Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You CAN Judge a Book by its Cover

There’s an old saw that says  ”Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But is it true?  Sometimes “Yes” and sometimes “No.”

When authors have huge followers, putting their names in huge letters on the dust jacket will suffice, even if the rest of the design tells you little of what the book is about.  On the other hand, one can come across a novel by a relatively unknown writer that is brilliantly written, but the cover does it no justice at all. Sending out an advance galley with a vapid cover to book reviewers—who are overwhelmed by submissions—would be far less likely to be singled out  than  if it had a striking design. The same is true for anyone browsing in a bookstore or seeing images on Amazon. This is a very human response. A product enclosed by beautiful wrapping will always be opened before one covered by a brown paper bag. Better yet, if the cover art is exceptional and also reflects what the novel is about, this makes for the perfect marriage.

Back in 1989, I received a flyer from Lon Kirschner and was mesmerized by his book cover designs. As I’ve said in a previous blog, I had my own art background. My beloved father, Mac Shepard, was an artist whose subway sketches are always featured on our catalog covers, while I was an art major at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan during the late forties and early fifties. I was dazzled by his work, and Lon’s been designing covers for us for over 25 years. What a joy it is to both work with him and see what he  comes up with. Any publisher, large or small, looking for a master cover designer would do well to get in touch with him by email. With that, I turn you over to Lon directly.

“Some designers claim that the act of creating is a little like giving birth. There are designs that come rather easily and some are difficult and painful. Of course, being male I have never actually given birth, but I have heard the screams.

I’ve written about my thought process before so I thought it would be interesting to pick a few examples of covers I have worked on for The Permanent Press and discuss the degree of difficulty each one presented. I have found there to be three types of projects.

Number 1: The cover that practically designs itself. These come along less frequently than most.

Number 2: The idea comes quickly but the visual takes a little pushing and pulling to make everything work together.

Number 3: The difficult birth. I have just read the last page of the manuscript and I don’t have a clue how to present the story or what imagery will convey the essence of the book. When this is the case I usually put the project aside and let the story roll around in my head for a while. I then start looking at images of things that seemed to stand out from the book. This can be anything at all. I call it visual free association. It has always worked but can be a long and sometimes frustrating process with false starts and a bit of aggravation. It is also the main reason I try to read the entire manuscript if it is available. It is much harder to solve a problem with less information, such as a short description from the author or a publisher's brief. I often find that my idea comes from some description that is buried in the manuscript, easily missed if the entire story isn’t available.

My main objective has always been to design a cover that has the attitude of the book. Not an illustration of the story.

Number 1. The Cover Designs Itself.
A Movable Famine

This book was a joy. Quirky, funny with a totally engaging main character. I knew right away this would be a portrait of him.
I rarely show a character. I don’t want to impose my idea of what someone looks like on a cover because what I love about reading is that everyone sees it differently. We are all reading the same script but watching a slightly different movie on the screen. So here is the problem. How do you show someone without showing them? The answer was the first line of the manuscript. To me it was the defining line of the book and set the tone. When I read it, I knew it was the character. That opening line became his portrait. With the addition of the retro looking suit, tie and a splash of notepad yellow I had a cover, evocative of a time when poetry was written out in long hand or typed out on the black and white keys of a battered Smith Corona.

Number 2. Almost There.
The Three-Nine Line

I have done all of David Freed’s Cordell Logan mystery titles. This one was different. The other covers in the series always featured some type of graphic that involved the hero’s plane, a beat up Cessna coupled with some type of graphic mystery element. This title called for something different. The story is set in the present day, but the memories and experiences of American soldiers who were prisoners during The Vietnam War is at the core of the book. It is a dark tale set in an exotic land. David had sent me some images of the setting of the book. One of these was of The Huc Bridge of Hoan Kiem Lake. I knew this was going to be the cover. I researched images and found one that had the right amount of ominous mystery. With some color manipulation and addition of background to make it fit my format, it became a strong cover image but I felt it needed something. I tried adding additional elements to tie it into the war. These proved unsuccessful and the cover was stripped down to the foreboding bridge image and title. Everyone loved the image but agreed that something was needed to tie it all together. After staring at the cover, I saw it. This was a story of prisoners of war. I needed to convey that so I underscored the title with barbed wire. That was the missing element. Although the final cover took a fair amount of work, the basic imagery was there from the very beginning, it just needed a push in the right direction.

Number 3. What Do I Do With This?
Grendel’s Game

I have chosen another mystery for this category. This was a tough solve and one that I think proved to be very successful. An eerie story with a fair amount of brutality, it takes place in Sweden with complex and well developed characters. It is really a psychological thriller. A gory murder cover would have done this book a disservice.

Without giving too much away, I began the free association of looking at images. After a while, one image kept coming back to me. The meat hook. Let me stop here and say that this was not what I would call a pleasant visual experience. If you don’t believe me, Google 'meat hook' and see what comes up. It was because of that fact that I knew I had to turn down the gross factor and turn up the creep factor.

The solution was to use the hooks to literally hang the title on, with the addition of a distressed background environment to give the title a home. The effect was a cover that let you know this was a chilling book and it was done without spilling one drop of blood!

Although all three of these examples are very different in the way they were solved, they all have one thing in common. Each cover is built on a concept. We live in an age where it is possible to do anything graphically. But if the concept isn’t sound, then all of the technology isn’t worth much. The first part of my job is to conceptualize. The second part is to make that concept come to life.

To see more of my covers please visit You can also contact me at”

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Charles Davis will talk about the challenges of writing Hitler, Mussolini and Me, a historically accurate and satirical novel that takes place in Rome in 1938, which we will be publishing next June.

I look forward to your comments and also hearing back from you by email.



  1. Wow!. I've read two of these and I'm looking forward to reading Three-Nine Line. The covers do perfectly fit the books, and they enticed me, as a reader. It's very cool to see examples of how the magic gets done. Thank you!

  2. Lon sees worlds in words and encapsulates them beautifully in images.

  3. I've been fortunate to have four books with Permanent and each time the covers have been excellent, across a range of styles. For the first book, I thought I was lucky. By the time the fourth came around, I understood that I was working with someone really top notch, and in the preparation stages for this book, BACK IN THE GAME, I took the liberty of sending him a letter, which read in part:

    "You’ll see that, among other things, the story concerns pigs and industrial farming waste, i.e., shit. If there were a way to depict some amusing aspect of pigness while at the same time slyly evoking the shitness, that could be interesting. [...] to have a book cover depicting shit (appealingly, of course!) but the reader won’t realize it’s shit until having read the book."

    Not an easy request, admittedly. But I couldn't resist making it. Flash forward a couple of months: Lon delivers a cover which accomplishes a very attractive version of that idea, while adding nuances of his own.

    When I've given bookstore readings, and set up this story premise with a couple of passages and then called attention to the cover, it always gets a spontaneous, happily shocked reaction from the audience.

    Lon's visuals are translations of a high order which also stand on their own as arresting images.

  4. The cover Lon did for my book, Radiomen, was perfect. When I first saw it I remember thinking Well, of course, that's exactly what the cover of this book should look like.

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  6. The solution was to use the hooks to literally hang the title on, with the addition of a distressed background environment to give the title a home. The effect was a cover that let you know this was a chilling book and it was done without spilling one drop of blood!

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