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When Can I See My Book Cover?

My walk to work takes me down a charming 1890s street that is under constant renewal, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the restoration of several frame cottages and a couple of large Victorian beauties. Yesterday I stopped to watch some workers tear off a roof, and I wondered why it was being done several months into the rehab instead of at the beginning. Does that mean water was leaking all this time into the new interior? Maybe someone can enlighten me.

In any case, it reminded me of a question I get from nearly every writer early in the process of publishing a book, sometimes before the manuscript is even edited: When will I see the book cover?

The answer is always disappointing: “Much later.”

There are reasons why a book’s cover design comes late in the publication schedule. First, designers know from experience that a book cover’s central visual components—the title and subtitle—are likely to change, sometimes substantially. Imagine building a design around Perambulating Hellas: Amateur Geological Exploration of Archeological Strata, only to learn later that the marketing department has changed it to Finding Greek Rocks.

Another reason to conceive the cover last: It should harmonize with the book’s interior, and the interior design takes priority in the schedule because it is needed for typesetting. There will be plenty of time to draft a cover while the book is being typeset and proofread and indexed.

And covers do take time. Scholarly books are challenging to represent graphically, even with the “help” of the author. Writers sometimes have the idea that the goal of a cover is to represent in a literal way all the book’s main points; it’s not uncommon for an author to send half a dozen images and suggest they be combined in a collage. Good covers, however, are more sophisticated and subtle. Much of the work involved in academic book design is conceptual, in fact, combined with online research for appropriate typefaces and images. Even what might seem to be a simple typographic cover without photos or other art can require drafting and tweaking and many iterations—and that’s before it circulates to half a dozen people in house for critiquing. After that, it’s sometimes (literally) back to the drawing board.

Occasionally, a cover appears sooner than expected, almost always having to do with opportunities for promotion. Although academic books appear year round with little regard to the traditional publishing seasons, publishers’ catalogs do observe the seasons, which means that a cover design not yet needed for a book itself might be requested for inclusion in the catalog. And a book with trade potential might have a pumped-up PR budget, with a cover image requested earlier than usual so the design of advertisements or brochures—or increasingly, a Web site or app—can be based on its colors or typography.

Your academic monograph might not have trade appeal, but that doesn’t mean your cover will get short shrift. One graphic designer told me that a highly theoretical or specialist work can be a welcome challenge and can even result in an especially creative cover design. (Perhaps if a work is obscure enough, the designer feels free to experiment, knowing that the marketing department isn’t likely to waste time arguing.)

But just like the authors of sexier titles, a specialist scholar will probably have to wait.

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