You know within a minute if you’re going to buy that business book," says Vikas Gupta, managing director, Wiley India. Gupta has broken typical buyer behaviour down to the second: 5 seconds for the spine to attract a reader, so s/he picks the book off the shelf. Over the next 30 seconds, readers look at the title and descriptor. And if the book continues to hold their attention, the next stage is to quickly flip through to check for visual elements, to read a little at random and/or look at the blurb on the back cover or praise for the book.

“A cover is so much—a work of art, the magnet that pulls you, forcing you to look inside. You can judge a book, author, reader and publishing house by the cover," says Diya Kar Hazra, publisher—trade, Bloomsbury India, Delhi.

There is a strict economy of design in business books. Everything from the author’s name, book title and subject, to where these elements are placed on the cover, is pregnant with meaning. Perhaps more so than in a fiction title, where the designer has more wiggle room to go abstract. “It is a crowded market," explains Gavin Morris, art director, Penguin Books India. “And there’s a need (for the message) to be clear."

Typically in book stores, leadership titles and books on innovation and personal finance jostle for space with business biographies and how-to guides. Mumbai-based Jayanta Dasgupta, manager—books, business category, of book store chain Landmark, says business books comprise 10-12% of all sales at Landmark stores. Dasgupta, who is also responsible for ordering these business and management titles, says: “Mostly customers have a category or a title in mind when they come in to buy books from this genre. On our part we display these books on separate racks based on general business, training, finance, economics and e-commerce. For biographies we tend to put the book face up, so that the thought process behind the cover is visible to the buyers."

Given the space crunch, it is crucial that the book convey at a glance what kind of work it is, what it is about and who it is targeted at.

Morris’ mantra for clarity in design for Penguin’s non-fiction management-centric book titles: “Usually, the typography is confident, clean and elegant. There’s often a quirky element, an object that is instantly recognizable. And these days, the covers are mostly white."

On the cover of the forthcoming Rama Bijapurkar title, A Never-Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India, for example, Morris has used a colourful ball of string on a white background. Morris explains that the image conveys the idea that Indian consumers are a mixed, colourful bunch. And the cover is white because everything stands out in sharp relief against white, he adds. And that is what it’s all about—standing out, clearly transmitting the message and converting ideas into sales.

Fiction versus business

The challenges of designing business books are different from working on commercial titles. Gunjan Ahlawat, art director, Westland, says that unlike works of fiction there is little scope to go abstract in business books. For Ashwin Sanghi’s best-seller The Krishna Key, for example, Ahlawat chose the image of a door. “It could be the door to a temple in south India or in Dwarka," he says. The idea there is to “invite the reader in a process of meaning-making", to engage them in a participative exercise to decode the image in a way that connects with them. Business books, by contrast, tend to be “no fuss". Ahlawat adds, “They are more typographic than illustrative or photographic."

To be sure, photos are used in some titles, but only when the personality writing or being written about is huge in business. Take, for example, Jim Rogers’ Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road And in the Markets, by Random House India. Rogers, along with investor George Soros, founded the Quantum Fund in the 1970s. The cover of Rogers’ book shows him standing in what looks like a market in Singapore, where he is based, and which he thinks is one of the key business centres of the world currently.

All this is not to say there isn’t scope for experimentation in business book design. Ahlawat gives the example of Sonia Golani’s My Life, My Rules: Stories of 18 Unconventional Careers. “The book had a quirky personality," says Ahlawat. He adds that the uneven font, multiple colours and layout were inspired by that.

Of course, the process of designing business books still involves interpreting and visually capturing what is most important about the work—but the objective is to be more literal, more immediately obvious than in a fiction title. Gupta cites the example of two Wiley titles: The Art of Being Brilliant and The Art of Speeches And Presentations. Whereas the word “brilliant" is highlighted in the first at the cost of “art", in the second book, the key feature is the “art" of making speeches, “not sample speeches, not important speeches in history, but the art itself".

What’s in a name?

Then there is the “business-y" category, as Morris puts it, comprising biographies, for example. These are typically more colourful and break away from traditional, “simple but elegant", business book covers.

On the sunshine yellow cover of The Captainship: First Gen Entrepreneurs, published by Bloomsbury India, an old-fashioned boat shares space with the skyline of a city complete with high-rises. The book is a compendium on the life stories of nine business leaders, edited by Anya Gupta. The illustrator and cover designer Anitha Balachandran says she used a mix of hand drawing and computer design for the book. “There’s a revival of older processes, both here and abroad," muses the 2003 animation graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

But yellow background and hand-drawn elements notwithstanding, The Captainship is a business title at the end of the day. Placed prominently on the cover are the names of all nine entrepreneurs represented in the book, among them Mindtree’s Subroto Bagchi, Info Edge’s Sanjeev Bikhchandani and AZB & Partners’ Zia Mody. What’s more, their names are even more prominent than the names of the editor and illustrator. Proof, if any were needed, that big personalities and names sell in business books.

Penguin’s Morris says a lot of things help sell a book—“word of mouth helps sell books, good reviews help sell books...and, yes, people like pretty covers." Perhaps that is why Penguin revises the covers for most books every three years. “It gives the books a new lease of life," says Morris.

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