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.