Ask a Picture Book Editor

What makes a good cover and title? 

In a market place full of beautiful, well-designed books it’s imperative that your book makes a big impression. This month we’re going to take a look at: 

So, first question - is the cover important? 
YES, of course it is! 

The cover is the face of your book. In bookshops, supermarkets, and online, retailers are displaying the majority of the titles they sell in a front-facing, cover-first fashion. 

This means that your book cover is the first visual element that the reader/buyer will see. In summary:  

The book cover is your primary selling tool and it’s very important to make a good first impression!

So what do you want from a good book cover? 

Funky and graphic? Cute and fluffy? Fact or fiction?

From left to right:
The Haunted House, by Kazuno Kohara; Mummy’s Little Sunflowers, by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Alison Edgson; Animalium, by Jennie Broom, illustrated by Katie Scott; Sugarlump and the Unicorn by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Lydia Monks.

What a lot to think about! 
Illustrators, authors, editors and designers work very hard to achieve all of the above in a space that is normally no bigger than 300 x 300mm. 

So what makes a good cover? 
1 - Strong characterisation
Usually characters are pictured looking out and making eye-contact with the reader – it’s important to foster this engagement straight away. Here are some great examples: 
From left to right: Oh No, George!, by Chris Haughton; Abigail, by Catherine Rayner; 
Harold Finds a Voice, by Courtney Dicmas
2 - Clear graphics and a visually intriguing story 
If the cover image tells a story, or conveys a convincing emotion or moment, this will hook readers into wanting to open the book.
From left to right: Pom Pom Gets the Grumps, by Sophy Henn; Princess Penelope and the Runaway Kitten, by Alison Murray; Goodnight Already! by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies

3 - The title should be: 
- clear and easy to read 
From left to right: Blown Away, by Rob Biddulph; Dangerous, by Tim Warnes; This book just ate my dog!, Richard Byrne 

- snappy and original 
From left to right: Llama Llama Red Pyjama, by Anna Dewdney; Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Mo Willems; Specs for Rex, by Yasmeen Ismail
- say ‘what it does on the tin’ (e.g. give a clear indication of the book’s content) and get readers to want to find out more 

Top row from left to right: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz; The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, by Werner Holzwarth, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch; I Want My Potty, by Tony Ross
Bottom row from left to right: Tell Me What It’s Like to Be Big, by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Debi Gliori; Fix It Duck, by Jez Alborough; We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury 
- something memorable that trips easily off the tongue and makes you feel like you’ve always known it 
From left to right: Never Tickle a Tiger, by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Marc Boutavant; Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie; Shark in the Park, by Nick Sharratt; Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo, by Amy Sparkes, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

When you pitch your manuscript, you should already have put some thought into a strong title to hook the editor and readers. Once your book is accepted for publication, the editor will involve you in discussions about the title and the book cover.


4 - Is it a series? 
How can you make books in a series feel different, yet part of the whole? Here are some examples of how a 'look' or 'series brand' can be successfully and subtly established: 
Picture book series from top to bottom: Princess Poppy, by Janey Louise Jones; The Fairytale Hairdresser, by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by Lauren Beard; Captain Flinn, by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Russell Ayto;
Daisy, by Kes Grey, illustrated by Nick Sharratt

5 - Is it a classic that might need a little reinvention to bring it up to date and make it feel modern and accessible? 
Top: The Enormous Crocodile, by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Bottom:The Runaway Train, by Benedict Blathwayt

6 - Finish with a flourish! 
And finally, a finish! Very often a book calls for a special finish to further enhance the eye-catching / interest-grabbing illustration or title. It’s a bit hard to recreate online, but here are some classics where a flash of foil/splash of glitter or well-placed die-cut have enhanced a wonderful picture book. Who could forget the die-cut on the back of The Incredible Book Eating Boy, by Oliver Jeffers? Or the spot UV varnish on Peely Wally’s egg (the very sweet tale of a runaway egg by that talented Kali Stileman)? 

In conclusion:
We know that getting the cover and title right is important – so who makes the final decisions? The process is usually very democratic, with lots of input from the author, illustrator and editorial and design teams. Sometimes there are lots of different and varying approaches - it's important to try every angle to find the most saleable, marketable and appealing look for your book. Here are two examples of the process:

From The Dinosaurs are Having a Party by Gareth P. Jones and Garry Parsons:

From Tiz and Ott's Big Draw by Bridget Marzo:

The final decision, however, will usually rest with the sales team who are always best-placed to understand the tastes of book buyers and retailers. It's important to trust in their choice and know that they have the best interests of the book at the heart of their decision-making process.

This blog has been full of some of our favourite covers - now we turn the floor over to you! We'd love to hear about the cover illustrations and designs that you like best so please leave us some comments on the bottom of this month's blog!

Many thanks to Garry Parsons and Bridget Marzo for their help with this blog.

Natascha Biebow is editor, mentor and coach at
Check out my new online small group-coaching courses:

1 comment:

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