Monday, March 05, 2007

What's in a Cover?

First impressions count - whether we're meeting someone new, or browsing new titles in the bookshop. As Jamelah Earle says on the Literary Kicks website:
Of course, it's no secret that design is an art form, and book cover design is one of its most specialized genres. ... It's one thing to create a good design, but something much greater to create a good design that manages to incorporate a book's subject matter and present it in a way that will make people want to read what's underneath the cover.
Publisher Philip Tatham of Singapore-based Monsoon Books would appreciate you advice about a book cover with a Malaysian theme. A Company of Planters: Confessions of a Colonial Rubber Planter in 1950s Malaya by John Dodd is due to be released here at the end of March.

The blurb on the book reads:
With true stories that would make even Somerset Maugham blush, this memoir offers a fascinating and often hilarious glimpse of colonial life in 1950's Malaya. But life was more than just a series of stengahs in the club house, dalliances in the Chinese brothels of Penang and charming “pillow dictionaries” – there were strikes, riots, snakes, plantation fires and deadly ambushes by Communist terrorists to contend with.
Which cover, in your opinion, will appeal more to book buyers in Malaysia? (The covers below were all created by a designer based in Dublin: she won "best fiction cover design" award in Ireland last year).

The one that receives most votes in this poll will be the one used, so this is your chance to feed into the publishing process.

Option A

Option B

Option C

Which cover do you like best?
Option A?
Option B?
Option C? free polls

And now announcing this blog's first competititon with real prizes (not just "You can take me to lunch if you win" which hasn't had a huge number of takers, for some reason.)

Philip is giving away copies of this book to the three people who make the best case for receiving a copy.

Post your entries in the comments. You have one week. The competition is open to overseas readers of this blog too, and will be judged by Philip and meself.


The Visitor said...

i should get a copy of the book becos i thought A Company Of Planters was about groundnuts. i need education.

thank you.

pls wrap the book in bubble wrap. no dog ears.

Sufian said...

The covers are not ugly, but nor are they appealing. Boring is the right word. Boring and have-been-done-to-death.

bibliobibuli said...

what would you put on the cover, sufian?? draw your response in words, if not images

Sufian said...

Nothing wrong with any of the pictures (machine gun, really? That's harsh), it's the design that's boring.

Anonymous said...

Whoopee.. one book, yay ! I'm going to be so rich.. :) seriously though, I'd use the typical colonial stereotype, khaki and topi. I think covers should be interesting and cotroversial, it should make you want to pick up the book and browse. Not having read the book, it's hard to say what should be on the cover. So yeah, I want to read the book cos only after that can I tell what should be on the cover :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

I don't get the one with the angmoh(?) sitting in his comfy chair reading a newspaper(?) with a machine gun(?) pointed at him.

There's seriously nothing to choose between the three (tho' the third one IS kinda fugly).

Two of my favourite books were chosen because of how their covers looked like.

animah said...

Can we exercise our right not to vote, because none of them deliver?

Frankly, I've always preferred illustrations to photos on book cover. The colour brown is dull, unless it has something to do with coffee.
The typeface seems very old fashioned.
The title is kind of dull as well. Does not give any hint that it could be a juicy book. I wouldn't even turn it over to look at the blurb on the back.

bibliobibuli said...

the covers remind me of the cover to jamie o'neill's "disturbance". wonder if it is the same designer???

JY said...

I'm dying for a new book
living in da Land of Chocs & Clocks;
there's no bookshop here
that trades in tomes in English;
in da next town, named after a train
- Zug! -
there's but only a children's 'booker';
(by the way, I like the second cover)
like a goose, I'm cooked.

Help a p'or woman, y'all...

bibliobibuli said...

switzerland - gotta be! poor soul (without a bookshop that sells english books!)

JY said...

Ja, Bib, du bist richtig.
So, sweetie, please... do I get a copy? The postage might be a tad steep but... an idle mind is a terrible waste, while I'm idly trying to mind my terrible waist. As they say.

sympozium said...

Cover B is the best. "A" looks like it has a Smeagol/Gollum leering at you.

SecretHistory said...

My grandfather was taken by the Japanese soldiers during World War II. But as he was led out of the house, they found that he had no teeth. So the released him and asked him to go back to the house. I don't know why the title of this book reminded me of this story. Maybe because it is like a turning point in life whether my father then myself would be born in this world. My grandfather go on with his life in the 1950's and owned a rubber plantation. Though I am not sure if there are British colonials in Sitiawan at that time, maybe the book will mention about this period of relief, confusion and change. Perhaps that's why there is so much beige in the cover of the book.... much like the sepia tone of an old photograph

night owl said...

I usually won't pick up such book, i.e. historical writing. So send me the book and change me! =P

Madcap Machinist said...

Sorry I botched one vote, accidentally voted for C one time.

The first version is intriguing. who is the kid? what's he carrying...milk? the other two... reminds me of Emanuelle.

Why not put a picture of rubber plants? There must be one with the bintang tiga hiding in the bushes. Well, ideally. A cartoon of a stengah scene might be interesting.

-not another warm colour scheme on the historical shelf, maybe. sepia is cliche

good luck with the book, cheers!

Ron said...

A poll like this really does need the option, "None of the above."

amaruhizat said...

I disagree to the statement that design is an art.

Although both are medium of visual communication, but the context is different, the primary purpose of each contradicts one another.

Graphic Design only serve one primary purpose and that is, money.

Words of my design lecturer: Design is for commercial. Designers doesn't do it for self-satisfaction, designers do it for self-reservation (money).

That's why, he said, commercial designers are paid more than a fine artist.


Art is a form of visual communication to send out a message, an expression, of subjects, coming from the personal point of view of the artist.

Graphic Design is a form of visual communication to send out a message, an expression, of products, coming from the point of view of bloody clients that pays money for it.


The purpose of art is personal expression, for self-satisfaction. Buyers buy what they want to buy of what the artist offers.

The purpose of Graphic Design is professional expression, for self-elevation. *Consumers buy what they think they should buy, which the corporation wants them to buy.

*I am convinced the word "Consumer" is short for "Conned-customer".


If art is a music genre, art is like Jazz. Beautiful but under appreciated and not many understand it.

If graphic design is a music genre, its a pop boy band. No matter how bad he sings but everyone loves him, he’s like…world!


To illustrate the point by pertaining to books, look up "Best-selling author" Vs "Best-writing author."

One is done for art, and one is done for money.

amaruhizat said...

To elaborate further, (I’m just in the mood for it)

When fine artists get to work, their concern is what they want to say and how they want to say it.

When Graphic artist get to work, they are required to put their personal preference aside and consider the perspective of intended audience. This is because people often than not, associate themselves (be it purchase, use, read, wear, eat) with things that they are familiar to.

Graphic design is more like science, psychology and cultural studies combined with a dab of Voodoo than art.

E.g: If the audience is people aged 45 and above, the design would opt for subtlety=Bigger font size, typefaces that is easy on the eye (*such as serifs) and the color is nothing striking.

*Mature audiences are largely newspaper readers, which uses serif typeface, and incorporation of the same typeface would strike a sense of familiarity to the intended audience, prompting them to buy.

If the audience is for younger audience, there’s more room for flamboyant colours, fancy type, smaller fonts, and more dynamic layout.

That’s is the reason behind alternate cover designs for international market distribution (music albums, DVDs, books etc).

There’s different cover for European Market, US market, Middle-East market, for Asian market etc.

This is not only due to the difference of nations but the variation of cultures.

For instance, in Greece, raising a palm (like a traffic police stopping cars) to someone is equivalent to showing the middle finger gesture. Showing “thumbs up” is a gesture of flattering/approving in Malaysia, but you might get a black eye if shown in Australia.

Certain colours like Red means good fortune for one culture while in another it means death.

Cover design for books is in the category of commercial communication design.

The reason is to make the books stand out againts plethoras of other books in a store, the same concept that is applied to gorcery products on the shelves at Tesco.

The arrangements of items in supermarts
(According to colours, shapes, and how the items are stacked: looking like a pyramid, or next to each other on the shelves. Take a closer look the next time you go for grocery shopping) are planned, to intentionally create an appealing to one’s emotion subconsiously. (This is the Vodoo part).

The colour of bright yellow and red of fast-food outlets might not seem much to adults, because the color combination was designed to appeal to children, to be excitedly hungry.

As for books, the cover plays an important part prompting consumers, to pick it up, open it up and read, and (hopefully) buy it because the cover and the colour looks nice on the shelf at his/her house.

bibliobibuli said...

K0K - i have certainly been tempted to buy books because of the cover art and the feel of the paper. it's why i bought the penguin copy of auster's "new york trilogy" for e.g. and why i almost bought the hardback copy of eugenides "middlesex" even though i already had a v. nice trade paperback copy

jy - all my sympathy for you in your bookless limbo. i know how it feels ... years ago when i first lived here in a small town ...

sympozium - the gollum likeness hadn't hit me until you said that ... and now, well you've spoiled cover A for me!

secret history - that's quite a story! how strange to think that you might not be here if not for your grandfather's missing teeth! there's material there for a very good short story of your own

night owl - it's good to try different stuff anyway. what sort of books do you usually read?

machinist - now we know what films you've been watching! rubber trees you mean, not rubber plants. a vintage 1950's style cover might have been nice ...

ron, animah - you're right, i should have had that fourth category ... but then what would you want to see on the cover?

amaruhizat - nicely said and as true of writing perhaps, as visual art.

... but between commercialism and art surely there does exist some middle ground - yes, a book cover is to sell a book but it can (must) also be aesthically pleasing

and we need book covers, don't we! just think what they world would be like if we didn't have them, just blank covers

(although, come to think of it ... pictures on the cover are a fairly recent invention in terms of the history of the book ...)

food for thought

amaruhizat said...

As for the three book covers, I say none of it gives a hint what the book is about--is it a non-fiction, a fiction, a murder story, mystery, thriller? Where the story takes place, who should read the story, is it for adult? College student?


A good cover that accomplish its purpose is when people could still understand what’s its about even if all the typeface is removed. For example: Bram stoker’s “Draculla” movie poster.

Graphic design uses a practical approach than abstract. Its like the rule crime detectives uses—nothing is a coincidence—as in design, no element should be in a composition just for the sake of being there. It must serve a purpose that confirms to the overall composition make it stronger, completes it.

If I am not mistaken, story telling served under the same rule--if a sentence/a scene/a coversation in the story does not drive the story forward; that should the sentence is taken out, and it doesn’t effect the flow/the logic of the story then there’s no point of it being there.


The first cover didn’t suggest the story is taking place in Malaysia; or about it depicting a story with much hilaritym, the boy doesn’t look Malaysian, instead he looks African. An image depicting a boy being put in labour doesn’t exactly potray much comedy.

Due to the cropping of the picture, making the boy seem small and distant, it communicate the boy as unimportant in the composition.

Then again, is the story about the boy? Is the boy in the story?

If it is, then the picture needs to emphasize on him, showing the boy on medium-close up (showing the shoulder to face) so people could see the boy’s facial expression.

Why crop the boy out of the original picture? If the story takes place in 1950’s Malaya, let see the picture of the boy along with the background of a rubber plantation in 1950’s Malaya.

Putting an old picture in its original form is sometimes the best option, as it would communicate that the story is a non-fiction.

But it depends on how it is done, for there is a need to distinguish the book as a story based on true story, non-fiction story or a history textbook.

The book is titled: “The Company of planters”, so why not a picture of a company of rubber tappers taking a group picture in front of a rubber tree in a rubber plantation?


The second cover--portraying a man reading newspaper with a M60 machine gun pointing at him--could be a comedy.

Because a picture, cut-out and then placed in a blank space with peculiar setting, with machine gun oddly far away from the guy communicate a message of the story being a fiction with weird things going on. But the again, the story is not all comedy is it now?

The man look as if at any moment he would jump out of the seat, pick up the gun and shoot the newspaper the instance he comes across a page that publish another article about Mawi.

Same as cover 1, the layout elements is everywhere, it’s distracting.


The third composition almost got it, but the layout, the size of the type and colour (the red colour is too dark) got in the way.

The elements (the picture & the most notably, the typefaces) are competing with each other for attention. There is no focus point that leads the eye of where to look.

A rule of thumb: In cover design, it is best to make one element; if possible; as the dominant focus point while the other elements just assist, content as sidekicks.

A decision need to be made of what is important, the picture, the title, the excerpt or the name of the author? It can’t be all. That’s not possible.

To put it in analogy:

It’s like there are five people in a car; all five of them jump on the driver seat and all want to drive. Although it could be done, but the car won’t run smoothly and there’s slim chance they would make it to their destination.

Something has got to give, compromise.

The typeface:

1. Notice the typefaces, are of three different types, this is not good, less is best. It is best to use one or at the most two font max. for a cover and most importantly, the font must compliment each other, and it must convey the feel pertaining to the story.

2. The size of the type--the title, the intro and the author name-are almost about the same size, so which is the most important, second most and the least important, can you tell?

The size of the type should be able to be distinguish, clearly, which is the title, the author’s name, the excerpt etc.

Just because it’s a title, it doesn’t mean it need to to be the type with the biggest font size, the texts could also be tell apart of each other by the difference of the type, or colour.

If done properly, a title doesn’t necessarily need to be placed on top of the page; it could sit on the side or be the smallest font in the page.

The story have something to do with “confession” and people doesn’t exactly yell aloud to the world of their confession, they keep it discreet. So the title could be made be the smallest font in the whole page, communicating a message as if someone is whispering words of confession.

The picture is situated near the top edge, which is good if manipulated properly, as in making the title seem like it is inscribed on the cement floor next to the man. Perhaps, in blood if the story is a murder confession.

The audience need to be catch fast to get them on the story like a hand merging from a dark alley grabbing someone walking by.

So readers need to be hint about the story right on the cover.

Or perhaps by cropping the picture and changing the composition.

Enlarge the picture, focus on the man, not so much of the floor, showing only his legs, on the table, hands holding the newspaper without showing his face.

Change the position of the machine gun to be next to his chair but not pointing at him, but more to he’s keeping it by his side.

Due to that his face is not seen, this would add a sense of mystery, and curiosity to the guy reading the newspaper. Because the man evidently doesn’t wear a military shoe, and he’s not in a barrack, (because his feet is on a coffee table) but what is he doing with a M60 machine gun beside him?

As for my case, well I just gave a professional design advice for free.

amaruhizat said...

.. but between commercialism and art surely there does exist some middle ground - yes, a book cover is to sell a book but it can (must) also be aesthically pleasing.

One of the goal in Graphic design is to make it aesthically pleasing as possible but its more for the reason of it being practical than artistic. Practical as in: no one would want to buy a product that is associated with ugly.

The more a design could appeal to wider audience, the more people buy it, more money, more business.

Of course there's the classic dilemma between art and design:

Which will it be,

to be Someone that produces rich aesthetic work that receives critical acclaim, that would be remembered for generations even after he died, but not many bought it and lived his life in poverty.


Someone that produces a so-so product but doing extremely well in sales (That's what I heard people said about Dan Brown) receives critical acclaim check that would be used for generations. None would remember his work when he died but lived life wrapped in gold.

Which would it be?

It would certainly be a bonus if one can have both, but not many can do that.

Lydia Teh said...

If I have to choose any of the three, it'll be no. 2.

Why I want the book FOC. Simple - already burst the budget for books. And a writer's gotta read whatever she can get her hands on or she'll grow mouldy and cobwebby.

Anonymous said...

If you wanna write a thesis on graphic design, go do it on your own blog lah. Dont flood other ppl's comment box. It's a pain scrolling down just to avoid your boring long post.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you were asked to vote on the cover you like most. No one asked you to bloody review the covers, fool!

bibliobibuli said...

oi! just be nice here, please.

altho' i do second what anon says about long long comments should really be a post on your own blog ... which of course you can link. it's all a matter of give and take.

amaruhizat said...

anonymous ~ Oh drat! You caught me. Actually I was aiming for a doctorate thesis. I'm here today to post it!

Well, since my nefarious plans has been foiled, guess, I'll have to cancel posting this 1200 pages of MS Word document then. *send to thrashbin*

my apologies then, to Ms. touchy anon, and Sharon.

night owl said...

Sharon, to answer your question, I love thrillers. Also read some of those award winning books, including children and young adult categories. At one point of time, I checked out all those award winners in and selected from there. So many books, so little time!

bibliobibuli said...

amaruhizat - well there are some very interesting ideas there ... would be interested to read the finished thing

night owl - yeah we should have that last line tattooed on our bums!