How bad book covers happen: the sordid truth

Needless to say, publishers, editors and cover designers want each cover to be a thing of beauty that will delight the author and sell enough copies to rebuild the Great Wall of China. A lot of work and passion goes into these. People really do try to get it right, and much of the time, they do. Nevertheless…

This is what the author wants:


This is what Sales thinks will sell:


This is the designer’s artistic vision:


And this is what the budget allows:


Keeping all these different needs and expectations in mind, you rough out a concept and design that really works for the book and balances author feedback, budget and editorial judgement… and then you take it to a committee of fifteen people.

Cover meeting

Editor: So this book is about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers. We’ve gone for a football with a swastika on it.

Marketing: The swastika looks Nazi.

Editor: It’s about Nazis.

Publicity: We don’t want it to look Nazi.

Editor: This isn’t a pro-Nazi book. If this book was any less pro-Nazi it would be Simon Wiesenthal. It’s about Nazis.

Marketing: It’s got a swastika on it. It looks Nazi. Do something else.

Second cover meeting

Editor: So this is the book about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers, again. We’ve gone for an old-fashioned footballing image with some barbed wire superimposed over it.

Marketing: That just doesn’t say ‘Second World War’ strongly enough. It needs some sort of iconic Second World War thing, some sort of image that sums up the period…

Designer [very quietly]: Like a swastika?

Publicity: I don’t like those football shorts, they look silly, and it’s very old-fashioned. Isn’t there a sexier image?

Sales: Oooh. Can we use modern footballers, and do a sort of Instagram photo treatment to make it look old?

Editor and designer, in chorus: NO.

High-up person: Why don’t we do a photoshoot with a modern footballer, like David Beckham, in Second World War gear?

Editor: Because you gave me a budget of £250.

Publicity: Let’s see some other options.

Fourth cover meeting

Editor, slumped in chair: It’s the Nazi football book again.

[Chorus of groans]

Designer: I’ve done nineteen alternative treatments this time. This one has a montage of searchlights and barbed wire, these ones have every photo of a 1940s footballer available for free off Shutterstock, this one is entirely typographic, this is Wayne Rooney photoshopped onto the trenches of Ypres –

Editor, through teeth: Wrong war.

Designer: This one is a picture of a rose for some symbolic reason that the editor told me about, this one is a football exploding when it’s shot, this is a bullet being kicked into a goal…

High-up person: I like the rose.

Sales [carefully]: I don’t think a rose says ‘Nazis playing football’.

Editor: It has a thematic meaning in the context of the book.

High-up person: We should have the rose.

[All salespeople glare at editor.]

Publicity: The rose is pretty. It would look great on the shelf.

Marketing, desperately: What if we use the rose but put a football behind it? And maybe barbed wire over the top?

[Editor slumps further down into chair. Designer bites back a sob.]

Author phone call

Editor: I know… yeah, yeah… well, the rose has a thematic meaning in the context – No. No. Well, that’s what the cover meeting said. Right. I’m sorry you feel that way.

One year later

Marketing: This book hasn’t sold at all. Why did we use a rose on the cover? Surely it should have been much simpler. Something like… a football with a swastika on it.

29 thoughts on “How bad book covers happen: the sordid truth

  1. This happened with my first novel. I’m in the process of talking to a lawyer trying to get my rights back.

  2. We might be admonished not to judge a book by it’s cover but I can’t think of anything that’s less accurate a description of book buying behavior. I really feel for any author for what happens after a sales/budget meeting discussion over art. This story was madly amusing but far too ironic.

  3. This sounds to me like an everyday story, not only relevant for book covers, but for the whole industry. Many battles fought, only a few won the rest were compromises.

  4. Thanks for the comments! I should say, I’ve never worked anywhere that people didn’t care passionately about getting covers right. Everyone in the above sketch is trying their best for the book and author. It’s just, sometimes things go inexplicably off track, and afterwards nobody quite knows how.

  5. Pingback: I’ve harvested some links for you | Becky Black

    • Huge question! Basically, though, a cover has to make the target reader want to pick it up and not be disappointed when they read. So in the above, even if the rose cover came out gorgeous, it would still be bad because Nazi/football readers would be disinclined to pick it up and ‘lovely rose’ readers would not be wanting that story. So your basic question has to be ‘does this look good to the real readers?’ Packaging for the wrong reader (eg putting a chick lit cover on a Gothic family drama) is your first step towards doom.

  6. As a bookseller, unfortunately that’s exactly how we buy a book. We look at the cover, are given a quick spiel by the rep, we name a quantity we move’s heartless but that’s how it goes. Been in the business 20+ years and are still amazed sometimes by the completely unsuitable covers some books have. Good luck authors, its a hard game!

  7. Great blog – it made me laugh, and be thankful that nothing I write with probably ever be published.

    A while back I tweeted Jojo Moyes to ask whether she agreed that the pink-themed, quite ‘girly’ covers of some of her books might cause some men to pass them by. As this blog illustrates, she replied that she had very little control over the covers but, whereas the books had a predominantly female readership, the ebooks were downloaded by more men than women.

  8. I have been a book designer for more years than I like to say. This is an entirely accurate description of every cover meeting I’ve ever been to, except someone always wants it in red.

  9. Pingback: How bad book covers happen: the sordid truth | Charles Harris' Blog - Making A Scene

    • In fairness, I see so many designers pull together gorgeous covers from a budget that would barely cover a round in the pub. It’s just that when it goes wrong it goes so very, very wrong. And always with the best of intentions…

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