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Ten tips for better book covers

One of my jobs is managing correspondence for Kit Foster Design. After seeing many cover briefs from authors, I came up with an information packet we send out to streamline the design process and to avoid common pitfalls. Here are my suggestions for common issues to consider:

  1. Don’t try to tell your whole story with your cover. Cramming too many elements onto the cover makes the art busy and confuses more readers than it helps.
  1. Don’t try to tell the whole story with your back cover text.

Cover text isn’t usually more than a couple of hundred words. Have a look at the sales copy on the back of your favorite books in your genre. Writing sales copy is a different skill set than writing a novel. Invite reader interest and seduce them with a tease, not an info dump. Sales copy that is too long goes unread. Big blocks of text are intimidating and turn off the browsing public.

  1. A character or characters in your narrative do not have to match the look of the figures on the cover exactly. Covers are meant to convey lots of things (see #4) but the reader will not be checking the cover to make sure it’s a match once they’ve started reading your book. There’s a difference between a misleading image and being trying to match the vision in your head perfectly.
  1. Book cover designs are not just pretty pictures. They are designs meant to sell books. To sell, the cover design must convey several elements:

A. Fit the genre expectations. If a cover is too different from what readers expect of a genre, they become confused and browsers will not buy your book. They don’t give out points for originality in this regard so, sadly, a cover that is too weird doesn’t set your book apart. Browsers look for reasons not to buy and they don’t want books too far from their expectations.

B. Fit the age of the reader.  A design for an adult book that is too juvenile either won’t sell or you’ll attract the wrong readers. Better to have no readers than the wrong readers. If you attract the wrong readers, they’ll punish you with their reviews.

C. Fit the tone of your work. A horror novel looks like a horror novel by its images, font choice, and tone. Every genre has its tropes which tip off the reader as to what kind of reading experience to expect. The text must deliver on the promise the cover makes.

  1. Consider what your cover looks like at thumbnail size. Online catalogues present cover art at thumbnail size. Small details are often lost. This is of special concern if you are planning to publish an ebook only. Go for singular, epic or iconic themes, not background details no one will see without a magnifying glass.
  1. Some may disagree, but we do not recommend that you add a suggested retail price to your back cover of your printed book. That custom is a hold over from agency pricing. Bookstores better know at what price they can sell a book and they’ll be putting a sticker over your price, anyway (if you get into brick and mortar stores.) It is not required, limits your flexibility and adds to your production time if you want to change the price later.
  1. Rely on your designer for opinions on what works. Kit has held me back from mistakes and I’m grateful he saved me from myself. If you don’t like one of my covers from the past, undoubtedly it’s because I wasn’t getting the design from Kit Foster Design at the time.
  1. Plan your cover well ahead of your publication date. If you’re still writing the book, you are not entering into the design process too early. The authors who have the most trouble with their designs treat the cover art as an afterthought. Please try to avoid a rushed job and consider the face of your work carefully. 
  1. Occasionally clients will ask to use images that we cannot do. For instance, you can’t have Shaq or LeBron James or David Beckham on your cover without paying for it. Celebrities have brands that are protected and they demand high prices for the privilege of using their image for commercial purposes. This applies to trademarked images, such as corporate or team logos, too. Also, if you plan to merchandise (with t-shirt sales, for instance) that’s a higher level of image license. You’ll have to purchase that second tier level of licensing to use stock images for merchandise.

10. Ebooks with white covers need borders. Otherwise, the image floats in space in the catalogue and looks odd. Odd doesn’t sell. Paperback covers with borders are problematic because, due to the tiny shifts during the printing process, the border will print unevenly and appear off-center, even though it is correct in the design. Don’t use a border for your paperback.

~ I work at KitFosterDesign.com. I write books of various sorts of suspense, too. Underneath all this blood spattered armor, I’m a man child with Daddy issues, a boiling cauldron of rage and a sweet, gentle soul (of which we must never speak.) I’m Robert Chazz Chute at AllThatChazz.com.

You can read about that blood spattered armor and the dimension war for free in The Haunting Lessons, if you sign up for my newsletter here.


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Filed under: publishing

6 Responses

  1. acflory says:

    I’m just starting to think about covers now but what do you do with a serial in 5 episodes? I have an image in my head of the first cover, but I doubt I can reuse it for the other 4. And as you say, ebook only covers are problematic at the best of times.

    Anyway, this is a great post and I’m bookmarking it for the future. 🙂

    • rchazzchute says:

      For Robot Planet, I went with a different cover for each of the four episodes and then added the omnibus. (A box set instead of an omnibus is another way to go.)

      The key is to brand it by design in such a way that readers clue in that this is a series or serial. There are several ways to do that between text and design elements.

      Five different covers (with a common theme) is one way to go. Another is to use the same image but change the series tags and tints. I prefer different covers with the same theme. The less expensive approach is to use the same cover image but play with the colours and text.

      • acflory says:

        Thanks, Chazz. You’ve given me heaps to think about. This side of publishing seems to get harder not easier! Identity has become a major theme in the wip but how do you create a graphic for a concept? And no, that was just a rhetorical! 😀

  2. […] Source: Ten tips for better book covers […]

  3. As the author of 26 novels in various stages of production, and having done and reworked my book covers many times the last 16-years let me say this about book covers. Your cover is your brand. See comment about MIchael Crichton book covers here: http://spot-onbranding.com/we-all-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-but-why-part-2/
    When it comes to selling books, branding is key. Your brand is your signature.
    Secondly. KISS. Keep it simple- stupid!
    New career authors often try to cram too many images into a book cover. This may have worked back in the 70’s during the day of traditonal publishing and you were writing Matt Helm or James Bond books but today, it’s E-books baby, thumbnails. You want to find a single image that conveys what your book is about. See my cover for Bimini Road here: https://kilburnhall.wordpress.com/bimini-road-3/
    Unless you’re an uber author like James Patterson, Stephen King who have top of the line book cover artists who also, by the way, make $5000 per book cover, KISS. It’s the simplest, cheapest, best way to go.
    If you, like me, are not trained as an artist- there are plenty of book cover artists online who will charge you $500 to make sure the pixels, formatting etc are spot-on. Cheap price for a book that has ther potential to make you $80,000 in ebook sales alone. Good luck authors.

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