Today I was invited to speak on a cover design panel at the Romance Writers of South Africa annual conference. It was a surreal moment because it brought back all the memories of when I first started learning about covers and all the questions I had then. So here’s a summary of what I wish I’d known in hopes that it’s useful for you now.
People do judge a book by its cover
Choosing a book to read is not a logical choice, it’s an emotional choice. James McQuivey has an excellent video presentation on how emotions influence all of our decisions, which I highly recommend as it will also be useful when it comes to marketing your books.
It’s not just about having a good cover that’s professionally made, it’s about having a cover that communicates the right emotion straight into the heart of your desired reader.
Common mistakes authors make:
They know that a cover is an investment and they’re willing to pay good money for one… but they pay someone who isn’t a cover designer to make the cover.
They pay for a painting that they think is beautiful and ask that person to layout the text. They ask a brother/sister/friend who does tattoos/corporate graphic design/went to art school to do it for them as a favour. The reason this doesn’t work is because covers are a unique visual language. A cover can look beautiful without communicating the right thing.
They can’t afford to pay someone for the cover so they do it themselves… without knowing how.
Making your own cover is fine if you’re prepared to learn how to do it properly. My mantra when it comes to all things book related is you can either pay with money or time. If you’re not prepared to pay someone to do something at a professional level for you, then you have to develop professional-level skills yourself. There are free tools like Canva, Crello and Kindle Cover Creator that allow you to create covers with a couple of clicks. But there’s more to a good cover than choosing a nice picture and putting in your text. You have to understand how colour works (what it communicates, how colours affect each other, the way colour can be used to fool or guide the eye), you have to understand composition (how to lay out elements on a page in a way that looks pleasing to the eye), you have to understand texture (when and where to use it), blend modes (when and where to use them) and typography, to name a few things. Those tools work best for designs you don’t need to customise a lot – like social media images or posters. But with a cover, you want yours to look both unique and professional and that’s very difficult to achieve with free tools unless you know what you’re doing.
They commission a great cover… for the wrong genre.
I’d like to use ballet as an analogy. I didn’t understand ballet for the longest time, but I got really into it during lockdown. Why? Because I finally understood that the fantasy wasn’t in the story. Some ballets are very light on story. The fantasy is in the way ballet makes you feel. Ballet without that is just gymnastics set to music. What makes Swan Lake so special isn’t the story about a girl who gets turned into a swan and the prince that gets tricked by the evil wizard, it’s the combination of the haunting music, the moody lighting and the way the dancers move. It’s magical.
So, back to covers. If you have written a Swan Lake, it doesn’t matter how skilled your artist is if they’re advertising Hamilton. If people arrive at your book expecting a modern rap epic about the founding of America and get a ballet, they’re not going to be happy. It doesn’t matter if you absolutely love the combo of gold and black with fierce silhouettes. Your personal taste is not what’s going to sell the book.
That’s not to say that your cover has to look the same as every other cover in the genre, but it should use some elements that communicate the right emotion to your reader. A romantic comedy is not going to have a dark brooding boy on the front. A sweet romance is not going to have a bare chest. And an erotic gay romance? Is totally going to have a bare chest. It’s about using the combo of colour, typography and imagery the way that ballet uses music, lighting and dance, to make your reader feel the way you want them to. It’s saying, “this book will make you feel this way so step right up and grab it”.
If you’re writing a book for your family and friends and have no intention to sell it, none of this matters. If you do want to make money from writing, then you have to treat it like a business, which means you will have expenditure alongside your income. I say this because I think a lot of indie authors feel guilty about spending money on their books. Society tells you that it’s just a hobby and you want to make money to prove to them that it’s not. (We’ve all been there). But it’s very difficult to make money in this world without spending money. It’s okay to invest money in paying someone else for their knowledge and skills to help get your business off the ground. Alternatively, pull a Tallulah and teach yourself how to make the best covers for your own books. Just remember to give yourself permission to take time learning how to do it right.
You won't get the exact image in your head to work on paper
Brains are marvellous and strange things. If you have a visual imagination (not everyone does), then you probably feel like you can “see” how a specific scene or character in your book looks.
The thing is, you can’t. Your brain isn’t actually using your eyes to see. That means it doesn’t have the same limits as your eyes.
I’d like you to picture something for a moment. Picture an epic battle. Picture golden text across the top of it. Picture your main character standing in the foreground of the battle being brave and daring. Picture the colour of their shirt. Picture a dragon in the background breathing fire. You can probably also see the castle that the dragon’s protecting, can’t you?
There is absolutely no way for your eye to see all of those things at once. No way. Your mind can, your eye can’t. I know, it sucks.
A cover is an “at once” kind of image (until we have animated ones like in Harry Potter) so you’re limited by what your eye can take in at once.
When you come to a designer with an idea for a cover based on a specific scene, you have to be aware that the mind’s eye can handle a lot more information than the eye eye can at once. A cover is limited by the eye eye.
So in the example above, that might mean removing the people fighting, putting the dragon way in the background and leaving the sky open for the text. You can use font and colour to communicate how epic the scene is. Or you can do away with the scene all together and take another approach.
Your approach will also be limited by your budget and the skills of your designer. The more you’re willing to spend, the closer you can get to what you have in your head. An affordable designer will be limited by stock images. A more expensive designer will be able to combine or paint over stock images. If you have more money to spend, you could arrange a custom photoshoot or commission an illustrator from somewhere like DeviantArt. Just be careful you don’t run into problem #2 above. It’s always best to consult with a cover designer before hiring an illustrator to make sure there’s adequate space for the text and that the cover will be well composed.
Your designer isn't a mind reader
If your eyes can’t see what your mind does, there’s no way your designer can. They’re not even connected to the telescope.
While there are design mistakes that are considered bad, there’s no universal idea of good. Design is subjective and your designer has no idea what type of thing you like or don’t like unless you tell us. We want to know. We want you to be happy with your cover.
Even though we’ll nudge you in the direction of something that’s marketable, if there’s a particular aspect of covers in your sub-genre that you don’t like, you need to tell us. A good designer will be able to find a way to communicate the genre without shoving you completely out of your comfort zone.
When it comes to giving feedback on the initial concept or first draft of a cover, try to be as specific as possible, even if it means you have to go away and think for a bit. Not helpful:
- Can you make it pop more?
- Can we try some different fonts?
- I don’t want my cover to be cliched
- Surprise me! (Unless you really are 100% open to anything, which few people are).
- I’m concerned that it isn’t bright enough to stand out in thumbnail form
- I don’t think the font matches the mood of the book, what about something more like (*Attaches sample cover)
- I’m worried that my cover is going to disappear in its category if its too similar. Can you make it more unique but still marketable?
- I’m not entirely sure what I want, but the book has this sort of vibe and is in this genre. I don’t like x, y, z on covers.
The most difficult part of a design is typography
Pop quiz! Do you know what these words mean?
- Typeface vs font
- Condensed face
Typography is a lot more complicated than most people realise and there’s no quick and easy way to learn it, you have to develop a feel for it. For example, kerning is the space between letters. On most covers, letters are far more spaced out than in other contexts, but you probably didn’t notice that before unless you were specifically looking for it.
Typefaces also have different personalities. I remember the first time someone told me a font was “friendly” I thought they’d lost the plot. The personality of your typeface needs to match the personality of your book and the typefaces on your cover have to have the same or similar personalities.
Then there’s the way you style it. If you’re struggling to make the text stand out from the background, you can’t just add a glow or a drop shadow. A glow can ruin the mood of the cover and look tacky, a drop shadow can make the cover look dirty.
Understanding copyright and licensing
You probably know that you can’t just google or search Pinterest for an image and use it on your cover. That’s stealing. Someone took the image or drew it and they need to get paid for their work. You could find the image on google or Pinterest, track down the original photographer/artist and ask how much they’d charge to let you use the image on your cover or… you could visit a website specifically designed for the purpose of connecting photographers and artists with people who want to pay to use their work.
Enter: the stock website. There are tons of different ones but the basic concept is this: You pay a fee and download an image to use. You are not paying to buy the image. You are paying for permission to use it. This means that you have non-exclusive rights to it and someone else is welcome to also download the image and use it.
There are some stock sites that sell exclusive rights but they are usually very expensive, which makes sense. If a photographer can sell the rights multiple times, then they can charge a smaller fee that adds up to an amount that covers their own costs and pays for their time and skill eventually. If a photographer can only sell the rights once, then that one sale has to cover all of that. It may be more affordable to hire your own photographer or get an illustration instead.
The use of stock images does have restrictions. Usually there’s a limit on the amount of items you can sell with the image, the amount of times you can use the image and what you use the image for. Every stock site is different, but your designer will be familiar with the rules. This will impact what they’re willing or unwilling to do for you.
There are free stock sites out there and generally it’s okay to use the images that aren’t of people. Why not people? Simple: Everyone owns the copyright to their own body. That means that if someone uses an image of you without your permission, you can sue them. On the free stock sites, there’s no guarantee that the model signed a “model release” granting the photographer rights to sell pictures of them.
Licenses are often granted either on single use or single seat. This means either the license is for this particular project or one particular designer. As a result, designers often have a clause in their Ts & Cs forbidding you from using the design for anything other than the cover. It’s not that we’re against you doing merch, you just need to ensure you have all the right licenses in place.
There are other releases you need to be aware of. You can’t use pictures of someone’s home without permission and some buildings are also copyrighted. You can’t use brand logos. But don’t worry, if you’re using a professional cover designer, they’ll already have all this knowledge to ensure you don’t get in trouble.
Cover designers also own the copyright for their work and will provide different licenses to you. The standard is that you’re allowed to use it for this book cover and this book cover only. Many do not allow you to modify the cover at all, so if you need to change the text you need to go through them. Some also have stipulations about what elements you’re allowed to use in future books in the series, especially if you ask another designer to take on the work. A rule of thumb is to only use the cover for what you discussed with your designer and to ask them if you want to use it for anything else.
Series covers are a different beast
It’s best to decide whether a book is going to be a standalone or the start of a series before you commission a cover. For a few reasons:
- Your designer might offer a discount for a series
- Series should have a cohesiveness. This can mean using the same background, same fonts, same colours, the same layout or any combo of the above. It’s easiest to organise this if you plan in advance
- Amazon requires that you put the series number on the cover if you want to list the book in a series on the site. This means it should be on book 1 from the start, or you may have to pay to add it. Worse, it could mess up your design if there’s no good space for it.
If you do end up with a surprise series, don’t worry. It happens more often than you think and designers often offer discounts for future books in a series because they can reuse elements from the first. It’s polite to ask permission from the designer of book 1 if you want to get someone else to do book 2, but most of us don’t mind.