I’ve now been a part of two book cover designs, and I adhere to one overwhelming principle. You’re going to live with your book for a lifetime. It’s a little like getting married. It’s a little like buying a house. Make sure that every time you look at it, you love it.
You’ve worked so hard on your story, after all. It’s a gift you’re giving yourself and the world. So make sure your story is dressed to the nines, that you’re proud to be seen in public with it. Don’t take a short cut; don’t be too frugal.
Your cover design needs to accomplish two things:
- Catch a potential book buyer’s eye
- Capture the book inside in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way.
Peter Mendelsund, a designer at Knopf who is reputed to be one of the best in the industry, describes his job as “finding that unique textual detail that … can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.”
Ideally, you want a designer who will read your book and look for relevant details to work with—not just mindlessly follow the conventions. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a designer, Patti Capaldi, who did both. I admired her aesthetic, but beyond that, I most appreciated the way she worked with me. We worked as partners, creative collaborators.
Here’s how the process worked. For my most recent cover, the collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, I filled out a questionnaire that included listing such things as the adjectives that described my stories and the adjectives that didn’t describe them. Then I sent on images of my favorite covers from other books.
Patti followed up with a phone conversation to talk through everything. The conversation was important because it was critical to make sure we were on the same page and had a trusting relationship. As a result, when Patti later sent me comps to look at, it was easier to give feedback and weigh different options because we had a common point of reference and a shared vision.
I offered to help Patti research images (to cut down costs for my publisher). I learned one thing: it’s really difficult to find the perfect image. I sent on a handful of possibilities, but none of them were quite right (and thank God Patti offered her guidance on why they weren’t right). We ended up going with an image Patti chose.
There are amazing image resources online, though, so I want to pass on the ones Patti sent to me.
Big agencies, huge collections
More specialized agencies with consistently arty, sophisticated stuff
Insanely cheap, huge collections with lots of junk and a surprising amount of good stuff too!
http://www.dreamstime.com (practically free!)
http://www.istockphoto.com (practically free!)
Historical photos/fine art
http://www.loc.gov/pictures (Library of Congress, great free stuff but make sure image information says “no known copyright restrictions” or take note of information provided)
http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary (wonderful collection of papers, letters, archive materials, photos, often very high resolution and free)
http://www.everettcollection.com (entertainment, $300+)
http://www.photographymuseum.com (a photo collector’s site—great old civil war and other historical photos)