The importance of covers in commercial fiction

In commercial fiction, the importance of book covers cannot be underestimated. Think about it – you’re walking through a bookshop, and what do you immediately see? Jacket after jacket, all clamouring for your attention like over-excited puppies in a pet shop (with less yapping). Covers are the main selling point for retailers, and the absolute key to achieving stand-out on competitive online platforms like Amazon. I don’t want to shatter any illusions here, but most retailers simply don’t have the time to read every book that comes their way, so they judge it on the cover – and sometimes, that’s the only thing they see if the text isn’t finished yet. The title and concept matters too, but what every book needs is a cracking jacket that will grab people’s attention and stick in their minds.

Our jacket meetings at Avon HarperCollins have been known to go on for hours, and we interrogate everything, from the big decisions like the main image, to smaller things such as where the strapline is positioned. We decide things as a team and have input from sales, digital sales and marketing, and we look at thumbnails as well as full size. Sometimes, we’ll even do a different cover for the ebook, because what might look great on a shelf could easily get lost in an Amazon line-up – tiny details can be missed online. For physical books, we often mock up covers and take them to the shops to see how they look next to others (avoiding the staff who might wonder what we’re up to)!

Finishes are also key. Embossing a title makes it much bolder, and adding a spot UV layer will make it shine under supermarket lights. At Christmas, there’s always glitter (my favourite part). It’s also important to think about how your cover will work for a wider book campaign – will the colours work on social media banners? Can we take an object off the cover and send it out to scare the bloggers? For example, we once sent out creepy cupcakes to match the cover of The Secret by Katerina Diamond, and it meant the whole campaign tied together nicely (if a tad unappetisingly).

As an editor, I brief designers with the jacket ideas, giving them three options to start off with. I look at competitor covers to see what’s doing well, and although the process can be tricky at times, the feeling when you absolutely nail a jacket is brilliant. There’s always a collective sigh of relief when we reach that final look that everyone just knows is right. Some of my favourite cover designs weren’t easy to get to – for Obsession we changed our minds roughly ten times, and for 99 Red Balloons there was much discussion over the roundabout and a whole new look for the US (who prefer swings)! But every step of the process is worthwhile, because one thing’s for sure – everyone judges a book by its cover, and I’d bet money on the fact that you do too.

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