How does the way a book is produced help it stand out on the shelf?
The Importance of Book Design
I remember being on the train and seeing an advert for a novel. The title was something along the lines of “I would never harm him”. Some of the letters were highlighted, so as to read the word “LIAR”, written vertically across the cover. The design stuck with me. Here, the book cover gave you contradictory information in one title, whilst implying we might be faced with an unreliable narrator. Most of all, it set up a conflict even before the reader had had a chance to glance over the first line.
How does the way a book is produced help it stand out on the shelf? We live in a very visual world, so what a book looks like is important – maybe we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, we do. Publishers know this and take it into account.
A book cover might inform readers about its content and its genre. For example, most crime novels share a similar design, with moody photographs in dark colours, sometimes a splash of red, and very often a silhouette somewhere in the picture. The colours, the choice of title, everything that meets the reader’s eye will tell them if they want to pick up the book or not.
In the case of “John Dies at the End” by David Wong, it’s possible that the curious title might push you towards the novel. Or sometimes you just want to own a beautiful book, where the item is a piece of art in itself. Some of the hardback editions of the “Tales of the Otori” by Lian Hearn contain beautiful Japanese artwork – we’re far removed from the simple words on screen of a kindle version.
Another interesting example is “Half Bad” by Sally Green. In one of the editions, the book had rope wrapped around it, and a little cardboard tag with “Set Me Free!” attached to it. How is that not tempting? And the book is adding a new feature to the reading experience – the sense of touch, the material of twine rope.
Design becomes even more important for picture books and children’s books. This time the writer is working hand-in-hand with the illustrator to produce a piece which is sometimes as visual as it is literary. “Odd and the Frost Giants” by Neil Gaiman is a lovely object, with silver-lined decorations and a thick, jagged cover which allows you to peak through icicles towards the mysteries within.
But children’s books can also use the tricks of adult fiction, giving out teasers or tasters. My personal favourite is Cressida Cowel’s “The Wizard of Once”. The novel gives you lots of information about its characters and the tone of the book simply through its illustrations. The drawings of the characters work like a film’s trailer, encouraging you to read more. And if you glance through it, you can glimpse at scenes in black and white – snippets of what the story might be. All of this is given to you visually through this first contact.
This first interaction between the reader and the novel relies heavily on the book’s design. In publishing as in love, it’s important to make a good first impression.