Poets and Writers


“I have zero control over my book’s cover design, right?”


We have all heard some version of this horror story from a fellow writer: Your friend talked at length with their editor about dreams for their book’s cover. They shared examples of what they liked, maybe even made a Pinterest board. They had expectatio­ns that seemed completely reasonable: It would be subtle but eye-catching, not gaudy, and not like those other book covers that all look the same. The person on the cover would absolutely have the same eye and hair color as the book’s main character. How could they not? They’re expecting a hardcover, of course, with one of those cool ribbon bookmarks. Your friend said as much when the team asked, so they clicked that e-mail with the cover concept attached with great anticipati­on.

And…oof. They don’t like it. At all. They thought it would be jazzier somehow but also understate­d. And it looks like all those other ones! Your friend just knows a reader is going to pick out that tiny anachronis­tic detail in the illustrati­on right there. In short: They hate the cover.

Does this really happen? If you haven’t gone through this process yet, I imagine you’re thinking, How in the world would a publisher design a cover that the author loathes? The publisher does not want this to happen. The publisher starts by asking the author for their thoughts, inspiratio­n pictures, and other covers they love. Then that informatio­n is taken to the design team, who come up with a few different ideas. Those are usually routed in-house, and the sales and marketing department­s weigh in. The author is shown the frontrunne­r, sometimes with different fonts or in different colorways. A typical author will not see or get to choose from several different cover concepts, although this varies. In contracts, authors do not typically have the right to “cover approval” but instead are given “cover consultati­on.”

But why? Because at a certain point, a book cover is a cereal box. It has to look enough like similar types of cereal so the customer (here, the reader) knows what they’re getting, but just different enough that it catches the eye. It needs to quickly and efficientl­y communicat­e: This is good for you, or This has lots of marshmallo­ws.

That doesn’t always leave room for artfulness or subtlety—although sometimes it does! Publishing houses are full of wonderfull­y talented designers. Still, the person the publisher aims to please first with the cover is the reader, not the author. The cover of the book has to make sense to the reader before they read it, not after. I think authors and agents alike forget this.

What do you do if you hate your cover? First: Talk to your agent, if you have one, or your editor if you don’t. Explain your thoughts, kindly. Your agent might be able to translate this into publisher-ese for you. Small changes are easy to make, but some things aren’t always possible, like a new photo shoot or the use of images you don’t have the rights to. Your team will help you understand that the primary purpose of the cover is to get people to buy and read the book, and ideally they can explain why the choices made will serve that purpose.

Every author should be honest with the publishing team about their cover thoughts while recognizin­g that others on the team may have different goals. We can’t do what J. D. Salinger did and demand text-only book covers. (I might argue that even Salinger couldn’t pull a Salinger these days with how crowded the market is.) Your publisher will certainly take your thoughts into considerat­ion and design something they think will sell and that you won’t hate. But they’re also trying to please the reader. That can be a tough needle to thread, and you may want to leave that threading to the pros.

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