It was not long ago that I had bought The Bombard Story from a second hand book shop. Written by Alain Bombard, the book is a quick guide on how to survive on sea without provisions. It was lying in one corner of the shop like a castaway, its cover faded and embossed letters without the pride of time. The fragile pages, most of which had turned yellow, were a put-off.
I had picked it up more out of pity than curiosity. The revelation after that was beside the point. But that the “unattractive” book could earn some value was surprising even to the shopkeeper, an old man, who later told me, “Kaise yeh haath laaga, log toh phate huye coverwala kitab nahi lete ajkal (How come you took the book? People these days don’t buy books with torn covers).”
Years later, author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, “If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.”
Book cover designs have become a crucial part of marketing strategy in today’s world because “it helps in the marketing campaign of the book by immediately engaging the attention of the buyer or reader through, what is known as, visual appealing”, says Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books.
With the number of authors, good or bad, and the subjects they deal with increasing exponentially, the need for attracting readers’ attention becomes imperative. And publishing houses are taking that opportunity to be immensely creative.
Romila Saha, a bibliophile who is in the publishing business, strongly believes “covers are the first thing the customer notices about a new book”.
Harpreet Padam, partner and designer at Unlike Design Co., says cover design is crucial for marketing because many books are published on a single subject and readers have to be made aware of the exact content.
“Books, especially ones you haven’t heard of before, are totally judged by their cover. Often good books with nondescript covers will lie on shelves untouched. This is more to do with trade books, though. For textbooks, covers are important but are not the make or break factor,” Saha adds.
Designs on the cover can be broadly divided into three types, according to a column in Writers Digest. A cover design can have a stock image, illustration or bespoke photograph.
Padam says cover designs differ from fiction, non-fiction to reference books and hence the trend varies. “Unlike deals mainly with nonfiction books. In this case I can say that minimal design works. The less you do but the more it (the design) says. Also, if the message on a book cover comes in a more cryptic way, more indirectly, then it is always appreciated,” he adds.
Talking about minimalist design, I would not deny that despite eschewing from ‘judging a book by its cover’, I could not but be mystified by JRR Tolkien’s cover illustration for his book The Lord of The Rings. The golden middle earth motif on blood red cover with three rings around it made me more curious about the book than the content.
Most of the readers this correspondent spoke to feel illustrations are always creative and expected for fiction book covers. This is because, says Tanish Mitra of Class IX, illustrations tickle your imagination.
Some authors also prefer paintings by renowned local artists on book covers. A book by well-known columnist Patricia Mukhim that was recently released has a painting by Careen Langstieh, a Shillongbased painter who specialises in women’s portraits. The book, a collection of essays, reflects on issues related to women in the North East and the cover design is a perfect clothing.
The Postwar World: An Introduction by Peter Lane has a cartoon on the cover with an apt caption about Germany. The cartoon by Low is taken from a newspaper with permission.
Director and Author Satyajit Ray designed the covers of his books. He played on calligraphy and colour and created a signature style.
Now, technology gives the chance to make the cover finer and smarter.
While some readers pick up a book for its cover, some like Sushmita Ghosh hunt for books for reliving the memory of reading them with a particular cover on. “I do not give much attention to covers but look at the content and subject. But I had searched for Albert Camus’ The Outsider for a long time because I wanted the cover with the photograph of a man standing atop a lighthouse. It was a simple cover but so intriguing,” she says.
Technology gives the chance to make the cover finer and smarter
There are many elements in cover designing, besides making an imagery that conceptualises the theme of a book. The title, subtitle, layout, back cover, pricing and spine are some of the important points to be remembered by a designer or an illustrator. Not to mention, there are many stages of finalising a cover design for a book, says Sharma Potharaju of Prowess Publishing.
The publisher has to first know the theme of the book, the title and/or subtitle, the gist for the back cover and so on. Prowess prepares multiple samples of the cover of a particular book and sends them to the author, says Potharaju and adds that one-fourth of the marketing work is done with a good cover.
“The inside design of the book and font are also sent. This rule is followed for all authors, be it first-timers or renowned ones,” he says.
Niyogi says her publishing house spends approximately 10 per cent of the total budget for a book on cover design. While Niyogi Books has its in-house designers, many publishing houses outsource the work. For instance, a set of books by Khushwant Singh which were recently published by Penguin Books.
But exactly when did readers start valuing the cover more than the content? How did the classic leather bind get replaced by eye catching illustrations and smart graphics?
Book covers have changed over centuries and from leaf, leather, cloth, embellishments with gold leaves and gems to the modern cover designs, the evolution was gradual, says an old-timer at College Street, Kolkata’s open library and paradise for book lovers.
Niyogi says it was a gradual change. “Book cover started happening after the advent of the internet. Earlier, commercial artists always used to draw a sketch or paint a design or prepared a line drawing from which the cover was made. Now, the Internet offers endless stock of different designs and motifs, one or the other of which easily fits into the coverbrief of a particular book. So, the market started changing and expecting a different type of cover henceforth,” she explains.
Also, with the advent of e-Books, it became necessary to attract a browser’s attention. “Book cover acts as a click bait for e-Book readers. On the net, one does not get to feel the book or flip to the back cover for the shoot or glance through the foreword,” says Sourav Dutta, an avid e-Book reader.
Some book lovers blame lack of concentration in today’s generation for the rising popularity of book covers. “I will rate book cover six in the success of a book. Reading habit is gradually diminishing and in order to gain attention, attractive title and summary are necessary,” says Pratik Bandyopadhyay, a budding author and poet, who has already published a book.
A section of staunch believers of quality, like Kolkata-based book seller Samiran Dhar, outrightly rejects the idea that good cover design helps a book become successful in the market. “A true reader can always make out good from gaudy,” he says.
Niyogi echoes Dhar’s views. “In the final analysis, content is the king. A very fancy company may help in selling an initial number of an unworthy book but the bluff will be called very soon. Hence, it would be very wrong to assume that only fancy cover can market an otherwise useless content. If the content is good, even the simplest of cover will be enough to sell the book,” she asserts.
(The author is a freelance journalist)