.”

The problem is that authors are so attached to their own symbolism or to an image they have lodged in their mind that would be “perfect” for the book cover, they lose sight of the role their book cover is intended to play. One of the quickest ways to kill any good effect of your book cover is to include too many elements. In fact, this is one of the most common failures of amateur designers.

Let’s say a book has scenes that take place near the pyramids in Egypt, in Trafalgar Square in London, and atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The protagonist is an expert at martial arts and a vial of some secret compound plays a central role in the book.

Okay, here’s my message: you don’t have to assemble a picture of the pyramids, the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, the Eiffel tower, two men in a fight, and a glass vial and put them all on the cover.

I’ve seen book covers with as many as 12 separate elements crowding into the space. What’s the result? Confusion. And when people are confused by what they’re looking at, they just move on. With all that stuff on the cover, there’s no one element that stands out or is emblematic of the book and its central themes.

Of course, the author may be quite unwilling to let go of all these pieces, and will fight to keep them. After all, there’s great symbolism perhaps, in the red roses the heroine stops to admire in the book, or the bridge the lovers met on and where the story reaches its denouement.

It really doesn’t matter. When you tie yourself—or your designer—into the presentation of your symbolism on the book cover, you’re tying your hands at the same time.

In Book Covers, Simplicity Works!

Book covers work best when they combine simple yet powerful elements together in a unified whole that tells, at a glance, what the reader can expect from the book. If you try to tell the whole story on the cover, it will fail. If you try to load up all the symbolism that’s in the book, the cover will fail.

What readers are looking for is an indication of what kind of book it is, what genre, and a sense of the tone.

Is it dynamic, fast-paced and exciting? Is it a contemplation on our own mortality? Is it a romance? This information can be delivered to the potential book buyer quite easily.

One of the best ways to find out how book cover designers achieve this is to go to a bookstore and look at the book covers in your genre. Stay within your genre and look at lots of books.

You will see exactly what I’ve talked about in this article. Simple graphics with a clear message about the type of book it is, and a very limited amount of type. Although nonfiction books have a lot more copy on the covers than fiction, it’s still precious real estate and every word needs to earn its place on the cover.

The only exception you might find is in historical romance, where the convention sometimes includes sweeping panoramas with details from the story on the cover. So if you write historical romance, go ahead and give it a try, but remember those beautiful illustrations are done by professional illustrators who are paid quite well by the publisher.

Take this advice and keep your cover simple. Pick one element that gives a good idea of what’s in the book and use an appropriate typeface, and you’ll be much closer to avoiding that dreaded “amateur” look.

Parts of this article originally appeared on CreateSpace in November, 2011 as Book Covers: Why Simple Works Better and is reprinted with permission.

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Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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