Book Cover Design, Fiction and Nonfiction: What's the Offer?

POSTED ON May 11, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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What do you pay attention to when you design book covers?

During my presentation today at the Self-Publishers Online Conference I got into a discussion with Susan Daffron about this point. We were going over the ways that self-publishers can miss the mark with their book covers and how to recognize that.

I’ve often wondered why it is that, when I’m asked to design the cover for a novel, I have to read quite a bit of it before I feel ready to take on the task.

But with nonfiction, skimming the book is usually enough to get me ready. I’ll dip in here or there, but it’s strictly an information-gathering trip.

Two Sides of Book Cover Design

When designing nonfiction covers, we want to communicate to the reader the benefit of buying and reading the book. Most nonfiction of this type depends on conveying useful information or actionable opinions. (I don’t include literary nonfiction in this category. Biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, criticism and essays use different design criteria).

The book might rely on the author’s expertise, notoriety, or popularity. But usually it’s offering to teach you something, or tell you stories. It has a clear reason for being, and that’s what should be the most obvious the moment you look at it.

These nonfiction books often have:

  • Text, and sometimes lots of it. Nonfiction books can have long subtitles, author’s qualifications, blurbs from other experts, awards, even bullet lists on the cover, all in the effort to tell you how much information is inside, and what it will do for you.
  • Legibility, since the clear communication of the message is all-important.
  • Rational, linear organization. The hierarchy of information should be clear, with graphic elements kept to a minimum.

Fiction is an entirely different matter. Here the communication can be allusive instead of literal. For some novels, logic and linear organization wouldn’t fit. With the introduction of more evocative imagery the designer’s palette and possibilites expand.

On these book covers I’m trying to communicate the author’s tone more than anything else. It’s the voice of the book that needs to be expressed through the cover design, and that’s why I have to read a lot more before I get started.

What Does This Book Promise? What’s the Offer?

Whether fiction or nonfiction, each book makes an offer to prospective readers. In a book on how to build brick pizza ovens, the offer ought to be crystal clear—the information on how and why to build one yourself. But part of the offer is also the satisfaction you get, or that you imagine you’ll get, when you build that oven and pull a gorgeous pizza out of it.

In a book on leadership, the offer might be harder to discern, but it’s there. Ideas and inspiration to help the reader do her job better. And beyond that, the feeling of improving oneself, gaining insight.

And in fiction, the offer is the most mysterious of all. It could be for a couple of hours of entertainment, something to keep you occupied on a cross-country trip, perhaps. Or insight into what it’s like to be human. It could be a dramatic or cathartic experience. Novels cover a lot of territory, but part of their offer is enabling you to lose yourself in another world, transported beyond your ordinary life. That’s a powerful offer.

In every case there’s an offer, something promised, something the book has to deliver on to be a success.

It’s what’s behind that offer we want to capture on our book covers. If we can, the cover will really be doing its job.

How can you get at it? This may be difficult if you are also the author, but try this: Imagine the ideal reader of your book. Imagine they have just finished it and put it down, deeply satisfied at the experience.

Where did that satisfaction come from? Answer that question and you’ll be on your way.

Photo by Mark Barry

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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