Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Covering the object

Editor’s note: If you are just joining us, this post is part of an intermittent series (starts here, most recent installment here), addressed primarily to the self-publishing author, in which I use an old conceit [3a], that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. The notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave.

It may be true that you cannot judge a book by its cover. That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. A cover that doesn’t work can lead your target reader to pass your book by and pick up the next book on the shelf—a book that is, of course, not nearly so insightful and transformative as your own. In other words, the cover is a wide stave in the barrel and it behooves you to consider it with some care.

You’ve written a book. You’ve had a professional editor’s help in perfecting the text. You’ve either hired a book designer or studied enough about book design and typography to turn out competent pages. And now you need a cover design. Is this something you, an author, should do yourself? Possibly, if you have a strong design sense and your marketing plans do not involve bookstores.

Selling in stores?

If your book is a specialized academic monograph and you already know the twenty people in the world who are going to have to buy it, the cover is not crucial. It should be presentable and should follow the conventions in your field. You can stop reading now. If your book is going to be a required text in a graduate course, similarly, cover design is not so crucial.

If you plan to market your book at the back of the room where you are speaking, your cover needs to be pleasant and attractive, but it doesn’t need to compete against nearby books on the same subject.

In the above cases, you may indeed be able to design a workable cover. Doing so requires that you have and learn how to use appropriate graphics software, and you need to be able to follow the printer’s specifications meticulously. But you do not need a wealth of experience in the book business.

However, if you plan to market your book through bookstores, supermarkets, gift shops, discount stores, or other competitive venues, selecting the wrong designer for your cover (that would be you, in most cases), can drastically reduce your chance of success.

To give you an idea, the publisher of a mass market paperback (the sort of novel you might pick up at a supermarket) might spend five thousand dollars for the painting used to illustrate the cover, another couple of thousand for the cover designer to put together an integrated cover design, and thousands more to have the covers printed with embossed metallic type for the title.

You don’t have that kind of budget. What should you expect to pay to have an eye-catching cover that will draw bookstore or gift shop browsers to pick up your book in the first place? If your cover is going to have an illustration, you will have to commission an artist to create it or you will have to purchase rights to a stock photograph. The range here may be anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars, depending on the illustration. In addition, you have to pay an experienced cover designer, either to come up with the cover concept from scratch and execute it or to adapt the concept and sketch you’ve come up with. This service can cost from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars. But at this stage, price is not as important a consideration as the designer’s experience with books in the same genre as yours.

Any designer should be glad to hear your ideas for a cover. But don’t be surprised if the designer explains why your ideas won’t serve your needs as well as you think they will. You need to find someone you can trust and whose prior work you like. After that, the designer should take the lead role in putting together your cover.

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