Designing a winning book cover can be a complex journey, as many covers never see the light of day. With writers, editors, and marketers to please, it’s perhaps no surprise that creatives can face their fair share of rejection along the way.
New book sheds light on book cover designs that haven’t, following the process from early versions that haven’t been seen publicly to final covers.
No, no, no, no, yes: Book Design Uncovered, which was published by D&B Books and edited by company founder David Dunn, features 25 books, each with four rejected cover designs and the final successful covers.
The idea for Dunn’s book came about after attending a cover design conference by book designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan at the St Bride’s Foundation, a historic cultural venue dedicated to print, on Fleet Street in London.
“Wouldn’t it be great to show the world those blankets?”
Keenan, whose work includes covers for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Otherwise Pandemonium by Nick Hornby, and Gray, who is behind several covers of Zadie Smith, including Swing Time and Feel Free, among others, have revealed some of their own book covers rejected during the conference – which led Dunn to a ‘light bulb moment’.
âThere are all these beautiful book covers that never really worked out, that no one can ever see,â he says. “I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to show the world those blankets?” “
Dunn, a publisher who also collects books, including illustrated Penguin paperbacks, admits he hadn’t thought about the process of designing the covers before.
âWhen you look behind the curtain, you see the amount of work that goes into these things,â he says. âIt’s not just the final cover, but the many covers along the way; there is all this work that never has credit.
His book offers insight into “the alternative history of book design” and considers “what could have been”.
Dunn launched an open call for rejected cover submissions at a follow-up event at St Bride’s and on social media, asking designers to submit four unsuccessful cover designs, along with the winning design .
He decided that was enough to show the changes a cover went through, without overwhelming readers.
As a “small publisher”, he did not count on many responses but received “hundreds”.
The book features work by designers from around the world, including Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Hungary, and Ireland.
The books range from those by well-known British authors such as Will Self, whose book Umbrella was designed by Greg Heinemann, to some that Dunn says a British audience is less likely to know, such as A Mente Organizada who was published in Brazil, written by Daniel J. Levitin and designed by Rodrigo Maroja.
In each case, the development of the design is displayed. It Can’t Happen Here (NÃ£o Vai Acontecer Aqui) by Sinclair Lewis shows how designer Carlos di Cielo explored various designs depicting the American flag before settling on a deconstructed mix of stars and stripes on a white background.
In the case of JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, designed by Niall McCormack, different paths are revealed. Early cover designs include an image of a beer bottle and a stylized orange silhouette of a man, while the final design features a shaded staircase.
Some covers have been modified more subtly, like Gastronomia Brasileira, written by Roberto Pinto and designed by Nik Neves, who mainly saw changes in his color palette as the design evolved. The designer ultimately opted for a range of blues, greens and pinks for the final version.
It’s hard to please everyone
While compiling the book, Dunn says he discovered that there was no set formula for designing a winning cover and that “the book doesn’t really try to answer that question.”
âThere are people involved in the decision-making process, such as the sales and marketing teams, who may have different ideas about what makes good coverage,â he adds. “There can be a conflict between someone saying a cover is artistically amazing and someone else saying it won’t sell.”
The reasons a cover is rejected may simply be because the author âhas a strong feelingâ about it or the design lacks âclarityâ.
âIf the message on a cover is cloudy or unclear, it tends to be rejected,â says Dunn. “If it makes people uncomfortable or confused about the message being presented, it can be off-putting.”
But a âstraightforwardâ and âsimpleâ message and good use of âcolorâ is often the key to finding a design that works, he adds.
âWe’re seeing book covers become more colorful or look more like elements of graphic design,â says Dunn. He attributes this to a need to stand out from the competition.
In addition to a “busy real-world shopping experience” with books battling for attention, online stores typically display covers as small thumbnail images, Dunn says, “so that something something daring often catches the eye on something held back â.
When it comes to dealing with rejection, “persistence” has been a key factor for many designers, according to Dunn, with some telling him that they repeatedly “tweaked” cover designs until. that one of them be accepted.
No, No, No, No, Yes, which was designed by Paul Felton and Alex Woolley of design studio Common Curiosity, follows the theme of four releases and a winning design for its own cover.
The book comes with a reversible, foldable dust jacket featuring five different cover designs for readers to choose from, all of which show the book title in a range of typographic styles in black, white, and gray.
The book is slightly larger than an average paperback, which Dunn says provides a “decent-sized canvas” for each of the images, one per page.
Although he initially asked the designers to each submit 100 words explaining why one design was chosen over another or to share their design process, he ultimately decided to “let the images speak for themselves.” and not to include any text.
A page precedes each series of covers with the name of the book, the author, the designer, the publisher and the year of publication in white sans serif font on a gray background.
The “XXXXY” symbols appear in gray in the lower outer corner of each page, with an “X” or “Y” highlighted in a darker shade to indicate whether the cover has been rejected or chosen.
If there’s one thing the book makes clear, it’s that not everyone agrees on what makes the perfect cover, because often “a design that hasn’t made it is the one that a lot of people thought they were the best, âsays Dunn.
“I posted covers of rejected books on social media and writers have posted comments like ‘it’s beautiful, I wish it was the cover,'” he adds.
No, No, No, No, Yes offers an enlightening insight into the book covers that might have been and the journey that led to the end products, leaving readers to decide for themselves whether they agree on the winning designs.
No, no, no, no, yes: Book Design Uncovered is available to purchase for Â£ 19.99 at D&B Books.
All images are courtesy of D&B Books.