Titles & Covers: Tips for Authors from a Book Designer

Hi Manuscript Workers,

I’m super pleased to be able to officially share the title and cover of my forthcoming book about book proposals with you all. The book is called The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors and here’s what the cover will look like:

It’s now available for pre-order from Princeton University Press. You can also pre-order it on certain other monopolistic online retailers and maybe from your local indie bookstore as well.

I had the opportunity to chat via email with Matt Avery, the designer who made this cover. I loved what he came up with, and wanted to know more about how he arrived at this design. I also thought he might have some insights that would be useful for scholarly authors in general when it comes to cover design. He gave me permission to share our Q&A with my newsletter readers (that’s you), so here it is!

LPS: My editor Peter Dougherty placed a lot of emphasis on getting the title for this book right, in part because he said that a great cover design can flow from a great title. Can you talk about how the title of The Book Proposal Book may have affected your approach to designing the cover?

MA: I wholeheartedly agree that a great title can set the stage for a great cover. And I think this is something that is generally under-appreciated. Writers are understandably focused on the meaning of words more than how they will work in graphic form. Long titles/subtitles can pose challenges for a designer—especially if an image will also run on the cover. On the other extreme, a single-word title, can set up a bold cover with a lot of visual punch. Book titles are hard! I’ve sat through many a meeting watching brilliant editors working hard to get a title right. Considering the cover might feel like just one more constraint added to an already daunting process. (And I would never suggest the cover should be the determining factor in titling a book.)

The Book Proposal Book has a nice ring to it and a subtly playful tone. In the design the repetition of the word “book” is highlighted to play up these qualities. The type-only approach also works toward the same end and happily the brief from Princeton University Press had already asked for a typographic approach.

LPS: Did any other factors besides the title (e.g. tone, content, readership) come into play when you designed this cover?

MA: For tone, we were seeking a balance of confidence and approachability. Reference books are traditionally set with bold no-nonsense typography and designed to look authoritative. Our goal was to lean into that classic approach but with a contemporary touch that wouldn't come across as heavy-handed. If we were to push too hard in an austere direction it could come across as stilted, overly difficult, or just off-putting.

LPS: What do you think is important for authors to understand about your work or about book cover design in general? Any tips for prospective authors who are asked to give input about cover design for their books?

MA: It is very helpful when an author articulates what other books their book will sit alongside or be in conversation with. Authors can alert publishers and designers to potential pitfalls such as problematic representations or over-used tropes in their field.

Simplifying what the focus of the book cover is also important and your publisher should help you in determining this. Don’t expect the cover to do too much in terms of explaining every nuance of your argument. The reader will engage with that when they are reading the book. A good cover for a non-fiction title might simply point to or hint at an idea—or simply convey a tone.

Publishers usually retain ultimate control of the cover design process which can sometimes be a source of frustration to authors. I’m not going to say your publisher is always right. But a good publisher will do their best to both accurately represent your book and to connect it with readers. I would encourage authors to not overly personalize their books covers (e.g. asking designers to avoid their least favorite color). This is difficult, as producing a book takes such an incredible amount of time and effort. The book itself is of course a very personal matter to its author. As much as one can, remember that the book cover has a job to do. In the end that might mean the best cover for your book doesn’t reflect your own sense of taste or style.

LPS: How did you get into designing book covers for university presses? What other kinds of projects do you enjoy?

MA: At the beginning of my career I was interested in publishing but thought I would be happiest working on magazines. I ended up finding work at a small book publisher. Soon I realized that if I stayed in Chicago that working at University of Chicago Press would be my dream job. I was able to successfully apply when the Press had an opening and working there was a wonderful experience. I learned so much from my colleagues and benefited from the mentorship of Jill Shimabukuro. I’ve been working independently for a few years now and so do work on other projects but am glad that books are still a focus. In addition to working on covers I find photobooks and art books to be especially fulfilling.

I’m so grateful to Matt not only for doing a great job on the cover but for being so open about his process when I asked. You can find out more about his work and see the other beautiful cover’s he’s designed at his website (monograph.studio), on Instagram (@monograph_studio), or on Twitter (@mngrph).

This newsletter will probably go quiet for the next little while as we collectively hold our breath over the US election results and get organized in response to the result (whatever it is), but you can still sign up for the next session of the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator here. It starts in January, and will get you on track to have a polished, professional proposal to talk to acquisitions editors about within a matter of weeks. See you in a few weeks!