Learn how to decide a ebook by its cowl

Unlike many designers who only read a detailed brief but not the entire book, partly due to time pressures, freelance designer Sandy Cull is a literary fiction fan who always reads the complete manuscript. “The brief for The Museum of Modern Love made the book sound very weird, so I’m glad I read it, as that can provide valuable clues to tone. Otherwise the information I have is incomplete and becomes too much like guesswork. You also need to know what to leave out so as not to give something crucial away.”

She became obsessed by the story, which focuses on a marathon performance by artist Marina Abramovic, who invited the public to come and sit and look into her eyes without speaking for days at the Metropolitan Museum (and who will launch the US edition there next month).

Some of the more creative book covers in recent years.

Some of the more creative book covers in recent years.

“I’d never heard of her when I got the job,” admits Cull, “but I soon became obsessed. I took the geometrical design concept from the fact that Marina sat in a white square. I wanted to match the boldness of the writer. I brought six concepts into the first meetings, which is fairly typical, including ones that made more reference to the Manhattan location of the novel. Those were rejected as too arty or lacking wow factor. It was only at round three that I revisited my original cube idea – originally in an all white version – and applied the colours of Marina’s three dresses. Six weeks after I got the manuscript, I heard that Heather loved my cover. Phew!”

Unusually for a design originating in Australia, Cull’s cover is being used on the British and US editions – a significant compliment to her interpretation and its wide appeal.

The Trauma Cleaner is an unconventional, hard-to-categorise book, straddling the genres of creative non-fiction, biography and psychology; the repellent nature of its content presented an additional challenge. Chong recalls that “there was a high level of excitement among the team about the manuscript, which means people had strong opinions and their own ideas”. That made his job more difficult. “Conventional wisdom would have suggested a photograph of the subject herself, or some kind of image that represented the job of forensic cleaning, but that was problematic and also failed to address the unique tone of the book.” Chong’s solution was to ignore the cacophony of suggestions and start with a clean slate : “I did my own trauma cleaning,” he jokes.

Standout non fiction book cover designs.

Standout non fiction book cover designs.

Leaving the project to settle for some time, he eventually went to his studio and drew a rubber glove. Playing with how to represent the trauma aspect of the story, he drew a twisted version. He then went to a supermarket and bought a selection of rubber gloves to photograph. “Pink was too fleshy, yellow and green too Aussie. Orange sent the right kind of signal about drama and danger.” Not surprisingly, the concept was adopted unanimously.

In an ironic bit of synchronicity, two days after the cover had been approved, the American edition arrived, bearing a cover featuring a yellow glove with a drop of blood on one fingertip.

One of the most striking covers of this year’s crop is Christa Moffatt’s for the hardback edition of Shell, the new novel by Kristina Olsson. It’s not just that it’s been printed on iridescent pearlised paper stock to try to capture the shimmering light of the Sydney Opera House at certain times of day. It’s that the image of the building looks like a painting, due to a smudged effect. But it is in fact a remarkable photograph, taken on the day of the red dust storm of 2009. “Christa looked at thousands of images but they were all a bit ‘meh’,” says publisher Fiona Henderson. “This one has the right degree of ambiguity, due to the fact that Christa tried 50 variations before nailing it.”

While these examples demonstrate original style that owes nothing to fashion, anyone visiting a bookshop recently would have noticed two distinct trends that still leave plenty of scope for individual flair: the proliferation of floral designs and the vogue for hand-lettering.

Locally, one of the most appealing bouquet covers of the bunch is Hazel Lam’s for The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, a debut novel by Holly Ringland that has found a large following, helped along by its Instagram appeal – a factor that no publisher can afford to ignore as an influential marketing tool. Indeed, Lam, an in-house designer at HarperCollins, discovered illustrator Edith Rewa, who she commissioned to design the cover, via Instagram.

The floral fad.

The floral fad.

“She has a particular talent for drawing Australiana and natives, which was specific to the story,” says Lam. “It was not a case of following a trend but of being faithful to the text. We decided on a black background as the story is dark, but also because it enhances the delicacy of the flowers.”

The floral fad seems to have originated in the US in the summer of 2017. Gracing a wide variety of fiction for women – from the most literary to the most commercial – and coinciding with the popularity of botanicals in fashion and interior design, it is perhaps an unconscious expression of contemporary concern over the fragility of the natural world or a reaction to the era when stark minimalism dominated the catwalk. (Birds too , are making an appearance on wallpapers, clothing and book jackets.)

As commentators have noted, the symbolism of blooms is useful in conveying meaning through metaphor, versatile enough to apply to genres from romance to mystery (perhaps featuring more vegetation and foliage than blooms) and covering themes of fecundity, luxury, abundance, nature, sensuality, life and death without being too literal.

They are a welcome relief from the mid-’90s when fiction about women that featured even the slightest hint of malaise seemed to be characterised by covers that concealed the female face or showed only a torso – the arty nude on Justine Ettler’s bestseller The River Ophelia would not go down well in the world of #MeToo. Obscuring or blurring the face creates an air of mystery and ambiguity around a character’s identity, but it can also feel like generic objectification.

In contrast to the prettiness of bouquet books, Lam is also responsible for effectively deploying the other current most popular look – handwritten lettering – on the cover of John Purcell’s The Girl on the Page. In a clever nod to the novel’s heroine, book editor Amy Winston, she’s created a traditional manuscript page proof, complete with handwritten corrections and comments in the margin. The cursive script of the title in bold red suggests lipstick, blood and mayhem (although these days proofs look different thanks to editing software programs, but you get the general idea). In adult literary titles, the most noticeable typographic trend is generous spacing between lines on the cover – a trend kickstarted by Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See – which often now appears in consort with the floral backgrounds.

The most noticeable typographic trend is generous spacing between lines on the cover - a trend kickstarted by Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See

The most noticeable typographic trend is generous spacing between lines on the cover – a trend kickstarted by Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

Over the last few years, in both literary and commercial fiction, bookshop shelves have been alive with images of women in overcoats walking into the distance (a new life? the future?) from  Tania Blanchard’s The Girl from Munich (which also incorporates the “Doerr”) type layout to Caroline’ Beecham’s Eleanor’s Secret.  A more upmarket and moody version  features a strategic  pop of colour: a red dress on Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, a red umbrella on Andrea Goldsmith’s The Memory Trap, a red coat on Anna Funder’s All That I Am.

Mark Campbell, president of the Australian Book Design Association (ABDA), says that in Australia it’s the small, independent publishing houses that are commissioning the boldest covers. This may be because they are intended for more sophisticated and visually literate readers who are receptive to work that announces itself as edgy or experimental. But even genres like mass-market historical and romance fiction, which have previously tended towards the formulaic, are loosening their stays a little: “It used to be the case that rural romance had to have a sunset, and red dirt, and a girl with long hair on the cover, but it becomes passe once you see it replicated too often.”

The "woman in coat" design trend.

The “woman in coat” design trend.

Technology has had a big impact on book design, especially with the increase in online book sales, meaning that many customers see covers only as the size of a postage stamp, rather than life size. That means covers that feature strong colour contrasts for maximum impact such as Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe by Darren Holt.

“You’ll see a lot of titles, especially in non-fiction that is gritty, which use black, white and yellow; the rods and cones in the human eye respond well to that combination,” says Campbell, who is also head of design for HarperCollins.

Fads often outstay their welcome to become cliches: “I think sepia has been overdone for popular history,” says Campbell. Maybe, but when it comes to appealing to male readers of non-fiction, the combination of retro photograph and scenic location – often witnessed on books by Peter FitzSimons – confers reassuring gravitas.

Another way to signal “this is serious” is with large bold type that unequivocally states “pay attention”. This applies particularly to issue-based non-fiction such as Stan Grant’s Talking To My Country , also by Darren Holt, and Clementine Ford’s Boys Will be Boys , designed by Catherine L. Donaldson.

Despite all the industry expertise, publishers do still falter occasionally with covers that hit the wrong note, often relying on stock images from photographic libraries in an effort to cut costs. The sad industry reality is that designers are paid a pittance for their work: average fees range from $1000 to $2000 per job. A paltry sum when you consider how many concepts they are expected to submit. And despite the high standards and good looks of most Australian titles, booksellers are occasionally bemused by covers that seem to sabotage a title’s chances. One told Spectrum incredulously about a sparkling debut novel with an unappealing brown jacket that doomed it to online oblivion, only for the publisher to ask proudly “Don’t you love the cover?” – proving that it is, in the end, largely a question of personal taste. But we still look better than the French.

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