Book cover design

BOOK COVER DESIGN: Series 2, Part 2

From Rick:

As I told you in part 1, professional cover designers (in the same vein as some editors), would have you believe that lowly individuals like you and me can’t and shouldn’t design our own covers (or edit our own books). I assume this comes from the mistaken idea that we must study graphic design before we know what we’re doing.

To show that view is wrong, Joel Friedlander in his September 2016 E-cover designs said of one cover, “Good job, and that composited image is pretty exciting! Notable as a very good author-designed cover.

And the author had this to say about his cover design: “With three twists in 40 pages, this was a particularly difficult cover to convey the overall theme and genre. In the end, I went for an abstracted concept composited from two stock images. Hopefully I’ve pulled off something that looks professional and intriguing to Cyberpunk readers.”

The cover in question is for the novel Hypercage by Craig Lea Gordon. I’ll let you check it out on Amazon for yourself.

So, I guess we indie authors can do it, at least some of time. One key to success is using some common sense and not doing as another author admitted: “I used my own picture and Createspace’s Cover Creator to make this cover.” Needless to say, that cover looks amateurish in nearly every respect, and Joel Friedlander didn’t even comment on it (I’m assuming it’s because the author’s comment and cover result spoke for themselves).

When talking about cover design, the keyword is DESIGN, as opposed to slapping something together. Designing a cover means thinking about various aspects of it and how the various elements integrate to form a solid whole. In the previous article, I had you think about your book and brainstorm some ideas for what might go on the cover.

A good cover needs a focus, something the draws the eye to it. Whether it needs more depends on the cover. It may have a plain background or something more elaborate.

If cover design were that simple, many people would be able to do a good job of it. I find that covers that fail in a major way do so for one of two primary reasons: they lack cohesiveness or they are totally inappropriate for the book. In a good cover everything must work together.

Unfortunately, cover design is not a simple step-by-step process, because many elements must ultimately work together. Rarely can you just slap something on a cover then add stuff to it to make it work. I know this because it’s how I approached my early cover designs. You must think beyond one element and consider the integrated while.

I find that the best place to start is with a concept, not an image. Come up with several concepts, think about how you might implement them, then play around with them. This is what professional designers do. When you hire one, they’ll present you with two or more ideas to choose from to refine.

As you consider concepts, keep in mind the novel’s genre and mood. Don’t limit yourself to elements in your book, but also don’t put something on your cover that you think looks cool but has nothing to do with the story.

Here’s an example. At one point one concept I had for The Mosaic was a background of Egyptian hieroglyphs. These convey ancientness and perhaps a bit of the mystical. And they looked really cool. The problem (as my wife pointed out) was that the novel doesn’t take place in Egypt and has nothing directly to do with it. Therefore, such a cover would mislead, and perhaps attract the wrong audience (or turn away the right audience).

So, scratch that idea. We also tried using a cool ancient mosaic with mythological elements in it as the focus of the cover. While that wasn’t a bad idea (and we were stuck on it for quite some time), it didn’t really convey the mood of the story. We did try some other mosaic ideas, but none worked out.

If you look at the final cover, you’ll see that the designer used a mosaic as the background and chose an emblem as the main focal image. We had him add the runes around it to convey the fantasy element. The overall color palette is limited and conveys the fantasy and mysterious as well. So, while our cover focus contains no story elements, it conveys mood and genre.

From my research, I’ve put together a list of elements important to cover design.

Genre and mood top my list. Always keep these foremost in your mind as you narrow down your ideas.

Color palette goes along with genre and mood. Give careful consideration to the colors in your design. don’t go for a color because you like it or you think it’s a cool color. Make sure it really fits! It’s often good to restrict the number of colors in a design, even in lighthearted books. Splashes of contrasting color can be used for emphasis in the right place. Study the covers in Joel Friedlander’s e-book cover design contests to see what I mean. This is another case where showing is better than telling. Look and observe.

Focus: This is perhaps the hardest aspect of any cover design because you want something that acts as the center of attention yet blends with the overall cover design.

Background: Don’t ignore your background in your initial design concept. Background should never be an afterthought (as it was in my early design ideas). I tended to think in terms of a single image as the focus instead of an integrated design. Granted, some covers have no background image. The original cover of Twilight is a pair of hands cupping an apple on a solid black background. (and I’ve commented previously on how I’m supposed to get a vampire and werewolf battling for the affection of one girl from this). Still, it’s an effective image (for some other novel, I think). But compare the book’s cover with the cover for the DVD.

Layout (clutter, competing images): Layout is so critical. How elements (and how many) they are positioned is important to how the cover is viewed. Simpler is usually better, but complex images have their place. Just use them with care. Don’t overwhelm the viewer. A cluttered cover leads to confusion and can be offputting, leading to a failed sale.

Typography (proper style for genre and legibility): This is the one place where many amateur designers go wrong. Typography is a real art, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. Good typography integrates with the whole design. Fancy isn’t always where it’s at, but you have to know when fancy and elaborate trumps simple. There are no good rules here. Even designers can disagree on typography.

Ultimately, you want a cover that has impact and is unique. You don’t want it to look like every other cover out there. At the same time, you don’t want to deviate too far from other covers in the genre. Your cover must look like it belongs, but it must also stand out from the crowd—and that is a VERY hard thing to accomplish: unique yet fits in.

Now, let’s move on to some specifics. Here’s the very first book cover I designed, for Scott’s Martyr’s Inferno.

While it’s not a horrible cover, it’s not very good. Next time, I’m going to critique this cover and show you some subsequent designs I’ve been working on to improve it. For now, let me give you the motivation and story behind the cover design.

This was not the first cover for the book, which had an entirely different concept. Since one of the last scenes from the novel takes place in St. Louis and involves the Gateway Arch, Because Scott doesn’t live too far from St. Louis, he drove there to take the photo of the Arch framed behind a church, perfectly capturing the scene described in the novel. So, why did we change from that cover?

Well, the novel is a police detective/thriller. His photograph by itself did not convey the genre at all. The only thing his cover did convey (assuming readers recognized the Gateway Arch) was that possibly the novel took place in St. Louis. Even then, the Arch was framed behind a church. While the cover captured the scene, until you’d read the novel, you wouldn’t understand the reasoning behind it.

In part 1 of this series, under STEP 1, I said this: “One of the biggest mistakes amateurs make is putting some story element of the novel on the cover. The problem many times is that unless the person has read the book, the cover either doesn’t make sense or is confusing.”

While Scott’s first cover wasn’t confusing and it made sense to the story, it did nothing to convey the flavor or mood of the novel. The only thing it conveyed was location, and that wasn’t enough, especially since it didn’t seem to have much to do with the title. Because it does convey location, possibly a photo of the isolated Gateway Arch (along with other appropriate elements) could have worked for his cover—but this particular photo wasn’t going to do the trick.

I engaged my wife and her artistic ingenuity to undertake a different design. Although she hadn’t read the novel, I had. In PART 1, I made point about this: “In an ideal world, the cover designer has read the book and therefore would be intimately familiar with it.” I therefore had an advantage in being able to view the book as a whole instead of having to rely on a limited and possibly biased information provided by the author in a cover brief or synopsis.

When you work with a cover designer, it’s typical for the designer to propose several cover concepts (usually 2-4) for you to pick from, and the designer will refine the chosen concept. Since I’d read the novel, I decided to pursue an idea from the opening scene.

The novel opens in Russia with a character making a multi-million-dollar purchase of undisclosed item that is going to find its way to America. Our idea: a briefcase stuffed with packets of money and draped with the American and Russian flags. The problem: Aside from the fact that I didn’t want to spend money one or more stock photos, there was little chance the right stock image or images existed (although I did look and played with some samples without much success). Therefore, my wife and I decided to set up our own photo shoot.

The flags were easy. We had an American flag already. The Russian flag we purchased for under $5 on Amazon (and free two-day shipping). And I had a suitable briefcase. The money, however, proved a more elusive problem. We at first considered buying play money, but the full-sized bills looked fake (as they had to for counterfeiting reasons), and the more realistic-looking bills were small in size. Plus, we found that it was going to be expensive to purchase a convincing quantity of bills.

Here’s where my wife’s ingenuity came into play. If you can’t buy what you need, make your own. We didn’t need stacks of bills. All we needed was for the stacks to look like stacks of bills, meaning we only need the top bill on each stack to look convincing.

Since we couldn’t buy convincing $100 play money bills, we got a $100 bill from the bank, I scanned both sides of it and printed up several of bills with just one side printed and the other blank. There was no way our printed bills could be mistaken for the real thing close up. However, from a distance (as in the photo shoot we were setting up, they did look real, and that was all that mattered. Play money looked fake even at a distance because the color was wrong. To complete our money stacks, I cut up bill-sized white paper, made stacks of fifty, put a fake bill on top and on the bottom of each stack, and put a wrapper around it. We used plan white bands, not the best but okay for our purposes. And, yes, it was a LOT of work, but in the end we had the equivalent of $250,000. Even that wasn’t enough to fill the briefcase, so we put padding underneath the money to give the bulk we needed. And you see the result in the cover.

Next came the actual photo shoot, and that was harder than we expected. I had the idea of putting a spotlight overhead (to give it an interrogation-room feel). I had some blue material I’d bought previously for bluescreen effects. Here’s a photo of the setup.

The other problem was the camera. All we had at the time was a point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix. It gave decent picture quality but had no manual adjustments for exposure and lighting. We experimented and took over 60 shots before we got one we considered usable. At the time, I was using an old version Photoshop because I didn’t know about GIMP. I added the police tape and guns and bullets and the text. This result, my first cover, was an improvement on Scott’s original design, but still nowhere close to professional or polished.

Next time I will critique its considerable flaws and show what I’m working on for an improved design.


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