The Magic of Book Cover Design with Larry Rostant

Posted by October 23rd, 2013

When I saw the cover reveal for Book Country member Kerry Schafer‘s WAKEWORLD (which comes out from Ace in January), it literally took my breath away.

WAKEWORLD book cover design

The WAKEWORLD cover is just one of many iconic book jackets designed by UK cover designer Larry Rostant, whose work also includes the well-known covers for George R.R. Martin’s books, used by Martin’s publishers around the world. He’s designed covers for every kind of book, from Romance to Literary Fiction to Science Fiction. Larry says, “My job is to get the reader to choose that book and to lift it off the shelf.”

Larry was kind enough to sit down for a chat with me about book cover design. Read on to learn more about Larry’s work, and use his wisdom as you undertake the exciting project of packaging your own book, whether alone or with the help of an experienced artist like himself.Larry Rostant

“Genre is the the most fundamentally important thing about a cover,” Larry told me. “A cover’s job is to let a reader know what kind of book this is.” A cover designer, then, must do two very important things:

  • You must be aware of the conventions of book covers in a particular genre, in order to “hit all the right bells” so that the reader “feels comfortable,”
  • You need to “do that in a way that is attractive and contemporary.”

Black Wind book cover designLarry stresses the importance of the “contemporary”: “Book jacket design is a fashion industry,” Larry says–thus, it’s always changing. As the longtime designer of Clive Cussler’s book covers in the UK, he’s had firsthand experience figuring out how to keep engaging readers with Cussler’s backlist Thriller titles over many years. “Tastes change,” Larry says. In the twelve years that he’s worked with Cussler’s UK publisher (HarperCollins UK), he’s redesigned the covers three times, not just to keep up with trends in the industry, but also to make new editions of Cussler’s books consistent with one another. “Establishing style is something we really like to do.”

Land of Fire Book Cover DesignLarry told me about working on British Military Fiction author Chris Ryan‘s covers. The publisher (Coronet) was hoping to reengage readers with an updated jacket design for his many titles. Larry designed covers for Ryan’s books that incorporated “gritty, grainy, desaturated” images that referenced reportage from the Iraq war. This made Ryan’s books feel contemporary, of the same cultural epoch as movies like ZERO DARK THIRTY and THE HURT LOCKER, not to mention in keeping with events of the day, depicted on newscasts and in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Cultural relevance is key.

BETWEEN book cover designLarry is also a photographer, staging amazing shoots with styled modes in full makeup on professional sets. This work gives him images that he can use for cover designs like the WAKEWORLD cover, as well as Kerry’s first book, BETWEEN. (Having lots of images of the same model is of course definitely useful in a series!) He also has a large library of landscape background photos that he’s collected on his travels that he incorporates into his covers. For this particular shoot, Larry focused on the model’s red hair. With the vivid colors, the strong female, and the hazy background, this is “spot-on for Urban Fantasy,” says Larry. But the image (not to mention that red hair!) is arresting, different. That intrigues a reader to stop and take a look at these books–it’s that “bit more” that Larry strives for in a cover, that thing that “moves it on” to keep it fresh, new, and interesting.

A Dance with Dragons book cover designA cover isn’t necessarily about portraying events in the book. Take George R.R. Martin’s covers: They’re straightforward, with just one icon (a medallion, a chalice, a crown, a sword) in the center, surrounded by bold type. This was an important marketing strategy for Martin’s publishers. A decade ago, Fantasy book covers were almost always painted illustrations in lurid colors–this was such a strong convention it is almost a cliche. Martin’s publishers knew they had something something in Martin’s work that had definite crossover appeal to readers in other genres. So Martin’s covers really emphasize his name–big, important, suggesting that his is a literary voice to be heard–but their simplified imagery is also a nod to Fantasy tropes, so that the reader is clear that this is, indeed, fantasy. These subtle communication tools obviously work–in New York, not a day goes by that we don’t see readers of all stripes digging into a George R.R. Martin novel on the subway! It’s more important for Larry to have a good sense of how a publisher is positioning a book in the marketplace then to know the ins and outs of the plot.

How can Book Country members use Larry’s expertise as they are working in the cover designer tool on Book Country? Here are a couple simple takeaways:

  • Be very familiar with current trends in book cover designs. This is easy, suggests Larry–all you have to do is browse a bookstore. “See what book jackets are being faced out in the store,” he says. This gives you a sense of what the retailer knows to attract readers as they are looking for new titles. Think about those elements are you are putting together a cover.
  • Don’t forget that the book covers many readers browse are often only about three centimeters tall, since online you usually see a thumbnail in search results. Because of this, you want to make sure the cover works as a small image and a large image. Is the text too hard to read in the small version? Are the images clear?

Larry’s career has been built on working with traditional publishers, but he also enjoys working with self-published authors very much. “It’s a lovely relationship,” Larry says, and a more personal one: “The only person I’ve got to please is the author.” That means that Larry can work often work with an author to make a truly groundbreaking cover, since self-published authors might be willing to try more cutting-edge designs.

“My favorite covers are the ones I’ve just done,” Larry told me. His enthusiasm for his book cover designs is absolutely infectious. We can’t wait to see what he dreams up next

Want Larry to design your book’s cover? Contact him via his website for more information on pricing and how he works with self-published authors. He’s also on Facebook.

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