Saturday, 10 March 2018

How will your cover be designed? Moira Butterfield talks to Steve Wells

Today’s blog is about something that is vital to the success of any book you write – the cover design. To shine a light on the alchemy of cover design I’ve interviewed freelance graphic designer Steve Wells, who has designed over 200 covers. He often gets the call from publishers who want their newest book to be instantly intriguing and eye-catching, packaged with a visual impact that everyone hopes will convert into sales.

Steve knows he will only get a fraction of a second – a glance from a browsing customer - to get the idea of the book across and make them pick it up or click online to see more. So how does he go about it?

Describe the kind of briefing you would get at the very beginning of a cover design commission.

The cover is usually commissioned by the publisher at an early stage in the process, so the manuscript will probably not be available. I will be given a synopsis, a title and an idea of the age group and the genre, and I will discuss with the publisher what they want to achieve.

Often we work with illustrators. The publisher may have someone in mind or I may help look for an artist. Or, if it is a book that needs a more graphic or type-led approach, I may do the whole thing myself.

Covers with graphics and images created entirely by Steve. 

What would be a typical process be once you have received the commission?

I will think about the brief and probably sketch some ideas up. Sometimes a book prompts an idea that comes to mind immediately. Sometimes it develops from the sketching stage. You can get there straight away, but occasionally it is more of a struggle. 

Once I have an idea I will put together a brief for the illustrator, if we are using one. This will include anything I know about the book, a sketch of my idea and examples of the illustrator’s work that most closely resembles the kind of thing I have in mind. This brief is a vital part of the process. I want to give the illustrator the freedom to do their best work, but with enough guidance for them to know where they are going. The publisher will see and react to the brief and agreed with the direction before the illustrator sees it.

The design is a distillation of ideas. I’m trying to reflect the essence of the book – the author’s intentions translated into visual terms that work at a glance. But also I have the reader in mind. Will it intrigue them?  Will it look appealing to them? A cover designer needs to put their own ego aside in the service of a book.

The illustrator will supply sketches, sometimes more than one. At this stage I’ll confer with the publisher again and we will go back with any comments before the illustrator does the final art.

Covers with commissioned illustrations

Sometimes buyers will only look at a thumbnail cover on the internet. Does that affect your design choices? 

Less so than it did. It is still a consideration, but these days there is more emphasis on the physical book and making it a beautiful object. 

Do you work with market design trends in mind?  What do you think those are at the moment?

There has been a big move away from photography and mass market design to a much more handmade illustrated feel. This is a trend that has been going on for a while and I think that it will continue. It has resulted in some great design and a lot more work for illustrators. There is a big emphasis on artisan values, I think, as a reaction against the digital and CGI world.

Do you only ever work on book covers?

I do more general design work and sometimes illustration, too. I have illustrated over a dozen books for various publishers in the UK and elsewhere (my illustrations have been published in over 20 countries).

Covers that Steve has illustrated himself. 

It’s also very important for me to have my own self-initiated projects that I can have fun with. That way I can explore different avenues of thinking and retain my enthusiasm. I think that applies to all of us, whether we are artists, designers or writers. We need to keep refreshing our creativity.

One of Steve's non-book projects, his Mrs. Cat card range. 

Over to the readers. Do you have any thoughts or personal experiences of book covers you'd like to share? Do you like the look of the current Waterstones tables? Have you recently bought a book based on its cover? 

Moira Butterfield writes all kinds of books for children. Her new Nosy Crow book – Welcome To Our World – comes out in August of this year, and she loves the cover.

Steve Wells can be found here:

One of his self-initiated projects is a range of delightful Mrs. Cat cards, found here:


Lynne Garner said...

Recently discovered a new author (tom me) because the cover caught my eye, flipped over read the blurb and gave it a try. Have now read four of this authors books.

Moira Butterfield said...

Good job by that cover designer!

Lynne Benton said...

Yes, I've also been seduced by a great cover to read a book, and then enjoyed it so much that I've gone on to read more by the same author. So Steve is absolutely right that the cover needs to "reflect the essence" of the book, as well as appeal to the potential reader. Excellent post, Moira!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Anybody who says they don’t judge a book by its cover is lying. I certainly do. Mind you, I have been lucky. I once discovered a wonderful author whose book had a dreadful cover because it was remaindered and I thought I could always give it to the second hand shop if I didn’t like it. I’ve been digging up his work ever since. Would I have bought it if it had cost full price? Maybe, if I picked it up and read the first page. But you have to pick it up first...

Moira Butterfield said...

I know you have self-published recently, Lynne. Your covers are excellent thanks to your designer son, I believe. Many self-publishers get it very wrong, not realising how much thought it needs.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Somewhere on my blog is a post written by a cover artist, Duncan Long, who has some fascinating things to say about the process - and about having to deal with a committee of family and friends when self published authors are involved, his main market these days. You really have to know what you’re doing if you’re going to self publish a book.

L'oiseau lit said...

I absolutely love Steve's first 3 covers presented in your post !
I'd like to read "The Happiness Quest", but I can't find it anywhere. I guess it's not published yet ? Do you know the name of the publisher ?
Thank you :)