The old saw that "you can't judge a book by its cover" may be true, but it doesn't stop YA publishers from pouring money into them to try to influence buyers, aka finicky teens. "The cover is a huge part of the way a book is marketed. It's almost the entire advertising," says Josh Bank, president, East Coast, of Alloy Entertainment. That's one reason why he's been especially hard on prospective designs for one of Alloy's hottest properties, Pretty Little Liars author Sara Shepard's sophomore series, The Lying Game (HarperTeen, Jan. 2011). "Getting it right for teenagers is difficult, and staying ahead of the trends is something we're always trying to do," adds Bank.
His criteria for a good cover are deceptively simple: a strong central image that communicates the feeling of the editorial, something that stands out on crowded shelves, and a title large enough to be read from outer space. Clearly easier said that done. In fact, Bank can only recall one Alloy book that got it right at the book proposal stage and never changed: The Luxe.
Farrin Jacobs, executive editor of HarperCollins Children's Books, who edits both PLL and TLG, views the cover as "the visual clue for the whole series." Once the cover is finished, she explains, the marketing department creates online ads and Web sites using images from it. Given the success of PLL—a 10-episode ABC Family TV series that launched June 8; over a million copies in print of the first seven books; a 150,000 copy launch for Wanted (June), the eighth and final book in the series; a 100,000-copy printing of the TV tie-in of the first book; and a recent jump in sales of 39% for the first few books in the series—finding the right cover for TLG became an increasingly important quest.
"We wanted to communicate to Sara's fan base: "If you liked Pretty Little Liars, you'll love The Lying Game." But we didn't want to have the same covers," says Jacobs, who likes to quip that when it comes to covers it takes a village. On the Harper side, that village includes everyone from sales up to president and publisher Susan Katz, who weigh in on the effectiveness of the design. After killing numerous covers, including one using dolls as in PLL, Harper chose a design from Alloy that echoes Shepard's earlier series but doesn't mimic it. Both series use handlettering by Peter Horridge, but the TLG cover has a black background, unlike the earlier series, which used covers that were color-coded to each character..
Instead of one pretty girl on the cover, for TLG there are two, to represent 16-year-old Emma Paxton and Sutton Mercer, identical twin sisters who were separated at birth. Emma grew up in foster care in Nevada, while Sutton was adopted by a well-off family in Scottsdale. The night before they are to meet for the first time, Sutton is killed. To solve her murder, Emma has to become Sutton.
But agreeing on a design is only the first step in completing a cover. Next, Alloy and Harper held a photo shoot to get the character of Emma/Sutton right. PW watched as props were readied, makeup applied, and photos taken at a studio above Chelsea Market in New York City. To paraphrase TLG's prologue, "Let the finished cover begin."
According to Bank, Alloy is not planning to move away from showing teens on the front of its books, but it is diversifying. In fact the packager's bestselling series, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, uses the iconic image of a faded pair of jeans. Even if having teens on the covers is getting a little tired, both Bank and Jacobs agree that the right teen girl in the right pose can still move a lot of books. Another factor Bank likes to keep in mind is to make sure that the cover makes the book feel commercial. "There can be a fine line," he says, "between something that's cool and commercial and something that's so cool that it's narrow and literary."
Bank puts his arm around Alloy associate editor Lanie Davis, who came up with the idea for TLG at her very first development meeting in November 2007. He describes Alloy's development process as "intellectual potluck. It's Lanie's party, but we all brought something to the creation of the TLG concept. I'm claiming credit for the title."
Although Shepard brainstormed with Alloy's editors on plotting, she did much of the plotting herself in addition to writing several drafts, while doing two PLL books a year. She also wrote her first adult novel, The Visibles, which was published in hardcover last year, and a second for adults that is due out this fall in the U.K., Everything We Ever Wanted. Fortunately, she told PW by phone, "I've always been able to write pretty quickly, and I don't get writer's block."
Getting from mockup to makeup and a finished cover requires a girl with blue-green eyes. Here Ronnie Peterson works on getting just the right pretty-girl look for Beth at Fenton Moon, who was selected at a casting call at the Alloy offices the previous week.
While hair and makeup are being done, Christina Havemeyer, the wardrobe stylist, lays out jewelry and accessories for the shoot. Many come from stores with trendy looks, like H&M; some are loaned. Havemeyer leaves the tags on so that the items not used can be returned at the end of the day, after all four covers for the series are shot. Just to make sure that they get the right look, Harper and Alloy ask for photos of Beth in seven different outfits.
"The stylist brings an array of fashionable items, which makes my job a lot easier," says Sara Shandler, v-p, editorial director at Alloy, who not only edits the books but oversees the styling for the shoot. "In terms of trends, we try to be fashion-forward while still being relatable to the reader. More Teen Vogue than Vogue, but not necessarily borrowing straight from the readers' closets."
But they do borrow from the model's closet. After Harper art director Sasha Ilingworth appraises how Beth looks in a red shirt, she okays both Beth's own designer jeans and boots for the shoot.
Since the cover image is straightforward, the biggest problem for photographer Gustavo Marx (in the plaid shirt) is getting the lighting right. Here he talks with his assistant, Tiago Nunes, while digital tech Tim Ryan Smith looks on. The latter, who has the mockup of the jacket on his computer screen, is responsible for keeping track of the photos, which are taken digitally, so that they can be called up immediately as Harper and Alloy decide on hair, position, and wardrobe.
Beth takes her position, but clowns while Marx shoots to see how well she is lit.
Peterson touches up Beth's makeup and Marx re-adjusts the lighting.
For an hour and a half the crew work to get the first useable shot for the cover. Bank overseas the creative at the shoot. Here he watches the monitor, when Shandler turns away. He makes sure that the model is connecting with the photographer. "I was also looking to make sure her expression was right," says Bank, "neither too smiley nor too frowny. That's frequently the case where we have a young woman looking directly at the camera. It's not a complicated shot, but we generally stay away from a lot of editorial."
Although Bank likes to follow the shoot on the monitor, Kari Sutherland, assistant editor at Harper, prefers a different vantage point, and stands directly behind the photographer.
A typical Alloy shoot costs roughly $18,000. This shoot, which has a lot riding on it and a very involved client—Harper sent two editors and an art director, Alloy sent five staffers—probably cost closer to $26,000. Here's what their money bought.
All photos by Judith Rosen unless otherwise indicated. Cover design by Liz Dresner.