A book cover is important. When so much work and love has gone into your manuscript, you want to put a nice big ribbon on it. With so many books vying for reader attention, why would you risk a cover that doesn’t do its job properly?
At the end of this post, I have some links to articles with examples of covers and why they work (or don’t work), and also some resources of well-priced cover designers.
Some of these points might sound simple, they certainly did to me, but I actually caught myself in the middle of making a mistake (which I will detail here to illustrate how easily a mistake can be made).
1. The title of your book should create interest and reflect the story
The most relevant title might not be the best one to use. Be wary of using titles that have no meaning until the reader gets a portion of the way through the book. Made up words are great when used well (think: Jabberwocky), long titles are great when hooking interest (think: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and sometimes cliches can be made to work for you as long as they are appropriate for your story genre (think: Racing Hearts, Bullet Proof, Howl of the Beast). By those examples you would’ve thought of the genre they suit. Imagine if ‘Racing Hearts’ was an action story for adrenalin junkies. It works for that, but it might attract romance readers. I imagine they might be disappointed with what they find in the pages: “Why is the hero so unlovable? Why does she care more about base-jumping than smooching with that man?” and what if your action readers have a look and assume by the title it’s a romance. They won’t even read your blurb. See what I’m getting at? This was the type of mistake I’d made for a short story (turning into a novella) initially titled ‘Dungoora‘ which was the name of the outback town I’d set it in. As far as titles go it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. I then compounded on my mistake by choosing the wrong cover image.
2. The cover image should set the mood and be relevant to the story
Much like the title, the image is supposed to make a promise. Use an image that feels right at home with the story but take care that you’re still making the right kind of promise. If ‘Racing Hearts‘ had a picture of mountain-climbers on the cover or people jumping out of an aeroplane, then it’s unlikely readers will assume it’s a romance. The title and image work together to make the right kind of promise and sets the right mood. Think of the original Twilight cover – pale hands coming out of the shadows to offer a red apple. It doesn’t give the vampire thing away but it does create intrigue and mystery. It’s a hook and it sets the mood.
Here is where the mistake can be made unwittingly: Using my example of Dungoora, I’d used an Aboriginal dot painting as the cover to go with the title. It looked really groovy, and the painting was also supposed to represent ‘strangers’. The cover looked very pretty but then I realised it was the wrong kind of promise. I was writing a speculative fiction tale, which centred on a secret that the whole town was in on. An Aboriginal painting–no matter how lovely–did not translate that. I sought a new image and landed on a beautiful photograph of an outback country town setting at sunset. It was gorgeous, with silhouettes against a fantastic burning sky. It made for a fantastic cover but then I realised I was still promising the wrong kind of story to the wrong kind of reader. It didn’t matter how nice it looked, I was going to attract readers of Australiana to it. I imagined once they started reading it they’d think “what is this crazy stuff?”. Not only that but I would be turning away all my speculative fiction fans, the readers who would enjoy this kind of story. I was so focussed on how professional/gorgeous the cover was that I was ignoring the whole point of this cover’s job. To attract my target market to the story. I’m now using a photograph that although isn’t as artistic as the burning sunset image but certainly pitches to the correct audience–and a cover that brings the right readers to your story is the only thing that you should think about. (I also changed Dungoora to Second Life).
Be aware of the drawbacks of using stock images for your book covers however. It’s very possible that there will be other books using the same image on their covers, which can lower the credibility and value of yours when discovered. I have decided to take that risk due to my wanting to keep my initial costs down until I start earning a profit (however small it may be). I’m collecting a wishlist of artists that I would like to hire for my later book covers, but I will probably continue using stock images for my short stories. If you can doctor an image well or use a few different ones (like the one shown below), that would lower your chances incredibly of having a similar/same cover to another writer.
3. Keep your fonts simple
Please don’t use font effects. Unless you’re a graphic artist or designer then keeping it simple is the best thing you can do. The best fonts to use are readable. It’s better to use a boring, legible font than a scribbly or very thin font that’s hard to read. Mixing fonts without having an eye for it can also land you in trouble. You have one glance to make an impression, and the cover + title are supposed to work together to capture interest. Keep in mind your digital cover will represent your book as a small icon on bookseller websites like Amazon. When you use shadows and highlights and other fancy effects it not only makes the font harder to read but may also cause your book to look unprofessional. Readers don’t care if you’re traditional or indie-published, but they do care about quality and the cover represents what’s inside. Play it safe and let the cover image speak for you. When it comes to presenting your author name, it’s a good idea to use the same or a simple font and be clear but modest about who wrote the book. Hubris in large letters overshadowing the title won’t sell your book until you get a decent following.
If your picture is a very bright and cluttered one, or no font colour seems to work on it, a band of colour, lowlight or highlight can make your title legible. Look at Kristin Harmel’s book ‘After‘ as an example of a light transparent banner to both draw the eye to the title as well as separate it from the clutter of the florals. It would be hard to read without it. Notice that Kristin’s name is also on a coloured banner, because the background pattern demands it.
4. Use negative space
Don’t clutter your cover with lots of words and pictures. If you choose one strong image it’s enough. Anything else you add will fight against it for attention. Keep the writing off the image as much as you can. In the Twilight cover, my eye first goes to the apple, then up to the title. That’s the natural line. For ‘After‘, my eye goes to the title first and then down to the pink clock.
5. Test your cover on people who will be honest with you
The real question you want to ask here is: “What do you think this book is about?” Ask them about the mood they anticipate too (i.e., lighthearted, gritty, etc). If most of them get the wrong message, find out what it is that makes them think that (cover or title or combination) and change it, no matter how much you love it. The message your create with your cover is the most important factor.
Cover Designers for hire (good value)
Paper and Sage (this business does not resell their pre-made designs and have a custom option available)
Yocla Designs (some lovely pre-made designs and a good price for custom)
Indie Book Launcher (they promise no stock photos are used)
Red Swallow Design (they use heavily re-worked stock photos at their lower price range and have great articles about book covers)