The Essentials of Book Cover Design
By JD Smith
I’m a sentimentalist but also a realist. Book covers are primarily about selling books. They’re prime real estate, the first billboard your book is advertised on, and key to getting readers to pick up your book.
Most authors publish their books to either be found, or to be found and make money. Some may even publish purely for the enjoyment of the process without any real desire to sell. But if you’re looking to publish to make a living from your writing, a professional cover is essential.
So what are the essentials of professional book cover design?
1. Appeal to the right market
Check out the bestselling lists in your genre, whether that’s crime fiction, women’s fiction, young adult etc. Whose books do you read that you enjoy? Will the readers of those books enjoy yours? Are the tone, style and characters similar to your own? Do they have the same appeal? Do you write like Mark Billingham? Then you want to attract his fans. Do you write like Philippa Gregory? Then you want to attract her fans. That’s not to say you want to copy their covers, but you need to have a similar feel, and to present your book with visual clues that scream ‘if you enjoyed their book you’ll enjoy mine.’
That brings me nicely onto cover cliché. There is no such thing as cover cliché. Cover design is about advertising your book as clearly as possible, so that people know what to expect, and are also intrigued enough to pick it up in a sea of other books.
2. It’s all in the detail
Good book cover design isn’t about how much time has been spent on it, or how much you’ve paid a professional to design it for you. A cover can be simple and equally as effective as a more complex design. It’s about hitting the right balance between images, text, colour and so on. There are many elements within a cover that make it work.
Let’s use Linzé Brandon’s book, Keeper of the Dragon Sword, as an example.
Imagery should be suitable to the period in which the book is set. Here, in a dark-ages style fantasy epic, the images chosen are relevant – the hair on the man isn’t a modern cut, for example.
The other important key here is that the overall cover is made up of multiple images. A common mistake is to blend images into one another, but not correct the colours in the images so they match, and you end up with an amateur Photoshop mess.
Good Colour Choice:
It’s vital to use colours which stand out; white and black here. When using a colour, it should be a hue picked out of the imagery used, or a direct complement. It shouldn’t just be a random colour, which clashes with everything else.
Good Font Choice:
If you look at covers in your genre, you’ll notice a trend: Chick-Lit using curly, girly fonts; Historical Romance script fonts; Action solid, impact style typefaces; Literary Fiction often uses classic serifs or light sans-serifs and so on. It’s not strict, but chosen right the font will say as much about the contents of the book as the image.
The composition of the title and author name are really important in creating a professional feel. Here you’ll notice that the title is stacked. Note that the left hand edge of the ‘K’ of ‘Keeper’ is aligned with the left hand edge of the ‘R’ of ‘Dragon’ and so on, whilst at the same time ‘Of The’ is right aligned with the last letter of ‘Dragon’. It fits in a grid which, when locked tightly together, is therefore attractive to the eye.
Composition is very much a grid. You’ll notice that the title takes up approximately a third of the lower half of the page, whilst the characters two thirds.
3. Trust your instincts
One mistake I see authors make time and again is designing by committee.
Friends and family are great, they are supportive and keen and want you to be happy and fulfilled in your writing career. They are even excited that you’re publishing a new book. But they aren’t the right people to ask for an opinion unless they are your target market. They are also unlikely to tell you the truth.
Other writers are also a natural source of opinion, however there are a lot of ‘experts’ out there. That’s great, and sometimes those people will have very valid opinions, but other times they’ll just regurgitate general industry opinion, which doesn’t necessarily apply to every genre, or trend, or what will actually work and sell your book.
Trust your own opinion.
4. Straplines, quotes and thumbnails
But they won’t be seen in thumbnail, I hear people chorus. No, probably not. So why have them? ‘It needs to work in thumbnail’ is one of the most overused phrases in publishing these days. It’s also one of the least understood.
Not everything on the cover has to be visible when your book is postage stamp size. This actually depends on your genre and market. Not all markets lean toward the title and author name as being important, for example.
So what’s the point of having a quote or strapline? Well for starters, it will be visible if not legible, so a reader will know it’s there. Lots of traditional books have one or the other or both, and so your book can appear more professional. It also gives a subtle indicator that you’ve been endorsed by a big name author, or that the strapline might state that you are a NY Times Bestseller.
5. Think to the future and your brand
Once you have established a readership you need to keep that readership. Make it easy for readers to find your books when browsing. Ensure the style of each cover in a series is similar, so that readers easily identify with the next release. You as an author can be recognised not just by your name on a cover, but by the way it’s typeset and the overall look and feel of your covers. Make sure marketing materials tie in well and are sympathetic to your cover design so that everything works as one to build your brand.
Only when a reader has picked up the book do they actually read anything, and that includes the back cover blurb that you will have spent hours and hours honing. If the blurb was worth all that effort, then the cover is equally if not more deserving.
Choosing a book cover designer
Finding and choosing the right cover design can be a tricky business. You want someone who is not only a good designer, but also someone who understand the industry, who will ask you the right questions to get the right cover design for you, who will listen, who replies to emails promptly, who won’t rip you off, and is reliable.
Ask your writing friends for recommendations. It’s the best way. Look at the designer’s portfolio and make sure they can design for your genre. Not all designers can design cross-genre, and are sometimes limited.
JD Smith is an award-winning book cover designer and author of The Importance of Book Cover Design, available from Amazon.