producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Designing the Cover

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The gold and copper mines are long gone but rusted materials are abundant in the ghost town of Jerome, Arizona. Several buildings from the late 1890s have been restored in recent decades by residents running tourist businesses while many historical relics remain. (Jain Lemos, Jerome, AZ; 2014.)
The gold and copper mines are long gone but rusted materials are abundant in the ghost town of Jerome, Arizona. Several buildings from the late 1890s have been restored in recent decades by residents running tourist businesses while many historical relics remain. (Jain Lemos, Jerome, AZ; 2014.)

If you’ve followed the progression of bookmaking that I’ve been laying out for you in my Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books, then designing the cover doesn’t have to be exasperating. I have been in countless cover meetings and folks do become sensitive. With few exceptions, I’ve always been pleased with the eventual choice. There was one case where we couldn’t agree after nearly a dozen rounds so we settled on a rare double cover, meaning that the back cover was also designed to look exactly like a front cover. I went to every bookstore in town and flipped the books on the display rack to the back cover.

At this stage, it’s not the first encounter meeting up with your cover design. The book’s title and cover credits were established when you were determining specifications. The colors and fonts—also possibly a logo or title block—were decided when you were finding design concepts. You mocked-up a cover when it was time to start creating marketing materials. And when editing images, you selected several shots with cover potential. Now it’s time to revisit these decisions so the final, final, final, final cover is the right one. I’ve found that cover art which worked for early promotional phases started to feel dated by this point, probably because I had been looking at it for weeks.

After finishing the design of the interior pages, the designer will have a much deeper visual understanding of the book. Ask for at least three new—and distinctly different—cover concepts. Shots that weren’t considered for the cover during editing might suddenly appear to be perfect. Some covers show multiple images and that layout treatment can be fine in certain applications. There are documentary subjects where you’ve arranged for a separate cover shoot, especially for biographies, and that session should produce several cover options. Finally, the placement of the text elements can be shuffled around in endless combinations. With three or four vastly different looks, you’ll start to refine them, often merging parts of one cover into another.

A common notion is that covers will be decided by the marketing department and you can count on that team to be well represented when working for publishers as a packager or in-house editor. Remember, you have become the expert in this book’s audience reach while they may know nothing about the topic presented. Be ready to explain your decisions. If you are the publisher, by all means, let your team members give their opinions. You might want to ask for outside opinions just to weigh more responses.

But in either role, before you ask for feedback, narrow the cover down to two choices that you absolutely love so it doesn’t matter which one is selected. There are times when you’ll need to go back to the drawing board. Take criticism constructively and stay flexible enough to get it right. Cover design includes the back cover and inside flap design and sometimes these parts present more of a headache than the front. In the bookstore, readers will look closely at these areas to confirm their purchase.

I like to print out covers, wrap them around books of the right trim size then set them as far across the room as possible. I divert my gaze or close my eyes and then look back to see which cover seems more noticeable or compelling. Another test is to prepare tiny thumbnails, both at the book’s exact proportions and cropped square, to see how the cover holds up around the web and on book selling sites such as Amazon. I see so many book and magazine covers ruined in thumbnail size because they had to be cropped square to fit the site’s formatting. Look at these typical web sizes and you can see why this title font (and the picture) doesn’t work as a book cover:

After working on illustrated books for a while you’ll start seeing potential covers naturally. I think cover design is one of the most inspiring parts of bookmaking as so much rides on the right look. For photographers, having your image selected for the cover is one of the best recognitions. For editorial books, the visuals need to be presented with journalistic standards and guidelines, but cover photos may need more extensive cropping, compositing and retouching. Hopefully such alterations can be kept to a minimum.

Part 23, Reviewing Layouts, is next in this series. Thank you for your feedback and encouragement to continue! You might want to join me over on Cover Critics.

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