Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

by Stefan Lopez

Photo by    rawpixel    on    Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


It’s one of the oldest idioms in the book world, time-tested and subtly instructive: Don’t take things purely at face value, it says; don’t be ruled by your prejudices; look past first impressions and give second chances. It is perhaps least useful when applied to its literal context.

Many books have misleading or poorly done covers – ever more so in an era when self-publishing has become increasingly accessible. And given the sheer number of books released each year, it’s inevitable. Selection is precisely the thing that makes a good cover necessary. Like catchy titles, skillfully calibrated metadata, and well-crafted jacket copy, a book’s cover is one of the fundamental elements that connect readers and books.

Enter: the art director.

In celebration of five productive years of publishing, we have released a series of interviews with members of Stillhouse Press, from submissions and acquisition, cover design to release, these pieces shine a light on the publication process. In this piece we will consider the process of layout, art direction, and cover design.

When Douglas Luman first started working with Stillhouse Press in 2015, he came on as the inaugural poetry editor, serving as the managing editor of Bryan Borland’s “DIG,” responsible for developmental edits, but also the artistic vision for the book, which he envisioned as much as work of art as the text it contained. For this project, the work of Jonathan Kent Adams, a Missouri-based artist and advocate for the LGBTQ community, was commissioned, and Luman’s vision for a true poetry-cum-art-book, complete with cut outs that reveal Adam’s painting from below — “dug” into the text.

“Dig” cover in the works
The cover of Bryan Borland’s “Dig”

DIG in development. Image courtesy of artist, Jonathan Kent Adams. (Naturally, we think the end result is pretty stunning.)

Since 2016, Luman has overseen the cover art and direction for eight of the press’s ten titles. And like most positions at Stillhouse, his job requires an element of adaptability.

“As art director, my job is, like the editors, to condition and edit the book,” he says. “I’m thinking of a vision of packaging for book: What does it look like? What does it feel like? How is it going to read?”

Luman does not work solely on aesthetic decisions, for, he says, purely aesthetic decisions don’t exist.

“Content informs the design and the design informs the content.” He gives the example of Anne Panning’s memoir, “Dragonfly Notes”: “It’s a book organized into a lot of small pieces. Normally you’d get a table of contents that shows where all the chapters or divisions in a book are, but for ‘Dragonfly Notes,’ it had more than would normally behoove a table of contents, and would make the book seem longer and heavier than it actually is. These are hybrid editorial-design decisions.”

Cover design by Luman for Anne Panning’s “Dragonfly Notes” (Stillhouse Press, Sept. 2018).

Cover design by Luman for Anne Panning’s “Dragonfly Notes” (Stillhouse Press, Sept. 2018).

A book’s interior layout can both guide and inform a work, says Luman.

“I create what are called type specs. I take the first page, which will have aspects such as chapter headings, page numbers, paragraph spacing, and fonts, and create multiple prototypes with different aspects, and we choose the best one,” Luman explains of Stillhouse’s process, which also includes input from the author (one of the great benefits of a small press); editorial advisor; and director of media and marketing. This collaborative process serves as the first stage of the artistic transition from manuscript to book.

Like with marketing a title, part of Luman’s role as the art director is also to find the middle ground between the market and an author’s taste.

“You have to make the book appealing in a visual sense,” he says. “There are readers who will buy – or at least consider – a book based on the impression the cover gives.”

This isn’t about overwrought platitudes. Covers are an essential part of the bookselling process; they position a book in the market and serve as a sort of snapshot, or artistic interpretation of their narrative.

“Is it memoir? Is it poetry? Is it fiction? If so, what kind of fiction is it? What other books does it belong with on a shelf?”

A good cover should both draw a reader in and communicate a book’s content and tone. The former can be achieved by including some sort of relevant imagery, though what to include and how to present it is complicated with subtleties.

“The use of color, the use of different fonts, whether they’re clear or stylized… layout and the amount of space on the cover – these all give impressions of the book before you read it.”

So how does Stillhouse visually establish its identity as a publisher? On a more granular level, it’s about formatting standards, like logo placement, the spacing of the title and an author’s name, how it is rendered on the spine, how the layout of the back cover unfolds, and even the placement of the barcode. On a broader scale, it might also showcase an artist’s evolution or current trends. Luman talks about how Stillhouse tends to use abstract imagery or photo-based designs: “We have a good mix of photos and illustration. We err on the side of relatively simple designs, ones that have a story behind them.”

Like the manuscripts Stillhouse publishes, an author’s input also helps shape the artistic identity of the press – which fits with Stillhouse’s mission as an independent, craft publisher.

“Every author has some idea in mind for a cover, whether it’s certain elements or colors, or just some vague feeling,” he says. “To a certain degree, however, the books come to Stillhouse without a specific image.”

Luman’s first cover design for Stillhouse Press, “Pop” by Mark Polanzak

Luman’s first cover design for Stillhouse Press, “Pop” by Mark Polanzak

One of the ways Stillhouse balances author input and marketability is by asking the author to provide a few covers from their favorite books, or books that have helped inspire their writing, serving as both a source of inspiration and to give Luman a better sense of the space envisions their book might occupy.

When developing the cover for a title, prototyping is essential.

“We make three to five prototypes for the author to react to, and build from [that],” says Luman, noting Mark Polanzak’s initial response to one of Luman’s early visions for “POP!,” which ended up evolving into the final book – a Day-Glo burst of metaphorical parallelism to Polanzak’s fictionalized re-envisioning of his father’s death.

Like all things in publishing, it’s an involved process: one that evolves in tandem with the many other steps in the publication process.

“We’ll get the basic idea down about six to nine months before release, but we still need to do a lot of refining after that,” he says.

The takeaway? Consider what images and art might have inspired you in your own writing. You may one day need it.

Stefan Lopez has an internship with
Stillhouse Press, a Bachelor’s Degree
in English from George Mason University,
and a head full of empty.