Monday, September 3, 2012

Creating Book Covers As Both Mirror and Window

An It's Complicated! — Book Covers guest post by Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Laurent Linn
It’s simply a fact. We judge books—like people—by their appearance.

When looking for books, we like covers that have attractive/intriguing images and type, suggest genres we like, resemble books we’ve already enjoyed (but don’t resemble them too much as to feel derivative), and look new/current. Also extremely important is, for young readers, “Is this book about someone like me?” One little cover must carry a lot of weight.

With so many wonderful books published about kids of all types, it’s very possible for diverse kids to discover characters that resemble them. For this connection to happen, the cover design becomes incredibly important. But a cover doesn’t only need to appeal to kids (whose tastes and visual language are as diverse and evolving as they are), it has to meet the approval of art directors, editors, authors, agents, publishers, sales and marketing departments, book buyers and sellers, librarians, reviewers, parents, etc.—all of whom are adults, with their own ideas about what works. An interesting challenge, yes?

Children’s publishing is an ongoing experiment. There are no formulas, no set rules, and no guidebooks to successful covers. (If there were, all our books would be bestsellers I suppose.) But this challenge makes it fun. As an art director portraying diversity through design, I mainly rely on my own expertise, but also consider the informed opinions of sales and marketing colleagues. In addition to being an art form, publishing is a business, after all. Designing a book dealing with diversity can be a complex art/commerce balancing act.

In Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright, Carlos faces discrimination for being gay, overweight, and Hispanic. However, he’s also out and proud. I knew an important consideration was to make sure the book, while about a specific character, appeal to a wide range of readers. So, how to create a cover that says “hey, this book is about someone like you” while also saying “hey, this book is about a guy who’s not like you but has similar problems”? The title is intriguing and says a lot already, so, for the image, I wanted to show a proud, sassy kid without literally showing him. By using a silhouette, readers can impose their own image of who they think that character is. In essence, encouraging a reader to know Carlos first before potentially judging him by his appearance. Just what most kids yearn for every day.

For the powerful novel A Certain October, by Angela Johnson, I wanted to show the main character but, more than that, I wanted to portray a feeling that all kids relate to: hope. Scotty is an African-American girl, but the book is much more about surviving tragedy—something shared by everyone in varying degrees. By focusing on a universal emotion first, then a specific character second, my hope is that this cover satisfies the dual need of appealing to African-American girls specifically while appealing to all other readers as well.

Gay. Lesbian. Bi. Questioning. Hispanic. Asian. White. Boyfriends with Girlfriends, by Alex Sanchez, has it all. Creating the cover for this wonderful novel was quite the challenge. How to show a diverse group of friends discovering their sexualities in a way that would (hopefully) satisfy all the gate-keepers and potential readers? Look sexy but not too sexy? Be commercial and literary? Appear polished but also make an emotional connection to kids who need a book like this?

To achieve these goals (or as many as possible in one image), I aimed to create a cover that looks “hot”, like a movie poster, but shows the characters interacting in ways that suggest the story’s complexities. Casting models who resemble the characters was key, of course, as was posing them to be true to their relationships (it was quite a photo shoot)!

Judging by appearance also includes clothes. I dressed the models in character appropriate costumes, but decided in the end to make them gray. This way, you first notice the overall similarities of the characters—the diverse yet alike warm skin tones and cool clothing tones—then, as you look closer, you see the differences.

You can’t please everyone. But if you can create a cover that first appeals to the adult gate-keepers, then connects with enough kids (whether looking in a mirror or seeing through a window), so that a book not only sells many copies but also makes a difference in many lives, then I consider that a success.


  1. Reading what made you take certain artistic choices was interesting.

    What a fun and interesting post about covers and the concepts behind them. =)

  2. Just a gorgeous cover for A Certain October. It’s the silhouette thing that bothers me. Far too many multi-cultural books with this sort of cover. It makes me wonder what the cover would have been if the protagonist was gay, overweight and white. I agree a book can be judged by its cover, but I have some questions. (a) Who is doing the judging, the publishers and/or the readers? (b) Are the publishers imposing their own prejudices on to the readers? (c) If having a Hispanic boy on the cover tips the scales towards rejection by the readers, then do we cater to this prejudice?

    1. While I agree that we don't want to shy away from portraying people of color on the jacket, sometimes a silhouette can be exactly the right thing for a particular cover. I've heard it argued successfully both ways, whether we should portray any character on the cover of a YA book, usually citing the reason that *no* person on the cover opens up the book to more readers and avoids a specific image interfering with the reader's reading (see Mitali Perkins's great post on the subject, particularly her discussion of a boy wanting to pick up the version of Forest of Hands & Teeth that didn't have a girl on the cover).

      Yet we're going through a time in which portrayal of characters on the cover is the cool thing--and in many ways, I think seeing faces on the cover *can* draw in more readers as well. At Tu Books, we don't want to shy away from portraying our characters on the cover because we really do believe that it shouldn't make a difference, and part of getting the point where it *doesn't* in practice is making more books on which characters of color are portrayed--making the practice more ubiquitous. Yet sometimes silhouettes just make a better cover in a certain design (we did it on the cover of SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS because it worked to bring the design together, making us able to show all five sisters rather than having to pick one).

      But the reality is, booksellers tell us that they still have problems selling books across racial and cultural lines (see Mitali's unscientific numbers in that post I linked). I think booksellers like Elizabeth Bluemle at The Flying Pig bookstore in Vermont are making a difference in how they handsell (in that link, she discusses how she'll talk up several books in a row, *then* show the covers to the parent). Often it's not the kids that have the problem, but the adults in their lives--parents, especially--who just don't see something "other" as relevant to their lives. White people have been trained to believe that if it has an all-black cast (Tyler Perry, BET, etc.) then it's not for them.

      So I think a wide variety of methods to normalize and invite readers is necessary--showing characters right there on the cover has its place, and cool, inviting covers that don't necessarily show the character are also important; if someone on the "window" side were to pick up this book thinking what a cool cover it is and come to sympathize with the character after getting to know him, I think that's just as valid a design choice as portraying the character right up front.

      See also this study, regarding "experience-taking," which I thought was fascinating if we think about it as related to covers drawing people in.

    2. Thanks very much, Stacy, for responding to my questions and the fascinating links. I’m not so sure about Mitali Perkins’s solution of removing faces from the covers of most YA novels. I think we are just camouflaging the issue. Hunger Games may be a good example. Yes, the book was a best-seller, and then we have the movie. Katniss (who I think is described as olive-skinned in the book) was played by Jennifer Lawrence. Is this acceptable?

      Yes, most boys would rather not buy a book with a girl on the cover (whatever her color). I would consider this choice an acceptable phase in growing-up. I just don’t believe that the issue of color can be put in the same box.

      My problem is this; how do I ask a young adult of non-European ancestry to purchase my book (assuming it’s published) and simultaneously imply that the color of her skin (which is also the color of my skin) is not attractive enough/ marketable enough to grace the cover of the book?

    3. So many interesting comments and thoughts!

      What you say, Stacy, is so true about YA books in general -- many readers want a photographic representation of the main character on the cover, and many don’t (so they may imagine what the character looks like themselves.) It’s always a case-by-case decision.

      To specifically address PUTTING MAKEUP ON THE FAT BOY, another factor in my design direction I didn’t go into in the blog post is that we must take into consideration covers of other books out there in a particular genre. While a book in a genre must look appealing to that readership, it shouldn’t look derivative, or too much “the same”. In this case, the book’s genre is primarily LGBT teen fiction, which was the main marketing focus and how it was reviewed. (It won this year’s ALA Stonewall Book Award as well as the Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Children’s/YA category.)

      The main character’s challenges in this book are overwhelmingly due to the way he’s treated for being gay. So I had to be sure it stood out from other gay teen fiction in a dynamic way, where a silhouetted figure isn’t a design seen very often.

      Of course, this is just one consideration of many that go into designing a cover (such as what I mentioned in the blog post, as well as incorporating the title in a creatively and cohesively designed way; what the author’s previous books look like, and if this book should look similar or completely different from those; what other covers look like on our publishing list for that particular season, as well as previous seasons; the age range of the intended reader; etc.)

      Thanks for all the great thoughts!

    4. I completely agree that saying that brown faces on the cover of a book aren't marketable is wrong. I don't agree with that point of view.

      But I think Mitali's point is that a face isn't necessary, period (on any book--not just books starring people of color). We're just in a phase right now where faces are fashionable (and photos/artwork do date quickly, making the cover unappealing to the next generation even though most books' content can stand the test of time--think about paperback photo and photorealistic covers from the 1980s). That's a valid viewpoint, I think.

      As our series suggests, it's complicated. My solution, personally, is not to shy away from putting the main character on the cover when the design warrants it. So far, that means 4 of our 7 titles so far have depictions of the main character on the cover. And we'll be going up to 6 of 9 with our next season, most likely. Other people are advocating for other solutions. I don't think anyone here, though, is saying NOT to put a character of color on the cover when the design calls for putting a character on the cover at all.

      By the way, I don't think the Hunger Games book cover was purposely obscuring Katniss's ethnicity. It was just a cool design that was right for the book. Even if she had been depicted on the cover, I'm not sure Hollywood would have paid attention to it (and she was depicted on the UK version, on which her coloring might be described as Italian, which would fall under a description of "olive-skinned," so "olive-skinned" was pretty ambiguous; from what I can tell, Suzanne Collins was fine with Jennifer Laurence's casting). I think the Hunger Games casting isn't as controversial as, for example, that of the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Whether Katniss was miscast, however, is a Hollywood whitewashing issue, not a publishing industry whitewashing issue.

    5. Thanks very much, Laurent and Stacy, for your responses.

      The issue for me is that there aren’t enough multi-cultural books with covers that accurately portray the ethnicity of the main character. This isn’t a problem that plagues books with protagonists of European ancestry. Whatever the reasons given for this lack, I think the only remedy is to put the characters on the covers. The very fact that there aren’t enough colored faces on book covers should warrant designs that include such faces. Once there is parity, then we can discuss whether the design should be abstract or not. Otherwise we are asking children of non-European ancestry to purchase books that, for a variety of reasons, won’t show representations of their faces on the covers.

      I’m also not sure that we can separate the publishing industry from the movie-making industry quite so neatly, but that could be just different ways of looking at the world.

      I look forward to the next set of books and book covers from Tu Books and Simon & Schuster Books.

  3. Great essay, Laurent. Thank you.

  4. You've opened the shade on the window behind which the art director works his magic. So many audiences to appeal to, so many issues to consider and translate visually.

  5. It's always intriguing what we all envision as portraying hope, humor, seriousness, etc. I can't wait to read A Certain October. While I'm not a fan of faces on covers, I like silhouettes, side views, and action shots - so October presents a happy medium.

  6. Great post, Laurent! In particular, I loved this line, which struck me as very true, especially these days: "Children’s publishing is an ongoing experiment. There are no formulas, no set rules, and no guidebooks to successful covers."

    1. Indeed! And that does make it fun and fascinating. If we wanted predictability, I suppose we'd all be in a different profession entirely :-)

  7. It's fascinating to get to see your process on these three covers, Laurent. There definitely is a dance between the mirror (reading-about-me) and window (reading-about-others) dynamics going on in all the phases of a story. Writers often talk about how the more specific you get, the more universal it becomes, which at first seems counter-intuitive. (You'd think the more vague you were, the more universal it would be.) But when you are really specific with a character - in their details and emotion - it makes them more REAL.
    It's always interesting to see the same book published in different countries and the different cover designs for the same story, like you mentioned for Hunger Games. I wonder if part of the transition to e-books in the future will be multiple covers for the same book, letting books appeal beyond a single image (though that sounds like more work for you art directors!)
    Love the discussion,

  8. Great post, Laurent! There will always be a wide range of opinions of what works and what's right, but the most important element in creating anything, be it a book cover, a character, or a story, is the thought, care, and passion behind it. Thank you for sharing your process behind these covers!

  9. I love the cover to PUTTING MAKE-UP ON THE FAT BOY, it's very refreshing to see a jacket with such a strong graphic image that matches the impact of the title. It's powerful and intimate at the same time. The color choices and handling of the text offer up a sense of positivity that I imagine would draw a young person (or anyone) to pick this book off the shelf. Marvelous.

  10. Great post, Laurent! It's fascinating to see all the factors that have to be taken into consideration to make a great cover.