The Bookseller Book Cover Design Conference

British Library, 23rd of June 2011
Since I am feverishly preparing to finally realise my lifetime dream and launch my own fiction imprint, I thought attending The Bookseller’s Cover Design Conference was a good reason to go to London for the afternoon.
The conference was mediated by Damian Horner, PR and marketing guru, who also gave a stimulating presentation about some very important points e-publishers need to keep in mind (Incredibly uselful, a link to the presentation will follow when I have one).
Laurence Green, from advertising company Agency 101, spoke about how vital it is to get the brief right. “The brief is the second most important document your agency has. The most important is the contract.”
Thinking about it, this is one part I got wrong in every single project I managed for my clients so far. Total disaster in every case, with painful financial consequences for us. On one side, I have the client: three cover concepts down, “this is not quite I had in mind”, on the other side I have the designer/designers: “This is completely different from the briefing, I will have to require a rebriefing fee.”
Getting covers right is flipping hard, but nothing compared to getting briefs right.
So, by the time Duncan Spilling, from Little, Brown detailed how briefings work, what needs to be involved and what needs to be left out from the briefing process, I had already made my first decision of the day: we will work out an effective briefing format and get the client publisher,  their editorial department, their sales and marketing department, their cleaning team, the security guard and perhaps even the author to sign it before I pick up the phone to talk to any designer. This alone will save my company a lot of time and money, so why didn’t we take it seriously earlier?!
Charlie Loft, from AllCity Media, showed us some clever film posters and how the progress is made from a sketch to the final product with everything in between. I totally agree that, as the tipping point of e-sales vs. physical sales approaches, book covers will look more and more like film posters.
An incredibly useful presentation was from James Spackman, sales director for Hodder & Stoughton, about The End of the Book. Don’t jump to thinking “not as in the end of the video tape again!”, because it actually covered what an edition should add at the end of a book to engage better with the readers. If there is one thing I would put my finger on and say I’ve taken home with me to follow up, apart from the briefing vow, it’s use the space at the end of the book to invite readers to take action. “Have your say” about the book, about characters, about the author. Place Q&A with the author at the end of the book. Add the official hashtag for the book, for the series, for the author so people can tweet about it. Anything that would make people take action and do something after reading the book. I can’t think of any other more effective and cheaper way of making sure your readers’ experience doesn’t finish when they finish reading the book. In other words, “We already have a reader. How do we keep him/her interested?” A blurb of the following book by the same author is a good choice too.
Damian Horner’s presentation followed, mainly about how a book cover needs to look good in thumbnail size. There is so much I would have to write about his main 10 points the designers, editors and marketers need to consider in the design of ebooks, that I’d better wait for the link and direct you straight to his speech.
But my favourite presentation of the conference was by far given by Auriol Bishop, from Hodder & Stoughton again. Auriol spoke about the importance of getting a creative meeting right and reducing messing about as much as possible. She offered an insight into how the cover of One Day by David Nicholls got to look like it did in the end, after countless concepts. Interesting, David Nicholls wanted the book to look like “a Woody Allen film would look like”, “which is what David wants about all his covers,” Auriol added.
When she said, “The author always has a cover in mind; he’ll often offer to get his son to sketch it (…)” I nearly burst out laughing. I hadn’t realise this particular instance was so freakingly common. Our designer offered a few concepts to our latest client, a publisher of books aimed at mainly teenage boys. All concepts were highly suitable for the audience, darkish graphics, similar to video games, film poster style composition with different elements cleverly blending in one impact image and so on. We loved it. The publisher came back, it wasn’t quite what he had in mind. He offered a pastel painted by his son, in which the elements were later cut out manually and glued on an A4 paper. We advised the sales would be affected; it’s not for today’s teenagers; even the libraries and school suppliers will think twice. In the end, the project was handed to a professional pastel artist, so we’ll wait and see what we get this time.
Auriol also posted a lot on #cdc11, the official Twitter channel for the conference, during the presentations, for those who couldn’t make it.
Tony Crabbe, the business psychologist’s speech was a bit of a loss for me. I couldn’t see the point of his presentation in the context of cover design. It was quite entertaining though, I had to arm-wrestle the guy sitting behind me, a designer from Kin Creative. He also had to do some adding up while wrestling, so I felt sorry for the poor sod and allowed him to win (joke!). The point was that you couldn’t effectively do two or more things at the same time. So I proved it wrong by working in a team instead of acting as the enemy. If it makes sense.
Then Alex Miles Younger, the creative director for The Domino Project, spoke from New York about what The Domino Project is and how it works. For me, the project is a little too avant-garde. No titles and author’s names on book covers. Wow, original, but would it work? Miles Younger showed a selection of CDs with no names or titles on them, which was meant to prove that the idea works. I didn’t recognise any of them. I could be an ignorant cow, but how many are there like me? Like all things experimental, it will have critical acclaim and prestige within elite-end environments, but I would very much doubt its mass success.
Which brings me to the last presentation of the conference, the fixabook.com selection of 5 worst and 5 best book cover designs.
The main point being the strategy behind a cover design.
The fact that their choices of best covers were way too educated is proven by their choice of this cover as the number 3 best cover.
Quite apart from the fact that the cover as a whole looks like a combination of retro graphic design, pop culture motifs and the first draft of a skyline, I can see how Julia and Winston from fixabook.com chose it for its getting out of the office and not following the crowd. Fair enough, I would add a fourth criterion, i.e. being  bonkers.  
I think the best bit of advice anyone gave at the conference was “Go out, buy all your competitors’ books and throw them on the shelf in your office.” Unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it.

About Lorena Goldsmith

Literary consultant at Daniel Goldsmith Associates.
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