In an excellent post for The Literary Hub, designer Erik Carter writes about designing the cover of Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds for New Directions, and the process of getting a book cover approved:
The actual process of designing a book jacket is more than just reading the book and making a beautiful image with your favorite font and slapping it on the front. A good cover should represent the spirit of the book and celebrate what makes that book unique. So then why do so many covers fall for the same visual clichés as so many other covers? Go on down to your local online book dealer and you’ll see bargain bin stock photos adorned with tiny endorsements about how this book is so, so much better than other one you’re about to click on. In order to get a book cover approved you have to get the sign off from the art director that you’re working for, the marketing department, the author, the editors, sometimes even the author’s spouse, their milkman, or their next door neighbor. It’s a nimble game of politics that you have to play to get the vision that you have for a cover into the bookstore. And it’s a game where design is often the loser. The publisher wants the book to sell, the designer wants the book to look good, and the author wants the cover to match their vision of what the cover of their book should be. And almost always, these three are at odds. There is a lack of definition for “what looks good” and a shaky science as to “what will sell” and authors are so close to their books it can be difficult to find out what it is that they actually want. The language of aesthetics and the aesthetics of language need to trust each other. It’s important for designers to be more acclimated with what it is that a publisher is looking for as to what will sell. Compromising that business by stretching your typefaces to the point of unreadability may not do you any favors. Ultimately it’s the author’s book, and they know it far better than you do, so really it’s their opinion that matters the most, even if they are not familiar with the fundamentals of good design.