A well-designed cover on its own can be irresistible to the buyer.

A pretty face can only get you so far, and of course it’s that fabled inside that counts. The world of books, though, is one of overflowing, endless shelves, and any distance travelled from the book-rack to the reader can go a long way. And while metaphorically, the old adage that warns you against judging a book by its cover remains true, it’s fast losing its literal ground. With too much to read and too little time, a beautiful cover can be magnetic for readers. Of course, for bona fide bibliophiles, they’ve always been irresistible.

How a book looks can go a long way in determining how it sells, and who it sells to. Both voracious and occasional readers will know that covers vary between genres, and tend to stick to certain colour schemes and typography within a specific genre. The chick-lit section is a veritable feast of pinks and pastels, and the thrillers are darker, blacker and sometimes, bloodier. Each cover attracts a specific reader, addresses a particular need, and occasionally, on the sheer strength of its beauty, creates new readers. Milee Ashwarya, Editorial Director for Random House India’s Ebury and Random Business divisions, echoes this idea. “Covers are crucial, as they are the face of a book, the first thing a reader notices about the book. The cover on its own might tempt somebody to buy a book.”

Bena Sareen, Creative Director at Aleph Book House, adds that sometimes, a reprint of a book with a new cover, can boost sales. “Classics are perhaps the best examples. They are constantly given new looks and packaging, and almost always, attract new readers.” Penguin’s exquisitely designed Threads series, as well as the minimalistic Vintage Classics, stand witness to this fact.

Pooja T., whose book blog whimsybookworm stands testimony to her love for the written word, echoes this idea when she talks about what guides her frequent book hauls. “To be honest, the only time book covers guide my book buying is when it comes to Classics. There are just so many options, including free ones (e-books), when it comes to Classics, that I want to get the prettiest edition I possibly can. This desire stems from knowing that these books will stand the test of time and are ones I will not only re-read but also cherish forever. When it comes to some of my favourite books, I don’t even mind getting multiple pretty editions of them!”

It’s important to remember that before a book is picked out and the blurb read, the cover is the only thing visible, forming that first communication between the book and its reader. Gavin Morris, who heads Penguin India’s design department, feels that the first impressions formed by a reader, based on its cover “can make or break a book”. “It’s essential to ascertain that each cover fits the book perfectly, and gives the reader just the right amount of information,” he adds. Of course, the front cover of the book is only part of its packaging, and sometimes, the entire package, including the front, back and spine of the book, contribute towards giving the readers a sense of the kind of book they are about to pick up. Speaking from a marketing perspective, Caroline Newbury, VP Marketing and Publicity, Random House India, says that with an ever increasing number of books being published every year, making a book stand out from the market is always key. “A good cover can really help with this. As shelf space in physical retail is competed over more fiercely by more titles and, in many cases, is decreasing in stores, it becomes harder and harder for books to be discovered.”

Each genre, of course, demands a different designing process. Sanjana Roy Choudhury, Publisher with Hay House India, talks about the kind of covers that work best with Hay House's list of primarily non-fiction and self-help books. “Our constant effort is to ensure the book cover design is inspirational, so that the reader connects with it instantly. For our self-help books, we design them to have a more ‘real’ look; that people instantly connect — it could be their story. They have to be warm, soulful, yet depict strength, especially for inspirational memoirs.” Gunjan Ahlawat, Art Director with Westland Books, has worked with Duckbill’s new and attractive History Mystery series for kids and says that children’s books are an entirely different ball game. “The whole personality, the attitude changes. Starting from the imagery, typography and most importantly colour palette, and to excite kids in particular, post-press effects, like embossing, innovative textures and anything quirky one can think of to trigger excitement in them. In the past, we have done many such experiments. Like putting HOLE in books, spilling sugar like texture etc.” Newbury adds that the process includes the editorial team working closely with designers. “They are given a brief which accurately reflects the content of the book before they present jacket options to our sales and marketing team. Along with other colleagues we then all look at these carefully to discuss the suitability of the design. Sometimes we will look at options and the right one will be there straight away; other times it is a long process before we finally get that perfect design.”

Crucial, as well as central to this process, are the designers and illustrators who work ceaselessly to produce multiple book cover options. Sareen has designed some beautiful books in the past year, working on, among others, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings. “When I hire people, I look for this natural inclination to design that I feel cannot be taught in design schools.”

Speaking on the importance of front cover illustrations, Sareen says that they are very different from the illustrations that one finds within the pages. “The cover design, or illustration, needs to be more general, more symbolic of the whole book, while what goes inside is more chapter or narrative specific.”

Sareen’s work has delighted the authors she has worked with. Nilanjana Roy, whose books have been beautifully illustrated by artist Prabha Mallya, says that she loves how they look. “They are so important to authors, and the gratitude you feel when you see a really beautiful cover is immense. It’s not just knowing that your book looks good, it’s the feeling that the publishers, the designer, and the artist cared enough to create something as perfect as this.”

The authors are also involved, in varying degrees, in the process itself. For each publishing house, the methodology differs, and designers, while not keen to let an author have a complete say in their book’s cover design, often turn to them for the final go-ahead. “The author’s role varies a lot,” says Ahlawat. “Some have such fixed ideas that you are only left to massage their egos. And on the contrary some leave it entirely to your judgment. And allow me to be subjective, those who leave it to you get the best designs,” he adds.

V. Geetha, Director, Tara Books, says that her publishing house ensures that the cover is liked, as well as approved, by the author. “Some authors see it as something to do with marketing, and are willing to let publishers decide, others want to be part of the discussion. Ultimately, if the author does not like a cover, or an illustrator is uncomfortable with our use of her or his illustration, we have to either give up what we’ve chosen, or convince them of our choice,” she adds.

Hay House has a similar outlook, and Roy Chowdhury says that the cover of the book is shared with its author.

Do these covers, so painstakingly deliberated over and designed, lose their importance as e-books? It seems like they don’t, at least while the digital space is still underutilised. Currently, the usual practice is to convert physical copies of books to their digital format, and the cover remains unchanged. Thus, even while browsing online, tiny thumbnail displays of these covers help you pick and choose, and authors previously unread can catch your eye, introducing you to newer pastures. In fact, the drastic size reduction e-books bring about makes cover designing an even bigger challenge. “You need covers with clearer message and better clarity for e-books as the printing effects won’t be visible. Some publishers design separate covers for the physical and e-books keeping the different markets in mind,” says Ashwarya.

Whether as e-books on your Kindles, Nooks and tablets, or as good old paperbacks and hardcovers on your shelves, beautiful covers and intelligent designs can go a long way in making you meet your next favourite book.