Is it important to have a specific scene or character on your cover, and to convey the exact happenings in the book? If you don’t, how will readers know what your book is about at all?
Literal vs symbolic imagery is an ongoing discussion with the author’s I work with, and I’m writing this article to share with you why I think it’s better to go with the symbolic, suggestive cover than the literal translation.
What is my job, as a book designer?
I translate the text into a vision. That’s the most simple explanation of my purpose. I take what’s inside the book and put it on the outside in a way that will grab the attention of the reader.
What is the purpose of a book cover?
To suggest its genre and theme, and to seize the reader. It is not to tell the story, or to explain the sub plots, or even describe the complexities of the main character. Think of a book cover like the logo to a company.
- There will be a certain element about it that portrays what category the book/company is in
- It’s symbolic of the book/company, and can be carried on throughout other marketing materials (like a series of books) if needed.
- It’s immediately recognizable.
Your book cover doesn’t need to tell the reader any specific details about your story, but only to give it a face, and an emotion.
What do I mean by Literal and Symbolic covers?
A literal book cover: When it portrays something represented in the story. A literal interpretation of the story by showing a character, a scene, an object.
A symbolic book cover: Designed in a way that symbolises the story. Use of colour, composition, typography, and objects not originally associated with the text. May also use visual symbolism used in the book, that still doesn’t immediately give the plot away on sight.
Why do I encourage symbolic covers over literal ones?
Genre-style: It is very easy to get swept up into a trend. Looking like everyone else ensures you have it made, but it also means you get lost in the crowd. When your thriller/horror/romance/paranormal cover looks like every single other cover in your genre, you’ll be easily pigeon holed and easily looked over.
Longevity: Uniqueness has its benefits in ensuring your book won’t go out of style (or trend, as above) too quickly. Looking like everyone else will give you an expiration date, but by designing with originality and symbolism in mind your book cover will stand the test of time.
The spoiler: Remember when Lord of the Rings came out? Remember that huge discussion about how they always thought Frodo looked like this, or Logolas actually looked like this. A more recent outcry was about how Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher, completely wrong for the part across the board.
A lot of people hate being shown what a character or scene looks like. I have a very specific image in mind of Roland, from the Gunslinger. I’m dying for them to make The Dark Tower into a blockbuster but can’t stand the idea of them casting anyone for Roland just because I know it won’t be anything like the guy in my head.
By showing real characters, you spoil the personal experience your readers create, and the chance to get closer to them by being them. Each time I read a book, even if the character is 6”2’ with short blond hair and willowy legs, I still manage to fit myself into her body. If I see an image of her straight away and visualise how different I am to her, that stops me from being in her shoes.
Consistency: You’ve got a series, you’ve got the perfect woman, and you’ve put her on your front cover. Readers have responded positively to her and that’s awesome. But that’s the only image you have of her… so you have to follow up book 2 with a different model.
This can be overcome by using a professional photography studio and thousands of shots of the one model. But unless you have that time and money to invest you’re going to be limited. This is the case with putting anything literal on a cover that is going to be a series cover. Even if it’s a loaf of bread that is eaten in both book 1 and 2, you still have to make sure that loaf of bread is the same looking bread for book 2 or readers will feel betrayed.
Creativity: I want to break out of the normal, standard design. I loooooooooooove brainstorming covers that are symbolic. Symbolic covers can be witty, impactful, and long lasting. And they’re just fun to do!
Think about Harlequin. The busty woman draped over the bare chested man. We know, deep down, that all of these stories are original but side by side our expectations are “man and woman meet, they have conflict, they fall in love, the end.”
It says nothing about YOUR STORY.
Recognition for the book, not the designer: When you see the same sort of stuff being produced by the designer, eventually that book cover will not be recognized for its story and creativity, but rather the designer.
Simplicity: Simple design right down to its core is stunning.
When an author requests for me to put a character on there, or a scene, there’s a level of expectation for it to be blended in with some other parts of the book. It’s rare to be able to draw from a book literally and display it with the balanced use of negative space and clean typography. More is not always best. ‘Less is more’, remember?
Today’s article does really come down to personal choice and likes. There is a safe appeal to being a part of your genre, and looking like the others, but your book isn’t like them and never will be. If your book has its own soul, why do you want to make it look like everyone else’s?