The Man Who Judges A Book By Its Cover

We are all aware of the English idiom "don't judge a book by its cover,” a metaphorical phrase signaling that one ought not cast judgement on someone or something based on outward appearance alone. 

But does this same view apply to the real book world? Marko Marković, Founder and Senior Art Director of Belgrade, Serbia based 5MediaDesign I’m sure has an opinion on this for his days are filled with designing world class book covers for authors across the globe. 

He recently reached out to me on LinkedIn and I was immediately captured by his portfolio of badass book covers. Because honestly, I DO judge books that I choose to read by their cover. 

How about you? 

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Despite being thousands of miles away, Marko and I have already started to build a collaborative connection around books. He even agreed to an interview with me. Here’s what he had to share: 

Can you please share with us a little about your life and professional journey? 

I grew up in Belgrade, a city with incredible energy. It’s ancient, but at the same time it reinvents itself repeatedly. The name of the country has even changed a few times, just in my lifetime. In my family, I'm the second generation of successful designers. My father, who is now retired, is an illustrator and pioneer of the first illustrated movie posters in South-Eastern Europe. For one of his works, he received an honorable mention from Hollywood Reporter, which was quite unique with him coming from eastern bloc.

Ever since I was a little boy, I've loved watching my dad draw marketing materials and paint with air brushes (actual compressor spraying paint, not a tool in PhotoShop). This was during a time when artists relied on their talent and skills. There was no "Undo" button.

During my studies, I volunteered in daily newspapers. It pulled me in completely and in 1998 I received my first job in print media. Over the next 9 years, I grew from designer apprentice to an Art Director of a company running several leading daily newspapers and magazines. Outside of my daily job, I kept learning design through freelance gigs. From the smallest jobs (business cards, flyers, posters…) to big projects redefining corporate visual identity.

How did your evolution to becoming a book designer occur? 

I have spent the last 20 years working for some of the highest-circulating daily newspapers and magazines. Leading a 50 person design department as Art Director is where I learned how to manage the pressure of short deadlines.

Freelancing was always there, but more as an ad-hoc thing that was highly dependent on my personal network, which in a small market is a challenge. At that time, making the big step of becoming a full-time entrepreneur seemed too risky.

Then I discovered Upwork, a global freelance platform that opened a whole new market for me. I started with a few small things, but the list of clients grew quite rapidly. My first big project was to design all of the elements of America’s Conference for General Electric USA — from a digital invitation to the main conference billboard of 100 feet. It was amazing that I managed to work for a Fortune 100 company, without ever meeting them face to face or being a part of a major agency. I continue to work successfully with GE's marketing team daily.

A second big project was for Dylan Howard, ex vice president of America Media. He found me on the freelance platform Fiverr. He showed me what in-house designers did for him and asked me to build my own design, as a trial. It only took one round before I started working with Dylan on all his books.

At that point, I was 100% sure that this was the time to fully dedicate myself to my own company. I started 5mediadesign in 2018, a name symbolizing the 5-star rating I still have on every freelance platform I’ve ever worked on (hopefully I won’t jinx it).

Tell us more about your developing interest in book design

Working in the media, I was surrounded by many journalists and editors who wrote books. They asked me for help and I started working on it reluctantly. As time passed, I realized the freedom of creativity it provided, void of all corporate brand guidelines or newspaper standards. Every cover is different and can be done in an infinite number of ways. There are millions of options for a customer to choose from. Getting them to stop and decide to learn more about the great story behind that cover became my passion. 

Describe the elements you believe are critical to a quality book cover design? 

It’s what I call “Stopping Power.” In other words a cover design that grabs attention and makes you look further is the most important factor. This is intangible and difficult to replicate. I am constantly seeking and challenging myself to find new ways for authors to communicate this in the shortest time possible. One glance is all we get to grab their attention and the message has to be crisp.

On the technical side, we must be aware of the multiplatform experience that readers have with books today. Hard and soft covers, e-readers, audio books, phone apps, online shopping platforms. It is essential that the design works on all of them.

In your view, what are the three biggest mistakes authors and publishers make in this process?

I do think that all of the mistakes originate from a lack of understanding of how important the book cover is. “Don’t judge the book by it’s covers” loses its meaning, if nobody ever considers looking inside. Because today’s attention span is ever so short, finding a way to meaningfully stand out is the key to commercial success.

Based on this, what advice do you have for prospective book authors? 

Don’t try to wing this. Don’t think you can learn it from a YouTube video.It’s simply too important! Hire a professional designer. It has never been easier to find talent across the globe. Freelance platforms are allowing you to see their previous work, their ratings from clients, and budgets needed. This is not a cost, but an investment into more sales.

Who inspires you? 

My father remains my biggest inspiration. He is the most creative man I’ve ever met in my life. I still enjoy our long talks about my latest projects. 

As for book authors, I am thankful to Dylan Howard, who opened a whole new world for me of quick, time-relevant publishing and has helped me reach a lot of major publishers in the USA.

I also have to mention Dan Cockerell, VP of Disney for over 30 years. Working on his book was a joy and I cannot wait to visit one of his keynote speeches.

Why do you love doing book design work? What gives you the greatest satisfaction? 

Creating something that visually shows the story and grabs the reader's attention is intoxicating and addictive.