Author branding is critical to a book’s success and, therefore, critical to a good cover design, Young Adult or otherwise. YA readers tend to be loyal to authors they like: this is partially because a canny author for YA fiction has ample (and unprecedented) opportunity to connect with their readers through blogs, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media platforms.
Take, for example, John Green. A YA author of some years’ standing, he used his Tumblr to promote his own work and talk to his fans, reblogging their posts about him, which led to the creation of a meme: “When will John Green find the thing?” The runaway success of his 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars prompted a complete rebranding of John Green’s previous work in order to attract a new audience who had only heard about or read one of his books; that is, to encourage brand loyalty.
The design of The Fault in Our Stars provided the template for the rebranding. The title’s bright blue cover was coupled with a slightly abstract picture of two clouds, one black and one white. On the black cloud is scrawled the book’s title, as if with chalk on a blackboard. This deceptively simple design has several goals: it’s attractive to the eye, it’s clearly aimed at younger readers (the blackboard effect) and it retains a sense of mystery about the content without being bland and uninspired (the abstraction of the design as a whole). It even looks good in thumbnail.
The effect of Green’s rebranding can be seen in the difference between the original cover for An Abundance of Katherines which, despite being distinct, visually interesting and giving a strong sense of the book’s content, was abandoned when the book was reissued in 2012 after the success of The Fault in Our Stars. The influence of that title’s cover is most obviously seen in the chalkboard scrawl of the author’s name, but also in what is, again, a brightly-coloured cover with a slightly abstract design that only hints at the book’s content. The most important thing for the 2012 edition of Katherines is that it’s a John Green novel, as we can see from the fact that his name is the largest text on the cover, and the main colour contrast is provided by a blue sticker telling us he wrote The Fault in Our Stars.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of John Green’s repackaging is the cover for Looking for Alaska. The original 2005 edition featured a smoking candle which had just been extinguished. In a 2012 YouTube video, Green noted that the design had an “improbable” amount of smoke, continuing:
The original cover design of Looking for Alaska had no such candle, it was just the smoke. But then certain bookstore chains were like, “That looks like cigarette smoke”, and Penguin [his publisher] was like, “Yeah, that’s ‘cause it is cigarette smoke.” And they were like, “Well, we can’t feature a book with cigarette smoke on the cover,” and that’s why there was always a candle on the cover of Looking for Alaska.
The caution of the bookstore chains was, perhaps, understandable. Looking for Alaska incited minor controversy in the US as it was over its sexual content, being challenged twice by parents who objected to its use in schools. The job of a bookshop is, first and foremost, to sell books – a less conservative cover might have lost them, and Green, sales. On the other hand, increasing the book’s level of controversy with a more provocative cover might have increased its buzz, and consequently its market share. This is a crucial balance for a cover designer to strike when working on a YA novel.
With this in mind, the cover of Looking for Alaska’s 2013 edition seems very deliberately designed not to provoke controversy, with a cartoon drawing of a daisy and an encouraging reminder that yes, this is another book by the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars. If there’s one thing John Green’s rebranding has made clear, it’s that his books are totally non-threatening; just quirky, bright tales for Young Adult readers.
And while we’re discussing John Green, spare a thought for his collaborators. David Levithan, one of whose earlier solo covers can be seen left, worked with him on the novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the hardback cover of which was in a similar style. John Green’s remarkable success with The Fault in Our Stars, however, has ensured that all of his books have been reissued with covers in a similar style. Thus, the current paperback cover: a quirky, cute style which has a large sticker informing a potential reader that it was written by the author of The Fault in Our Stars.
This is a double-edged sword for David Levithan: certainly, this cover probably generates higher sales for the title than the hardback did. However, this has been at the expense of Levithan’s own brand. The novel might be a collaboration, but the best his brand can hope for is reflected glory. Indeed, his publishers seem to have embraced it. With the 2014 cover for Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, we can see that Levithan’s new covers are very much in keeping with John Green’s brand: scrawled capital letters; bright, vivid colours and a generally offhand feel, as if the illustrator dashed it off over a cup of coffee.
Author branding is an absolutely crucial factor in covers, and particularly in YA covers, where much of the fanbase clusters round a number of well-known authors: John Green, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Elizabeth Wein, Veronica Roth, and others. It is vital to the success of a new title that it be instantly recognisable as another John Green, another Stephenie Meyer, another Elizabeth Wein.