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Judging books by their covers

It may be the inside that counts, but it's the outside that catches the eye.

  • Hassan Preisler in Little Black Sambo outfit on the front cover of Brun mands Byrde. Photo: Peter Morten Abrahamsen

    Hassan Preisler in Little Black Sambo outfit on the front cover of Brun mands Byrde. Photo: Peter Morten Abrahamsen

The front cover of Brun mands byrde, Hassan Preisler's socially critical and highly acclaimed debut novel, shows Preisler posing with a green umbrella against a screaming-yellow background in a red jacket, blue trousers and purple shoes. A tongue-in-cheek nod to the children's classic, The Story of Little Black Sambo, the story of an Indian boy who is forced to surrender his clothes to four hungry tigers (spoiler alert: Sambo cheats the tigers at the end). The cover of Hassan Preisler's book is eye-catching. We cannot ignore it. And this makes all the difference when books hit the bookshelves and have to vie with hundreds of other titles for consumers' attention.

The cover creates a universe

We shouldn't judge a book by its cover. No, of course not, but neither should we underestimate its importance, because it often gives readers their first impression of a book. A cover should preferably pique a person's curiosity.

'The cover is something we spend an awful lot of time on. Before deciding on this cover, we'd considered at least 20 other versions,' says Sune De Souza Schmidt-Madsen, editor at Lindhardt og Ringhof, his gaze falling on Hassan Preisler's book.

'The main reason our choice fell on the Little Black Sambo-inspired cover was its eye-catching appeal, and we haven't regretted our decision. The cover has been reproduced all over both the social and the print media, and has created a persona for Hassan that he can play on during the book tour. It's been brilliant being able to build a universe around the book,' De Souza Schmidt-Madsen explains.

Atmosphere is important

One person who designs book covers daily is Norwegian Elisabeth Vold Bjone, who has worked as a graphic designer for Cappelen Damm since 1999. With about 150 front covers to her name, she has long since mastered the art of letting her creativity flow and leaving her mark on myriad book covers.

'Whenever I get a book into my hand, I prefer to read it first, because it's important to know the story and get an idea of the book's atmosphere. While I read, I take notes and make small sketches in my notebook. Then I start looking for images and decide what style suits the book,' explains Elisabeth Vold Bjone.

It is hard to define what makes a book cover work. The attention-grabbing effect is one aspect – the presence of small, subtle details that only make sense at the turn of the last page is another.

'I sometimes include a few small hints on the front cover. When readers have finished the book and look at the cover, they have an "aha" moment when they spot the reference,' Elisabeth Vold Bjone explains. Her prime duty is to arouse the reader's curiosity. If consumers pick up the book, look at it and touch it, then she has done her job right.

Developments in digital media and rising e-book sales mean the digital format has to be incorporated into the design process. Therefore Elisabeth Vold Bjone always tries to design a cover that also punches through in a small format on the net. She often has to design several different covers to be passed on for the author's and editorial team's approval. Capturing the exact look that the book's creators have intended for the cover can be quite a challenge.

'We simply can't go through with this!'

Indeed, choosing the perfect front cover can be an enormous challenge, says Sune De Souza Schmidt-Madsen. Although Brun mands byrde currently boasts a bestseller ranking, the editor was somewhat dubious when he first held the book with the bright yellow cover:

'After the book's amazing reception it's easy to stand here and rationalise in retrospect, but I must admit my immediate reaction to the cover was, "whoa, we simply can't go through with this".' He almost got cold feet and chose a less provocative cover depicting Hassan Preisler wearing a suit in the middle of the Danish countryside.

'But Hassan loved the Sambo cover, so we took the chance,' the editor explains.

Apart from the author's enthusiasm for the front cover, it was chosen because it is a good match for the book's universe.

'Little Black Sambo was actually one of the sources of inspiration for the book. Photographer Peter Morten Abrahamsen had the idea for the cover, and to be honest, we were a little concerned that it might be too weird. But we agreed that it was better to meet the reader with levity than with gravity,' explains Sune De Souza Schmidt-Madsen.

It proved a good decision. After several appearances in a Little Black Sambo costume, Hassan Preisler has created real interest in the book, which already looks set to become one of 2013's biggest successes.