I was told once that to sell, to catch a person’s attention, a book cover should either have a person’s face or the color red. I heard this second-hand, and clearly it’s a broad statement, but it’s never far from my mind, especially when looking at books. I think it’s an entirely different ball game with kids books, but that’s another story.
Let’s take a look:
I use Sunnyside for multiple reasons. It was one of my favorite books of the year, for one. But mostly because I’m struck by these designs in different ways. The top one is the American cover, the bottom British. Simply in terms of design I like the British cover better. It covers aspects of the story, is whimsical, reminds me of Sim City. But I think the American cover is more eye-catching, and strictly from that perspective I like it more. If I’d had the option between the two when I ordered my copy I still would have ordered the American version. It’s a conundrum I think about every time I see the book on my shelf, and one I can’t explain, but it makes me think about the “human face” part of that designer’s advice to my writer friend. Even though I’m not sure it’s the use of Chaplin’s face that draws me, who am I to say that’s not what I’m being drawn to subconsciously.
Looking at the use of red in covers, here are some examples:
The red accents of the top example really makes this cover for me. It’s a common color used in Alaskan native artwork, which is mimicked in the design, but strictly from a book cover angle it draws the eye not just to those parts where red is used, but really the way the accents frame the entire thing, you are sucked into the cover as a whole.
In the second example, the use of red for the title text brings an air of the novel’s comic book plot, while also having a sense of power, especially with the names being so prominent. The eye moves from the title down the cover, rather than taking it in as a whole, ultimately working differently from the cover of the first example.
As for faces:
For the most part I don’t like photographs of people’s faces on the covers of books. I think often it ends up looking cheesy or like those bad movie tie-in editions. This cover of Soul On Ice, however, is one of my favorite book covers, and definitely my favorite containing a photograph of a face. The photograph in and of itself is beautiful enough to draw me in, so much so that I think the text on the cover is almost secondary. And I’m not sure there’s a better example of an image embodying a title. I couldn’t think of a better image to go with the title Soul On Ice than this.
By no means do I subscribe to the article of advice that started this post. There are so many examples to refute it, that there’s not even a point in actually arguing the case either way. More than anything it is an interesting statement to think about in relation to the way we are attracted to covers.
Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.