Nancy Werlin: The Anatomy of a Book Cover

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 5th, 2010

When we ran a post in ShelfTalker recently about young-adult book covers—The Season of Windblown Hair — Or, the Zeitgeist of Book Covers—author Nancy Werlin wrote us a note. She said, “Elizabeth’s recent cover post sparked me to write something about covers from an author’s POV. ” Attached to her note was the article that follows this introduction; it’s a revealing, behind-the-scenes look at the kind of conversations established authors have with their editors (and agents, and others) during the cover design process. We are delighted to add her voice to the conversation about how book jackets are designed and changed and edited until they are approved and ready for the bookshelves.

[Note: Not all authors are invited into the cover design process; perhaps even the majority are not. Publishing houses have varying policies about author participation in book cover and art discussions, and newer authors generally have less input than well-known authors with more experience in the industry, like Nancy.]

And now, without further ado, here is:

Anatomy of a Cover: Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin

Part 1. Thrifty R Us

So, I was having breakfast with my editor, Lauri Hornik at Dial/Penguin, at the ALA convention in June, and suddenly Lauri lowers her voice and says, “Did you see that story in Publishers Weekly about the YA cover shoot?!”

“You bet I did,” I say. “Ack!”

“They spent over $20,000!”

“$28,000!” [Note: It was actually $26,000. I have a tendency to exaggerate for the sake of the story.]

“In fairness, it was for four covers. But still! Can you imagine?”


This explains why, in talking about the cover of Extraordinary, I will be discussing stock art, PhotoShop, and the genius of in-house cover designers – in this case, Natalie Sousa at Penguin. I also have to mention interior designer Jasmin Rubero, because Extraordinary has a lovely page design too.

Part 2. Cover Design Mission

There was a mission: To match the cover of Extraordinary to the cover of the paperback Impossible, which was commercially successful. Consider the outdoor natural setting, the single girl in motion with her hair blowing, and the cursive font used for the title; both covers have these in common.

Conceptually, though, the “same but different” mission was tricky for the designer. You couldn’t have the cover of Extraordinary suggest to readers that they’d be getting the continuing adventures of Lucy Scarborough from Impossible, only that they are likely to get a similar reading experience.

Then there’s the mission of any cover: to represent the book’s contents authentically enough while appealing to the tastes of those most likely to want to buy it and read it.

“Authentically enough.” What do I mean by this? Well, I’m a veteran of YA book covers (just take a look at my website’s Cover Gallery, in which you’ll find my sometimes trenchant comments on the covers of my books over time). I used to want covers that represented the book’s contents very closely, and were also pretty. Many folks automatically believe that this is what makes a good cover.

But I’ve changed my mind about this. While the cover should not lie (by implication or outright), its job is simply to say: “Pick me up!” to someone who might like the book. That is all. And you have more moving parts than the art: you also have the title and author’s name.

Part 3. The Right Stock Photo

I can only guess how long it took Natalie to find the right stock photo. I imagine she typed “young girl” (and maybe some other keywords) into many different stock photo sites and scanned and scanned and scanned through the results. In the end, she found it at Agenja Free/Alamy.

If you click on the stock photo website link, you can perform the search. Enter “young woman forest” (don’t use the quotes). You’ll see a selection of photos that includes the green forest glade from the Extraordinary cover. (Or you can just look at the picture of the search results.)

On the second page, you’ll find the photo that Natalie used, and you’ll see a few others of that same blonde girl in a red dress frolicking in the forest. There’s one of the girl running toward (rather than away from) the camera; one of her holding her dress out; a few of her sitting in the grass; one of her dancing in sort of a demented way. Maybe Natalie considered some of those as well.

In any event, she created a mock-up (one of many, no doubt) which was the one that Lauri first sent to me.

Part 4. Actual E-Mail: Cover Mock-Up #1 … and #2 … and #3 … and the Final Decision

Here’s the actual email dialogue that followed.

Mock-Up #1 for Extraordinary jacket

LAURI (to Nancy): Here’s a jacket-in-progress (#1).

I’m not liking the hot pink color of the dress and shoes, and I’m thinking that we’ll want some shimmer effect for punch and to hint at the otherworldly setting. What do you think? Could this girl fairly represent Mallory? And do you like the general look of this? We are, of course, trying very specifically to give the novel a companion look to the IMPOSSIBLE paperback.

NANCY: Hm. Interesting! Yes to giving it a companion look to IMPOSSIBLE. And I think this “pops.” But it’s also a little too running-girl-Gothic for me. (Remember those old ’70s romance paperbacks? They always showed a girl in peril, running in a dress.)

I like the green landscape and the high heels. I agree with you about not liking the hot pink color in the dress.

Yes, that could be Mallory, who’s described as having straw-colored hair. But is there a way to make the cover indicate *two* girls? I don’t actually like having Mallory only on the cover; she’s not the main character. If only one girl is shown, it should be Phoebe.

GINGER KNOWLTON (agent): My favorite part is the title font. I immediately thought that I would want a handwriting expert to interpret it.

15-YEAR OLD TEEN: It doesn’t fit the description of Phoebe. And… the girl looks obnoxious… as do the colors. Buuuuuut that’s just me. I would rather see an image of a girl standing in the garden with Phoebe’s description – short with wild red-brown hair or even Mallory with a pair of wings… but yeah… that’s just my snobby opinion. 😛

NANCY: The most salient detail, to me, is that our teen expects to see Phoebe, not Mallory. And she’d rather see a garden than a forest.

LAURI: Thanks, Nancy. This is helpful. We’re limited, in terms of setting and girls, by what we can find as a stock image. But I do think Natalie can work some magic with PhotoShop. Stay tuned.

Mock-Up #2 for Extraordinary jacket

LAURI (to Nancy): Here’s the other jacket comp that we’ve been thinking about recently. Would love to hear your thoughts.

NANCY: [Answer lost in the bowels of email, but it was something on the order of, “Dear God, no.”]

Potential jacket #3 for Extraordinary

LAURI: Here’s a third cover option — one that I love. What do you think?

NANCY: I like everything about it except the girl. The forest atmosphere is terrific. Would it be possible to swap in a different girl or change her clothes?

LAURI: I know — it’s nothing that Phoebe would wear. I’ll ask Natalie if there’s any way to change the outfit. But can we get away from having Phoebe in all black? Any other options? [Note: In the novel, Phoebe wears nothing but black. But it turns out that this is not the best visual choice if you want your cover girl to be striking.]

LAURI (presenting final cover, showing original girl who now has reddish hair and is wearing black): After much discussion, we’ve decided that the attached comp is the strongest:

Potential Extraordinary jacket #4 (the winner!)

We did look at inserting other girls into the photo that had the grand trees and the pinks in the sky, but it looked awkward, and Sales found that photo too introspective/quiet to have shelf impact. This one was forcefully preferred by the group, and with the outfit a different color and her hair more Phoebe-ish, I feel very good about this one. Some questions: Do YOU feel good about this one? Does this girl look enough like Phoebe? And how do you feel about the new title type? The previous version, as gorgeous as it is, was too difficult to read.

NANCY: Well, “forcefully preferred by the group” is a strong argument for me. This #1 had been growing on me since I first saw it, and I suspect it will grow on me even more over time, as did the IMPOSSIBLE cover. Yes, I do think this could be Phoebe now — and that’s quite important. And I love how this cover matches with the IMPOSSIBLE cover.

(And I adore the shoes. This cover asks the important and perhaps irresistible question: Why is she running through a glade in THOSE SHOES????)

The original title font was so lovely, I mourn it, but I can live with this. It gives the same feel, almost, and it IS easy to read.

In short: I am on board, too.

LAURI: The color of the outfit makes a BIG difference in the tone of the whole. I feel it gives the book the solidity, the gravitas that it deserves, and that it doesn’t any longer look like popcorn. The group at the meeting this week all agreed, and they seemed whole-hearted.

NANCY: One question: can we have a line or two about the plot on the back cover? I just read an article that explained that many kids don’t know to read the flap copy. They look on the back and then put the book back on the shelf if it doesn’t contain some hint of what the book is about.

LAURI: Absolutely!

Part 5. Cover as Magic

I now look over the above exchange with bemusement. Why didn’t I immediately see that the first cover composite was on the right track? That it was going to be gorgeous, and fitting?

Maybe I was scared. Writers put a lot of weight on their book covers. I couldn’t see clearly through the haze of my emotional investment in Extraordinary. Did this cover express everything that I felt about my book? About Phoebe Rothschild, her friend Mallory, and everything that happens between them?

Well, how could it? Extraordinary is an original fairy tale, a contemporary story. But like a traditional fairy tale, it heads quickly into frightening, bloody territory. I am afraid for my book, as it goes out alone into the world, just as I was frightened for Phoebe as I wrote and rewrote her story.

No matter how beautiful and loved a cover may be, the jury on it remains uncommitted until the book has been in the world for a while. Perhaps bookstore buyers will be indifferent. Perhaps it will be lost on store shelves. Perhaps there’s another book or two out there using the same or a similar photo. Perhaps its concept or color scheme is part of a trend that’s suddenly over. Perhaps ShelfTalker at Publishers Weekly or the anonymous designer at “Jacket Whys” or other bloggers will rip it to shreds for a reason never imagined during the design process.

And then there is the inside of the book.

A book cover says “open me.” The opening of a particular book will be magic for some readers; but for others, it will not. And about these others the author must learn to say, “My book, my beautiful book, was not written for them. They will find their magic elsewhere, and that’s just as it should be.”

It’s ever so slightly hard, however, to get to this place of acceptance. And so the author hopes that the cover will itself be magical, attracting all the right readers, and as few as possible of the wrong ones, to what really matters: what’s inside the cover.