Today we have the fabulous and award winning author Ann McMan with us. Did you know that in addition to writing, Ann also does some amazing cover design work. She’s here to share her thoughts on that. Enjoy!
The Great Cover Up
by Ann McMan
I am a riddle in two syllables.
Okay. I confess. I co-opted this idea from the poem“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath.
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
Of course, she was writing about pregnancy—and she did so brilliantly, using nine lines comprised of nine syllables each. I can’t promise equal proficiency or the same facility with language, but I’ll give it my best shot.
My two syllables can be defined as the distinct hats I wear nearly every day. I write books, and I design book covers through my company, TreeHouse Studio. These would seem like compatible activities, and in many ways, they are. But, for me, there is a delicate tension between writing books and designing covers for books written by other people. I often muse about what legacy I might be privileged to leave to the great genre of lesbian literature. Will I be remembered, if I am remembered at all, as a writer of books—or as a designer of book covers? I guess time will tell.
One could argue that being an author should make me a better cover designer. I hope that’s true. Certainly, it makes me more mindful of the need to ensure that designs are relevant to the content of the books—which is really the acid test I use to determine whether or not any design “works.” Even more, it makes me want to do my best to craft covers that can stand on their own in any genre—not just lesfic.
Way back in the Pleistocene, when I came out, there were probably only forty or fifty lesbian fiction titles available. Period. And they all had fairly innocuous covers that didn’t suggest anything about the “scandalous” content of the stories. Today, there are forty or fifty new books issued every month. It’s overwhelming. The market is flooded with titles. And like most things in our collective experience, the books and the covers will continue to imitate the best and the worst, as long as the best and the worst continue to sell.
I believe we should require more of ourselves, and of our literature.
Why do covers matter?
Covers matter because they are the window dressing that will entice potential readers to stop and look more closely at our books.
When I was a young designer, one of my favorite exercises was to hang out in the mailroom of the college where I worked. I’d watch people open their boxes and haul out great stacks of mail—letters, fliers, catalogs, glossy brochures advertising this or that, postcards, direct mail solicitations, magazines—the whole shootin’ match. Invariably, they’d immediately stride over to an enormous trashcan and start sorting. I figured that each item in the stack got about two seconds of consideration before it got saved or dropped into the trash.
I never forgot that.
So “two seconds” became my mantra. I vowed to work hard to create designs that could be ingested and understood fast. They had to be direct. They had to be arresting. They had to be uncluttered. They had to be simple and clear. It was my job to make the point—the single point—quickly and efficiently, and always to ensure that my designs didn’t get in the way of the editorial content of the piece.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t.
Good design is a whole lot like good writing: less is more, and if you notice it, it’s probably overdone.
The thing I struggle with the most when I work with authors is the desire many seem to share that their covers have to communicate every aspect of their stories. Nothing could be further from the truth.The best designs are those that pique the curiosity of potential readers—that intrigue them, that make them wonder what else the book is about.
Think about it: if someone is surfing the new releases at amazon.com or any of the indie sites, and the cover facsimiles are less than an inch in size—having a design that is hopelessly overblown with dozens of layers of minutiae will not benefit your book at all. In every case, you’re going to be better served by opting for simplicity and directness.
To me, the best designs are the simplest—the ones that don’t get in the way or that don’t overload the potential reader with too much information. Covers should be suggestive of general themes or single ideas—not Technicolor productions that try to broadcast every, literal aspect of a story. Simplicity. Directness. Boldness. One compelling image. Or no image at all. These are the building blocks of good design.
Poor choice of typography is another realm where many authors and publishers get into mischief. The most iconic example in my experience of how horribly wrong a design can go when the wrong typeface is employed comes from a roadside sign I used to pass every day on my way to work. There was an old business that used to sit alongside U.S. Highway 70 near Greensboro, N.C. The owners repaired cracked diesel engine blocks, and their scrap of “lawn” was clogged with engine hoists and rusted out truck parts. Everything about this place screamed grease, grit, and soot-covered heavy equipment.
Yet their sign was typeset in Wedding Script.
I guess somebody thought it was pretty….
If you choose to hire a professional designer to work on your cover, you’ll fare a lot better if you let the designer design. That’s what you pay them to do. Find someone who understands the plot and central theme of your book. Explain the tone and the single idea you want to communicate to potential readers. Then get out of the way, and let the designer work.
If you approach a designer and say, “I want a picture of two women and a three-legged Bassett hound walking across a snow-covered, Croatian landscape at sunset—with a ski lodge in the background,” you’re wasting your money—because it’s a paste-up artist you need, not a designer. You won’t be well served, and you won’t end up getting the best cover you could have, either.
In thinking about writing this blog, it occurred to me that it would be a fun exercise actually to design a cover…live. Right here. While you all watched.
So here goes.
Let’s suppose that a new author named “Amanda Playwith” has just written her first lesfic novel, and she approaches a designer to create a winning cover.
The title of her new book is The Crack of Dawn. It’s a cautionary tale (there appear to be a lot of those going around these days)—and it touches on complex themes of love, abandonment, betrayal, hope, and rebirth.
There are several ways the designer could approach the assignment for this book.
First: the mass market, “sex sells” approach. We see“Dawn” and her…um…crack. (Don’t laugh…you’ve seen these books as much as I have.)
Here is cover design number one.
Here is cover design number two.
Here is cover design number three.
Now. Which one of these covers do you think is more evocative? Which would be likelier to catch your eye in two seconds? Which displays best at a thumbnail size? Which makes you feel smart and savvy? Which makes you want to stop and read the blurb to find out just what this book might be about?
While each of the designs might accurately represent some aspect of the story—if you picked any number but three, I’ve just failed miserably in my attempt to demonstrate why less is more as the best way to communicate an idea to the widest possible audience.
As a graphic designer, my goal is to find ways to tell our stories in the best, most simple, and compelling ways. And as is true with most things in life, our stories are not one size fits all. My job is to help authors and publishers find the shortest distance between two points: the gulf that separates the story from the potential reader.
In the end, whether writing or designing, it’s all about storytelling—and my challenge is to help our stories reach the widest possible audience.
Good writing. Good design.
One winning combination.
Ann McMan is the author of four novels, Jericho, Dust, Aftermath, and Hoosier Daddy, and the short story collections Sidecar and Three. In 2011, Ann, along with her novels Jericho and Dust was elected to The Royal Academy of Bards Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was awarded the Alice B. Lavender Certificate for outstanding debut novel. Her story collection Sidecar won the 2012 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Contemporary General Fiction, and Jericho won Honorable Mention in the same category. Both Jericho and Dust were finalists for Golden Crown Literary Awards in 2012.
Ann was one of 25 emerging authors invited to write an introductory essay for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 25 for 25: An Anthology of Works by 25 Outstanding LGBT Authors and Those They Inspired. Her book, Sidecar, won a 2013 Golden Crown Literary Society Award for best short story collection. Her novel Aftermath was a finalist and Honorable Mention in the 2013 Rainbow Awards. More recently, her novel Hoosier Daddy was a 2014 Lambda Literary finalist, and her short story collection, Three, won a 2014 Golden Crown Literary Award.