14 Confessions of a Book Cover Designer

As told to Tim Murphy

It’s almost embarrassing to start with the cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly how many of us decide which book we’ll take home. A design is more than just a pretty picture: Typeface, imagery, graphics, and color all play a role in signaling a book’s content and tone—and in getting readers to make a purchase. Here, art director Keith Hayes, who’s created some of the most memorable covers in recent years for publisher Little, Brown and Company, reveals the secrets of his trade.

1. YOU CAN'T START A DESIGN FROM WHAT YOU THINK A BUYER IS GOING TO LIKE.

Who really knows what’s going to sell? We think about what sums up the story, how we interpret the story. Then: Is it going to be beautiful and grab someone’s attention in a store?

2. I START BY READING THE MANUSCRIPT.

Sometimes the solution is obvious; other times I let it sit for a minute. Then comes a lot of sketching, a lot of bad stuff. Sometimes it comes easily. Recently, I worked on a novel by Paul Lynch called The Black Snow. There was a fire in the book, and I thought it would be beautiful to show falling ashes, from a scene in which someone is looking up at the sky. I found a bunch of different photos of cigarette ash, then I hand-lettered the type. It went over well from the beginning.

3. WHAT WAS TORTUOUS? THE ART OF FIELDING.

I went through so many rounds with that one. I read the manuscript and didn’t know what to take away. The title made it clear baseball was a big thing, and I knew I needed to show it somehow. After a few tries, the publisher said to me, “I don’t want to limit this to men who like sports, though it’d be nice to have some nod to baseball.” So I tried depicting the main character different ways. None of it went over. Then one day I was scrawling out the title—scribbling on a napkin. The Yankees logo came into my head, because it’s cursive. At that point, I’d never hand-lettered anything before. I took my handwriting, scanned it, and built on it with Adobe Illustrator. Everyone said, “That’s it!”

4. THOSE ARE THE BEST COVERS. IT DOESN'T SPELL OUT WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT, BUT IT GETS AT THE TONE. 

That’s the great thing about typography—without any image, you can say this is going to be a big thriller, or this is a literary title. Straight-up fonts looked too stiff for The Art of Fielding. So I made my own handwriting really big and had it go from edge to edge to show the book’s expansiveness.

5. THERE ARE TROPES.

I CRINGE WHEN SOMEONE SAYS, 'CAN WE PUT A WOMAN ON THE COVER?' I don’t know why they think women on covers sell books. Feet were a big thing a couple years back. So were silhouettes. And records on book covers, like Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

6. I REALLY LIKE THE COVER I JUST DID FOR IMAGINE ME GONE BY ADAM HASLETT...

...which comes out next May. It’s a nod to old New Order album covers designed by Peter Saville, because a character in the novel is an avid fan of that music. Without giving spoilers, the book is really sad and about loss. I didn’t know how to sum that up, until I decided to take two letters away. It’s a simple, strong solution done with type.

7. I LIKE COVERS THAT DON'T LOOK LIKE BOOK COVERS. 

My pie-in-the-sky cover would be one without type—just an image-based cover, no title, no author. I think that would be effective branding.

8. MARKETING OR SALES WILL OFTEN SAY TO MAKE IT RED, MAKE IT BRIGHT. 

But if everything is bright and red, nothing’s going to stand out. I tend to stay in the more muted region of black and cream.

9. THE COVER FOR DONNA TARTT'S THE GOLDFINCH IS BASED ON THE GOLDFINCH, THE ORIGINAL 1654 PAINTING BY DUTCH PAINTER CAREL FABRITIUS. 

In the novel, the main character steals the painting and hides it wrapped in newsprint. That image stuck with me. Donna’s only request for the cover was that I not show the painting. But she ended up loving it, which means a lot to me, because I knew I better not screw that one up. It was one of those covers that was right from the beginning and didn’t have to go through rounds and rounds.

10. A COVER GOES THROUGH SO MANY PEOPLE. 

We have a weekly meeting where we present designs to the publisher, editors, and sales and marketing staff. They either love or hate it or ask for some kind of a revision. If they love it, it’s off to the author, who has the final decision. Occasionally, Amazon or Barnes & Noble could have a problem with the cover, and we wind up doing it over. But that doesn’t happen often.

11. USUALLY THE AUTHORS' WISHES GET FILTERED TO ME THROUGH EDITORS. 

But there are exceptions. Maria Semple, who wrote the bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I designed, came in recently to chat about her new novel.

12. I LOVE THE MIDCENTURY COVERS OF CLASSICS BY ALVIN LUSTIG BECAUSE OF THE GRAPHIC INTERPRETATION OF THE STORIES—VERY SIMPLE AND BOLD. 

Nowadays, they want to put so much of a story on a cover, demanding, “It needs to say more.” Long ago, it was just a beautiful package—bold, graphic, and colorful. Each cover looked like a mini poster you’d want to display.

13. THERE'S A SERIES OF NEW CAMUS EDITIONS DONE BY HELEN YENTUS. 

I love how they hold together, and the graphic quality—if you look at the cover for The Plague, she was able to illustrate what a plague might look like.

14. I WASN'T INTO BOOKS BEFORE COMING TO THIS JOB.

I was going to be a veterinarian. But when I was younger, I drew and painted. On a whim, I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the rest is history. I read all the books I design. In my spare time, I’m a photographer. I don’t use many photos in my covers, but shooting is helping me with my cover designs.

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Things You Might Not Know About Jules Verne
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Jules Verne, widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote some of literature's most famous adventure novels, including seminal works like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to helping pioneer a new genre of writing, the French author also sailed the world, had a career as a stockbroker, fell in love with his cousin, and was shot by his nephew. Here are 15 facts you probably didn't know about him.

1. HE GREW UP SURROUNDED BY SHIPS.

On February 8, 1828, Pierre and Sophie Verne welcomed their first child, Jules Gabriel, at Sophie's mother's home in Nantes, a city in western France. Verne's birthplace had a profound impact on his writing. In the 19th century, Nantes was a busy port city that served as a major hub for French shipbuilders and traders, and Verne's family lived on Ile Feydeau, a small, man-made island in a tributary of the Loire River. Verne spent his childhood watching ships sail down the Loire and imagining what it would be like to climb aboard them [PDF]. He would later work these early memories of maritime life into his writing.

2. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS COUSIN.

Verne began writing poetry at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he used poetry as an outlet for his burgeoning romantic feelings. Verne fell in love with his cousin, Caroline Tronson, who was a year and a half older than him. He wrote and dedicated poems to Tronson, gave her presents, and attended dances with her. Unfortunately, Tronson didn't reciprocate her younger cousin's feelings. In 1847, when Verne was 19 and Tronson was 20, she married a man two decades her senior. Verne was heartbroken.

3. HIS FATHER PRESSURED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

While Verne had been passionate about writing since his early teens, his father strongly encouraged young Jules to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession. Soon after Tronson's marriage, Verne's father capitalized on his son's depression, convincing him to move to Paris to study law.

Verne graduated with a law degree in 1851. But he kept writing fiction during this period, and continued to clash with his father over his career path. In 1852, Verne's father arranged for him to practice law in Nantes, but Verne decided to pursue life as a writer instead.

4. HE LIVED IN PARIS DURING A TUMULTUOUS TIME.

Verne's time in Paris coincided with a period of intense political instability. The French Revolution of 1848 broke out soon after Verne moved to the city to study law. Though he didn't participate, he was strikingly close to the conflict and its turbulent aftermath, including the coup d'état that ended France's Second Republic. "On Thursday the fighting was intense; at the end of my street, houses were knocked down by cannon fire," he wrote to his mother during the fighting that followed the coup in December 1851. Verne managed to stay out of the political upheaval during those years, but his writing later explored themes of governmental strife. In his 1864 novella The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, Verne wrote about the struggles of ordinary and noble French people during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his novel The Flight to France recounted the wartime adventures of an army captain in 1792.

5. HE BECAME A STOCKBROKER TO PAY THE BILLS.

In May 1856, Verne was the best man at his best friend's wedding in Amiens, a city in northern France. During the wedding festivities, Verne lodged with the bride's family and met Honorine de Viane Morel, the bride's sister. He developed a crush on Morel, a 26-year-old widow with two kids, and in January 1857, with the permission of her family, the two married.

There was one big problem. Verne had been writing plays for Paris theaters, but being a playwright didn't pay the bills. Verne needed a respectable income to support Morel and her daughters. Morel's brother offered Verne a job at a brokerage, and he accepted, quitting his theater job to become a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse. Writing was never too far from Verne's mind, though. He woke up early each day to write and research for several hours before heading to his day job.

6. HIS ADVENTURE NOVELS WERE PART OF A SERIES …

A caricature of Jules Verne on the sea floor with fantastic sea creatures on the cover of a magazine.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Modern readers probably think of Verne's most famous books as distinct entities, but his adventure novels were actually part of a series. In the early 1860s, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an established publisher and magazine editor who helped Verne publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel served as the beginning of Voyages Extraordinaires, a series of dozens of books written by Verne and published by Hetzel. Most of these novels—including famous titles like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—appeared in installments in Hetzel's magazine before being published in book form.

7. … THAT PROVIDED HIM WITH A STEADY STREAM OF INCOME.

Starting in 1863, Verne agreed to write two volumes per year for Hetzel, a contract that provided him with a steady source of income for decades. Between 1863 and 1905, Verne published 54 novels about travel, adventure, history, science, and technology for the Voyages Extraordinaires series. He worked closely with Hetzel on characters, structure, and plot until the publisher's death in 1886. Verne's writing wasn't limited to this series, however; in total, he wrote 65 novels over the course of his life, though some would not be published until long after his death.

8. HE DREW INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN SAILING ADVENTURES.

During the 1860s, Verne's career was taking off, and he was making good money. So in 1867, he bought a small yacht, which he named the Saint Michel, after his son, Michel. When he wasn't living in Amiens, he spent time sailing around Europe to the Channel Islands, along the English Coast, and across the Bay of Biscay. Besides enjoying the peace and quiet at sea, he also worked during these sailing trips, writing most of the manuscripts for Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea on his yacht. As he earned more money, he replaced the Saint Michel with a larger boat that he called the Saint Michel II. A few years later, he bought a third vessel, the Saint Michel III, a steam yacht that he hired a crew of 10 to man on long voyages to Scotland and through the Mediterranean.

9. HE'S ONE OF THE MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS IN THE WORLD …

Verne wrote in French, but his works have always had an international appeal. Since the 1850s, his writing has been translated into approximately 150 languages—making him the second most translated author ever. He has appeared in translation even more often than William Shakespeare. He is second only to Agatha Christie, who holds the world record.

10. … BUT NOT ALL OF THOSE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCURATE.

Although Verne wrote primarily for adults, many English-language publishers considered his science fiction writing to be juvenile and marketed his books to children. Translators dumbed down his work, simplifying stories, cutting heavily researched passages, summarizing dialogue, and in some cases, nixing anything that might be construed as a critique of the British Empire. Many translations even contain outright errors, such as measurements converted incorrectly.

Some literary historians now bemoan the shoddy translations of many of Verne's works, arguing that almost all of these early English translations feature significant changes to both plot and tone. Even today, these poor translations make up much of Verne's available work in English. But anglophone readers hoping to read more authentic versions of his stories are in luck. Thanks to scholarly interest, there has been a recent surge in new Verne translations that aim to be more faithful to the original texts.

11. HE HAD MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Starting in his twenties, Verne began experiencing sudden bouts of extreme stomach pain. He wrote about his agonizing stomach cramps in letters to family members, but he failed to get a proper diagnosis from doctors. To try to ease his pain, he experimented with different diets, including one in which he ate only eggs and dairy. Historians believe that Verne may have had colitis or a related digestion disorder.

Even more unsettling than the stomach pain, Verne suffered from five episodes of facial paralysis over the course of his life. During these painful episodes, one side of his face suddenly became immobile. After the first attack, doctors treated his facial nerve with electric stimulation, but he had another attack five years later, and several more after that. Recently, researchers have concluded that he had Bell's palsy, a temporary form of one-sided facial paralysis caused by damage to the facial nerve. Doctors have hypothesized that it was the result of ear infections or inflammation, but no one knows for sure why he experienced this.

Verne developed type-2 diabetes in his fifties, and his health declined significantly in the last decade of his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, tinnitus, and other maladies, and eventually went partially blind.

12. HIS MENTALLY ILL NEPHEW SHOT HIM IN THE LEG …

In March 1886, a traumatic incident left the 58-year-old Verne disabled for the rest of his life. Verne's nephew Gaston, who was then in his twenties and suffering from mental illness, suddenly became violent, to Verne's detriment. The writer was arriving home one day when, out of the blue, Gaston shot him twice with a pistol. Thankfully, Verne survived, but the second bullet that Gaston fired struck the author's left leg.

13. … LEAVING HIM WITH A PERMANENT LIMP.

After the incident, Gaston was sent to a mental asylum. He wasn't diagnosed with a specific disorder, but most historians believe he suffered from paranoia or schizophrenia.

Verne never fully recovered from the attack. The bullet damaged his left leg badly, and his diabetes complicated the healing process. A secondary infection left him with a noticeable limp that persisted until his death in 1905.

14. HIS WORK CONTRIBUTED TO THE RISE OF STEAMPUNK.

Verne's body of work heavily influenced steampunk, the science fiction subgenre that takes inspiration from 19th century industrial technology. Some of Verne's characters, as well as the fictional machines he wrote about, have appeared in prominent steampunk works. For example, the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne explored the idea that Verne actually experienced the fantastic things he wrote about, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea appeared as a character in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

15. MANY OF HIS PREDICTIONS WERE SURPRISINGLY SPOT-ON.

Some of the technology Verne imagined in his fiction later became reality. One of the machines that Verne dreamed up, Nautilus—the electric submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—came to life years after he first wrote about it. The first installment of the serialized Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1869, and the first battery-powered submarines were launched in the 1880s. (Similar submarine designs are still in use today.)

In addition, Verne's Paris In The Twentieth Century contains several surprisingly accurate technological predictions. Written in 1863, the dystopian novel imagines a tech-obsessed Parisian society in 1960. Verne wrote about skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, and suburbs. He was massively ahead of his time. He even wrote about a group of mechanical calculators (as in, computers) that could communicate with one another over a network (like the Internet). Pretty impressive for a guy born in 1828.

But Verne's influence goes beyond science fiction, steampunk, or real-world technology. His writing has inspired countless authors in genres ranging from poetry to travel to adventure. As Ray Bradbury wrote, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne."

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TASCHEN
Everything You Need to Know About Food in One Book
TASCHEN
TASCHEN

If you find yourself mixing up nigiri and sashimi at sushi restaurants or don’t know which fruits are in season, then this is the book for you. Food & Drink Infographics, published by TASCHEN, is a colorful and comprehensive guide to all things food and drink.

The book combines tips and tricks with historical context about the ways in which different civilizations illustrated and documented the foods they ate, as well as how humans went from hunter-gatherers to modern-day epicureans. As for the infographics, there’s a helpful graphic explaining the number of servings provided by different cake sizes, a heat index of various chilies, a chart of cheeses, and a guide to Italian cold cuts, among other delectable charts.

The 480-page coffee table book, which can be purchased on Amazon for $56, is written in three languages: English, French, and German. The infographics themselves come from various sources, and the text is provided by Simone Klabin, a New York City-based writer and lecturer on film, art, culture, and children’s media.

Keep scrolling to see a few of the infographics featured in the book.

An infographic about cheese
TASCHEN

An infographic about cakes
Courtesy of TASCHEN

An infographic about fruits in season
Courtesy of TASCHEN

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