I’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. 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.