As we know, people do judge a book by its cover. This has been one of the challenges of self-publishing—even someone who is an excellent writer may have no clue about cover design. A year ago, people familiar with the Kindle self-publishing revolution often noted that many self published e-books had terrible covers. (In a way, this was an advantage to the potential reader, since a bad cover often meant the author hadn’t taken the time to properly edit and proofread the text, either.)
Now the importance of a good cover is so well known that most self-published authors hire a designer. In my recent visits to the Kindle discussion boards, I noticed that the majority of “indie” published books had covers which were reasonably well-designed and appropriate for the content. I saw a few exceptions, like a romance set in Australia where the cover was a photo of dull scenery that didn’t even look Australian, but overall, self-published authors have recognized that they need to spend time and/or money on their covers.
So is this a disadvantage of self-publishing? If you go with a traditional publisher, they’ll take care of all that kind of thing with their expert staff, and you won’t have to pay for it upfront. That’s better, right?
Well, it’s easier, but you are also at the mercy of the design department. I know a lot of wonderful art directors, and they work hard and take their work seriously, but that doesn’t mean every cover released is brilliant. They face a lot of pressure from the chain bookstore reps—if the Barnes & Noble buyer says he doesn’t like a cover, typically that cover isn’t used. But of course, the buyer hasn’t actually read the book. Quite possibly the design department hasn’t either.
I have a friend with a new novel coming out, and the cover is beautiful—except that it makes the book look like a romance novel, which it isn’t. When the author pointed out that all of her friends and students thought the cover looked like a romance, the editor dismissed her concerns—the marketing department loved it! Maybe that cover will sell the book, and maybe readers will love the story... but maybe they’ll be disappointed and feel cheated because it wasn’t what they were expecting.
Barry Eisler, who recently made news by turning down a half-million dollar traditional publishing deal in order to self publish, posted complaints about a horrible cover one of his publishers used, then offered an intelligent guideline for brainstorming cover ideas (scroll down about halfway through the article for his complete advice). Here are some of his tips for designing a good cover, directed at the publisher’s design department:
“You need to start by asking yourself what *you* liked about the book. Why did you buy the publishing rights? What about the book made it special to you? Why are you excited about it, what moved you, what do you talk about when you talk about the book? If you like, you can approach this step instead by trying to articulate to a imaginary customer why he or she would like the book, find it exciting and satisfying, etc.
“Next, once you’ve articulated these things and refined them, list them, in order of importance.
“Third, try to identify imagery that suggests these things. You can do this yourself, or through a design firm to whom you’ve conveyed the list above (but don’t outsource the creation of the list itself. You might wind up with… well, with a picture of an olive-hued garage door). The imagery you or the designer selects will form the basis for the cover.
“Finally, pressure check the proposed cover by asking the question I mention above…”
If you decide to self-publish, it’s worth hiring a professional designer. For many cover types you may get away with inexpensive stock photography, and you should be able to find a capable designer for $200 or $300. Some genres are more challenging, such as fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, where you most likely won’t be able to just use photos. Some fabulous artists do work for around $500, and you might be able to find someone who is less expensive because they are just starting out. But make sure you go with a professional, and make sure you understand what you’re getting—complete cover design, or just illustration?
I hired painter/illustrator/graphic designer Lois Bradley to do my covers for Rattled and The Eyes of Pharaoh. I have an art background (BFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design), and my husband is a graphic designer. Between us, we had a pretty good grasp of things, but I also did market research with my critique group and by posting different cover designs on Facebook and asking for feedback. We considered every aspect of the design, from the background color and texture to the font type, size and placement to the appearance of the character.
For Rattled, I chose to go with something different from most romantic suspense novels, because I didn’t like the traditionally published examples I was finding (mostly naked torsos with a color wash turning everything a murky blue, red, or purple). This is a gamble, since readers familiar with the genre might not immediately recognize that this book is a romantic suspense, but on the other hand, my title might stand out against all those bland copycats. Also, because my book is heavy on the action and light on the sex, I think my cover gives a better suggestion of the content.
Cover design: just one of the many aspects of self publishing an author has to consider. With self-publishing, you get control, which is both a burden and a freedom. Whether or not you are considering this journey for yourself, you might find it interesting to start studying covers more closely. Which covers do you like best, and why? Which do you like least, and why? What promises do the cover make about the book? Does the book fulfill those promises? How might you have done things differently?