17 tips (and every one of them awesome)
If you are planning to e-publish your book on Amazon and elsewhere – as an ebook and/or in print – you’re going to need a cover.
And needless to say, getting that cover right can make a huge difference to sales. The right cover can make the difference between a book that works, and one that falls flat.
But commissioning a cover design is not easy, and can easily become very expensive.
I’m Harry Bingham, and I make six-figures annually self-publishing my work. And truthfully? I think commissioning your first book cover is hard. And it’s especially hard when you’re starting out and don’t have a lot of moolah to spend.
So what follows are the tips I’ve derived from my own personal experience – and from hanging out in the industry a long time, and seeing a lot, a lot of successes and failures.
Hold on to your hats, and let’s go design that cover.
Where Do You Find A Book Cover Designer?
First up, where do you source your designer?
There are basically five possible answers to that question.
1. You Google “Book cover designer” (or similar)
Nothing wrong with that. Do some proper research though: it may well be that the right person for you is on page #5 of a set of Google search results. Remember that Google ranks websites, not book cover design quality! Remember too that designers tend to have specific genres, they’re most comfortable with. So a designer who’s great for upmarket women’s fiction may be awful for genre romance . . . and may not even want to touch space-opera type SF.
2. You Google “Pre-made book covers” (or similar)
Same idea, except that here you’ll be buying covers that pro designers have designed for a particular commission, but then not gone on to use. So you can get pro covers for (typically) $49 to $99, some of which are just excellent. A good site to start with is Self-Pub Book Covers. I’m not always convinced they have the best material out there, but they certainly have a lot of it!
3. You run a competition
99 Designs offers a design-based solution for your book cover needs. So does Design Crowd. So do others in that arena. The idea here is that you set a prize. Different designers from around the world compete for your prize. You award it to the design you love the most (or pay nothing if none of the designs pleases you.) Don’t low-ball this, though. A bottom-end sized prize will get you bottom-end type entries. And you don’t want bottom end.
4. You create your own design
Probably using Canva, or its cooler sister, Colorcinch. Those two tools are, by a country mile, the best design-tool-for-idiots out there. There are plenty of templates, a lot of scope within the free packages, and they’re fun to play with. So what’s not to like?
5. You use a friend or relative
And I don’t mean Auntie Ira, who likes messing about on her laptop now and again. I mean a friend or relative who has actual design skills (as in: makes a living as a pro designer in some way.)
All of those options can work. In the rest of this piece, I’m assuming you are actually commissioning someone . . . but even if you use one of the other routes, the basic tips & advice apply in just the same way. Two last comments:
Golden Rule #1
Get this right! If the first design isn’t good enough, spend more money.
Almost good-enough isn’t good enough.
Scary, right? Because covers matter a lot, because the quality of competition (from both indies & trad publishers) has increased, and because design processes are necessarily open-ended.
But that brings us to the second, and more reassuring rule:
Golden Rule #2
Your first cover is (nearly always) your most expensive
How come? Because that’s where you evolve the look which will apply to all the titles you ever do. So, for example, my book covers are stark black-and-white images, with bright text. The basic look is fixed. The fonts are fixed. The only real variables left are (a) what image to use? and (b) what colour are we going to go through this time.
Some of my later-in-series covers have taken just a couple of hours to build at a fraction of the original cost.
OK. Preamble done. Now let’s turn to the design guidelines themselves . . .
1. Don’t Be Too Specific
Unless you are a designer (and maybe even then), you should avoid thinking that you know what you want. You probably don’t. The perfect book cover will be one that you only know when you see it. If your design brief is hyper-detailed (“I want a kitchen table and a silver coffee pot, and an range cooker in front of a cottage window …”), you really aren’t giving the designer any room to use their best imagination.
2. Don’t Be Too Literal
Let’s say your book is called ‘The Parting’, you might be tempted to depict a parting on the front cover. So you might go for two lovers, with outstretched arms, torn apart. Maybe you might even have a tear-line ripping down the middle of the book. That says Parting, doesn’t it? So it must be a good cover, right?
Well, actually, no, not at all. It’s way too literal. You need a cover to convey a mood, not a word. So a much better cover would be a cafe table with two seats, but only one cup of coffee. Perhaps one person (a woman, probably) in the shot, but only half seen. And that gives you all you need. The title – which conveys loss – and a picture which in that context tells you something about the post-parting atmosphere. Beautiful, simple – and oblique.
Anything too direct will almost certainly feel heavy handed.
3. Do Be Specific About Atmosphere
Your cover designer is not going to read your book, so they won’t know about setting, atmosphere, mood, protagonist or anything else, unless you tell them. So let’s take that idea we just discarded (the coffee pot and an range cooker one), a good way of sending the right kind of message to the designer might be as follows:
“This book is a quiet domestic drama set in rural Ireland. The protagonist is a 34-year-old Irish woman, living quietly alone in a pleasant rural cottage.”
You might even want to offer more texture than that, but you can see what you’re trying to do. You’re giving the kind of guidance that might indeed end up with coffee-pots, range cookers, cottage-windows, but which also might express the same kind of domesticities in a million other ways, too.
Give the designer creative freedom within boundaries that you set. The boundaries give you what you want. The freedom gives you the best possible ideas. Here for exampke is just such a cosy/domestic cover that evokes exactly the right ideas, but without the specific images we first thought of.
4. Do Offer Sample Images
By all means, include a section in your design brief which says, “The following images evoke the kind of landscape I have in mind,” and then includes let’s say 8-12 smallish images, copied from Google images, which convey the kind of landscape you have in mind.
And of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to landscapes. Just offer a collection of the kind of images (cities, people, homes, lakes, whatever) that cover the approximate territory you have in mind.
Again, don’t be too specific. Don’t search for the perfect image. For one thing, the perfect image may be copyright and not available for purchase. For another thing, you are the author, not the designer. Give the designer room to breathe. Offering a wider spread of images is a good way to encourage creativity in your designer.
5. Do Mention Authors Who Write In Your Niche
If you are writing a quiet Irish-set romance, then refer the designer to a handful of authors who write in the same area. Partly, there may well be designers who know those authors and who will get instantly what kind of book you are writing. But partly, too, any competent designer will head straight to Amazon to see what others are doing. That means that a designer stands the best chance of being able to create a design that acknowledges the current market trends, while adding a genuinely original tweak or two.
6. Do Refer The Designer To Book Covers, In Your Genre, That You Like
It will really help a designer if you say, “I like the following book covers”, and include thumbnails of (let’s say) a dozen or so books that you rate. If you come across covers where you really love the image but don’t rate the typography, for example, then say so. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself liking both pale-and-mysterious images for a crime novel, let’s say, and dark-and-bloody ones. If your taste includes both areas, then it’s fine to let the designer know. It’s their job to interpret your guidance to come up with a cover that pleases you. If you try to hard to be consistent in your choices, you are quite likely excluding some possible covers that would, in fact, delight you.
7. Do Include All Cover Text
The designer needs to know what elements they have to handle in the cover design. So if you want title and author name and shout line and puff or review, then you need to tell the designer upfront. If you don’t, you risk evolving a brilliant design which then becomes cluttered with an excess of text.
(A shout line, by the way means something like this: “In rural Ireland, nobody hears you”. A puff or review is something like this: “Literally a genius.” – Maeve Binchy. Never make up reviews. And remember that jokes which seem funny to you at the time don’t tend to seem funny on the page.)
These thoughts bring us to rule 7a:
7A. Keep Cover Text Very Economical
Title, fine, but don’t let that title exceed six words or so, unless you want a purely typographical cover. Author’s name, well, yes, you’re not going to leave that off. Shout line or puff: it’s easy to decide to cram text in, but remember that the more text you have, the simpler your actual design needs to be. You can’t have any real complexity in the image if you have a lot of text and for most books, the image should take priority. Note that you’ll see lots of successful commercial covers that do have a fair bit of text, but that’s because they’ve many quotes from major national newspapers. If your text is not equally strong, you probably want to prioritise the image.
8. Be Open To Purely Typographic Covers
There are some fantastic text-only covers out there. Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson is one example (below). If your book could handle a text-only design, don’t write a design brief that blocks that route. If your genre is commercial fiction, you probably need an image. But upmarket fiction and anything non-fictiony can certainly handle a text-only design.
9. Keep The Image Simple – Think Thumbnail
Simple images work. Complex ones don’t. Complex ones don’t even work at full-size – but they are car-crashes when seen at thumbnail size. And if your thumbnail view doesn’t work, you will get no eyeballs on your book page anyway. So keep it simple.
That means, probably, two main visual elements only:
- A woman’s coat, plus a flight of steps. Bingo, that’s a cover.
- A guy’s back, walking away from a burning building. Bingo, that’s a cover.
- A rowing boat, rocking at a misty jetty. Bingo, that’s a cover.
A woman walking up a flight of steps, while a flock of doves fly overhead, a rosebush smothers a garden wall and a pair of wedding rings glint from a silver bowl, shown in inset format … that’s not a book cover, it’s a car-wreck. It’s a total mess and will never work and never sell your book. For an example of the simple, complete cover, try this, for example. No doves, no rosebush, no rings . . . but it works, right?
10. Clichés Are Good
Well, sort of, since we sort of hate clichés. They’re like a red rag to a bull to us. We will rewrite text a million times rather than allow the merest whiff of cliché to invade our precious text, but that’s the text.
On the cover, we love cliché. Or, to be precise, we love the instant communication that the clichés offer. So you can laugh all you like about the familiar clichés of the front-of-store book tables – but if you follow that link, you’ll see that nearly all the covers they’re laughing at are really good covers. Man lurking by fence: yes, a cliché, but what atmospheric covers! Woman in long white dress: yes, a cliché, but what lovely, buyable covers those are! And so on.
Clichés work because they quickly (i) identify the type of book, (ii) appeal to the right kind of audience, and (iii) encourage a casual browser to click through to find out more about the book itself. (You’ll also notice, by the way, that the clichéd covers keep it simple, reinforcing our earlier point about the beauties of simplicity.)