Beach Read Book Cover Design

By John Brownlee

You might think a lot of science goes into designing the cover of a best-selling summer novel: data from booksellers, perhaps, showing that romance covers with indigo script fonts have a 23% better chance of reaching the New York Times best-seller list, for example.

The reality is that book jacket design is more about following the prevailing trends and gut feelings. When you’re designing the book jacket for a potential blockbuster, there’s a lot of gut feelings in the mix: authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, and so on, all of whom have their own opinions about what makes a perfect cover.

So how does a graphic designer navigate this minefield? To find out, I asked art directors at imprints of HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster to walk through the cover-design processes for some of this summer’s most anticipated books.


How do you design a cover for an iconic beach read? “Well, it helps to have water on the jacket,” deadpans Jeanne Reina, VP and senior art director at HarperCollins Publishers. “That’s what makes it a beach read, right?”

Reina isn't completely joking. New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank excels at beach reads, and probably 70% of them feature women around water on the cover. In the case of Queen Bee, her latest, the challenge was to find the right woman and the right water.

“It’s rare for us to go out and shoot something on location, because there’s so much tweaking that can happen,” says Reina. “It’s easier for us to make composites of different stock images…then mix them together in Adobe Photoshop.”

For Queen Bee, Reina looked for a photo of a woman who would resonate with both older and younger readers. Once they found a model everyone could agree on, the rest came together quickly, right down to the elegant script of the title (Hoefler&Co.'s Requiem Display).

“Cover design is all subjective, you know?” Reina notes. “There can be a lot of disagreements about, say, how blue the ocean should be and what that means. So even simple covers can take a year to put together. This one only took a few months, though, which was nice.”


“For suspense, you want a close-up of a woman on the cover,” says Reina. “That’s the trend.”

From that perspective, it’s hard to imagine a cover more on trend than The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter. The latest in the Will Trent series, The Last Widow creates its unique visual feel by applying a prism effect to a stock photo model.

That’s all done in Photoshop, says Reina. What you can't see here are all of the intriguing printing effects applied to the cover's reflective metallic paper, which give The Last Widow an almost holographic sheen.


“For years, it was rare for us to use illustrators for our jackets,” says Reina. “But it’s starting to come back, especially for chick lit. I’m glad: I really like working with illustrators for covers.”

In the case of The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, HarperCollins teamed up with illustrator and letterer Joel Holland to create a simple yet dignified cover. It hints at some of the novel’s themes: the intertwining branches that create the ties that bind a family together through the decades.

The finished cover, with its bold use of Futura, almost has a Wes Anderson-like quality. It’s sophisticated, subtle, and smart—a jacket designed to appeal to a cosmopolitan feminist about to hop a plane to Azores and looking for a read in the airport bookstore.


New novels by English historical novelist Philippa Gregory are events. Sometimes described as “the queen of British historical fiction”, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl has a fanbase who will buy her latest novel sight unseen. “She’s a big author, and she knows what she wants,” says James Iacobelli, art director at Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books.

That’s why, for the jacket of Tidelands, Iacobelli and his co-designer Laywan Kwan chose to make Gregory’s name the dominant design element. Rendered in Mariel Gornati's dreamy and sophisticated New Ayres serif, the author’s name takes up practically 50% of the jacket. The oversized credit not only connects Tidelands to the author’s larger brand, it signifies that her authorship alone makes Tidelands a publishing event.

Gregory had a vision for the cover visuals: the marshy tidelands of England’s south coast, as experienced during the summer of 1648, and as described in vivid detail in the book.

The only problem? There are no photographs from 1648, and so Iacobelli had to composite a realistic vista using stock photography and hundreds of Photoshop layers. “Sometimes you get asks like that, where you have a big author with a vision, and it’s your job to execute it in such a way that it still works as a consumer package,” Iacobelli says. “In this case, I think it came together nicely.”


First published as a hardcover in September 2018, the original jacket for The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton resembled the face of a grandfather clock. It certainly evoked the horology aspect of the title, but at the expense of the human element: the romance, mystery, and drama that Atria Books hoped would move the book as a summer paperback.

For the paperback reprint, Iacobelli had two aims: Bring the cover design more in-line stylistically with other Morton covers, such as The Lake House, while communicating the novel’s contents more clearly. “We prototyped over 100 covers for this one,” admits Iacobelli. “We struggled to find what we wanted, but we knew it had to be simple.”

The final design features the silhouette of a young model standing in front of a fiery paisley wallpaper pattern, with the title and author credit elegantly conveyed in House Industries' Neutraface Display. The new cover conveys at a glance the idea that this is a story of mystery and intrigue, involving a woman stepping out of the shadows of history…and hopefully into the hands of a new audience.


“Contemporary fiction aimed at modern women tends to trend toward big, bold colors,” says Iacobelli. “So the challenge is, how do you take part in that trend and still do something a little bit different?”

For Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner's novel about the dynamic between two sisters over fifty-plus years, Iacobelli approached illustrator Olga Grlic to produce a bold, flat design image that also explores the human element. Her design, rendered in Adobe Illustrator, portrays the two sisters as iconically symmetrical, yet still individual.

“Having the sisters overlap was a way to show the connection between them,” says Iacobelli. “We nailed the colors pretty early. One of the only changes we had to make was to tweak the figures so they looked a little fuller–we didn’t want them to come across as supermodels, but as real women a broad spectrum of readers could identify with.”

For the jacket Mrs. Everything, Iacobelli chose two different typefaces: Neil Summerour's Lust for the author’s name, the contours of which interplay wonderfully with the fall of the two women’s necklines and hair, and Jeff Levine's Payson for the title. By balancing a modern serif with a clean sans serif that evokes a simpler era, the jacket design subtly evokes the novel’s multiple time periods.


When a book is even tangentially about surfing, you expect the cover to have an ocean, a wave, a surfboard. But for Karen Rinaldi’s paean to the liberating thrill of the wipeout, Iacobelli wanted to go in a less obvious direction.

“This book’s about how it’s okay to be bad at something, which Karen illustrates by discussing her own incompetent love of surfing,” says Iacobelli. “So for this cover, we really wanted to put together a package that nods to her passion for the water, but that comes across as something broader and with more mass appeal than just another surfing book.”

To make it work, Iacobelli went abstract. The cover of It’s Great To Suck At Something is almost a celebration of sucking, with purposefully askew type rendered in Hipopotam Studio’s Mr Black. Yet the surfing element is still there, courtesy of wiggling blue lines atop which a partially wiped-out “at” bobs and floats.

“It’s hard to design something that evokes sucking without actually sucking,” laughs Iacobelli. “Hopefully, we succeeded.”


“For historical novels, you need to go right down the middle, designing a jacket that appeals to history buffs without being so boring and stuffy that it puts off the fiction readers,” says Cody Corcoran, creative consultant at Simon & Schuster imprint Post Hill Press. For cover of the historical novel The Sixth Conspirator, which deals with Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Corcoran wanted a design with some of the excitement of old posters for the Ringling Bros. circus or Houdini.

There were ample photographs of the actual plotters behind Lincoln’s assassination, both of whom feature prominently in the novel. The handcuffed man on the cover is Lewis Powell, a co-conspirator in John Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, while the woman is Sarah Slater, the mysterious real-life Confederate courier and spymaster.

Although the finished design only features two figures, “I composited about four different vintage photos together in Photoshop for the cover,” says Corcoran. He then used a combo of Brian Willson's American Scribe and Jorge Cisterna's Taberna Serif Black to give the cover a dynamic quality. It's clear at a glance that the novel is historical adventure, not some dry treatise on Civil War arcana.


“For this one, the author came to us with an idea,” says Corcoran. “And the first thing I had to do was explain why it wouldn’t work.”

Author Philip E. Orbanes's idea was a chessboard with the cover text spread across the board's squares. While it referenced Tortured Cardboard’s subject—board games—it wasn’t going to work “It’s hard to break up a bunch of text across boxes like that,” notes Corcoran.

Instead of a book that looked like a game, Corcoran instead created a book that looked like a box full of games. Fittingly, the title appears to be written with a Bic pen on corrugated cardboard. To accomplish that effect, Corcoran manipulated The Font Emporium's Crazy Killer in Illustrator, overlaying subtly skew copies and applying custom masks and cut-outs.


Understated yet striking is a hard spec to fulfill, but for Rhett J. Evans’ upcoming techno thriller The Echo Chamber, Corcoran nailed it with little more than a few shades of blue, a couple of muted fonts (Claus Eggers Sørensen's Playfair Display Regular and Robert Slimbach's Acumin Variable Concept Wide Light), and some hand-drawn circuitry.

“The author wanted a clean, simple, but impactful vibe for this cover,” remembers Corcoran. “The challenge was to find the right elements to bring it all together.”

“For the circuitry, I researched a lot of stock imagery, but nothing quite worked, so I rebuilt it in Illustrator, then threaded it through the typography so it all had a reason to be together,” he says.


Designing book covers is a lot more about browsing through stock photo libraries than you might expt, and a lot of that research can be pretty monotonous. But for Corcoran, researching the cover of Selling Nostalgia by Mathew Klickstein was a delight, allowing a self-described “1980s baby” to mine the iconography of everything from Max Headroom to Miami Vice.

“I jumped on the web and started pulling up everything I could from the ’80s,” says Corcoran. “Then I wrote down all the design elements that made up the era—palm trees, neon, scan lines, and funky chrome fonts—and asked myself, ‘How many of these can I cram into this jacket?’”

The answer, apparently, is "all of them," which seems appropriate: The novel is about a protagonist with an unhealthy fixation on the ’80s. To bring these disparate elements together, Corcoran even referenced a retro device: in wraparound, Selling Nostalgia’s cover looks like an old VHS box.

Once he was satisfied with the cover's composition, Corcoran added noise to it in Photoshop to give the finished some vintage grit. “It helped balance all the colors together,” he says. “In my opinion, it was perfect.”

Corcoran’s favorite touch: “I love the blinking word processor cursor in the subtitle,” he says. “Those little things are the most fun for me, because people never consciously notice them, but if they weren’t there, they would stand out.”

The stereotypical summer novels may be light and frothy, but now you know how much thought goes into the book cover designs.

May 29, 2019