Behind the Covers

by Berni Stevens

When I started art college, I really had no idea in which direction my career would go, I just knew I wanted to draw, design, or create something . . . anything. My foundation year came as a complete eye-opener, because up until that point I’d seriously thought I was going to be an illustrator. However, being top of the class in art at school, is very different to being top of your year at college or making a living from illustration. I soon decided to take the graphics route.

Books have always been a passion of mine, so it’s no surprise that book covers became a passion too. A lot of my contemporaries from college balk at the idea of designing for a similar format all the time, but it’s been a long time since I actually saw a book cover as merely a format.

The cover is the first thing the prospective buyer sees, whether it’s a buyer for Waterstones or a member of the book-buying public. It has to attract attention and it has to tempt someone to pick up the book. The back cover is also important, after all, what’s the first thing you do in a bookshop? Pick up a book and turn it over. If the back cover looks unattractive, with a mass of dense, tiny type, who will bother to read it? The spines are important too, as most books are displayed spine out. The spine could, therefore, be the only chance the book has to lure a potential buyer.

A good cover needs to stand out from the competition, which sounds easy enough, but actually isn’t. Competition is fierce – especially in the thriller and chick-lit markets. Publishers often end up following design trends that have already proved popular, rather than taking any risks. Cover design is like anything else, in that the designs themselves go in various fashions. An illustrator or photographer may be really popular for years and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, not so popular.

A few years ago, whoever would have thought a headless woman in a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes could turn a book into a bestseller? Or a headless woman in regency dress . . . or a headless woman sashaying up some stairs? In fact, the trend for headless women on book covers at the moment makes the romance section in bookshops look like the French Revolution.

It’s imperative that both the title and author type read out from whatever image is being used – especially in the case of famous authors, where it also needs to read well from a distance. A well-known author’s book will often be displayed face out in order to attract their fans.

Books are displayed by genre, so putting a black background on a horror book could make it sink altogether amongst similar covers. Books hoping for supermarket sales need to be colourful and to preferably not have a white background, as most supermarket shelves are white. There’s a lot of shelf competition in supermarkets.

I’m often asked how long the process takes for one cover, which is a leading question. Occasionally, I’ve had cover briefs change completely after several days of picture research and many visuals. Unfortunately, this means starting again from scratch. Some covers are turned around in a matter of weeks but others tend to . . . linger.

To start with, I’m sent either a synopsis or part of the manuscript along with the design brief and samples of other covers in the same genre. It’s always good to check out the competition! Most clients give me two to three weeks in which to come up with initial ideas. The visuals will then be presented at a cover meeting, consisting of the art director, publisher and editor plus sales and marketing people. It’s difficult to please that many people first time around, so inevitably the cover will come back for revisions. Once a design has been approved, I’ll move on to the next stage, which is either commissioning a photographer or illustrator, or ordering in the high resolution photographs from a picture library.

My covers involve a lot of Photoshop work, with several images ‘comped’ together, so a cover can take several days to get exactly right. The full cover artwork is relatively quick to finish by comparison and I’ll then email a PDF copy of the cover to the client for approval. The whole process can be completed in a few weeks, providing approval is received at an early stage.

Things invariably can go wrong, especially with photo shoots, featuring models or celebrities. For instance, there’s the model who turned up looking nothing like her publicity picture, or the celebrity who’d had a drastic haircut the day before the photo shoot. (Yes, both happened to me).

I often browse in bookshops, looking at covers. Foil, embossing, matt lamination and spot varnishes all go towards helping a cover stand out from the wealth of other books in the shop.

I’ve worked in the publishing industry for over twenty years now, but have still retained my passion for books and designing their covers.

Berni Stevens did a foundation year plus a three-year Vocational Graphics course at Eastbourne College of Art and Design. Her first job was for the (now defunct) Inner London Education Authority, designing brochures and catalogues for schools. She left there to work as junior designer for a small Mayfair publisher, designing both covers and promotion material. Two years later, she moved to Harper Collins as publicity designer for its paperback imprints. After leaving them for a stint with the Penguin Group, she then moved on to MacDonald Publishers, who became Little, Brown after Maxwell’s demise. Once there, she worked solely on covers and eventually went freelance in 2003.

Berni is married to Bob, whom she met at Art College, and one son, Sam. She has a “serial killer” cat called Mildred (Millie) Hubble and two goldfish (Potter and Weasley). She’s on the committee and the book panel of the Dracula Society and is a huge fan of Buffy. As well as designing covers for both UK and US publishers, she’s just completed her first novel and twenty-five chapters have been uploaded to the Harper Collins Authonomy website.

To visit Berni's site click here.

To view Berni's novel on Authonomy click here.

Book covers shown are Berni's work.

Top photo: Jason Gessner


Ruth Rowland said...

Great article - it's always interesting to hear from someone in the industry.

Jane Turley said...

I always look for books that have a different feel to them - books with with no individuality don't appeal to me no matter how famous the author. I guess I look for something that shows a little bit of individuality in the hope that what's inside is accurately represented on the cover.

Interesting article Berni:)