Let's be upfront about this. Book covers are billboards. Whether you're looking at them on a bookstore shelf or online, they're designed to show you what's in the book, invite you to open it, and seduce you into paying for it.
But Ann isn't just a cover artist. She is also the award-winning author of six novels, Jericho, Dust, Aftermath, Hoosier Daddy, Festival Nurse and Backcast, and the short story collections Sidecar and Three. She was inducted into the Royal Academy of Bards Hall of Fame in 2011, and awarded the Alice B. Lavender Certificate for Outstanding Debut Novel. She has won four Golden Crown Literary Society awards, as well as numerous Rainbow Awards—most recently for Best Lesbian Book of 2016 (Backcast). Backcast was also the recipient of a Silver Medal in the IPPY (Independent Publisher) Awards for Best Northeast Region General Fiction. Her novel Hoosier Daddy was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She lives in Winston-Salem, NC and is married to Bywater Books publisher Salem West.
So Ann knows about making a good book, as well as making an outstanding cover. Recently, I asked her several questions about her work. I'm delighted to share her answers with you.
Susan: How did you get involved in designing/creating covers?
Ann: I’ve always been a voracious reader—even before I became an author. Because I work professionally as a graphic designer, I’ve always had a keen interest in book cover design. Ever since childhood, I’ve paid close attention to what I think of as the "front door" of a book. What about this cover made me stop and look at that book? Why did this book catch my eye—while others blended into obscurity on the shelf? As Ella Fitzgerald sang, "It’s gotta be this or that."
I carried this curiosity with me into adulthood—and now it informs my work as a cover designer. The questions for me as a consumer of books remain the same. How well does the design approach reflect the theme or content of the work? How successfully does the cover catch the eye of a potential reader? How well does the artist use color, imagery and typography to evoke a sense of the story? And more importantly, how much do trends in book cover design dovetail with other trends in graphic forms of communication (i.e. film, social media, magazines and newspapers, etc.)?
Book cover design is appealing to me for many reasons. It’s very direct. It’s kind of an in-and-out medium. That means you must make your best argument for why someone should pick that volume up (or click on its icon to learn more) in just a few seconds. I like that. It’s a constant challenge for me to work to pare a complex story down to its one or two essential elements—then find the best and most striking way to communicate that message.
Susan: What goes into your cover designs? Tell us about your process.
Ann: My role as a designer is to stay out of the way—to tell potential readers what they need to know about a book as simply and directly as possible. That means avoiding clutter. Not having too many things going on. Using clean and simple typography. And making certain that the design in its entirety stands up, has integrity, and is accessible and makes sense at any resolution or size.
My design mantra? If you notice the design more than the message it’s intended to convey—it’s likely overdone, and I’ve failed.
I think readers today have much more visual sophistication than most authors realize. They don’t need to be spoon fed. They don’t need to understand every nuance of a title. They are used to seeing and processing billions of bytes of information at light speed. It’s safe to say that the average consumer today views more graphic images in one hour than a person living in the Victorian age saw in an entire lifetime. That makes my work simpler, and harder, at the same time.
I find that I do my best work when my clients trust me to make the right choices for their books. It’s also helpful when an author has done the heavy lifting about essential themes before they approach me. That's what happened with The General’s Women. In fact, I almost think I should pay you for making that part of my work so easy. Of course, at the same time, that complicated matters.
Come back tomorrow to find out how my notions about "essential themes" complicated Ann's work. (Hint: it had to do with those people photos on the cover.)
Reading note Judging books by their covers is seriously underrated, and any book nerd who claims never to have done it is probably lying.--Amy Smith, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane.