How to Design A Book Cover That Sells Books


Claudia CarlsonWelcome to the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series.  This month I’m interviewing Claudia Carlson who is a genius at designing book covers that sell books. Claudia, who is also a photographer and a poet, has a remarkable sense for what works for the cover of a book and what doesn’t. Given how vital a good cover is to the success of a book, she has generously offered to share what she knows with us. Claudia has worked for many years as a book designer for some of the top publishers in the business, including Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Oxford University Press. She’s won design awards at the Bookbinders Guild and Independent Publisher Associations. She also creates maps, websites, and illustrations. To see a number of full-color images of her work or to contact her, you’re invited to visit her website at or view her blog at There are thumbnail photos of some of Claudia’s book covers in this interview and larger photos of her work at the end.

Mary: Claudia, let’s cut straight to the chase: Why does a book need a beautiful cover? What do covers do for a book?

Claudia: I prefer to think of it as an effective cover rather than a beautiful cover since beauty is subjective. I worked most of my life in book publishing so I came to see how much a cover has to communicate and entice a reader without giving too much away. It should make you want to pick the book up and open the cover. Marketing tracks results, they sometimes release two covers and see what sells best. Or test them first.

Mary: Do you believe that readers really do judge a book by its cover? Can a cover make or break a book?

Claudia: Sadly, yes. So many worthy books get wrapped in bland or misleading covers. Think of literary fiction that’s unfairly packaged as chick-lit. Some of the smaller presses just don’t have the money to keep re-imagining designs so the covers all look rather indistinguishable. And who would know if many of the self-published Kindle books on Amazon are any good by their amateurish covers with overworked Photoshop effects and tortured type choices?

Mary: What’s the first thing you do when you start figuring out how to create a book cover?

Claudia: I read the book and ask myself how their poem or novel would translate into a visual equivalent. A cover is a poster. Is this an intellectual journey? It is about power exploding? Is it lyrical? The hardest for me are books that I wouldn’t necessarily read but I need to find a way in and love the author’s intent.

Mary: You’ve designed covers for my last three collections of poetry, Travelers With No Ticket Home, Sugar Zone, and Breaking The Fever all published by Marsh Hawk Press. I’m always delighted to discover how well your covers capture the spirit of my poems. How do you make the outside of a book let readers know what’s inside?

Book Cover Sugar Zone, Cover, poems by Mary Mackey Claudia: It helps that you and your husband, Angus Wright, supply me with good photos that are integral to the place and time of your books! And on each one I’ve done something different. For example, for the cover of Breaking The Fever I cut the photo into fractals; for Sugar Zone, I overlaid a photo of the upper Amazon with type. When I created the cover for Travelers With No Ticket Home, you supplied me with a photo of a favela in Rio de Janerio and I pulled out color cubes to further the effect of tiny boxes/housing.

Book Cover Travelers With No Ticket Home Poems by Mary MackeyBut even when I have free reign, I go through many drafts to get closer to the spirit of the book. I ask myself if it should be type only, a photo, or feature art. How subtle or loud should it be? For Steve Fellner’s Blind Date with Cavafy I took a photo of an abandoned Greek paper coffee cup I placed on the hood of a car at sunset in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (I was taking a New York at Twilight photography class with the great photographer Lynn Saville) Then with Adobe Illustrator I redrew the image of Aphrodite as two men holding hands. Not something you see at first glance. Steve and I were both happy with the result.

Book Cover  Blind Date with Cavafy poems by Steve FellnerFor DIPSTICK(DIPTYCH) by Tom Beckett, I was stumped for awhile. He writes a modern form that is hard for me to wrap my mind around. Then I realized he was sort of like a word cloud. I tried to get a famous cut paper lettering artist let me use one of his images. He declined. So I thought, why not, and took a colorful section of The New York Times and started cutting out the main words that appeared when I did word clouds of Beckett’s text. I used black and white word clouds on the section openings in the interior.

Mary: Marsh Hawk Press is known for combining the visual and poetic arts. You have a long history of creating book covers for Marsh Hawk and for other presses. Could you please tell us a little about your career? How did you get into designing book covers?

Claudia: I spent years designing interiors and decided the only way I could be seen as a cover designer was to take on freelance work and build a portfolio. In some publishing houses the interior folks never get to do covers! A few years later I was taking a poetry class with Sharon Dolin and she asked me to design Serious Pink for Marsh Hawk Press. The press liked my work and I did more for them. Soon I was designing for other small presses such as Benu Press and winning design awards for my work.

At some point someone at Marsh Hawk, I think it was Eileen Tabios, noticed I was getting poems published in journals and asked if I had a manuscript. Of course I did! I submitted it and was very lucky to get my first poetry book, The Elephant House, published by Marsh Hawk. And yes, I designed it too!

Book Cover The Elephant House,  poems by Claudia Carlson

Mary: You once said that “covers are visual poems in themselves.” Since you’re a poet as well as a graphic artist and photographer, I find this particularly interesting. Could you please elaborate?

Claudia: A cover becomes a metaphor using or not using color, image, and the personality of type. The white space, areas not filled, are also the story. If you can turn it upside down, or look at it in a mirror and it still affects you there is something vital that goes beyond text. This is something I learned when I was painting.

Mary: You often design the interiors of books as well as the covers. How do you coordinate the two?

Claudia: The interior design of a book needs to get out of the way of reading it. Unlike a cover, it must adhere to the hierarchy of information, this is a title page, section opening, chapter, or poem title, this is front matter, back matter, etc. That said, I use typefaces for the cover and interior that are in synch with each other. If the book interior would benefit from small dingbats and ornaments that have the flavor of the cover I’ll add them. But less is more in interiors.

Mary: Do you read all the books you create covers for?

Claudia: Mostly, yes. I skim some of the novels, I read the poetry. Some books just grab me, and I discover I’ve read it all though forgetting I’m there to design it.

Mary: Do you have an all-time favorite cover? 

Claudia: They’re children, no favorites. I struggled with the cover of Pocket Park, my latest book from Marsh Hawk Press, which came out in October. I was writing and photographing a tiny vest park in Manhattan where I take lunch breaks and it morphed into an exploration of the seasons in one tiny almost unremarkable place: a big screen TV, a reflecting pool, some trees, tables and chairs, and cement. Half the book interior is in color photographs. It took a long time to figure out which cover image would show this wasn’t just a book about architecture. I asked Facebook and blog friends to help me pick the final cover. I used one where the reflection became surreal.

Book cover Pocket Park poems by Claudia Carlson

 Mary: Could you leave us with a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for creating a book cover?

Claudia: Do give your designer room to try things out. Don’t go into the cover design with a too clearly fixed idea, this is a collaboration. Do show your designer samples of books or images you love. Don’t let your cousin Patsy or pal Boris insist on using their drawing unless it rocks your world. Your cover should show the best gist of what your book offers, settle for no less. If you want to use professional/famous artwork you may find the museum or artist will insist no type cover the image, no cropping either, which may be your best choice but leads to a common poetry book cover look.

Mary: Thank you for talking with us, Claudia.

Dear Readers:  Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Claudia questions or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

Meanwhile, here are some larger images of Claudia Carlson’s book covers for you to enjoy:

Book Cover Pocket Park poems by Claudia Carlson

 Book Cover The Elephant House,  poems by Claudia Carlson


Book Cover Travelers With No Ticket Home poems by Mary Mackey

Book cover  Steve Fellner’s Blind Date with Cavafy Book Cover Sugar Zone poems by Mary Mackey

 Book Cover Serious Pink poems by Sharon Dollan


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