Thursday, June 20, 2013

Major Publishers vs. Book Cover Design

Which is more important for the success of a new book — the prestige of being released by a major publisher, or a book cover that accurately reflects the title, content, and spirit of the book?

I am not sure which is the right answer, but is not just a rhetorical question. It is something authors have to decide — because for all the things that publishers do well, they are clueless when it comes to book covers. 

I know about this from my own experience. My first book was the defining work in an emerging computer field, but it appeared in stores in the plain-white, random-shape, scrawled cover you see above. I was never entirely proud to say, “Yes, that’s my name on the cover.” The cover design offered no hint of the book’s subject, style, or approach. And it is hardly the worst example you could find.

We have all had occasion to cringe or laugh out loud at major-publisher book covers. Images often clash with the book or the author — a nostalgic design for an author known for cutting-edge ideas, or a painting of ducks selected for the cover of a book about mammals. Covers are designed quickly, with so little review that author names are sometimes misspelled, and words omitted from titles.

I make a big point of this because this year, there is a new trend of self-publishing among celebrity authors, and some of them have cited worries over book cover design as one of the reasons not to sign with a major publisher. Celebrity authors especially have reason to worry that their book covers will embarrass them. They may have invested years of careful effort in their public images, and it would hurt to have that undercut by a book cover thrown together in an afternoon by a designer who may not have been told who the author is or what the book is about. That could be reason enough for a celebrity not to seek out a book deal.

There have been a few big self-published celebrity books this year, and as they succeed, more will follow. There are indications that this is a trend that the major publishers have started to worry about. Will the major publishers lose control of the celebrity book segment? That would be a seismic shift in the book business — celebrity books are at the heart of the major-publisher business model — yet the stage is set for that to happen next.