Every year, the AIGA (that’s the American Institute of Graphic Arts) picks their favorite books and book covers for the year. It usually yields a roundup of pretty cool graphic design. What I found interesting about this process is that they judge the physical book, apparently without consideration of ebooks. Like in most professions, what impresses people who are constantly up to their eyeballs in graphic design may not be what actually catches the eye of the people.
Considering that very few books are actually bought in person anymore, no matter how beautiful they are, most of these books are in competition with other titles on Amazon and other online booksellers.
Because I’m now curious, I’m going to compare a random smattering of the best book covers against the highest ranking book in their category. This list is from 2016, so I’m not adjusting for time or anything, but I want to see if an award-winning cover outpaces a normal, workmanlike cover. For the AIGA covers, if the book is listed in more than one category, I’ll pick the highest-ranked one.
Let’s kick off with a nod to esoteric twitter.
The Essential Goethe, ed. Matthew Bell
Publisher: Princeton University Press
#34 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Regional & Cultural > European > German
Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Regional & Cultural > European > German
Not gonna lie, I am swooning a little bit over that Goethe cover: the beautiful copper color of the background, the intense blackletter typography, the way that the type frames Goethe’s eye, the playful way in which the type asserts that this is THE (only) Goethe reader that you’ll ever need. (I doubt that’s true but I appreciate the effort.) It’s so simple, yet it sings.
On the other hand, we have the standard-issue Penguin Classics cover design, which gets the job done.
German Historical Fiction
A Man Lies Dreaming, by Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Melville House
#396 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Historical Fiction > German
Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum
Publisher: Mariner Books
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Historical Fiction > German
Now. These two books are designed to appeal to two completely different audiences, although they are both novels about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. The AIGA-approved one has lots of visual references to the Soviet brutalist style. You know it’s going to be a brutal book. Our other title is a softly hand-colored vintage photograph in a style that reminds me of inspirational fiction from the mid-1990s. The typography is basic. It makes me cringe a little, but clearly it is more what people want to read.
Genre Fiction: Occult
The Way of Sorrows: The Angelus Trilogy, Part 3 by Jon Steele
Publisher: Blue Rider Press (Penguin)
#328 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Suspense > Occult
The Man of Legends, by Kenneth Johnson
Publisher: 47North (Amazon)
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Horror > Occult
This is a great example of a “designed” cover versus a very workmanlike cover. The Angelus Trilogy cover definitely draws my eye, and I would indeed love to have it in hardcover form, to stare at. But as we’re finding with indie publishing, a good story trumps any blemishes on the cover, and honestly, the Man of Legends cover isn’t that bad.
Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, by David Galef
Publisher: Columbia University Press
#37 in Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > Genres & Styles > Short Stories
100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, eds. Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > Genres & Styles > Short Stories
Interesting how this is two different types of book, in the same category. One is more of a how-to manual; the other is actual short stories. (You can use those as a how-to manual if you want, but most are designed to be read for pleasure.) Despite the Brevity cover reading as “cleaner,” both covers verge on having one too many elements. There’s a lot going on. Brevity, though, definitely stands out. It reminds me of a pop-psychology book like The Power of Habit.
Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity, by Rebecca Lemov
Publisher: Yale University Press
#70 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Ethnopsychology
Discipline Your Mind: Control Your Thoughts, Boost Willpower, Develop Mental Toughness, by Zoe McKey
Publisher: Kalash Media
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Ethnopsychology
One cover is visually intriguing, but completely unreadable. The other is mildly interesting, but clearly communicates the point of the book. Stacked rocks = discipline. It feels like the design of Database of Dreams is too clever for its own good. Unless you know what the cover looks like, it’s going to be harder to identify if you’re searching for it online, since the title is so obscured and small.
It’s clear that you don’t have a great cover to sell big (although it does need to be decent–there are no truly terrible covers on this list), and having a great cover isn’t a prerequisite to selling well in your category. Overly-clever visual presentation is not necessarily helpful in bookselling. There are a lot of other factors at play (average star rating, content of the book, marketing platforms, the competitiveness of the category, etc.) but workmanlike covers are not something that will hold a book back from first place.