We’re All on Our Way to Becoming Bookstagram Stars

Book lovers, take a look at your shelf. What do you see? Not all of us can be Bookstagram stars with a plethora of breathtaking displays, but recently I’ve discovered that my books seem to follow a very similar color scheme. At first I thought this was a happy coincidence, but it turns out that publishers definitely know what they’re doing. In the book publishing world, marketing all begins with the cover.

A book’s cover is its most powerful marketing tool: it serves as a poster for the book and gives the consumer an idea of its contents. Whether we like it or not, we do tend to judge a book by its cover. One of the first things designers take into account when developing a cover is the color palette. While many artists are free to choose whatever shades they’d like to feature in their work, book designers must consider the marketing aspect of the cover. It is common practice for publishers, including Ooligan Press, to generate a list of successful titles within the same genre of the book to discern similar color palettes, design trends, and typefaces. The idea is that a reader will most likely associate the new book with a book that they’ve previously enjoyed. The power of recognizability within the intended market can be a powerful thing. According to Yu and Ahn’s study on the correlation between marketing and visual cues, delivering what a customer expects elicits positive reactions and increases the likelihood of purchasing the product.

For instance, if you’re like me and love a good fantasy title, you’ll notice that your bookshelf probably contains many shades of blue, grey, and black. A study conducted by Labrecque and Milne from the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science shows that these colors tend to symbolize dignity, power, and mystery—all of which are elements in fantasy books. On the other hand, romance titles tend to utilize pastels with pops of bright, vivid colors. These shades symbolize sincerity and warmth, which are also indicative of the genre.

A book’s cover also comes down to how it is designed. In some cases, such as thrillers or memoirs, it’s encouraged to use photography as a foundation to establish that connection with the reader and the real world. But in genres such as fantasy, photos are rarely used on the cover because they take away from the audience’s imagination of the fantastical settings or characters. In those cases, digital illustrations are often preferred to capture that magical element and preserve mystery.

Recently, I read a romantic comedy book set in Singapore. The first thing I noticed was the cover’s minimalist vector art style in bright colors, which was almost identical to the Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan. I picked up the book because I thoroughly enjoyed Kwan’s trilogy. The publisher definitely meant to catch my attention and—spoiler alert—it worked. It’s sitting on my shelf right now, in its happy home next to its Crazy Rich Asians cousin. I am a walking example of the efficacy of this book marketing technique and honestly, I don’t mind it. If it leaves me with a colorful array of books in all my favorite genres, I might just be on my way to becoming a Bookstagram star after all.

A Brief Guide to Children’s Book Design

We all likely remember a children’s picture book (or several) that we adored as children. Personally, I had an affinity for Go, Dog. Go!, a Dr. Seuss-esque beginning reader written and illustrated by P.D. Eastman. As one of the earliest introductions a child gets to literature, a picture book’s design and content are important to consider at every stage of production.

According to the article “A Brief History of Children’s Publishing and the Art of Visual Storytelling,” pictorial storytelling has been a foundation in many cultures since the dawn of time, dating back to early cave paintings. However, the original “picture book” only dates back 130 years ago, from artist Randolph Caldecott.

Since then, picture books have evolved to serve different agendas, from educational, such as teaching the alphabet, to more “edgy” topics in recent years, such as tackling what it’s like to be a child of divorce. With every change, however, according to editor and illustrator John Shelley, one thing remains consistent: the design of a children’s book must keep a child interested and entice them to turn the page.

Shelley explains that there are four types of illustrations in children’s books. The first type is a “boxed” illustration, meaning the image is completely contained within straight, abrupt edges. This can be achieved by placing a border around the image or by cropping the image to give the edges a sharp, clean line.

The second type of illustration is called a “vignette,” or an illustration that has fading edges. The borders are more loose, giving the image a sprawling, this-was-drawn-right-on-this-exact-page feel.

The third type is called a “spot” illustration. These are the small, free-floating images sprinkled throughout the pages.

Finally, “bleed” illustrations are images that are situated up to the edge of the page. Some bleed images span the entire two-page spread, and an elaborate bleed image can be effective for a highly-detailed climactic point in the book. These illustrations require an attentive designer who knows not to allow important parts of the illustration to fall in the gutter, the place where the pages are bound at the spine. If there is any action or a central character in the center of these full-spread illustrations, they will get swallowed by the gutter.

Shelley argues that with these four different types of illustrations, designers can play around with pacing and the mood invoked by a picture book. For example, let’s say an illustrator used four spot images to show a character—let’s name him Fred—running to catch the bus. The first image shows Fred grabbing his coat, the next shows him closing the front door, the third shows him running down his driveway, and the final shows Fred stepping on the bus. By strategically placing these images, you can create a sense of urgency that you would not get from a vignette or bleed image showing him stepping on the bus with text saying “Fred raced to the bus.”

Shelley also explains that the way the images are placed in relation to the text is imperative. A picture book’s goal should be to get the young reader to want to flip the page, eager to learn what happens next. So, for example, if the image of Fred rushing to the bus is placed on the left-hand page with the text “Fred raced to the bus, knowing if he missed it, he wouldn’t make it in time to present his project at the science fair,” the reader will find out whether he made it or not by simply looking to the right-hand page. But if you place that image and text on the right-hand page, the reader must turn to the next page to discover if Fred caught the bus in time. Shelley argues that a picture book’s illustrations and text should lead the reader down the page and to the right. The bottom right corner should be the ultimate goal of a page’s design.

Other aspects Shelley mentions to consider for designing a children’s book include identifying patterns to maintain throughout the book and the use of large and small images to create drama or draw focus to specific details. The most important items to remember, however, are the following: First, consider both the images and the text, not just one or the other. Second, remember your audience: both children and the adults who purchase the books and read to them. Third, keep in mind that the ultimate goal of a picture book’s design is to keep the reader moving forward. And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and break the rules.

Different Places, Different Faces: Book Covers in the US and the UK

This may not come as a surprise, but when a book is sold both in the United States and the United Kingdom, it typically has a very different cover in each country. This is because when the rights of a book are sold to a publishing house in another country, the book goes through the editing, marketing, and design departments of that house, where it is reshaped to suit that house’s specific audience.

As the cover of a book communicates to the potential reader what lies within, many conventions have emerged to highlight certain genres, such as an old photograph that promises a memoir, or an image of a shirtless, muscular man that promises a romance novel. To investigate further, we’ll look at four popular books sold in both the US and the UK and see what each cover has to say about the same story.

  1. Educated by Tara Westover: At first glance, the US cover of this memoir looks like an artful rendition of a pencil; but on further inspection, it shows a woman standing on a hill among mountains with birds flying above. This highlights the journey at the heart of the book—a story of a person surmounting seemingly impossible challenges—rather than the memoir genre. The UK cover sticks closer to the conventions of a memoir: it showcases an image of Tara as a young girl playing on a swing, promising this is Tara’s life story.

  2. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert: The US version of this young adult fantasy novel presents gold-and-silver illustrations of roads, branches, and other objects that somehow tie into the story weaving around the white font of the title and author name. This cover promises a reimagining of dark fairy tales that intertwine with a central entity. On the contrary, the UK version shows dense, blue-tinged foliage partially swallowing the white font of the title. The UK publisher also added the warning “stay away from . . .” above the title, suggesting something sinister lying beyond the leaves and tempting readers to find out for themselves what it is.

  3. Still Me by Jojo Moyes: Both versions of this contemporary romance novel provide more simplistic designs that showcase the title and author. The US cover offers a more typically romantic look with large, curly font on a blue background. The M wraps around a small rendition of the Empire State Building, showcasing the New York setting of the book. By contrast, the UK cover offers standard black-and-white font centered on a yellow background with a small bee in the upper right corner, accentuating the boldness of the main character as she searches for meaning in her life.

  4. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell: The US version shows a more feminine take on the mystery/thriller novel with large pink font on a white background, which is covered in branches that are bare apart from a few pink petals scattered here and there. Alternatively, the UK version features an image of a person (only shown up to the knees) crossing the street barefoot at night. The UK publisher also added the subtitle “A missing girl, a buried secret,” highlighting the elements of crime and mystery in the book.

A Haiku of the Story

The last time you heard from the Ocean in My Ears team, we were busy copyediting the manuscript. Well, now the copyediting is finished, and we have since turned our attention to the cover. Like many of our projects at Ooligan Press, this was a collaborative effort. Taylor Farris came up with the original concept for the cover that featured a watercolor splash, a denim textured font, and a clean aesthetic; Leigh Thomas built upon this design, adding the mountains and the reflection, as well as fine-tuning the details; and Riley Pittenger hand drew the illustrated car. Needless to say, the result is a cover that is more than the sum of its parts, but let’s go ahead and take a closer look at some of those parts anyway.

The first thing you might notice is that the background is white, which gives the cover a kind of lightness that mimics the voice of our protagonist, Meri Miller. The white background is echoed by the white lines on the mountains that hint at snow and an Alaskan setting. This is really important because while the setting is integral to Meri’s story, this book is not a wilderness adventure. At this point, you might be thinking a little about color theory and what colors can express. The renowned graphic designer Chip Kidd once said, “Colors communicate in ways that words just can’t. This is very, very hard to explain, and that’s the whole point.” Nonetheless, let’s continue thinking about the colors of our amazing cover.

The color splash primarily utilizes cool-toned colors—colors which are often used to indicate cooler temperatures and that simultaneously echo the bright colors popular in the early 1990s when The Ocean in My Ears is set. The font utilizes a simple black along with a denim texture in reference to the book’s 1990s setting when denim skirts, jackets, overalls, and even denim print leggings were popular. Typography is a study unto itself, but the lowercase title is less formal, thus indicating intimacy and a teenage protagonist.

The inverted reflection adds visual interest to the watercolor splash, draws the eye, and suggests both the water of the ocean and two ways of seeing the setting. This is fitting because throughout the book, Meri oscillates between embracing the comfort and familiarity of her small town and wanting desperately to escape it. Similarly, featuring an illustrated version of Meri’s car on the cover suggests that this book revolves around a journey of some sort, but by using an illustration rather than a photograph, there is room to wonder about the type of journey that takes place. Wonder is really what a good book cover should elicit—it is, as Chip Kidd affirms, “a distillation. It is, if you will, a haiku of the story.” We are thrilled with this cover and hope you love it as much as we do.


Next up: XML coding, designing the interior, developing marketing plans and social media strategies, and the general multitasking that comes with publishing.

Oh, and if you haven’t already, make sure to connect with the brilliant Meagan Macvie on her website at meaganmacvie.com