Publishing Perspectives: A Tale of Three Covers

by Richard Hamilton on 6 December 2013

Covers don’t matter, until they do. We just released three books with three completely different covers and three different stories. Each had different challenges, and each had a new lesson.

The easy one

Cover of DITA for PrintThe first was easy. We continued a series of books about DITA with a book about using the DITA Open Toolkit to create PDFs. The hardest part of this cover was getting the color right. Print colors are different from display colors. In particular, the range of colors you can get on a screen can’t be duplicated in print. The reasons are beyond the scope of this article, but of most interest for this book is that many shades of blue will, when converted from screen (RGB) to print (CMYK), look closer to purple than pure blue. And, in fact, the original shade of blue we chose turns slightly purple when converted from RGB to CMYK. Fortunately, the change was subtle, and the author liked the print shade, so we dodged that bullet.

The lesson here was that color is not as simple as it seems. I had always thought that color variations and careful control of color were for people who can tell the difference between tan and sandy or eggshell white and off white, but certainly not to a technical book publisher. But it turns out that certain colors will dramatically change when you convert them from screen to print specifications, and you need to test for those changes before committing to a particular color (or hire a professional who can help guide you through the potential problems).

The ugly(?) one

Cover of Every Page is Page OneThe cover of Every Page is Page One is one that the author and I both think works well in print. But it’s clear that it is a cover that you either love or hate. And if you see it as a thumbnail, you probably shade towards hate. Why? Because in a thumbnail the text is hard to read and making it easier to read makes it look uglier. The comments we got essentially boiled down to, The title isn’t legible and When you make the title legible, it looks ugly.

The lesson here is two-fold. First, just because a cover has a cool concept doesn’t mean it will be a good cover. And, second, it can make sense to create separate covers for print and ebook. With this book, we ended up creating a new cover for the ebook edition. The cover doesn’t look that different, but the ebook version has a different, bolder font for the subtitle and there are a few other subtle changes to make the text more visible.

The hard one

Cover of Business Matters, linked to larger imageThe last of these three covers went through two full iterations before we decided to go with a professional. It is sorely tempting to think that after looking at a bunch of book covers, it is possible to create a professional-looking cover. Resist the temptation. I haven’t always been able to resist that temptation, and the results range from serviceable to regrettable. For this particular cover, we had two regrettable iterations before the author suggested a professional, who created the cover you see here.

I’ve gotten better at judging, and can even generate a serviceable cover by imitating one of our existing, professionally designed covers. But the real message of this cover, and the article, is that cover design is not for the amateur or the faint of heart. Over the last few years we have had covers designed by friends and relatives of the author, covers designed by me, and covers designed by professionals. I suspect that you can tell which covers were designed by professionals versus amateurs when you look at our catalog, and we have (for the most part) gone more and more towards professionally designed covers for exactly that reason.

That said, you cannot correlate the quality of the cover with sales. We have books with great covers that sell poorly and books with questionable covers that sell very well. In the end, it’s the content that matters. But the cover is an essential part of the marketing and something that we will continue to try and make better with each new publication.

Richard L. Hamilton is the founder of XML Press, which is dedicated to producing high quality, practical publications for technical communicators, managers, content strategists, and marketers and the engineers who support their work. Richard is the author of Managing Writers: A Real-World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, and editor of the 2nd edition of Norm Walsh’s DocBook: The Definitive Guide, published in collaboration with O’Reilly Media.

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