Last week on Wild West Thursday, we talked about the changing roles and expectations of cover artists. This week, we’re going to talk about the changes to cover art design in recent years. This is primarily due to the transition from buying physical books in brick-and-mortar bookstores, to shopping online, either for a digital edition or a print edition of a given book.
Traditionally, the cover was considered to be part of the marketing budget for a book. (For some publication slots, the entire marketing budget might be consumed by the cover.) This makes a kind of sense, because in the world of physical books, the cover was the one thing that each and every potential customer would see.
There is a graphical language to cover art, which attempts to portray graphically to the potential reader what kind of book this is. For example, in the romance section, covers with a couple in a romantic embrace tend to be more sensual. The more naked the people are, the more sexually explicit the book is. A “candy box” cover – one with hearts and flowers or other doodads – is often chosen for a sweeter read. A cover with the heroine standing alone is a heroine-focused story. One with the hero alone is a hero-focused story. The darker the color of the cover, the darker the tone of the book. (Black, navy and purple are popular choices for paranormal romance.) We can go on and on, but you get the idea.
In addition, there may be special effects used on the cover. Once upon a time, historical romances often had step-backs. Essentially, this is a second cover. There’d be a candy box cover on the outside, then on the first inside page there would be another glossy cover page, usually a clinch. This developed out of historical romance readers wanting both kinds of covers, but preferring that the whole world didn’t see that they were reading a book with a clinch. Because the market was robust, it supported the additional cost of the second cover. Many of these step-back covers had custom die cuts, which is to say that they weren’t square. They could have a frilly edge, or a peekaboo window through to the stepback. These custom cuts required the making of a die and another step in the finishing process, so added to the cost. Part of the reason that step-backs are less common is because of the production costs associated with them. The other part is that they are very susceptible to damage, particularly when die cut – we’ve all seen them jammed into the racks so that the outer cover is bent. People don’t buy the bent ones, so they get returned and they can’t be shipped from the warehouse to new clients. Waste rates are higher on books with these kinds of packages.
In addition, covers on print books can have foil stamping and embossing – that means the type (usually the title) appears to be gold or metallic, and is 3-D instead of flat. They can also have varnish – it’s very common on YA books to use a spot varnish or a gloss varnish on a matte cover – or tinted overlays. The idea behind all of these treatments is to make the book cover catch the consumer’s eye.
Finally, there are production choices made to ensure that the physical book is as attractive as possible. Most printing that we see in the world is four colour lithography – this method has constraints because it creates images out of dots in subtractive primaries (yellow, magenta, cyan plus black). Some colours are composed of different ratios of a number of these primaries. For example, the cherry red of the Coca Cola logo is 100% yellow and 100% magenta. It reproduces very nicely in four colour litho, because the two solid blocks of colour overlap each other. As long as the colours are “in register”, it will look great. (You sometimes see 4 colour litho “out of register” in the weekend comics section.) A purple, though, might be 100% magenta, 60% yellow and 20% cyan. We could make it darker by adding 10% black. If that purple were to be used in type – like the title of the book, for example – it’s very likely that the production manager would choose to run a custom ink colour, rather than trying to get all those screens to line up nicely. (Even if they did line up perfectly, the purple might look mottled, and the fine lines of the type – like the points of the serifs – might not hold.) Similarly, certain patterns get goofy in the screen process and create a distracting moire pattern. If such a pattern were in the image, say as a pastel background, the production manager might choose to run that part of the image in a custom ink colour, too. This is all intended to make the final book look better.
But design constraints and needs change when we shop for books online. In that little thumbnail of the cover that displays on most online book retailer sites, we can’t see the foil stamping or the embossing or the varnishes. The cover illustration is smaller, so we don’t see all the detail in the image. In order for us to be able to read the title and the author name, that type often needs to be bigger. Contrast needs to be more emphatic between the type and the background. We may not be able to read a tagline or a quote, and we probably won’t see the spine or the back cover before we make the decision whether or not to buy.
In addition, when books are printed by Print On Demand (POD) technology, there are additional technical concerns. All POD covers through Createspace, for example, are given a gloss coating. It is not possible to replicate a spot varnish, a matte finish, foil stamping or embossing, much less a step-back or die cut cover. You cannot provide copy for the inside of the cover, which is often where review quotes or author bios are printed on traditional books. I’ve written previously about the darkening of cover images in POD and the difficulties in ensuring that fine lines hold, as well as the inability to run a custom ink color. POD is a different technology, and while it has benefits in terms of time, it does also offer constraints in terms of design.
And so, you’re seeing covers change. In some ways, they’re getting simpler. In other ways, it’s more complicated to ensure that a cover stands out from the crowd, given these technical changes.
What do you think about covers? Have you noticed a change in the last year or so? Which kinds of covers do you like better, old or new? Does that depend upon genre or subgenre?