Let me pause to acknowledge here that of course your publisher will make most of the packaging decisions. But publishers don't always follow the right principles and they don't always achieve the right outcome. You'll have a much better chance of persuading your publisher of the merits of your point of view if you can describe not only what you want, but why you want itthat is, if you can articulate the principles behind your plan. So even if you're "only the writer," you should understand the principles behind effective packaging.
When we talk about a book's packaging, generally speaking we're talking about the cover (there are other elementstangible, such as paper quality and binding, and less tangible, such as placement in stores and avenues of advertisingwhich, though related, are largely a separate topic). So the first question to ask is, what is the purpose of the cover?
Many people will answer, "To get store customers to pick the book up." That's partly right. But what if the potential customer picked up the book, started reading the jacket copy, and realized that the title and cover art had nothing to do with what the book is actually about? Correct: a moment later, the book goes back on the shelf. So yes, you want the cover to entice a customer to pick up the book, but, just as in romance, picking someone up is the beginning of a process, not its consummation. So let's say this: the full purpose of the cover is to get people to: (i) notice the book; (ii) pick up the book; (iii) buy the book; (iv) read the book; (v) talk about the book; (vi) listen to the talk about the book; and (vii) repeat for the next customer.
Let's keep this purpose in mind as we break down the elements of the package. There are six: (i) author's name; (ii) title; (iii) cover art; (iv) jacket copy; (v) blurbs; (vi) author photo; (vii) author bio. We'll talk about the first three together, because these elements are always present right on the front cover, and therefore the first elements a potential reader is likely to see and respond to.
If you're Stephen King, your name will be a significant part of the package and will sell a lot of books. But let's assume you're just starting out and no one knows your name. In this case, your name adds little value to the package. The title and cover art alone will have to carry the day.
Where do you start? Pretend you're explaining to someone why she would like your book. What's in the book that will appeal to herthat is, what elements or "hooks" will make readers want to buy it? What does the book stand for, what makes it special, what makes it tick, what is its core? What market and submarket is the book geared to? Articulate those elements and distill them. They are what should be reflected in your title and cover art. (It's not a coincidence that this exercise ties in with the elements of a good pitch, which I've heard described as "Who, What, Where, and Why Should I Care.")
Note the word "reflect." As with good writing, the combination of your title and cover art shows rather than tells. It's a tease, not a full frontal. You want to convey some degree of dry informationthe book's genre, for example, a bit about the who, what, and wherebut the ultimate purpose of the information is to precipitate an emotional response (does this sound familiar? It's also a principle of good writing). Look at book covers, and you'll see an infinite variety of designs. But the ones that work will all provoke an emotion. How? By hinting at somethingin thrillers, it's usually sex, danger, violence, loneliness, exotic locationsthat causes people to feel a certain way.
How can a title provoke emotion? One route is association. Julia Spencer-Fleming's books (Out of the Deep I Cry, A Fountain Filled With Blood, etc.), are from Christian hymns (see also the discussion on secondary meaning and branding below). Cormac McCarthy's latest, No Country for Old Men, is taken from the first line of Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium. Joe Konrath's books are each named after a well-known drinkWhiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, Rusty Nail. The phrases are familiar enough to evoke, but not so familiar that they can be ignored. They have resonance. They also powerfully relate to key elements of the books themselves: for Fleming, a Priest protagonist and themes of faith; for McCarthy, an aging cop confronted with a young, virulent form of evil; for Konrath, a protagonist nicknamed Jack Daniels and stories that are like alcohol itselffun but also dangerous. There are many other approaches and countless examples. The best discussion of titles I've encountered (along with a lot of other good stuff) is in Sol Stein's Stein on Writing. I recommend it.
The same principles apply to cover art. Allow me to make an example of one of my own books. Recently, I had a long discussion with my UK editor about what makes the Rain books tick. We came up with: (i) Rain himself (realistic, dangerous, multifaceted killer); (ii) exotic Asian urban settings; (iii) action and martial arts; and (iv) romance and sex. So a good Rain package will reflect some combination of these elements.
Now take a look at the Italian cover of A Lonely Resurrection, the second book in the series. I think it's the best Rain cover evernot just because it's beautiful, but because of the striking way it emphasizes the heart of the books:
What do we get from the cover above? An Asian metropolis (probably Tokyo, even if you can't read the Japanese building signs, and even if there was any doubt, the title clarifies it), large, impersonal, vaguely intimidating and even threatening. Above it, a beautiful geisha, implying again the exoticism of the setting, and also hinting at romance and sex. And ambiguityis the woman, who is looking down at the city, an angel? Or somehow malevolent?
One of the things I love best about this cover is how personal it is. There is a human being in the picture. There's something intimate, alluring, even arresting about this.
And, of course, the composition plays beautifully with the title: Alba Nera su Tokyo (Black Dawn Over Tokyo, if my Italian can be trusted). Garzanti, the publisher, is emphasizing the setting on three levels: the image of the city, the image of the woman, and in the title itself. This is a strong, unambiguous statement: we have a book set in Tokyo. Certainly, like all sound branding, this brand will not be for everyone. But the point is not to try to appeal to everyone (such attempts, which in the end always wind up standing for nothing, tend to fail); it is to appeal powerfully to an approachable core constituency from which we can build by word of mouth.
So: Alba Nera su Tokyo accurately and elegantly emphasizes setting, suspense, and sexat least three of the four elements my editor and I keyed on. The hinted-at information makes you feel a certain way about the book. No wonder the cover works so well. Bravo.
I'm glad to say that the Italian design seems to be influencing the efforts of some of my other publishers, including Putnam in the US. Putnam and I have been discussing the US packaging approach, and agree that it hasn't adequately reflected the core of the series. The principles my UK editor and I distilled are now becoming more prominent in the US approach. (By the way, if you're trying to assess whether your publisher is right for you, an important question to ask is: do they continually assess the results of all their marketing efforts and adjust as necessary? Do they abandon what hasn't worked, emphasize what has worked, and continually innovate? If the answers are yes, you're working with good people. I count myself lucky in this regard.)
Most discussions I've heard about book packaging focus on getting the book to "pop" or "stand out" or "jump off the shelf." (Some of the phrases in question are cliches; others are jargon. Beware of both, and especially of jargon. It's almost always a substitute for thought and you should immediately be suspicious when you hear someone lapse into it). But the common focus on eye-catchiness is misplaced. Eye-catchiness is helpful, but not fundamental. It can add to the essential qualities of the cover by getting more people to notice it, but it can't substitute for those qualities if they're absent. Eye-catchiness might get a passer-by to see a book on a shelf, but it won'twithout morecause her to pick up the book and look more closely. Only some reflection of the book's "hooks" can reliably do that.
Bear in mind that what works for a first book isn't exactly the same as what works for a tenth, and won't work exactly the same way. As an author's star rises, her name will add more value, for example, and should therefore become more prominent. Also, over time, book packaging can develop what trademark lawyers call "secondary meaning"that is, the meaning that accretes to a trademark in the public's mind by virtue of long association with the underlying product or service, which is part of brand. Random House has done a nice job in this regard with Lee Child's books, branding them with that bull's-eye design. What do we associate with a bull's-eye? Shooting, precision, pressure, dangerall appealing qualities of the Jack Reacher series, certainly, and therefore a sound approach even the first time Random House used it. But over time, that bull's-eye design has come to stand for the Reacher books in much the same way a trademark stands for the underlying product or service.
Now let's talk about the other elements of the packagethe jacket copy, blurbs, author photo, and author bio. To understand these elements and how they work together, you have to understand the sales cycle I discussed in a previous articlethat is, the steps the average customer needs to take en route from the bookshelf to the cash register. Here, the sales cycle means the reader notices the book's cover (author name, title, and artwork) and picks it up. She reads the jacket copy and it sounds like it's her kind of book. She reads the blurbs, and the New York Times rave increases her confidence that the book is good. The photo and bio indicate the author has credibility to write this kind of book. She starts reading the first chapter. Ten minutes later, she's carrying the book to the cash register.
Let's look at each item in a little more detail. The function of jacket copy is to tell the reader what the book is about more descriptively than the hints and implications of the title and cover art. In other words, to add to and reinforce the reader's initial attraction to the book. The function of the blurbs is to convince the reader that, regardless of what it's about, the book is good. In other words, the jacket copy and the blurbs answer two distinct questions: "What's it about? And is it any good?" I'm of the opinion that using the jacket copy to persuade the reader of the book's merits is silly. Your (or the publisher's) claims to terrificness aren't credible. Only disinterested third parties (reviewers) have credibility for that. Of course, you can go in the opposite direction, using some description from blurbs in conveying what the book is about, because there's no credibility problem there. But bear in mind the separate functions of jacket copy and blurbs so you can use them with maximum impact.
The function of the author photo is to enhance what you're trying to establish with the other elements of the package. If the book is comic, the author should look fun and light-hearted. If the book is literary, a look of gravitas is probably good. You get the idea.
The same applies to the bio. I grew up in New Jersey. But that's not in my author bio because it's not relevant to what we're trying to establish about the Rain books. The time I spent in the government and in Japan are relevant because they tend to establish credibility for the things and places I write about. Not a coincidence that those items are prominent in my bio.
If all the elements are properly in place, the package will both distill and amplify the "look and feel" of the book inside. The package will then prime the book's passage through each of the seven steps of the sales cycle described at the outset of this article.
Now that you know the principles, try them out. Look at book packages that work for you and ask yourself why they work. Are they distilling and then accurately, attractively, powerfully presenting what's most appealing about the book? Do the same for packages that leave you cold. Is your lack of interest subjective, or is the package failing on some more objective level that you can articulate? (By the way, this is the same kind of exercise as learning writing craft by rereading books you love and asking what the author is doing that's working so well). When you can start answering these questions reliably, you're well on your way to helping your publisher design the best possible packages for your booksframes for your works of art.