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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Design
      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
      Original image
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

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