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:

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This is what Sales thinks will sell:

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This is the designer’s artistic vision:

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And this is what the budget allows:

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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.