It is a truth universally acknowledged that people in possession of a good manuscript must be in want of an outstanding cover. A great cover can make an amazing difference. So can a bad one.
A few years ago I heard Ken Peterson of Tyndale House Publishers offer two simple keys to success—coding and positioning.
Every genre of book has a code—a visual set of criteria that readers instinctively expect to find represented on the cover.
We expect brightly colored illustrations for children’s books. We expect large-block type (probably embossed) on the covers of political thrillers.
We expect restrained sophistication on academic books. And we all know what the cover code is for a biography—a prominent head-and-shoulders photograph or painting of the person who is its subject.
If you stray too far from the cover code for any given book, you risk losing your core audience. Those looking for a mystery will skip right past it if it looks too much like a historical novel. Those who want a software instruction manual will be less likely to pay attention if it comes across as a cookbook instead.
But if a cover looks like every other book of its type, won’t it get lost? That’s where positioning comes in. The book also has to clearly offer something different, something that sets it apart from all the other books in its category.
The trick is to make a cover different but within the confines of the code. That’s what great design does. It’s like writing. Great authors know when to break the rules to make their piece even more powerful, to make it stand out. But they don’t break the rules so much that the book falls completely out of its category.
What’s that happy balance look like? Here’s one nominee I’d make. Justification by N. T. Wright presented a challenge for our designer Cindy Kiple in that the book fell readily into the academic category. Thus it should have a restrained feel and not look too loud or flashy. Otherwise the academic audience would assume the content was popular and unsophisticated.
At the same time, we expected there would be broader audience for the book than just seminary professors as Wright is read widely. So how could we reach out to more
general readers with a design that didn’t confuse or put off the standard audience? How could we stay within the code while signaling the book’s interest to others?
Solution: Keep the type treatment and overall design restrained but use the image in a strong iconic fashion. That solidly signaled the academic code. But at the same time the design departed from the typical piece of classical art or the solid background color that often adorns many academic covers. The white background sets off the image dramatically.
Achieving both strong positioning and strong coding in a cover should be for any publisher a matter of pride without prejudice.