Lust or Membership?

Lust or Membership?

I want you to imagine that you’re walking into a bookstore. Think about what you do first: do you consume only Stephen King novels and so head straight there, blinkered to the hundreds of other books around you? Or perhaps you are the opposite, you may enter a bookstore with the intention of just milling around, looking at each shelf regardless of its genre. Maybe you love the A–Z section best because you can just look at everything at once; the place where a Terry Pratchett book can be getting up close and personal with Proust. So bearing in mind how vastly different these two approaches to book buying are, how should a book cover designer go about getting you to choose the title they want you to? If a designer produces a beautiful cover but have neglected to make it explicitly clear that said beautifully designed book was in fact written by your all time favourite author because they didn’t want to clutter 50% of the cover with the author’s name, they risk having you completely pass it by.

Alternatively they could just make the author’s name huge, but then they run the risk of alienating other people who may have tried just one of that author’s books before and hated it, whether or not this latest one is completely different. If you’re a book cover designer reading this, I’m sure you’ve come up against this conundrum many times – some books are clear cut and easy to design for, other’s fall into more of a grey area, so choosing how to approach the design can be tricky to say the least. There is, of course, no tick-box solution to this. However, we can define the two main approaches to cover design and look at the pros and cons of designing to each one’s need in order to better decide which suits the book you’re designing for.


The first group (making a beeline for the genre they want) can be defined as the ‘membership’ group. They may have an author already in mind, and they will certainly be familiar with the design tropes used in their genre. If they’re a lover of romance, they’ll be looking for typography in a cursive script, overlaid on an image of a woman bathing, walking or sitting gloomily in a window. Perhaps we only see a part of her; her hand, half of her face or the nape of her neck, or maybe it’s a quirky illustration of a house or a beach. When it comes down to it, the majority of romance books are designed like this. How it came to be that way is another story and another article, but we do know what the benefit of designing to a stereotype is; safety. Safety for the audience as they know exactly what they are getting, and safety for the designer because they know they will have done their job in packaging the book how the audience expects.

I see designing for membership sort of like eating at a restaurant franchise in a foreign country – you can have nice food there, you know exactly what to expect and so there’s no surprises (whether that is a good or bad thing is down to the individual). That’s not to say that this type of design is bad, you can still execute the genre style in a beautiful way, and produce something aesthetically pleasing, it’s just not particularly original. So membership is the option for catching your main target audience – the people who will have read these kinds of books before, and wish to continue doing so.

Current romance bestsellers on Waterstones
Current romance bestsellers on Waterstones


The latter group, the ones who just mill around waiting for something to grab them, can be defined as the ‘lust’ group. They’ll want to be drawn in by something intriguing, beautiful or both. They’ll probably run their hands over the book once they’ve picked it up and they’ll carefully consult all elements of the cover. This group is likely to make their decision on aesthetics, so you’d better make sure your book fulfills that. So when is the lust angle useful? Firstly, if you’ve got a book that everyone knows, and everyone has read, then you need a new way to make someone purchase the book and welcome it into their home. So make the thing a beautiful object – book lovers are suckers for this. We might like to pretend that we no longer live in a world where books signify status, but this group like to feel like they’ve just found something really special, and it relies almost entirely on good design.

The disadvantages of taking the lust route is that your audience might not be sure what type of book to expect. If your author’s target reader for their book is one which has read all twenty of their previous books, and only ever reads romance, then you might not want to shroud the book in mystery and intrigue – your reader won’t stick around to look inside and see whether they like the story, they’ll take one look and go ‘that’s not what I’m looking for’ and move on. It can also be much more expensive, the costs of spot gloss, uncoated paper, embossing or gold foiling can rack up, but that should be weighed up against the benefit of being able to capture a new reader you might not have otherwise found.

If we look at the HarperCollins redesign of A Brave New World  by Milan Zrnic, we can see that they’ve gone for the ‘lust’ group. The beautiful paper stock and minimalist design work together to create something intriguing for readers. In the AIGA Design Archives, Zrnic is quoted as saying:

‘HarperCollins approached me to design a graphic cover that would take the recognizable cover iteration into newer, more sophisticated territory. As with most classic titles attempting to rejuvenate sales, the cover was to attract a broader audience that would pick up the book on a table and immediately understand the tone of the story’.

This is a good example of when the need for the ‘Lust Factor’ has been identified and implemented perfectly.