Self-publishing is all the rage right now. There’s no denying it. Not when we have people like EL James, John Locke, Amanda Hocking and countless others seemingly coming out of nowhere. Some authors are obviously more successful than others but looking at that list, they all had one thing in common that I can see right away. Pretty damn good covers. Not always, but certainly better than some of the other trashy stuff I’ve seen out there.
Working in a bookstore I see a lot of covers on a daily basis. Some great, some so so, some god awful. Typically the self-published ones are the worst though. Everyone’s heard the phrase, ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ Well, I do it every goddamn day. And I watch others do it too. I’ve always been fascinated with what causes a customer to pick up a book. Is it the colours, the text, the composition, the subject matter, the author? There’s so many variables.
I’ve designed covers. Lately I’ve been designing covers for horror author Gord Rollo. I’ve recently launched my own small press publishing company called EnemyOne and Gord is one of my authors. One of the first things I discussed with Gord was re-branding his books. Now don’t get me wrong, some of his covers were pretty damn good. A quick look at Google Images will give you some examples.
Some pros I could see right away were that his name was large, at the top, and the subject matter matched the tone of his books. Not a lot of cons from me really except that we couldn’t use them. One, we didn’t have the art files and two, we didn’t have permission.
If you’ve been published before and are venturing into self-publishing now — maybe on Kindle, you’ll be faced with similar problems. Look at it as a good thing! This is your chance to re-brand. And not only that, but re-brand consistently. One of my, and most of my co-workers might I add, pet peeves is books that match. We love consistency. We love our books to have similar spines. Same fonts. Text aligning in the same spots. I know the comic book geeks are nodding their heads right now. (Marvel trades and HCs anyone?)
We are absolutely anal about this stuff. I’m not kiddin’. There’s a large majority of us that refuse to buy physical objects when they don’t match. Are we crazy? Probably. But, the point is people love consistency and people love to collect as well. When objects start looking similar to one another, they can form a collection. People will want to collect them all.
5 Tips for a Great Cover
Consistency – As I’ve already mentioned consistency can help your branding immensely. There have been times where I’ve been able to spot an author’s book from 15 feet away. I’m sure you’re no different. James Patterson anyone? Stephen King is another depending on the print run. But how does that help you in the digital world you might ask? Why don’t we jump to Amazon for that. In the screenshot below you’ll notice exactly what I’m referring to and why it works.
The red arrows designate what I want you to look at. You’ll notice at quick glance that his author name and book title are virtually the same size in every single cover design. They may change in their alignment but if you were to drop them over top of one another I bet that they’re the same font size. It’s also the same font. To me, this makes the most sense. You can tell these books are connected.
As I’m browsing through Amazon as a customer, I’ll subconsciously pick up on this. The design will call out to me with a “hey, haven’t I seen somethin’ like this before…” and I don’t mean in a bad way.
Another author that uses this very well is Diane Capri and her Jack Reacher series. The same skills are being used on her cover as well, even more so. It’s very precise with the author name at top, title at bottom, in the exact same spot on every book cover. I’ve been using this formula for Gord’s books as well. To be honest I didn’t think he would be as adventurous as Ray Banks in his covers so I opted not to try those sorts of designs on him. If they were my own books, I probably would have experimented though. I love uniformity but I’m also much more experimental and willing to try new, creative ideas.
I’ll throw one more example of Diane’s covers at the end of this post that follow these same sorts of rules although the execution isn’t quite up to snuff in my opinion. The choice of imagery leaves a lot to be desired.
Legibility/Clarity – If you’re self-publishing on Kindle/Kobo/Nook etc. this should probably rank #1 on your priority list! I’ve seen far, far, far too many covers that can’t even land this basic point. You’re an author, yeah? You want people to know you wrote somethin’, yeah? Tell me, dear author, what the title of your book is then or hell, what’s your name?
I could be here all night with examples so I’ll just stop now. And yes, that last one is someone’s cover on Kindle right now. No title, no name, not even the right size no less…. who the fuck knows what it is…
The reason this should rank high on your priority list as an author is quite easy to see I think. These images are taken directly from Amazon at the size they’re displayed while browsing on the site. I’ll write that one more time just in case you didn’t understand — when you browse Amazon, your cover is tiny. Unless you click it that is, to make it bigger. But most shoppers don’t go around clicking and opening/closing every single goddamn thing.
So tell me, dear author — why should I be inclined to click your cover to read more about your book when your cover just looks like a big ol’ mess of colours. (Example 2) A proper cover should speak to you, compel you to investigate further but most of all as far as this point is concerned, we should know what we’re looking at! Make it easy for us. Be clear. Be concise. But most of all, be proud to put your name on the thing.
I’ll say one last point on this — avoid calligraphy fonts or handwriting fonts or whatever you want to call them. They’re too hard to read. They may look nice and pretty but they don’t help you. They only hurt your cover’s clarity.
Tone/Mood – Is your book a mystery? A horror novel? A comedy? Erotica?
I think we can all agree that these are all very different things. Just like movie posters, your cover must set the mood or tone for what you’re trying to sell the reader. There are definitely times where this might get a little murky but for the most part you’ll want to provide the reader with something that they can visually interpret as being one sort of thing. The last thing you’d want to do is sell someone on your book and have them be surprised or shocked to find it’s an erotic novel when you’ve got I dunno… an axe-wielding clown on the cover. (Unless you’re into that sort of thing?)
Colour can play a role in this as well. Take the following as an example. That book is titled ‘Chilled’ and its described as thus:
“As a forensic nurse on a search and rescue team, Brynn Nealey braves a dangerous blizzard to find the survivors of a plane crash in the Cascade Mountains. Joining her is Alex Kinton, a former US marshal with self-destructive tendencies. Alex lies his way onto Brynn’s team to find the man who killed his brother—and then administer his own brand of vigilante justice. But once the team members reach the plane’s wreckage, they discover everyone aboard has perished…except for the man Alex is hunting. Alex will do whatever it takes to track his target through the vast, snowy wilderness.”
The book is listed under Mystery/Thriller and Romantic Suspense and if I were to judge it by its cover I would agree with that assessment. The title is a little cliche or hokey but when you combine all of the associating factors it’s hitting the nail right on the head. The blue tint, the mysterious woman’s eyes, the font choice — it’s damn near perfect. Looks like it’s one of Amazon’s publishing imprints too. Go figure.
Focus– A cover should have a focal point. This is something you may be trying to draw attention to or something that you want to highlight to the prospective reader. If you refer back to my own cover for Valley of the Scarecrow, I created this focal point using gradients and shadows. I wanted to give the cover a timely sort of feel. Something that harkened back to the days of Hitchcock or Twilight Zone. The blackness closing in gives it that extra focus that causes the eye to zoom in on the scarecrow who in turn is highlighted by the pop of white in the storm clouds in behind him.
Now I could have focused more on the storm and had all kinds of rain, lightning and such going on in the entire background but what purpose would that have served? I don’t want the reader/viewer to be staring at the sky. I want them in theory to look at the author’s name, come down to the scarecrow and then down further to the title in one fell swoop. That’s also why Gord’s name and the book title are highlighted in grey and not with the shadows laid over top of them. They now pop from the darkness. That would again, go back to point #2 with legibility and clarity.
The ‘Chilled’ example from above also utilizes this very well. We’re drawn to her eyes right away and the font pops from the background.
So last but certainly not least —
Image Selection – This would be what you actually decide to put on your cover. Sooo many people fail at this. I’m sorry, but they do. For an easy example, scroll back up top to the Ray Banks example. (The one I commented with the WTF) Now in Ray’s defense, that’s not really one of his books. It’s some sort of anthology featuring a story by him and several different authors but that thing is atrocious. It would give any artist nightmares just looking at that thing. I’m sure you would agree.
There’s actually all kinds of problems with it besides just the image — the font choice, the lame borders or decorative elements or whatever the f those are… the curved arc of text, the colour scheme. It’s just one, big, steaming pile.
I would not touch this thing. It wouldn’t matter how good the stories are inside to me…. That cover would keep me away. I would not want to see that thing on my iPad, plain and simple. Sorry.
Both are Horror novels. In defense of the second one, it is about a father mourning the loss of his child but… really? A stuffed elephant on the cover of a horror novel? That conjures images of fear, suspense or madness? I don’t know… maybe it’s just me.
When you’re finally settling on choosing your image to be used on your book cover, it’s important to pick something that makes sense. Something that resonates with people. Something that people can associate with… there’s a reason Romance and Erotica novels usually have scantily clad men on the covers right? Sex sells.
Horror to me would be — disturbing, mysterious, ominous, frightening, scary… those sorts of words. You don’t want to put something on your cover that gives readers pause and question why something is there in the first place. Asking maybe if it’s a joke? Is this a comedy? A parody?
God, this post is running long! Alright, let’s wrap this up.
Special Bonus Tip: Avoid the Fancy Photoshop Tools!
You may know what they are, you may not — but don’t go crazy with the fancy text fonts, lens flares, gradients, filters or what have you! All you end up doing is creating a mess and making your cover design resemble something from the early 90s. You can use those things if you know what you’re doing but apparently not everyone does. So for those of you that don’t usually use those programs on a regular basis, please just stop.
The worst part? She paid anywhere from $30 dollars to $350 for that piece of you know what. I won’t name the guilty party though.
Feel free to give me your rebuttals or remind me if I left something out. And I might as well point out, you want a cover? Let’s talk, we can probably work somethin’ out. Contact button located at top of site.
Here’s that other Capri image:
Now that I think about it that elephant does look kind of scary though doesn’t he?