Essay: Judging a book by its cover
A look at all the aesthetic and marketing insights that contribute to contemporary book cover design in India
When a book grabs her attention at a bookstore, Komal Seth immediately flips it open. “If it doesn’t move in the first 20-30 pages, I just leave it,” she says adding that she never judges books by their covers. "I always wrap them so the covers are irrelevant to me.”
Seth would be right at home in Canada where, according to a 2022 BookNet Canada study, most readers care more about the subject (30%) and book description (19%). Book covers weren’t even among the top-five purchase influencers. Clearly, these choices are led by cultural differences. According to a Little Brown Group study in 2017, reported by The Scottish Sun, 52% readers chose books based on jacket artwork.
In 2019, WHSmith, which has 50+ stores in India spanning six airports, the Delhi metro and some universities, surveyed 2500 customers and uncovered surprising insights on our book-buying behaviour. “65% of our buyers had never read a book or had read one book in the past six months. That’s the kind of impulse purchase in travel retail. So today, cover design is the difference between maximising and minimising chances of a book’s success,” says Sandeep Gulia, the category head.
While all purchase can’t be generalized based on travel retail, publishing insiders confirm a shift in the value attached to book covers.
“Today, the cover has become more important. Books are only sold by the cover. I'm talking about those who are new to reading. Therefore, designers are getting far more prominence than earlier. Every publishing house now has an art director. Sales and marketing also have a lot more say,” says Amrita Talwar, Senior Marketing and Publicity Manager of Westland Books, Pratilipi.
What also signals this shift is an award dedicated to the niche – the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize. “Namita Gokhale had mooted the idea; it’s really good that Oxford started this because it’s like the movies; people only know the actors but the producer, cinematographer, everyone’s important. Similarly, designers are important as they give books a face,” says author, academic and museum curator Alka Pande, who has been on the award jury since its launch in 2015.
In the last eight years, the number of entries has tripled to 336. Open to regional players and independent designers, the prize aims to further awareness and recognition. “They manage to pick unique covers (for longlists and shortlists) so you get to see a range,” says Bonita Vaz Shimray, art director, HarperCollins India.
Awards definitely boost a winner's profile. “Pinaki (De) once said that earlier he couldn’t choose, even though he didn’t always win, but just making it to the lists has given him options,” says Neeta Sreedharan, Head of PR & Alliances at Apeejay Surrendra Group, who coordinates the awards.
Shimray believes having an award dedicated solely to recognising book covers ensures that the honour isn't lost in a welter of awards for different publishing categories. “The cash component makes it enticing for independent publishers and accessibility makes a difference too as earlier only publishers could apply,” she says.
Not just new readers, regular readers too are drawn in by book covers. Radio professional and storyteller Anita Naidu Pawaskar, who buys about 12 books a year says a third of them are by authors she doesn’t know. “Especially with new authors, book covers influence you a lot. I might not buy it but even if the rib catches my attention, I’ll read what the book’s about,” says Pawaskar who has often bought books because the covers made her nostalgic. The 2011 edition of Hans Christian Anderson fairytales, for instance, reminded her of “the impeccable, painting-like illustrations of Ladybird books”. She snapped it up! She’s made repeat purchases of The Hungry Caterpillar, Matilda and others too. “If I like a cover, I’ll buy the book again, and also gift it,” she says revealing that she recently bought beautifully illustrated hardbound editions of Oliver Twist, Anna Karenina, and Gone With The Wind.
Vinitha Ramchandani, who’s written over 25 children’s books and headed Popular Prakashan’s English publishing from 2009 to 2014, says that today book covers are a marketing tool.
Talwar agrees. “The book cover has to be shouting, screeching at the customer visiting the bookstore because now many books dominate. Often now, it’s about the loudness; you don’t find soft, subtle covers,” she says.
Covers often become flashier once the book is a success. One of Shimray’s favourites is the original cover of Gale Honeymoon’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. "It had a house made of match sticks with an understated white-background, and hand-written type,” she says. It depicted perfectly the story of a young woman, whose house burnt down in her childhood.
When the book did well, however, the background was changed to yellow. “It’s one of those tropes where yellow and red backgrounds shout from a mile. This is simply a case where you’re saying, 'Let’s make the book brighter so that those who missed it the first time, don’t miss it now'"
Digitisation has also had an impact on cover design. “Fonts are larger than they were before. Titles need to be larger because of the small thumbnails you see on Amazon,” says Mansi Shetty, who leads marketing for Penguin’s children’s vertical.
Wall Street Journal’s 2016 article, Book Covers See Yellow to Attract Online Shoppers, discussed exactly this. Amazon’s growing influence has led to publishers to push for brighter, bolder covers that attract online shoppers.
Talwar says that market feedback indicates that “black and white covers don’t sell”. This is in line with WSJ's finding that colour contrasts might make covers pop but the highest-contrast combination, black and white, can turn off publishers, who worry that without colour, the book won’t stand out. White covers in particular recede against the white backgrounds of Amazon and other online retailers. Yellow, on the other hand, is preferred as it jumps off online pages and can support both dark and bright type and graphics.
Social media has intensified the trend. “Consumers today want books that are good looking, slick and visual. It wasn’t so important 20 years ago. Today, we are catering to short attention spans, people who’re very visually stimulated. It’s the Instagram generation,” says Ramchandani.
Feedback from bookstores has also added to the insights accumulated on cover design. "They say that the author’s name should be on top and that too many illustrations or too much messaging won’t connect with readers," says Talwar.
Marketing-driven rules are often the bane of designers. Shimray, for whom form follows function, finds it formulaic to arbitrarily blow-up author names or titles so that everyone can see in 120-point size that it’s book by a celebrity author. "That’s never been my approach. It’s always the story first, and within that to see what concept can add value to large typeface. Even if doing it means, out of a million typefaces, choosing that one that can emote the story better, connect with the reader more. That’s the designer’s job. There might be feedback that we need to be out there and obvious but, even within that, there’s plenty of room to explore and find something refreshing,” she says.
Perhaps that's why she seeks designers who’re interested in reading the book, and understand its sensibilities and can "creatively interpret the brief".
Things were different at Popular Prakashan. “Designers weren’t expected to read the book”, says Ramchandani adding that generally designers prefer to be part of meetings to absorb the book's nuances via verbal and visual cues. Lower budgets also meant PP books weren’t displayed at eye-level in bookstores or were placed in stacks. To make the most of the situation, they began paying attention to the spine. "Certain fonts stood out, even from afar, and some didn’t, even if the cover was designed well. Blurbs underwent a transition too," says Ramchandani who reveals that originally, they packed a lot into the back-cover descriptions, but shrunk them to half once it became clear that the blurb is just one of the many elements on the cover that impacts purchase. Endorsements, are equally important, especially in fiction. "If Salman Rushdie says a book is fantastic, then I’ll look at it again,” she says. Today, endorsements often make it to the front-cover. Therefore, when book editors send the design team a detailed brief, alongside the title and subtitle, Shimray also expects to know if "shout-lines" are coming. “So, when we’re visualising a cover, especially if it’s type-driven, you know the number of lines that will add to the cover composition.” After everything’s in place, having to fit it, “really kills the cover.”
Typically, at Harper Collins, style decisions are taken after a synopsis or vivid and visual extracts are given. The team then decides whether to go for a photo, illustration, or a combination of the two. Draft covers follow. The cover that the publisher, sales and marketing teams and the CEO all like is then shared with the author. The process could take six months with timelines varying for fiction and non-fiction.
The approach differs according to the genre. “If it’s a big book, you want to generate interest in the personality you’re publishing, so cover work could precede editing, whereas with fiction, both literary and commercial, editing and design run parallel,” says Shimray.
Pande believes covers are becoming very international and global, while many designers and publishers are also retaining a very strong Indian identity. “Covers also depend on book trends. A lot more women authors, autobiographies and personal stories are coming, so when the content changes, the cover changes,” she says.
Covers also change when books travel to international markets or when foreign titles are published in India. Shimray says she wouldn’t change a good one as the same cover seen across markets can steer publicity from international coverage towards the Indian edition. They work 90% of the time, she says. But things are different with commercial fiction as it’s subjective. "You want visuals directly relatable to your audience, specifically addressing your market. So, with Chitra (Banerjee Divakaruni), we’ve always had different covers for India and the US,” she says revealing that the international covers tend to be “very exotic when dealing with India”. Here, however, “the understanding would be more refined.”
Context drives makeovers for non-fiction too. Shimray's award-winning cover for Remnants of a Separation, which revisits Partition through the objects that refugees carried across the border, had a shot of author Aanchal Malhotra’s grandmother wearing the maang tika mentioned in the book. "It shows her face only till the eyes, and shows her wrinkles, so it doesn't say who the person is, but defines an era, a passage of time..." Internationally, both the cover and the title changed. The international title is Remnants of Partition. "While separation is an emotional term, Partition is an event in history; they wanted that understood without any confusion," says Shimray.
Likewise, the cover of Katherine Eban’s bestseller, Bottle of Lies, was changed for the Indian market. The subtitle too went from ‘The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom’ to the more direct ‘Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma.’
If marketing drives so much, do authors have a say?
“We would first ask the author,” says Ramchandani. “Sometimes they came with a very fixed idea. If it worked with us, we executed it. If authors didn’t, the editor would think up a title and visual, and share it with the designer.” Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and his marketing team were very involved. Final options were also whetted with bookstores. “Authors often feel they’re treated badly, not heard enough. Many prominent authors came to us because they never got that kind of audience with bigger publishing houses. They often want to collaborate like partners. There, the book would be taken, contract filled, and authors would see it only towards the end,” she says.
Shimray says this might be true internationally but is almost never the case here. “We’re very mindful that it’s the author’s creative work first. We’ll always try address their inputs, make them feel heard. We’ve never forced a cover the author doesn’t feel for,” she says.
Incidentally, Paramita Brahmachari's striking cover for Pebble Monkey by Manindra Gupta won the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize 2023, earlier this week. Perhaps more prizes should be instituted for covers. After all, they do play a vital role in the eventual success of a book.
Pooja Bhula is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She is the co-author of Intelligent Fanatics of India. She is @poojabhula on Twitter