Judging Best Sellers by Their Covers: Does Good Design Sell Books?
I adore a good read. In a time where 90% of my life is spent staring at a digital screen, reading a physical book with real pages gives me an ephemeral illusion that life is simple again. To defy the age old adage, I will freely admit that I choose books to read based on their covers. I’m a designer, I simply can’t help it.
The question I’m exploring today is whether or not the rest of the world thinks like we designers do. Does everyone judge books by the quality of the cover design? If we take a look at the bestseller list, what will we find?
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An Oversimplified Experiment
I should start by recognizing the fact that this experiment is a drastically simplified look at reality. There are tons of factors that sell books: the fame and reputation of the author, the publicity it receives, critic reviews, etc. We’ll be pretty much tossing these out entirely and focusing solely on whether or not books that sell well have attractive covers from my extremely subjective opinion. Nevertheless, the experiment will be a fun one and I’m greatly looking forward to it. Let’s get started!
Bossy Pants, by Tina Fey
Sourcing the New York Times Best Seller List, we start our journey in the “Hardcover Nonfiction” category where comedy queen Tina Fey holds the top spot with her book “Bossy Pants”.
We’re definitely off to a strong start! I think this cover design is pure genius. First of all, people love Tina Fey for being funny and she’s playing to the crowd here because this image is hilarious. The photo isn’t mere low brow visual humor though, it seems to convey a deeper message. Tina Fey is a woman in a man’s world and she’s had to learn to cope with that reality to get where she is today. This book is likely targeted towards a largely female audience who immediately identifies with the message while appreciating the candid nature in which she approaches it.
As far as the composition itself, there are a few important things that I notice. First, the illusion is completely believable. It’s not a Photoshop hack job but rather a juxtaposition so convincing that you can barely take your eyes off of it. This idea could’ve easily come out on paper looking hideous but the designers and/or photographers took the time to get it just right.
The idea of opposing concepts goes even further the longer you look at the cover. Notice the duality of the tie and dress shirt against the hat. Even the Didot typeface used for Tina’s name seems to convey dual personalities: masculine in its harsh serifs but feminine in the contrast between the thicks and thins.
Finally, notice the hierarchy of the text. The title of the book, though clever, is secondary to the real highlight: the author. Thanks to Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, Tina Fey is a household name in America and these designers wanted you to know above all else that she’s the author of this book.
I think this cover is a clear case of awesome design. In fact, I’d be willing to bet good money that the cover alone has sold more than a few books.
Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris
Next we’ll jump over to the “Hardcover Fiction” section, where we find Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris sitting at number one.
Tina Fey’s book looks fantastic and sells well, a perfect affirmation of our theory. This one is a little harder to figure out. The illustration is pretty bizarre and doesn’t tell me much. With the upside down woman and the flying, burning pages, the story is bound to be mystical in nature, but beyond that I can’t really tell what I’m getting myself into.
The designer and publisher perhaps knew that the illustrator wasn’t really conveying the full story though because they’ve given us some important clues that fill in the gaps in our knowledge. First of all, as with the Tina Fey book, the author name is the primary piece of messaging here and sits as a large block of text at the top of the cover.
I wasn’t familiar with this author, but the line the very top of the cover informs me that she has graced the best seller list before. This is an important aspect of the design because it comforts the potential buyer and lets her know that this author can be counted on to deliver an entertaining experience.
Jumping to the opposite end, the bottom of the book gives me another key piece of information: it seems this is one book in a series about someone named “Sookie Stackhouse”. Again I had no idea who this character was but at least I now know that I’m getting ahead of myself and should probably check out the earlier books in the series.
Finally, for the few souls like me who are still clueless at this point, there’s a burst in the lower left that informs me that Sookie Stackhouse is a character on the hit HBO show, “True Blood”. At this point feel free to comment below in shock and awe that I’ve never seen this show.
There is plenty that I don’t particularly like about this cover, not the least of which is the horribly cliche star-shaped burst. I literally cringe when I see designers still using these. However, as we can see from my walkthrough above, the designer did an admirable job of letting me know what the illustration didn’t: that this is one book in a massively popular series that has even turned into a hit television show.
Most of the buyers of Dead Reckoning were probably already waiting anxiously to purchase the next title before the book was even announced, but for those that weren’t, the design reassures them that the series is one worth pursuing.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Another book that’s doing remarkably well right now is “The Help“, by Kathryn Stocket. This one also takes an illustrated approach.
This cover definitely wins the vagueness award. At first, it’s quite difficult to ascertain anything about the book, surely it’s not about birds right?
As with the previous books though, the more you look at it, the more it begins to make sense. The title “The Help” implies that the book is about a servant or housekeeper of sorts. This terminology was popular in the early to mid 20th century so we can at least begin to guess a rough time period and subject.
The illustration is an attractive mixture of cool and warm colors and is taking advantage of the bird on a wire metaphor. The image reinforces our suspicions about the title by distancing the bird on the right from the two on the left. This bird is different; an outcast not fit to stand with the others.
The title is placed in a large, cloud-like bubble where the text is a bit awkwardly positioned. The use of whitespace is pretty poor and I’d love to move things around a couple of clicks. The interesting part this time around is that the title of the book has been given more emphasis than the author’s name. This is in direct opposition to the techniques we saw in the previous two titles.
The reason for this is perhaps a mixture of the author’s name not being quite as ubiquitous while the name of the book has become recently recognizable due to the major motion picture soon to be released under the same title.
The cover is obviously quite feminine and therefore clearly targets a certain group of readers. The painting is obscured and intentionally lacks realistic details, driving home the idea that it’s a metaphor. The tone isn’t intense like the previous illustration but instead feels softer, indicating that the contents will target your emotions rather than your imagination.
The overall composition is fairly attractive and likely enough to rouse a browser’s interest. A few weeks ago I actually watched from a distance as my wife picked this very book off the shelf among a wealth of others.
The Wrong Audience?
After three in-depth analyses, are we seeing any trends? The first and the third covers were well thought out and very attractive while the second one is intentionally bizarre and relies heavily on textual cues as to the fame of the author and the series.
At the beginning of the article I promised to focus on purely design as a factor in the sales of the books, but after choosing three titles at random there’s one pattern here that I can’t ignore: television and movies sell books. All three of these titles are tied to television or films that are currently popular or about to be released. What happens on our television screens is apparently a huge driver of what ends up on our bookshelves.
It strikes me that the audiences for the books above present a fairly narrow scope. Almost all are targeted at female readers, be it the educated professional, the hormonal teen or the mature and sympathetic young woman. It’s entirely possible that this particular group is skewed to judge books as much or more by outside forces than by the design of the cover alone.
Children & Teens
Perhaps children are a more appropriate segment that might be particularly inclined to judge books by their covers. I love children’s fiction and judge books by their design, so I must think like a kid!
Fantasy for a preteen audience tends to have very rich and colorful illustrations that aren’t vague or metaphorical but get right to the point about what the book is about and The typography tends to be ornate and edgy. These are definitely the kind of covers that could convince a young reader to bring a book home.
Looking at a slightly different young audience that relates more to real world problems such as sibling rivalry and schoolyard bullies, we see the design style take a definitive turn towards lower fidelity illustrations that easily catch the attention of their target audience because it looks like something they would create. Notice that the colors are even brighter in this segment and really scream for attention. The typography this time is more handwritten (these are both diary-themed books) and irregular.
Reverting back the world of adults I browsed a few reading lists specifically created for men. Again we see some very definitive patterns emerge.
Here the emphasis is on intensity and a dark, foreboding environment. The typography conveys a sense of seriousness and is often exaggerated. The covers are often straightforward but can also be pretty vague like the two above. You can’t quite tell what these books are about but you know both of them will be page-turning thrillers.
Does Good Design Sell Books?
So what conclusion have we reached here? I think one of the most important discoveries is that the design of a book cover sells books to the right people. Whether you’re a full-time mom looking for a good cry or a kid who wants an amazing adventure, a good cover tells you that you’ve come to the right place. Regardless of whether or not it clearly depicts the events of the book, it sets the tone and aims at a specific audience.
Beyond that, there are a lot of outside factors, especially in the adults who keep up on popular culture and want to read books that will keep them relevant and interesting at the dinner table. Kids seem more prone to choose a book based on the cover art and then to read others that have a similar illustration style to something that they liked. They don’t need author names or recommendations from critics, they need a designer or artist to tell them that the book is a lot like the other books that they enjoy.
What do you think? Does the design of a book cover influence what you read? How about your spouse and children?