s a writer, much of my day is spent daydreaming, procrastinating and writing sentences that begin with the phrase: “as a writer.” Often my fantasies center around the publication of my first book (as yet unwritten). I used to imagine it as a Just Kids-esque tale, documenting my early twenties spent living in New York. A pause whilst we collectively cringe. Despite the cliché, there’s a reason Patti’s book has become a staple in every hipster-aesthete’s literary arsenal. The cover is so goddamn chic.
As a writer, I’ve often pondered what makes a successful book cover these days, especially in an age of e-books and Audible. Would Melissa Broder’s The Pisces have been such a hit without its fish-cuddling coverstar? If Dolly Alderton hadn’t scribbled out the words “parties, dates, friends, jobs, life” on hers, would we still be so curious to hear what she knows about love?
“The real marrow of what makes a great cover is looking at an image and it being able to project out the abstract but important ideas or story that book is trying to convey,” explained Abigail Bergstrom. As the head of publishing at Gleam Titles, a digital-first literary agency, Bergstrom represents many of today’s up-and-coming authors. With clients like The Slumflower, Emma Gannon, Scarlett Curtis and recent cleaning sensation Mrs. Hinch, it’s Abigail’s job to help create books that will speak to the writers’ already established audiences.
“A lot of my authors have existing communities, so they have a real instinct and intuition on who’s going to buy the book,” she continued. This increase in agency among authors is reflected in their covers. “I think in the non-fiction space it’s very type-led, especially on issues of gender and women’s voices. They’re being taken seriously in the way that they should be and maybe haven’t in the past. Their covers are looking more authoritative — that’s a word I hear a lot of my authors say — they want to look authoritative. Less millennial pink, more authority.”
Bergstrom tells me e-book sales have now plateaued, hinting that people still desire the physical object over its digital counterpart. She mentions the tactility of books and their covers, which offer audiences reassurance in an age of media noise and fake news. Reading a book offers a chance to disconnect, box-ticking another of our generation’s most popular hobbies: mindfulness. What’s more, with our focus on individuality and the self, symbolic objects such as books have become all the more significant. Whether we’re displaying books on Instagram or displaying them in our homes, the covers speak volumes about not only the contents, but how we choose to represent ourselves. Even the Hadids have cottoned on. Like Gatsby and his unread library, flaunting a book on Instagram can sometimes seem tantamount to actually reading it.
So how often does Instagram come into conversations around design? “Really, it’s not about designing a cover that works for Instagram, it’s about designing a cover that’s going to be saleable through the internet,” explains Bergstrom. “Things like thumbnails on Audible — if you’ve got a cover that has really intricate tiny drawings, that’s not going to speak to the reader.”
What about the stories one routinely hears about writers fighting with publishers over their cover design? “The tug and war of the creative process is helpful,” says Bergstrom. “It really brings to light the positioning of the book and who it’s for…it’s good to have that ironed out and focused so that everybody’s on the same page before we enter the stage of comms and marketing the book.”
Crystal Rasmussen, author of 2018’s brilliant Diary of a Drag Queen, says their book was not only a way to speak to their own community, but an important means for educating others outside it — and that translated to the cover as well. “I wrote Diary of a Drag Queen for queer people to feel seen,” they tell me, “but also for allies and non-queer people to get inside a world which is so often singularly represented.” In terms of the impact this had on the cover: “pink and blue — you know, the colours of the genders (lol) — and I wanted a cigarette hanging out of the mouth, a minor subversion in a forum that is hard to subvert.”
Were there any stereotypes or clichés they were keen to avoid? “Yes, although in part I think we leaned into them,” says Rasmussen. “It’s about the specific book, I think, because part of drag’s backbone is to knowingly lean into trash, tackiness, tragedy. I wanted the back written in lipstick and the cover to be covered in glitter because, why not? I find a lot of publishing pretentious, so it’s fun to be brash — a little on the nose.”
Joan Wong is the designer behind the covers of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists. I asked her how it felt to approach such important cultural works from a design perspective. “I definitely felt a sense of responsibility creating visuals for what I felt like would be important texts about race and gender equality,” says Wong. “We Should All be Feminists, in particular, really took on a life of its own after publication. I saw many a protest sign drawn in the style of the cover during the 2017 Women’s March.”
I ask Crystal how it feels to live with the finished version. “I love it in moments and then I hate it in others. It’s much like hearing your own voice back on a recording — you hate it, you get used to it, then you start to think you have the most stunning voice in the world, and the cycle starts again.”
Still, there’s no one specific formula for guaranteeing a cover’s success, and balancing creative and commercial goals remains a timeless pursuit. “A successful book cover properly captures the tone of the book,” says Wong. “To me, it’s not so much about making sure the book sells as much as it is about doing right by the writing.” To borrow the oldest cliché in the book, it would seem that perhaps judging one by its cover might be a good idea after all.
Books the interviewees are excited about based on their covers:
Abigail Bergstrom: “Lotte Jeffs’ How to be a Gentlewoman. I love the fine line drawing, it captures the power and complexity of femininity, it’s set against a burnt orange with a hint of fresh lime for the type. It’s confident and thought-provoking and in terms of memoir it’s putting a modern glaze on something traditional.”
Joan Wong: “There’s a book that I’m currently designing which is a translated collection of poems by Tu Fu published by New Directions. I’m particularly excited about it because my mom had studied Tu Fu’s work when she was in school and I was able to get her to work on some calligraphy for the cover. The design is still in progress so her calligraphy might not make it to the final but it was still a lot of fun to be able to collaborate creatively with my mom.”
Myself: “I can’t get over the hypnotic cover of Susan Sontag’s On Photography — perfect image and perfect graphic design. I routinely find myself gazing at my copy and feeling calm and satisfied. Could also be because reading Susan Sontag makes me feel intelligent and smug…”
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.