We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we do

Heba El-Sherif , Tuesday 9 Dec 2014

On the process through which book cover designers are chosen, design trends, the relationship between cover art and sales, and the role of writers throughout

AUC Press
From the cover of Women of Karantina by Nael ElToukhy, cartoon by Makhlouf. (Photo: Courtesy of AUC Press)

Imagine walking into a bookstore without a certain title or author in mind. Greeting you from across the room are rows of carefully chosen paperbacks, standing tightly on bookshelves raised to different heights. Bestsellers and frequent picks are laid out on a table, full and strategically placed to lure as many daily visitors as possible.

As a reader, your initial interaction with a book cover lasts only a few seconds, enough for you to scan the title, take in the design, colours and cover art before you decide whether or not to pick it up. Eight months earlier, a publisher somewhere bet on those fleeting seconds.

With around 750,000 new books entering the market every year, and not as many readers to catch up with the merry-go-round of texts, publishers find themselves racing to get it right.

From text to imagery

The process of book cover art at the American University in Cairo Press starts with a brief from Neil Hewison to one of the half a dozen designers the publishing house works with.

“We usually start by asking the author what they think would make a good cover… what kind of illustration they would recommend. That’s not to say we always follow their suggestion, but it’s always a good starting point,” Hewison, Associate Director for Editorial Programs, told Ahram Online.

In the case of translated novels, the only kind of fiction published by AUC Press, the translator’s considerations for the cover design are also taken into account.

At this stage, however, the designer and the writer do not meet individually, placing AUC Press as a mediator between text and imagery.

“You’ll find a lot of publishers, especially in the West, that won’t consult their authors at all on the cover design… the whole cover is the publisher’s business because it’s the packaging of the book that helps to sell it,” Hewison continues, confirming that the jacket is ultimately “a selling tool.”

Decisions concerning covers take place at a weekly editorial meeting. Members from across all departments sit around the table to judge submissions by designers. But ultimately, the marketing and sales team holds a veto.

According to Hewison, “It’s their prerogative; they’re the ones that have to go out and sell the book… They have more or less the final say.”

But even after taking into account a wide range of opinions, publishers are not always satisfied with the outcome. “Six months after a book is published you can sit back and say: I got this wrong,” says Associate Director for Sales at AUC Press Trevor Naylor.

“You follow a route, you listen to what people say to you, you put it in the market place and then someone else will turn around and say: ‘why’d you do that, that’s horrible!’”

Readers’ reactions to book cover art may indeed be an individual matter, but Hewison does point out readability and uniqueness as two essential components for a good book cover.

“We’re either looking for something new and different, which will of course stand out, or we’re looking for something which will relate to other books that are already known.”

With a growing market for e-books, covers must also be assessed after being reduced to a tiny thumbnail on a screen.

“The one place you actually see books forever is online,” said Naylor, adding that the shelf life of a new book in a store is two to three weeks.

AUC Press
Photo: Courtesy of AUC Press

Who sets the trend?

Amr El-Kafrawy, a Cairo-based graphic designer who has produced covers for a number of leading publishing houses, explains that while the trend in the 1990s was set by veteran cartoonist Mohie El-Dine El-Labbad and his son Ahmed El-Labbad, today there is considerable influence from the West.

“Using treated photographs is now the trend. The drawback is that when the designer is essentially a photographer or a painter, the resulting image might be good and representative of the text but will often lack taste,” El-Kafrawy tells Ahram Online.

According to El-Kafrawy, Egypt is now entering a phase where what sells governs the market, meaning that the audiences’ preferences in book cover art dictates the trend and “a cover is no longer an art piece on its own.”

Hewison disagrees: “People who love books love everything about books. They’ll pick up a book and say oh what a beautiful cover. That’s still important to an awful lot of readers, so it’s not a matter of putting a good cover on it to sell it; it’s to create a beautiful product, the kind that people will want to own.”

On the current trend at AUC Press, Naylor explains that the craze during the last decade was to use Arabic paintings as the background for the cover design.

“It was done book by book, which did not have any sensibility,” he recalls.

The current, more modern look of translated fiction highlights which country the book originates from as opposed to only the title and the name of the writer, an element that was missing from previous editions.

Knowing your audience

At Dar Al-Shorouk, one of the leading publishing houses in Egypt, knowledge of the market dictates the process of deciding cover designs.

“The first stage is to classify the work,” Walid Taher, renowned cartoonist and artistic director at Dar Al-Shorouk told Ahram Online.  

Determining whether the text is serious or humorous and what age group it is targeted at helps Dar Al-Shorouk decide which designer to commission for the jacket. The writer at this stage is not very involved.

“Sometimes a writer will have a visual idea that is essentially a literary idea… In literature, black may symbolise depression while visually it could be used to denote a modern, sleek look,” says Taher about the different perceptions of design that makes him reluctant to include writers. In doing so, Taher allows the cover art to create an image that complements the text or offers a fresh take on various elements of the story.

“It’s a good cover when you feel that an element of it speaks to you… and when it’s purposeful and not flaunting a circus,” said Taher, explaining that the difficulties lay in determining cover art for novels. Non-fiction books tend to be easier to mirror on a cover.

“Each publishing house must determine who it is targeting and how it wants to target them,” he says.

Taher gives the successful example of the latest covers crafted for Al-Shorouk’s Naguib Mahfouz collection as one that was able to mix “serious content with a lively cover,” which widens the target age to encompass both young and old. 

At AUC Press, Naylor also points to the importance of widening the pool of potential readers.

“An author may write a book about a very specific thing... if that very specific thing has an audience of 20 people then you can’t publish it -- you need to be producing a book for 1,000 or 2,000 people. So you have to say that this is the centre of it [the cover] but the wider audience are people interested in all these [other] things, to create a sense that catches as many people as possible.”

“There’s almost always a book you can refer back to and say: that book is the same for people who bought that book. You’re constantly learning and trying to get it as right as you can, and sometimes it works,” he concludes.

Within one publishing house, the end aim may differ, but ultimately the test of a good book or a successful publisher is to get people to read the book. “Marketers want to sell the book and editors want people to read the book. To get to the reading stage you have to first sell it,” says Hewison.

“The old saying in English that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is complete nonsense, because everybody does,” he adds.

AUC Press
Photo: Courtesy of AUC Press

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