The Basics of Cover Design

comparing book covers

What are the most basic requirements for cover design?

The most important thing to remember is that your cover is a marketing tool to attract new readers. It will be the focus of any marketing you do, and it will need to work in banners, advertising, and maybe even posters. Established readers of your work will buy your books if you wrap it in a brown paper bag. The cover is a tool to increase that readership.

There seem to be two schools of thought on book covers. The first one I see espoused is to blend with your genre. Find the best-selling books in your genre and make sure your cover is easily associated with these. This helps for marketability and as a side effect gives the book an unconscious visual recommendation. A viewers mind remembers that they liked X, and this looks like X, therefore I will probably like it too. On the other hand, do you want to be one of the crowd? A good cover that stands out will attract the eye faster than a good cover that blends into all the others. Whichever philosophy you ascribe to your cover must…

Convey who the author is, and what the story is about.

  • To achieve this, you need to have a readable font that is clearly visible against the background image;
  • Fancy fonts are fine as long as they can still be read in thumbnail images;
  • Your author name falls below the title unless you are so well known your name is enough to sell books;
  • Your Title must be both predictive (hinting at the story) and evoke a positive emotional reaction in prospective readers.

Be eye-catching so it stands out on the shelf or webpage.

  • Your cover has to be attractive. People do judge a book by its cover.
  • Your cover has to look professional. If the cover isn’t professional, people will assume the writing isn’t either.
  • If you make your own covers or pre-purchase them make sure you avoid overused stock photos. Check out the Gallery of Clones.
  • A substantial part of the population has vision problems. Do yourself a favour and don’t discourage buyers with confusing imagery, blue/green colour grades, or small text.

Convey the feel (if not the content) of the story.

A picture paints a thousand words [circa 1% of your word count] so if a reader picks up your story based on the cover then finds it bears little resemblance to the story you will have an unhappy reader/reviewer. Some common examples to avoid are

  • A romantic looking couple on the cover when there is no romance.
  • Space battles in Sci-Fi books that don’t feature space battles.
  • A figure on the cover who seems to be the protagonist who almost the opposite of how the character is described.
  • Dark stories with neon-happy covers, such as stories focused on abuse and domestic violence with a ‘flowery romance’ cover.

 

Things to check before you publish/promote

MarketingSo what makes a good/bad marketing strategy for reaching those elusive readers?

There have been many good marketing strategies over the years. Take the all-time champion, the De Beers’ diamond campaign. That one company’s efforts led to the worldwide consumption of something that has no intrinsic value, but people now pay an arm and a leg for. There are many models available, and no end of experts happy to sell you their unique 7 step program or downloadable .pdf for $199.

I subscribe to a few simple rules.

Quality

Your work doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but a well-written story is easier to market than a rushed second draft. The question is “Do you believe in your product?” If you don’t enjoy your work, what makes you think anyone else will? Sure you can go with quantity over quality, and to be fair that works for many people but you still need to get people to notice

Sniff Test

sniff testMarketing is 1 part exposure, 2 parts content, and 1 part spam. There is no magic model (damn, I could charge 3 handy instalments of $39.95 to tell you that… padded out and with lots of jargon and some graphs. Guess I suck at marketing). So, sniff test, if it smells like BS, it probably is. Look at your own Inbox, your own reading material, your own town. What gets your attention, work out what stands out and do that. At the same time work out which sites send you so much spam you wish there was a ‘return to sender’ button that came with an automatic malware attachment. What ads annoy you, what campaigns insult your intelligence. Keep track of what they do that bugs you and don’t do it. In this business people tell you to target your material to your market, yet they fail to mention YOU are your own ideal reader. Your audience will be people who share your tastes and interests, so if something feels like BS to you, it will feel like BS to them. Unless you know your product is BS, and you’re okay with that… and plan to work with a good PR machine.

Satisfaction

Made in America (or wherever you’re proud to be from). Once you pass the sniff test and design a product you believe in, you can begin. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and it’ll be better if you don’t try to make it perfect. Be comfortable with what you’ve written.

Is your prose solid, your copy-edit professional level, your cover something that makes you smile? If you believe in your product, others will too. You should have murdered all your darlings during drafting, but they can still be recycled to show off your clever use of language. The fat you trim from your story to streamline it for publication. You can polish these extracts and expand them to feed the returning fans hungry for more detail. Even that clunky exposition you cut can be blogged to bring joy to your legions, LEGIONS I TELL YOU, of die-hard fans.

Completion

Batteries not Included. Free extras are great. Serialised stories can be great. Leaving out chunks of stuff in the hope people will pay for them later is not. This is not video-game development, and even then you don’t make friends with DLC (Gaming term for downloadable content you buy AFTER you buy the game). The same goes for selling things that aren’t written yet. Coming soon, is no substitute for a known release date. Sure you can release content as you write it, but don’t charge. Sell your finished product, anything of lower quality will only harm your brand. That’s not to say you can’t pre-sell, but when you deliver it needs to be a finished product or you risk alienating your readers/fans.