A book jacket has a lot to achieve.
It has to be eye-catching enough to stand out from all the other books on bookshop shelves, but not so different that it scares off its book’s potential readers.
It has to provide information on several levels: the title and author name must be clearly legible; the book’s genre has to be immediately apparent; the illustration or design used has to do have some connection with the book’s plot, or central theme, without giving away any essential plot points; the jacket has to make it clear if the book is part of a series by conforming to certain design elements of previous books in that same series while also distinguishing the book from others in the series; and the jacket also has to establish or continue to uphold the style for its author, in order to help promote future sales.
There’s a fascinating discussion of the psychology of cover design in Lynn Price’s book, The Writer’s Tackle Box, which I urge everyone to read: it's already available in America from Behler Publications, and will be available in the UK at the end of May, published by Snowbooks.
Unsurprisingly, authors rarely get any say in the design of their book jackets (although some independent presses are fantastic about listening to their authors when it comes to jacket design). The major retailers will have more say in the design of the book jacket than an individual author will: if a senior book buyer doesn’t like a jacket it will almost always be redesigned.
Some designs break the rules: Scarlett Thomas's novel The End of Mr Y had a jacket design that rendered its title almost unreadable, but its striking design and original oversized format more than compensated for that (even though the ink from the gorgeous matt-black edges rubbed off all over me as I read it).
Let’s put this to the test. Sally Zigmond is a good friend of mine and she comments regularly on this blog. Her first novel, Hope Against Hope, is published today by Myrmidon Books and its cover appears at the top of this article. What I’d like you to do is suggest what genre Sally writes in, and hazard a guess about her novel's subject-matter, just by looking at the cover. You're not allowed to look it up on Amazon, because that would be cheating. And no, Mrs Zigmond, while you’re allowed to comment you’re not allowed to play because you already know all the answers!