Here I embark on the first of several posts dealing with book cover design. These posts will be interrupted with other posts, but I will reach the end at some point hopefully not too far down the road.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a graphic artist nor a professional cover designer. I can’t call myself an artist, either.
One does not need to take a class or classes in creative writing in order to a become writer. Sometimes such courses help, but sometimes they can steer you down the wrong path. In the same way, one does not need to study graphic design in order to create a good book cover. I’ve seen so-called expert cover designers totally mess things up, and I’ve seen some amateurs do a superb job.
To design a decent cover, you simply need to understand a few basic principles. I have crafted a few things that have served as book covers, and I will show you some along the way, while pointing out the flaws in them.
I should also note here that designing a cover for a print book is not the same as designing one for an e-book. Some print book covers will work fine for e-books, but some won’t. The trick is to design one that works for both.
Most authors, especially the experienced ones, will tell you that the most difficult part of novel writing is not writing the novel but writing a short synopsis for the sales pitch. Writing tens of thousands of words is easy compared to figuring out how to write 100-300 words that will summarize those tens of thousands of words and also grab a potential reader’s interest.
In the past publishers crafted these blurbs and authors didn’t realize how difficult they were to write, although writers who send queries to agents appreciate the difficulty of compressing their entire manuscript into a bite-sized synopsis that will capture the agent’s attention amid the many other queries the agent receives.
Self-publishers are now left to discover the pain of writing these cover synopses, and many of also discovering the second most insidious thing about self-publishing: cover design.
It goes without saying that this tutorial is for writers who intend to self-publish their work. If you’re planning on going with a traditional publisher, the publisher will design the cover. You will likely have no say in the design, and you will be lucky if you even have the option of approving it. (And if you don’t like it, there will probably be nothing you can do about it.)
The primary requirement for designing a book cover is your ability to look at your work objectively. An artistic eye and a good dose of common sense will also help.
THE TWO THINGS YOU NEED TO GET STARTED WITH COVER DESIGN
(1) A well-written book
This might seem like a dumb or obvious thing to say, but it’s not. Unless you have a book that’s worth publishing (well-written and properly edited), a great cover won’t do you much good. It might get you some buyers initially, but once word gets around that what’s under the cover is crap, the best cover in the world won’t save it. Therefore, don’t worry about your cover until you have a book worthy of a cover.
(2) Assuming you have a good book, you need some sort of software to help you turn your design idea into a cover image (or else you need a friend who has such software and who knows how to use it).
I have heard of people designing their covers in Microsoft PowerPoint. DON’T DO IT! The only type of cover that this might be suitable for is a nonfiction reference book or handbook where the cover design is less important than the cover content. For example, you don’t need a stunning cover on a dictionary, just one that tells the potential buyer what it is and why it’s a good dictionary. Even in those cases, PowerPoint is not something you should use to design a book cover. It doesn’t have the flexibility to give you a truly polished-looking cover.
If someone tells you that he or she designed a cover in PowerPoint, your first question (or thought) should be “And how many books have you sold?”
You really need a piece of software suitable for cover design, not something you use for office presentations. The first piece of software that comes to mind is Adobe Photoshop. Yes, I know Photoshop is outrageously expensive for the average person. There is Adobe Photoshop Elements (under $100), but that’s still not cheap, and it’s more a photo editor than a design program.
But there is a free alternative to Photoshop that–in my opinion–is every bit as good (and some say better). This program is called GIMP. It is totally free, not just a stripped-down version of a program you have to pay to get the full version of. GIMP is powerful program and mostly compatible with Photoshop. It can read Photoshop files and save in Photoshop format. The current version is 2.8 and you can find and download it here:
Photoshop users will find that GIMP is very similar to Photoshop, but there are differences. I won’t lie. If you’re new to either Photoshop or GIMP, there’s a STEEP learning curve for either one. However, there are also many excellent online tutorials and plenty of YouTube videos the help. My experience is that GIMP is a little more “geek-oriented” than Photoshop. At the same time its community of supporters has developed some remarkable additions to it that Photoshop can’t hope to compete with. (Unlike GIMP, Photoshop is not a program you can “add” things to.)
If you’re the adventurous sort, learn GIMP and go for designing your own covers, especially if you plan on writing more than one or two books. If not, find a friend who is willing to help you make the cover. You spent all that time and effort writing a novel in the first place, so don’t cut corners by giving it a crappy cover.
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH A COVER DESIGN
A book cover has three purposes:
(1) It must grab a potential buyer’s attention.
(2) It should project the type of book it is. This often means suggesting the genre. You don’t want a sci-fi novel to look like a romance novel, and you don’t want a spy novel to look like it’s a horror novel because you might some upset buyers.
(3) Once you’ve connected with a potential buyer, the cover should make him or her want to look further, to read the synopsis and possibly the opening pages.
If your cover fails to accomplish the first two, you’ve lost a sale right off. If it succeeds at these but fails to compel the customer to want to look further, you’ve lost the sale.
On top of all that, for someone who is browsing books online, you have at most a few seconds to accomplish the first two.
Therefore, the FIRST thing you must do before starting to design the cover is to come up with one or more concepts that will accomplish these three goals.
Throughout this series I will be referring a lot to Joel Friedlander’s website “The Book Designer.”
You would do well to subscribe and read over his offerings and advice. He also sponsors a monthly e-book cover design contest. Links to the November and December 2014 contests are listed below. Peruse the covers and pay attention to his comments. You can use Google to look up his previous cover design contests. I just do a Google search on “the book designer” and add the month and year (e.g., the book designer July 2014).
Mr. Friedlander began this contest in late 2011. The blog where he proposed it is listed below.
Next time, we’ll start looking at how you start designing a good cover. I can’t guarantee that your cover will ensure your book’s success, but I can almost promise that a poor cover will go a long way toward ensuring its failure.
One last thing: There is no single perfect cover for any book. In fact, many books have been reissued with completely different covers, and even the same edition of a book will be released with different covers in different countries.
Ten different designers might well craft ten good and different ones. You don’t need to find the Holy Grail of covers for your book. Your goal is to create a cover that will sell your book.
In the next post, I’ll delve into ways to brainstorm a cover concept and how to narrow and refine your design choices. Along the way, I’ll also show you how to critique cover designs, including your own.
Meanwhile, browse Joel Friedlander’s site and look over the contest covers. Reading his comments will help you when it comes to designing and critiquing your own covers.