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Ask Alice: What makes a compelling young adult book cover?

  • 3 June, 2022
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Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!


As much as we may say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ we do. Especially when it comes to actual books.

Increasingly, books are not just things we read but eye-catching artefacts which feature across various social media reader communities, such as Bookstagram or BookTok (and why yes, my PhD research is indeed centred on Bookstagram, in case you were wondering).

It feels safe to say, then, that the importance of a good cover is only growing. And think about it: how often have you heard the phrase ‘cover buy’ used to describe the impulse purchase of a book solely on the basis of it having a beautiful cover? (We’ve all been there).

Clearly, a cover has real power. But the way a book cover comes to be remains something of a mystery even to the most ardent of readers. . .

But fear not, though, your old pal Alice is here to draw back this particular veil, with the assistance of members of our #LoveOzYA community!

For this month’s Ask Alice, we reached out to the lovely Vanessa Len (Only a Monster, Allen & Unwin), Alice Boyle (Dancing Barefoot, Text Publishing) and Imogen Stubbs (the in-house Text Publishing designer, and designer for Dancing Barefoot) to ask them to take us behind the scenes on the process.

Let’s get started . . .

Starting the process of designing a YA book cover

Alice (Boyle, not me) noted, “I know very few authors who’ve had much say when it came to their book covers. It’s an area that’s usually left to the cover artist and the publisher’s marketing team; at least, that’s how it happened with Dancing Barefoot.”

By contrast, Vanessa acknowledged, “I was very lucky to have the opportunity to consult on the covers!”

Imogen explained, “Often times the author will have mentioned to their editor some thoughts they’ve had and those will filter back to me. . . ,” but “In the end, we hope that the author will trust us to package the book in a way that is true to their work while also being successful in the market.”

From here, Imogen generously walked us through the exact process that she goes through when designing a cover:

I work in-house so my process reflects that environment, the process for a freelance designer would likely start with a brief or conversation with a publisher or art director.

Briefly my process goes along the following lines:

  • read the book and make notes as I go about imagery/ideas/tone
  • attend positioning meeting about book to hear how the book will be marketed/publicised in the market; how they’re going to position and take the book out into the world, who our ideal reader is and what kind of market we’re aiming for
  • discuss book and possible ideas/direction with editor
  • take these ideas to a small group made up of heads of departments (publicity, marketing, sales, the publisher) to form the brief
  • work up rough ideas
  • discuss ideas with creative director
  • discuss roughs with editor
  • show best roughs to small group for discussion
  • if one approved then shared with wider company
  • if approved then shared with the author for feedback
  • if approved make final art!

Of course lots of times you have to take a few steps back in the process and work up more ideas because it’s not headed in the right direction or people want to see tweaks.

It’s worth noting that the process is quite different for indie authors who have to act as marketing, publishing, and editorial team in the process Imogen outlines.

With that being said, there are clear similarities between what Alice, Imogen, and Vanessa noted. Across the books I’ve put out, I’ve had to trust my cover designer to present a concept that represented the story. Consequently, we spent a lot of time talking through the narrative, symbols, and the importance of visual marketing.

In sum, it’s clear that it takes a village (well, a team which offers various lenses on a book as an artefact) to craft a book cover. But what’s in the visual language of the cover itself?

Vanessa Len’s Only a Monster Australian cover. . . 

Covers can’t cover (ha!) everything, but there’s a lot of thought behind the images and design

Obviously, a single cover isn’t able to represent every component of a book, or reflect everybody’s interpretation of a book, but, as Alice said, “a cover needs to capture the spirit of the book.” A lot of work goes into achieving that.

Vanessa explained that in the design for the US and Australian covers of Only A Monster, “I’d suggested an Art Deco aesthetic, and my US editor Kristen had the idea of including a girl’s silhouette – which I absolutely loved. We’d been thinking a lot about how the cover illustration might interact with the title.” For the UK Cover, she was asked “to supply images that I had used as inspiration while I was writing the book.”

The outcome was “both covers are imbued with a lot of symbolism from the books:” Melbourne artist Eevien Tan who provided the illustration for the Australian and US covers “included one of the important settings of the book – Holland House – […] upside down and on fire to indicate the multiple timelines in the book,” while Malaysian cover artist Kelly Chong, who was behind the UK cover “put the individual symbols of the twelve monster families onto each point of a clock, indicating time travel.”

For Dancing Barefoot, Imogen explained that beyond symbols from the story, “we wanted to capture the energy and spirit of the writing, the friendship and relationship dynamics, and the representation of different characters.”

Alice noted a cover “needs to get to the heart of the story and pin it down,” which Imogen beautifully extended upon by articulating that a cover should, “try to be true to the writing and story by giving the book a cover that both represents and extends the possibility of it in readers’ minds. You want to captivate and delight them.” In other words, she explained, “a cover is the gateway to the reader discovering more about what the book is about and hopefully wanting to buy and read it!”

And of course, we can’t ignore the fact that a cover plays an important role in actually selling the book . . .

. . . and its UK cover.

A picture really is worth a thousand sales

Alice explained, a cover “needs to convey to the reader what they’re about to read – is this a romance? A thriller? Historical fiction?” This brings to mind some of the discussion I had with the wonderful Jodi McAlister for last month’s Ask Alice on New Adult fiction when she referred to the ‘paratextual elements’: that is, every aspect of the book beyond the actual texts itself. Jodi explained that paratextual elements frame the book in the understanding of readers so that they have a clear framework by which to understand what they’re about to read before their eyes alight on page one.

This is, obviously, key when it comes to getting people to pick up a book. A cover provides information about genre, story elements, and tone, just to name a few. It’s a quick visual cue to readers.

Imogen explained: “When designing a cover you’re hoping that you’ve done your research on who the audience for the book is and tapping into what will appeal to them, while also being fresh and intriguing.”

She went on to elaborate: “Readers of fantasy or sci-fi will easily be able to identify books in those genres because of the conventions […] Readers are smart and will pick up the cues and clues you lay out for them, and the book as an object is a wonderful medium to play around with.”

What’s particularly interesting (especially if you’re a huge nerd like me), was Imogen’s observation about the signalling on YA covers: “One of the only things that gets mentioned everytime I work on a YA cover is reader age. So making sure that the cover is signalling itself to the right age readership. You want to make sure it looks older than middle-grade but also younger than general adult. The way this is done is often through characterisation, type choices and colour, and if there’s budget: embellishments. More and more I work on books that are aimed at the […] ‘new adult’, so we are blurring the lines of what a YA book can look like.”

When I asked Alice and Imogen whether it was difficult to craft something both aesthetically beautiful and commercial, Alice was emphatic: “Art and commerce have a long history of symbiosis. For hundreds of years, artists have had patrons backing their work. Plenty of famous artworks hanging in galleries were produced as commissions for patrons – after all, artists need to eat! The lines between art and commerce were blurred even further by people like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, who made art that was accessible to a broader range of people. So not to get all philosophical about it, but really, what is art?

I think that book covers can be things of true beauty. Yes, they’re designed to market a book, but that doesn’t preclude them from being art at the same time.”

As we all know, a great cover can definitely prompt a book to magically go from the shelf in a store or library into your TBR pile at home.