Written for SYP Scotland blog | For our October event we wanted to look at the process of book design, from its conception, to its place in a bookshop. Do you judge a book by its cover? What are the dos and don’ts? What actually goes into the ideas process? Luckily, we had a great panel, and a sell-out audience, on hand for some great discussion.
“A lot of things I particularly like won’t necessarily sell well.”
The evening begins with Jim Hutcheson, creative director at Birlinn, who has decades’ worth of experience in design, working both independently and for other publishers like Canongate previously. As he scrolls through many covers he had worked with, he comes to Life of Pi, and our first key lesson: the follow-up sold like a lead balloon, despite having the same artist and being almost identical design-wise. In some cases, “the content’s most important.”
For his process, Jim tends to sketch before he does the actual book. “For every book jacket I work on, I have a sketchbook. I still do it, but don’t have to hand it to anyone.”
He takes us through a particular example: Zero by Brian McCabe. There was several incarnations of the cover, going through typographical twists and doughnuts, until they reached the finished product. “You go through a whole load of permutations,” he explains. There’ll always be one you like the most, but “I rarely get my way!” It has to go through other departments, like sales and marketing.
“A lot of things I particularly like won’t necessarily sell well,” he adds, a reminder that there is more to design than just looking nice. It serves a practical purpose in publishing – to draw people in, to sell. “If sales hate it, you redesign.”
“You’ve got to be able to adapt.”
Some clients know what they want, others are more open to a creative process. From a designer’s perspective, they get paid the same either way. “There’s a zeitgeist – if an image does well, you copy it.” He prefers the old way of commissioning your own photography rather than turning to photo libraries, but understands how things have moved on.
“These things all go through trends, you’ve got to be able to adapt,” he continues. From typography and photography, he also takes us through one of his hand-drawn designs that went on to become The Rivals, with all edits done on InDesign. “They don’t like white book jackets, by the way! They get dirty in a bookshop.”
Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North comes up next. He was an author who knew what he wanted – similar to H is for Hawk; Jim takes us back through over 100 years of influences that brought them to that point.
Someone asks on the choice between photography and illustration – is there a defined way to know? “It’s a gut feeling,” Jim notes. “Things have gone back to being quite bespoke. Illustration is owning just now.”
“You have five seconds to grab someone’s attention.”
Calum McGhie of Blackwells begins, “Are book covers important to booksellers? Yes they are.” As we all entered the shop, there were 150 books next to the door. “I bet you can’t name a single one.” In one fiction department, a book becomes a small fish in a large pond, and by the time you get to three floors of books, it’s miniscule. “Small or big publisher, there’s no less chance of speaking to the client.”
He turns to Penguin as a key example of design: they were the first to really differentiate their projects. “Human beings are incredibly visual animals. Make it visually appealing, make it something someone wants to pick up. What is special to the customer is to have that experience of buying a book. Between those two covers is a whole world of imagination that someone can fall in love with.”
But the text is secondary. “The cover design played an important role in hooking you in,” he continues; without that initial interest, the book is skimmed by. “You have five seconds to grab someone’s attention and engage the brain. They’re seven times more likely to buy it once it’s been picked up.”
It’s about honesty and integrity. If a bookseller sells a bad product, a customer won’t come back. A good cover shows effort being put into a quality product.
“A good cover uses simple design principles, like the rule of thirds or golden section,” he adds. He goes on to compare UK and US covers. The UK is more comfortable with space – the US seems to need it noisy. Even The Fault in Our Stars, that look more similar than most UK/US divides, reflects the subtle differences in knowing their audience’s preferences.
“It needs to grab the attention,” Calum notes, handing over to Marie Moser of the Edinburgh Bookshop.
“The clues are important.”
Marie cuts to the chase: “I reject books form my shop on the basis of cover because my audience will.” She shows the ways in which books can be displayed in decreasing preference: table, bundle, wall. “Pray your spine does well.”
“First of all, we are all really informed on buying,” explains Marie. She holds up a moleskin and everyone knows what it is. She holds up a knock-off Ladybird book, but everyone understood the connection. “As consumers, we do that all the time.”
“We scan. We don’t know we’re doing it. We read left to right. Our brain is looking for something to entertain it. The clues are important, even if it’s not what you’re looking for.”
These clues lead seamlessly to genre and crime. The Sun is God may be a belting book, but the cover does not match up to the darker expectations of a crime book’s design. People may say it’s not for them based on that alone. But then again, “rejection is important too as it lets the customer move on to the book they are looking for.”
“It’s art vs. practicality.”
“You have to try to stay practical as well as beautiful,” she notes, taking us through some designs she dislikes from the last year. One is a winding string of text that, when shrunk to online size, would be completely illegible. On a spine, it doesn’t flow properly, and people will walk by. Penguin’s censored 1984 book is clever, she admits, and she understands why they did it, but to an average shopper who doesn’t know what it is – what use is it on a shelf? These are the questions she says designers need to consider.
“We ain’t got galleries, we’ve got jam-packed bookshelves,” Marie says. “It’s art vs. practicality.”
She returns to 60 Degrees North. It has a clear name, all the right clues to tell you what might be inside. She thinks it’s a great design from a bookselling perspective.
“Human beings have to get past the cover first.” People who are dyslexic can have trouble reading interlinked book titles and author names on covers – older people can have issues reading smaller or pale print. These practicalities need to be factored into design too.
“Have a test bookshelf,” she advises. “Can you see what your book is when it’s on a shelf? Clean can be useful in a crowded market.”
We can be guilty of snobbery and thinking some designs “are not clever enough”. Back to 1984, we can all see why they did it, but “it makes me bang my head as a retailer. I can’t put it face out.”
“Try and keep a glimpse of the real world because that’s where it’s going to end up,” she says. “A couple of books a month are rejected because I can’t sell it. You can get the wrong side of the fence. Don’t be too clever, be beautiful but try to be practical.”
“You can’t have too thin a skin.”
For those looking to perhaps go into design, what advice would they offer? For one, drawing from his own experience, Jim says looking at the latest design magazines. It’s a way of seeing what others are doing.
Marie adds that “you can’t have too thin a skin. That’s not going to work.” People can dismiss a week’s worth of your work in the blink of an eye and you’ll have to go away and come back. It’s not personal, it’s just moving towards the right design. One person, they recall, had to redraw their entire cover to fit a Waterstones display. “You just have to take it all on the chin.”
What are the best genres for experimentation as a designer or illustrator? “Children’s,” says Marie. “It’s driven by great illustrators and designers. Children’s is astounding. There’s a breadth of techniques.”
Calum thinks that travel is full of stunning photos. It’s a genre that reflects the nature of a specific title. Jim notes that there’s a swing back against digital at the moment, and the group notes that children don’t seem to like e-books. It’s a resilient area. “If a child likes the duck on page five, that’s what they want,” says Marie, on how they don’t necessarily read in a linear way. “They love the physical book for that.”
Another question: film tie-in covers. They’re not massively popular with many book lovers, but is there a sales incentive to do them? “It does help,” says Calum. “It hits a visual note.” When it’s busy, it has a purpose: “instant recognition.”
“If it makes people who don’t usually read want to buy a book, then I say, ‘Bring on the film tie-in covers!’” says Marie. “The problem with them can be snobbery.”
So to close: what’s their favourite cover in the last year or so?
“The new Caesar Augustus book,” says Jim. Luckily, there’s one facing everyone from a bookshelf for reference! “Collins’ new naturalist series,” says Calum. “They have new covers, and allude to the 1950s original.”
“The biggest delight is how awesome children’s books are,” says Marie, describing Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl as “a piece of publishing joy.”