Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Pause Before the Plunge

Doorway by SheepI’ve been thinking about covers for novels a lot lately because I’ve got a couple of books that present a challenge for cover design. I don’t design covers, but it is part of my job to help the cover designers find the right direction.

I’ve had a fairly consistent procedure for kick starting cover ideas for a few years now, and I’m starting to realize why I think it works for me. Here’s what I do. I mine the manuscript for keywords and phrases. I plug all of these into Flickr and click away until I start to get overwhelmed with images. What this does is disconnect me from the story and reconnect me with something pause inducing about the book. I’ve forgotten the story, but hopefully I’m captivated by an image that still relates to it. Everyone who works on covers must have her own process, but I’m pretty sure one of the major tricks is remembering that the cover literally comes before the story for most readers. If you forget that, you’re apt to fall in love with a cover a that perfectly captures the book for someone who has already read the book—something like a summary. In my experience, a cover that feels like a perfect summation of the book immediately after you’ve read the last page is a cover that’s too busy to slow down someone speeding by the book on the shelves. You can get away with this if the book has a built in audience that’s seeking the book out, but if you’re relying on the cover to be a first impression on a chance encounter, it needs to be enticing, not maximally informative.

Here’s another way to think about this: the cover is a doorway into a book’s world and it functions like the doorway into a well-designed home. It creates a sense of of drama and expectation, but it is not a “summary” of a room. It shows a little bit, but it also preserves some privacy—you could even say mystery. You need to walk through it to know everything. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses are an extreme example of this. Many of his greatest houses have extremely well hidden “front” doors that require visitors to slow down before actually entering it. The house gradually draws you in instead of throwing itself open for you. It's the difference between entering like Kramer and a ritual procession. One of my favorite books on architecture, A Pattern Language, talks about “thickening” the edges around doorways and windows and then liberally decorating them. Doors, like covers, aren’t always about easy access. They’re about slowing you down for a moment, not speeding you up. And that’s really the opposite of what you get from a cover that tries to sum up the book. Such a cover must rush to get everything in. Firopotamos Doorway 2 by ChrisGoldNY.I think the best the cover, like the best door, slows you down on the threshold of the world (or, less philosophically, it slows you down as you walk past in a bookstore). A doorway or a cover invites a ceremonial pause before a plunge.


Elaine Marie Alphin said...

I love the image of the cover as a doorway that slows the potential reader down and entices him or her to enter the world of the book. I've always thought that the best covers make the reader wonder what's going to happen when they read the first page.

And this approach for covers should not be only for novels...

Happiness said...

Your process for discovering book cover imagery is profound. I am an author (just finishing the final revisions on my debut novel, ANYA'S ECHO) and I must have a title before I can write. I am going to layer this with "I must have a cover image, too!"
Thank you, thank you!
Andrea Alban Gosline

Jody Sparks said...

Facsinating. I had just used your process for thinking of a new title for my book a few days ago. I was afraid of giving the book too obvious (summation as you say) of a title and puzzled over if I did give it military-ish title, would I get a non-military cover and if I didn't give a military-ish title would I end up with something obviously American for the cover? And would either of those things be bad? So, I faked designed my covers (It helps that I work at a graphic design firm with people who do this sort of thing so I can watch their process) to see how titles may lead design. I understand that authors may have little control over titles and zero control over covers, but it really helped me to end up loving a title I was wishy-washy about before.

Blythe said...

I wonder how the use of images will change as some readers shift to e-texts. I hope that some pages might become richer--with marginalia and ornament. The frontispiece might become more common once again. I'm thinking this sort of thing while I pet a pile of old books with cloth-covered boards and no "cover" at all from a marketing standpoint. (Some might have had a dust cover once, but I rather doubt it.) In any case, they are quite nude now, with nothing but their title as an invitation. The funny thing is that the old adage that "you can't judge a book by the cover" probably dates from the time when you really couldn't--because all books looked pretty much the same.