Book Cover Design: Getting it RIGHT

I have a unique perspective on book cover design because I have seen both sides of the coin. I have designed many covers, and have also worked with a designer for my own cover when Fire of the Sea was published (I wanted to focus on writing and editing, rather than designing my own over). I've been a graphic designer and illustrator now for over 15 years, and have been seriously writing for just over five year. And one thing is certain: book cover design makes ALL the difference in a book's success! 

I've put together a bit of a quick-start guide to help authors navigate the world of cover design, and decide which option is the best for their personal publishing journey.

It's no secret that book covers make a huge impact. Your book cover's MAIN PURPOSE is to generate excitement and interest for your book. Your genre needs to be represented in your cover, and it should easily convey tone and theme at a glance. Whether you will be designing the cover yourself,  hiring a freelance artist, or working with a publisher, it's best to have an idea of what needs to be conveyed in your cover.

First, boil it down to motivation, incentive and emotion. What is your book all about? What is the MOST important theme or concept that you would like your cover to express? This will help you come up with lots of ideas and choices for imagery, color palette, typography, and layout. 

Before you begin, know what kills a cover. Bad typography, terrible stock photography, dated or overdone color combos all destroy a book’s visual credibility. You have all seen them. You can pick them out of a crowd in a heartbeat. And they often scream "self published." And in an era where a self published author can gain immense success, it is even more important to pair a dynamite cover design with that manuscript! It gives an author instant credibility. Let's face it. We are ALL judging a book by its cover.

You will also need to consider the cost of stock photography. Do NOT steal artwork. It's not only bad form, but it's illegal. I have posted resources for great stock photography at the bottom of this post (with some free options, as well). If you find an image on the web, and it's high resolution, you might need to gain permission from the original artist or photographer. There is a 25% rule that allows a photo or design to be altered 25% in order to be legally used without payment or permission. But I would proceed with caution in this arena. I once had Gap, Inc. call the scrapbook company I worked for demanding a cease and desist because the lime pattern I had created was mistakenly too similar to Piperlime's logo. I had to alter the shade of green, and add a few more spokes to the starburst in the center of the lime. It was an easy fix, but a lot of hassle! So be mindful.

Getting Started
I want to talk a little about the three levels of book cover design: D.I.Y. (design it yourself), hiring a freelance designer/illustrator/artist, and working with a publisher. Going into any of these situations, be prepared. Scour the internet for covers. Go to libraries or bookstores to see what stands out in your genre. Search for some initial cover or stock photo examples. Consider the type of cover that might best represent your story. Is it character-driven? Theme-driven? Typography-driven? Having a flexible idea will help the process!

D.I.Y Design
Proceed at your own risk! :) You will absolutely need to have some level of proficiency in design software. Tools to consider are Adobe's Creative Suite (InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop). Photoshop Elements can be a decent program for intermediate designers who don't want to purchase the full version of Photoshop. I DO NOT recommend designing a cover yourself if you are a beginner in these programs. Also keep in mind that if you are self-publishing, and self-designing, you will need to feel comfortable enough to work with the software to design the book's interior, as well. And services like Amazon's Create Space will also require formatting and uploading. A few quick Dos and Don'ts:
DO make your title big and bold (or at least quite prominent). The best book covers, particularly those that are going to be seen as thumbnails on a computer screen, as well as in a bookshop in hard copy, should have a prominent, easy-to-read title and author name on them. This makes it much easier for the reader to identify the book.
DON’T try to illustrate every theme/character.
DO focus on the main theme within your genre when envisioning design concepts.
DON'T go font crazy Instead, choose simple, easy to read fonts that are classic and enhance/compliment the design/theme.
DO make a mood board! Find out what resonates with you, and what conveys the essence of your story. You will move ahead with the design process in a more prepared and mindful state.
DON'T wing it. Look for online tutorials if your design skills are lacking.
DO consider hiring a great cover artist or designer if you feel a little out of your depth. 

Working with a freelance designer
Choose carefully! Make sure they have designed covers in your genre. Do you like many of their designs? Email them. How is your communication? Make sure you are prepared to offer design samples/inspiration of covers that have designs you like, and also designs that would represent your book's theme well. There will be a lot of back and forth. Make sure there isn’t a low cap on the number of revisions, because you might be caught shelling out overtime fees. Get recommendations from other authors or friends. Consider the designer's workload. Do they have a huge portfolio with hundreds of covers? If so, ask what their turnaround time looks like. You don't want to get stuck with a designer who is potentially overcommitted. And don't always choose the designer with the lowest price! Pay for quality, and that's is what you will get 90% of the time. You might also consider a PRE-MADE cover if you are on a budget, and are flexible on your cover design. I have listed resources for all of these below. To view my own personal cover designs and prices, click here.

Working with a publisher
There are pros and cons when working with a publisher. For starters, they have read your manuscripts multiple times, and know the ins-and-outs of your book or series. This can be a wonderful advantage over a designer who has merely read a blurb, and is going of your suggestions. Your publisher will be your advocate with the designer, and can offer a fresh and seasoned perspective. But they will also have a vision for this cover. Come prepared to share specific cover inspiration examples (and possibly color and font choices) that resonate with you and best represent your book. But also understand that a publisher has the ultimate final say. Depending on the size of the publishing house, you will have varying levels of involvement and feedback on your cover design. Remember that a calm, open, flexible author will always get farther than one who holds on to a headstrong vision. Be prepared to let go a bit. Compromise can often produce a cover that is even better (and ultimately more effective at selling your book) than you could have envisioned on your own. Remember that your publisher will know your current market better than anyone else. They know what is selling, and what has been over used. So trust them! They are your ally.

During the revision process
You will be excited to share your new designs, but resist the urge to show all initial versions of your cover design with everyone you know. Test your cover against other covers first. Print out a copy, take it to the library or bookshelf in your genre. Does it fit in? Does it stand out in a good way? Make or request changes accordingly. When you are in the final rounds, test your cover with your TARGET AUDIENCE. Don't test a racy romance cover with your sweet grandma...unless she loves racy romances! ;) 

If things are going downhill
Maybe your publisher isn't all that you had hoped for. Maybe your designer is taking an eternity. Maybe you just hate all the designs, and you are getting that pit in your author stomach... Take a breath, and don't overreact. I understand. This is your baby. You have a vision. You wan't the best cover possible. Shed a tear if you must, and then move forward. The best course of action is GOOD COMMUNICATION. A well-worded, sincere/candid email or phone call will almost always turn things in the right direction. Be firm but not forceful. Know your contract if you are truly unhappy. Ask your designer what their satisfaction policy is ahead of time. Make sure you have an alternative route within the parameters of your contract or agreement, and in the worst case scenario, make sure you have an escape hatch. This is a rare occurrence, however. Most cover conflict can find a happy resolution. By simply being prepared, flexible, and willing to communicate, you should be just fine.

Once you have a final cover
SHARE with pride! Have a big cover reveal! Drum up excitement and anticipation! If you had to bend a bit in a collaboration, don't apologize for your cover if it isn't exactly what you envisioned. If your publisher and target audience are responding strongly, so will your supporters. So share it loud and proud, and then go forth with your promotional efforts (that's a post for another day).

I hope this has been helpful! Feel free to leave comments below with any questions you might have, or email me at lyndsayjohnson@gmail.com to inquire about my book cover design and map illustration services! Keep reading for a list of more resources.

Self Publishing and Design

Online Design Classes

Free stock photos

Royalty free photos (paid subscriptions or single use)

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