Do Authors Have Influence in Designing their Book Covers?

Jun 06, 2018

Book covers are supposed to draw readers in and convey the gist of a book. Bottom line: they're important. But how much say do traditionally published authors actually have in their book's cover design? 

We famously judge a book by its cover. Nabokov's dark and controversial book Lolita is a great example of how covers can mislead readers (see this New Yorker article). Just compare these--are they even for the same book?



Covers are also incredibly subjective (and can easily become dated or a trope). When my second nonfiction book came out in paperback, I was less than thrilled with the cover. It's a book about people, full of stories and interesting tidbits, not about science and statistics. Shouldn't there be a picture of humans on the front? My publisher didn't think so, and neither did my co-author, an academic researcher who loved this cover:

My feeling is--and I could be wrong--that fiction covers are a lot harder to get right than nonfiction. Now that my debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, is coming out February 2019, I'm starting to see cover concepts. Call it crazy, but more important to me thancalmost anything else is this idea: I want a cover that doesn't suck. Not much to ask for, right?

When the Lake Union editor took my novel to Aquisitions, she prepared a list of comps to share with them in terms of type of book and subject matter, but also cover concepts. After our initial call, before any decisions had been made, she happily shared those documents with me. I liked her transparency and generosity--she didn't know at that point whether I would choose her imprint or not--and that helped me decide to sign with her.

Now I've had two rounds of designs, and each time my editor has been just as forthright. She sent me their initial ideas to see if they were on the right track. I was especially impressed because one concept was so awful that I laughed out loud--but I appreciated that I was seeing all of this at such an early stage. She ran stock images by me (most of which I turned down as too sexualized and/or hokey) and asked for specifics on what I did and didn't like. I think this is pretty rare with these larger imprints. A friend's publisher told her they'd worked through 93 cover ideas and she saw only one ... and of course that was the one they picked (and she hated it).

I hope I'll be okay because the very first image I saw, I thought: I could live with that. Not as good as being thrilled to bits, but not as bad as being appalled, either ... I'll share when we have it nailed down.

In the meantime, here's my advice:

  • Get your agent to negotiate cover input before you sign your contract (knowing that you will rarely get veto power).
  • When you have an opportunity, share covers you love with your editor. Make it easy for him/her:
    • List the books, authors, and links to the comps and send screenshots of the covers.
    • Articulate what you like about them, specifically.
    • Make a list of words to describe your ideal cover (in my case: edgy, disruptive, tense, expectant, sultry/oppressive, startling).
    • Perhaps even include images or concepts you would like to avoid.
  • While discussing cover concepts with your editor and/or designer, communicate through your agent.
  • If and when they include you in the decision-making process, print out the cover in color in the correct size and tape it to an existing book so you can see what it will really look like.
  • Be careful who you show the concepts to--people have wildly divergent ideas about what's cool and it can get confusing to have too many opinions.
  • Go with your gut and try not to be too exacting.

A great cover can make all the difference, but a mediocre cover won't tank your book either. Since authors aren't typically given much of a role to play in this process, setting reasonable standards might be a good way to preserve your sanity. An acceptable one might be: Can I live with this? If you really can't, go to bat and good luck!

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