We've all heard the saying before: one should never judge a book by its cover.
It’s good advice in theory, but in practice, how many of us actually do it? Let’s face it, a cover is usually the first thing that draws us to a book. To quote another old saying, first impressions matter, and a cover is often a reader’s first introduction to a title.
No matter how great a story is contained within a book’s pages, a poorly designed or badly illustrated cover can turn off a reader from picking up a book – especially a book by a new author.
“A good cover should catch the reader’s eye straight away and intrigue him or her enough to want to pick up the book to see what it’s all about.
“Naturally, the title of the book, which is part of the cover design, should be catchy and if possible, witty and memorable,” says Oon Yeoh, a senior consulting editor at MPH Group Publishing Malaysia.
What, however, makes a good book cover? And how do you come up with one? We speak to artists and publishers to find out.
The planning process
To create a cover, a book’s author and publisher usually meet with an artist or graphic designer to determine the best sort of “look” for a book.
For MPH Publishing, covers are planned through a collaborative process involving its editorial and design teams.
“We try as much as possible to meet the author’s expectations but we also have best practices that we adhere to. At the end of the day, we try to achieve something that everyone can accept and which will appeal to the public,” Yeoh says.
While all parties do chip in with opinions, usually it is the designer or publisher’s opinions that carry the most weight.
“To be honest, out of the three, the author has the least say. This is because their job is to write, not to market,” says Amir Muhammad, founder of independent publisher Buku Fixi and its many imprints.
For its books, Buku Fixi employs a regular designer, but also buys artwork by local artists to use as book covers. Social media addicts take note: some of those artists were discovered through Instagram.
Making a good book cover, Amir says, needs je ne sais quoi – something difficult to describe. No surprise, perhaps, that some of his books have had some pretty unusual covers! Hungry In Ipoh’s cover, for example, features a painting called I’m In Mamak Stall by Gan Chin Lee, while KL Noir: White looks like the front of a cigarette packet.
And then there is the very eye-catching Cyberpunk Malaysia with its reflective cover.
“These were the options that seemed to us (Amir and the designer) to embo-dy the contents of each book,” Amir explains.
“Cyberpunk: Malaysia has a lot of stories about how technology is personalised, so each book reflects the person looking at it.
“KL Noir: White is as nasty and brutal as cigarettes. And what I like about Hungry In Ipoh is that the people are confronted by food and still look so miserable!” Amir says.
Buku Fixi’s books tend to have an instantly recognisable look to them, but the covers do vary depending on which imprint the books come under: Fixi Novo, which publishes English-language Malaysian books; Fixi Mono for nonfiction; Fixi Retro for reprints of old Malay-language classics and Fixi Verso for Malay translations of current international bestsellers. The most challenging thing, though, is keeping things simple, says Amir.
Independent publishers Silverfish Books outsource all their book cover designs to freelancers, who they change frequently for variety.
“Book covers are about packaging. Everything else being equal, a well-packaged product sells better. Sometimes, even dreadful products sell if they have good designs,” says Silverfish books founder Raman Krishnan.
Could a book’s sales be affected by how good (or how bad!) its cover is?
“A good to average cover does not seem to affect sales much in cases of works with some literary merit, although it could become a deal maker for a hesitant customer. But a bad cover is almost always received negatively. Good word-of-mouth reviews can change this perception, though. It is complicated,” Raman says.
He adds, for instance, that works by good or well-known authors tend to be less affected by cover design than run-of-the-mill pulp or romance.
Asked his favourite Silverfish covers, Raman names Salleh ben Joned’s Poems Sacred And Profane, published in 2008 and featuring a cover of “almost Dali-esque quirkiness”, as well as Farish A. Noor’s The Other Malaysia, which has a candid photo of the author on the cover.
Striking by design
According to designers, creating cover visuals is a complicated and creative process.
Designer Foong Teck Hee, 34, explains: “First comes the brief from the publisher. A title and sometimes a summary. Next, I do selective reading to capture the tone and content of the book. Throughout the reading, I list down my ideas and develop the promising ones.
“I then begin to work on the cover visual. This is often a laborious process of image sourcing and Photoshop altering. And then I work on the title typeface and layout.”
Foong, who runs the design firm Creative Tree, has designed over 120 book covers over eight years. Some of his works include ZI Publications’ Operation Nasi Kerabu (by Zan Azlee), Mata Hari’s Growing Up With Ghosts (Bernice Chauly) and Fixi Novo’s KL Noir Red (various authors).
Apart from being the regular designer for Fixi, he tends to work for corporate firms where he designs marketing and advertising materials.
A common mistake people make when designing book covers, Foong says, is putting too much on the cover.
“I’ve seen some books where they’ve tried to put the whole story on the cover. It’s not the right way to do things,” says Foong, who holds a Diploma in Communication Design.
According to him, the hardest part of designing a cover is finding just the right idea or visual that will entice someone to pick up the book.
“I will begin with two good cover designs, and then I will work closely with the client on other options or directions. Sometimes it can go up to 10 variations to get the right one,” says Foong.
Usually, he says, he spends a week on a first draft for a cover, and then another week on amendments or refinements.
“My favourite book cover was for ZI Publications’ The Rest Of Your Life And Everything That Comes With It by O. Thiam Chin. Because the book was intended for an international market, the cover design could be much more abstract and contemporary. The cover aims to set a mood and feeling rather than telling things straight to your face,” Foong says.
Indeed, it seems that when it comes to book covers, the Malaysian market prefers those that are more direct or literal, preferably with images referenced directly from the book, while the covers of books for the international market have a bit more leeway.
Raman feels this is because Malaysian readers and authors alike tend to look for meaning in their book covers.
Amir brings the cover of the Malay language edition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm to our attention as an example of a rather literal cover but with a twist: The book, published by the Institut Terjema-han & Buku Malaysia as Politik Kandang, features a bucolic farm scene on the cover but is missing the animals that are the book’s famous protagonists.
Designer Shafarin Zaki agrees that the local market prefers covers that represent content, saying he has seen it from experience.
“International authors are more open. Sometimes they like more artsy designs, that are not so typical of book covers,” he says.
Inspiration for his covers, he says, comes from parts of the book itself.
“I sometimes take an image from the climax, or towards the end of a book.
“It depends on what the narrator or the writer of the book wants,” says Shafarin, 38, who often works under the pen name Shaf Zack.
“A good book cover should not be crowded with pictures. There should be enough space for the title and the author’s name. The image on front should also not just be on the front, but extend to the back too.”
Shafarin, who is based in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur, has worked on over 50 book covers, including The Ruined Nest And Other Stories (a Rabindranath Tagore reprint), The Sum Of Our Follies (by Shih-Li Kow) and Bayu (Rozlan Mohd Noor), all published by Silverfish.
His usual method is to take photographs and then convert them into artwork.
Shafarin says his work sometimes takes him into strange and unusual places: “Once, I was doing this book about the paranormal. I was taking photos in a dark and empty carpark. I saw this car parked on one side and I felt there was something wrong about it. So I took a photo, and when it came out, there was a strange entity inside. I can’t explain it!”
The process of designing book covers can be a tricky one, obviously, but one that is absolutely necessary to create a worthy and fulfilling product.
The image on a cover could be the first thing anyone thinks of whenever a title comes to mind; having a strong, memorable and appropriate image, therefore, is key.
Or, to quote the inimitable Amir: “Book covers are like bowel movements: they should be assured and consistent. Anything else could lead to some unpleasant complications.”
Greatest hits: Best beloved covers over the years
Some book covers are seen once and then forgotten. Others, on the other hand, are so magnificent they linger in the memory long after you’ve closed your book. And in some cases, the cover turns out to be the only good thing about a title!
Here are some of the most iconic, well-designed book covers to have graced the world’s bookshelves over the years. Do you have your own favourites? Tell us what they are at email@example.com.
A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess
Artist: David Pelham
Arguably one of the most iconic covers of all time. This cover was released by Penguin 10 years after the book’s original publication, to tie in with the 1971 Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation. The image, which is known as “The Cog Eyed Droog”, was started and completed by Pelham in a single night.
By Robert Bloch
Artist: Tony Palladino
“How do you make a better image of ‘psycho’ than the word itself?” Palladino was quoted as saying in an interview. Simple yet highly effective, the “slashed” block letters type was even carried forward into the movie’s poster.
The Great Gatsby
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Artist: Francis Cugat
Cugat, a relatively unknown artist at the time, had been commissioned to design the cover of the novel while Fitzgerald was still working on it. When Fitzgerald saw it, he loved it so much he told the artist he had “written it into the book”.
The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Artist: Shirley Tucker
The artist herself described her cover as a “doodle that turned into a jacket”; nevertheless, the cover was critically hailed, the concentric circle design representing the tunnel of despair that the book’s protagonist finds herself in.
By Michael Crichton
Artist: Chip Kidd
Kidd is one of the most famous graphic designers for book covers in the world – bestselling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks had a clause in his publishing contract that Kidd illustrate all his book covers. For Jurassic Park, Kidd’s infamous T-rex skeleton was brought into the movie poster, and became one of the most recognisable branding images of the 1990s.
By Mario Puzo
Artist: S. Neil Fujita
Another cover that transferred into the movie posters. The stylised “G”and “D” in the title created a roof for “God”, suggesting the home and family, while the puppet strings above “father” underscored the Machiavellian nature of Puzo’s epic.
The Catcher In The Rye
By J.D. Salinger
Artist: E. Michael Mitchell
Mitchell was reputed to be one of the few friends of author Salinger, famously known as a recluse. The famous red horse on the cover is a reference to one of the book’s most well-known scenes which takes place on a carousel.
Sources: CNN.com, Shortlist, The Reading Room, Buzzfeed, Flavorwire.