The Anatomy of A Book Cover

I know very little about cover design in a technical sense, but I know what I like, what I don’t, and that I should never attempt to do it myself.

Self-publishing, for me, is all about rolling up your sleeves and taking care of every little minute detail, but there are two areas where I would never attempt to go it alone: editing and cover design.

I have said many times on this blog that with a modicum of effort, a professional outlook, and a little bit of cash, self-publishers can match or exceed the production standards of New York.

The most powerful self-publishing tools cost nothing, and a digital self-publisher can produce work at the highest level only spending money in those two areas, so there is no reason to skimp on cover design.

As I have mentioned before, my long-suffering cover designer is my sister – it’s her day job, she works for a major publisher. She has been kindly donating her services to date, which has helped me greatly. And she’s good. Very good.

In fact, I think I’ve had more fan mail about the book covers than the stories themselves. I’m cool with that, as my friend JJ Toner would say, “she deserves all the acolytes”.

I thought it would be useful to show how one of my covers was put together from the first initial idea to the final finished design. I’m not going to speak in a technical sense, I don’t know how she does what she does. Instead, I’m going to lift the curtain and show the back-and-forth through the various mock-ups.

My sister has kindly allowed me to show the various stages of the design process. I should point out that none of these are complete designs. Often it’s a case of her trying out an idea and showing it to me, and plenty of little details are still left to clean up.

It’s the most efficient process for us. She can mock something up quickly, show me the direction she is going in, and I can agree or disagree, and in the latter case, not too much work is wasted.

There aren’t many designers who would publicly show how the sausage is made, so please save any criticisms for the final finished piece, anything else is unfair. The covers I’m showing here are not finished work, and would never normally be shown publicly. Consider them sketches.

Transfection was my second release. The first, If You Go Into The Woods had a great cover, really capturing the creepy fairytale vibe of the story, as well as the essence of the plot.

With Transfection, I wanted something very different. While it is normally a good approach to have similarities across your covers so a reader can immediately identify the story as one of yours, my situation was a little different.

For starters, strictly speaking, it was a different genre – old-school science fiction. I wanted readers to have a visual cue that the story would be written in a very different style too.

I sent my sister the blurb and the story, let her read both, and then sent my initial thoughts on the kind of cover I wanted. Usually, I start off looking at classic covers in the genre, move on to more modern ones, and then take a look at the bestseller charts.

I always keep in mind the limitations of an e-book cover. Most importantly, it must look good as a thumbnail, which usually means one arresting image and large type for the title and author name.

Since this story was essentially about one man’s obsessions leading the rest of his life off a cliff, I thought the cover should involve a compelling face, perhaps partially obscured, possibly involving a close-up of his eyes, hinting at some turmoil within.

I sent my sister this picture of a man peering over a wall, sent her some links of some old pulpy covers I liked, as well as some classic Penguin covers (bottom four), and some newer stuff.

Now that she knew the direction I wanted to go in, the first job was to find the right face. We both searched through the stock photo archives, and my sister sent a selection, from which I picked the face you see above.

I wanted to keep it simple, and suggested a nice clear font, big letters, with the title and author name across the middle.

As you can see, my sister went through several iterations, playing with font and color, washing out the image, obscuring part of the face, and even experimented with flipping the face over to make it whole (which was creepy, but too weird).

At this point, everything else was ready to go, and I just needed a cover. My first story was still selling well, and I was keen to capitalize on that with a fresh release.

I was pretty happy with the general design on the left, but after checking the bestseller charts again, I notice there was a lot of blue. That’s okay, it can be a genre cue, but there was one yellow cover that really jumped out, and I asked my sister to play with the idea.

Once she sent the mock-up of the next one down on the right (yellow title), I was pretty happy, and was pushing my sister to okay the design (she’s the boss). But she didn’t agree, and she felt we could do better, whereas I was anxious to begin uploading so it would go live in time for some promo I had planned.

She wanted to experiment with a different approach, try something completely new, just to make sure that we had exhausted all the alternatives. She felt we were settling, rather than pushing ourselves to do the best we could.

She was also due to fly off on holidays the next day, so if we didn’t nail it that night, I wasn’t sure when it would get done, and I was getting a little frantic (and perhaps a little pushy).

That never works with my sister. She dug her heels in. She wasn’t prepared to sign off on the cover I liked as she felt it wasn’t good enough. I thought we were letting the perfect become the enemy of the good, but after hearing her out, I relented.

She said she would come up with something on the plane, and mail it when she landed. I told her she was crazy to take her work on holidays, and that I was fine with this cover, and she could always replace it later if she wanted to improve it.

Lucky for me, my sister is a perfectionist, and wouldn’t budge. She came up with this one during the flight, and sent it to me with some excitement, but it left me cold. She thought I was crazy! So did two design friends.

That got me thinking.

I decided to do some crowdsourcing. I put both covers up on Twitter, Facebook, and Kindle Boards, asking for feedback.

My choice was more popular, but when I dissected the feedback I noticed two things. Those who preferred my sister’s choice were much more vociferous, and tended to be either design freaks,  science nuts, or SF fans.

One even said that my choice was “conservative” and looked like the memoirs of a CNN photojournalist.

That did it for me; I changed my mind. I took my sister’s design and asked her to change some of the elements that were throwing me off (such as the angle and color of the band), and incorporate some of the things I liked from my choice. As soon as she sent me a mock-up (from the the lobby of her hotel just before she dashed off to a Spanish wedding), I knew we had it.

So what did I learn from the process? Always listen to your designer. They are the professionals. Also, be nicer to your sister.

I knew the final cover wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but that didn’t matter so much as the people that liked it, loved it, and that’s the kind of passion you need to get noticed in the crowd.

Finally, I would highly recommend incorporating some element of crowdsourcing into decisions like this. I got great feedback – especially on Twitter – people who became engaged with the book on some level, and purchased it.

I hope you found this useful.

If so, I might do something similar from an editing perspective, showing how I went from initial half-sentence story idea, through self-editing and beta readers, when I decided it was “ready”, sending it to my copy editor, and what changes she suggested.

***

You will notice that I have made some subtle changes to the layout of this blog. The top navigation bar is completely different, and is now designed so that you have practical self-publishing advice at your fingertips.

I’m still playing with the layout, and there’s more to come. it’s a work-in-progress, but all feedback is appreciated.

If you do a little nosing around, you will get an exclusive peek at some excerpts from my forthcoming book Let’s Get Digital: How To (And Why You Should) Self-Publish.

The text in these sections hasn’t yet been edited, so it’s probably full of typos, clunky phrasing, and wandering commas – don’t worry, it will all be cleaned up in a few days.

About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in London, the author of "Mercenary" and "A Storm Hits Valparaiso" as well as "Let's Get Digital" and "Let's Get Visible."
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48 Responses to The Anatomy of A Book Cover

  1. This is a fantastic post. Thank you, David — and your sister! — for letting us peek behind the scenes. I loved seeing the evolution of this design. One of the biggest complaints about indie authors is the number of less than stellar covers, but you’ve proven that high quality is not just the purview of NY publishers. Very nice. :)

    • Hi Angela,

      I think cover design is crucial, and indeed it’s the third most important stated reason for readers in choosing a book. A good cover designer isn’t free, but they won’t break the bank either, and I think if you have spent all that time writing a good book, you should give it the best possible chance to find its audience.

      Dave

  2. Martin Lake says:

    Having just spent a lot of time on my book cover, I found this post illuminating and encouraging. If only I had a sister like yours, David.

  3. Ha, it would help EVERY self-publisher to have a sister who just happens to design book covers for one of the EVIL New York publishers! ;) The question is, how are you allowed to talk to her if she works for the enemy!?!?!

    Yes, that’s all snark… I’m still pondering this “us vs them” thing a lot of self published authors have going on…. and I bet you of all people probably recognize that a lot of very good, very talented people work at the EVIL New York publishers. :)

    • It would certainly help every self-publisher to have my sister design their covers! Unfortunately, she doesn’t freelance.

      For sure there are a huge amount of smart, talented people working at publishing houses. Most of the advice I give in terms of actually producing books is some version of “look at the great books coming from New York and London. Copy them.” Their problem lies in their business model, not in their production standards.

      I know people working in most different parts of publishing and they are all very good at their jobs. But sometimes (and I’m most certainly not speaking of my sister here), they aren’t allowed to do their jobs.

      Also, all editors will have stories about books they wanted to publish but sales and marketing said no. All agents will have stories about great books they couldn’t sell to publishers. All booksellers will have stories about great books they couldn’t sell to the public. It happens. Life goes on.

      • Your sister has awesome skills! Use them as much as she’ll allow because a great book cover can make all of the difference in the world. :)

        I think being an editor in New York is one the most frustrating jobs in the business these days unless you are one of the lucky few who has your own imprint and writes your own checks. EVERY editor has had to pass on a book they loved because someone else said no — and it happens a lot more today than it used to. EVERY book has to be on a “hot” topic (will that topic be hot in 12 to 18 months??) or have “bestselling potential.” It’s a real shame.

        By the way, your attitude is one of the best things about your blog. There are a lot of people advocating for self-publishing, but most take the “screw the bastards in New York for not recognizing how amazingly brilliant I am!” attitude, which I find to be a big turn off. You understand why the business works sometimes and why it doesn’t work other times.

        I’m still betting that you sell more copies of LET’S GET DIGITAL than you’re expecting or even hoping for…

      • That attitude is around a lot.

        Sometimes it’s justified. If you have had a long career in trade publishing, and have now made the switch, I think you are entitled to kvetch as much as you like about “clueless New York types” if you have been screwed over or dropped like a stone, and then proved them wrong with stellar self-publishing sales.

        But that’s not me. I’m just another writer who couldn’t crack the system. I’m not going to piss and moan about agents who rejected me and declare the whole system broken with my unrecognized genius being Exhibit A, but I will point out flaws in their business model. For me, it makes sense right now to pursue self-publishing on an artistic and a business level. That may change. Who knows what’s around the corner?

        I do think everyone should try self-publishing. Even if it’s only a short or a trunk novel that you could never sell, but you think is good enough. I do that because I think it would behoove every writer to learn this stuff, and because for certain projects, self-publishing is really the best way to go.

        But it’s not an ideology for me. I applaud when indies get a trade deal (if it’s a good one), just as I applaud when a trade published writer decides to take a risk and go it alone. I think there is a lot of false opposition between trade publishing and self-publishing. It’s all publishing, and there are lots of writers doing both – something that will become more common, not less common.

        I support more choices for writers. What they choose is up to them.

  4. As I’ve mentioned before, the covers give away a LOT of self-published work for me. There are so many cover designers out there working at a very reasonable price. I just don’t think saving $50-$150 is worth putting out an inferior package that will stereotype the book in a reader’s mind before they even check out the blurb or the sample.

    I won’t ever show anyone the crappy stuff I came up with when I tried to design my own cover, and that’s with some college art classes and software experience in my background. What I started out with and what my designer did for me was the difference between a child’s crayon drawing and a masterpiece. Just about every piece of fan email I’ve received has mentioned the cover, usually as the first thing that caught their eye and got them to look at the blurb & sample.

    The one thing I did bring to the process was a clear understanding of the visual cues readers expect for my genre. I was limited to available, affordable stock photos, but we did what we could to stick to the genre (save putting the tramp stamp butt shot on the cover, of course).

    • Ha, we’ve all made our own crappy covers. :) The key is knowing they’re crappy!

    • Hey Margo,

      I agree. And you have a great cover. It ticks all the boxes. An arresting image that looks good in thumbnail, the genre is clear from first glance, the picture is intriguing and engaging (and fitting), and the reader knows exactly what they are getting (and there are lots of subtle cues on the content).

  5. jen says:

    Wow. Thanks for a look at this process. Very interesting and informative. Wish I had a sister who did graphic design! Do you think/know if people who hire a cover designer have as much back and forth as you did with your sister? And would a hired designer dig in her heels and come up with the best cover possible rather than “settling”? Somehow I doubt it. I’m guessing you’re extra blessed because your sister can say “Not yet!” and you’ll listen, eventually. Whereas I assume a hired designer would be more likely to just go with what author wants/is happy with.

    • Hey Jen,

      Others will have to chime in with their experience, but I doubt there is this much back-and-forth, and I doubt that most designers would go through as many iterations before the client was happy. She lets me in on the process, and shows me where she is at each stage – I doubt most designers would even want their clients seeing every mock up.

      However, I thought it would be helpful to document the thought process.

      Dave

      • jen says:

        Oh, it’s incredibly helpful. Especially to those of us doing or pondering doing it ourselves. To see the evolution of a book cover design is really so very helpful. I was just “thinking out loud” about what a lucky situation you have.

      • Oh that’s good. I don’t have any plan or program here, just shooting in the dark!

    • My designer (Robin Ludwig) makes it clear she’ll try to find a balance between giving a writer what they want and being honest about something not working. After all, a crappy cover with her name in the credits hurts her business. A spectacular cover will go into her online portfolio.

      So I’d say don’t discount the professionalism of designers who want to put out a good product as much as you do.

      • jen says:

        I’m not discounting the professionalism of designers at all. That cover that David liked best is not what I would ever call a “crappy cover.” And I would think any designer would not feel that cover would hurt her business. I just love that David’s sister was so adamant that it wasn’t quite right yet, and I wonder if a hired designer would push it in the face of an author who argued it was just what they wanted.

      • My hunch is that a lot would depend on the relationship between the designer and the writer and their respective personalities. How much you are paying could be a factor. If you are paying basement rates I can’t see the designer going the extra mile.

  6. Brondt says:

    Another excellent post. One of the key things here, I think, is the importance of crowd-sourcing. It’s very easy to get too attached to one design or the other without considering other opinions–and the more important ones at that of potential buyers.

    • Thanks Brondt.

      That’s exactly what happened. I became attached to one design, and I couldn’t see the attraction of the alternate. Crowdsourcing helped me step back and see it as others did. Then I got it. And you’re right, I could see that my target market (science nuts, SF fans) clearly favored the other design.

      I tried it again with a mock-up of the cover for “Let’s Get Digital” (you can see an early version here: http://i1091.photobucket.com/albums/i381/dgaughran/Picture62.png ) and I got some great feedback – especially on the subtitle (up top) that wasn’t working. It’s better now – all thanks to crowdsourcing.

  7. I loved this post. I think that MOST people really should have a professional do their covers. I am not a graphic artist or a cover artist. Could I figure it out? Yes. But would it be friggin’ awesome? No. It would be ok. Maybe. And that just isn’t good enough.

    One of the keys, I think, is what you pointed out about genre. Your cover MUST reflect genre. I can’t tell you how many indie writers I’ve come across asking for cover feedback who have good covers, but which don’t match their genre. Just today a woman (insistent on doing her own covers) couldn’t understand a reviewer’s feedback on her cover. She liked her cover. And it was nice. A pretty ocean view with the title in nice big letters. It was a very lovely non-fic inspirational cover.

    Except her novel was a paranormal thriller.

    Yeah, big fat problem.

    The people giving positive feedback were all other authors who weren’t genre fans. They did her no favors. Her cover, quite frankly, sucked. Not because it was bad, but because it didn’t fit the genre. Not a single genre fan, myself included, liked her cover. And ALL of us agreed we’d never pick up her novel because we’d have no idea it was a paranormal thriller until we read the blurb. And THEN we’d think, “Oh, sucky indie cover.”

    Yeah, it’s like that. And we’re all indies so we know better.

    But back to Transfection. I remember when you posted the covers on Twitter. Minute I saw that cover I KNEW that was the one. It just SCREAMED old school SciFi. I was thrilled when you ended up choosing it. And I loved seeing it’s various incarnations. Your sister rocks.

    • Hey Shea,

      You hit the nail on the head. “Ok” isn’t good enough. Some indies seem to think that they are only competing against each other, as if the rest of the publishing world doesn’t exist. They need to realise that they are competing against every single book out there in their genre, and THOSE are the standards on which they will be judged – not just for covers, but for writing, editing, formatting, the whole deal.

      Another writer I know had a big smash with her first book. The second didn’t do as well. The cover was beautiful, stunning actually, but it pegged the genre wrong and threw off her target audience. She changed it recently to something more fitting and sales jumped. This really matters, and I wrote about it a good bit in my book.

      Dave

      • In a word, Dave: WORD!

        It’s sooo important to get everything right. Not just ok, but spot on. Professional. Because whether anyone likes it or not, we ARE competing against traditional writers with the power of the Big 6 behind them. That’s life. Deal.

  8. josephine wade says:

    Of course you know I’m your sister’s number 2 fan (I only concede number 1 status to you being the brother and all) :).

    Great post . I loved seeing how the design thought process went and also what to expect to provide a designer is good to know for the future.

    • Heh.

      I think the more information you can provide your designer with, the more likely you are to arrive at something you are happy with. Show them covers you like (and explain what you like about them) and show them covers you don’t (and what bothers you). Give them lots of links. Designers often think a lot more visually than writers, I think it helps them when you can boil your story (and what you want reflected on the cover) down to a few words. They may read your blurb and/or story and draw out different elements than that you wish to highlight, so be specific.

      Dave

  9. amyshojai says:

    Great post! Recognizing crap is a gift. I’m still honing mine. *s* And yep, I’ve got some covers that need a re-do, even though they’re selling very well.

  10. Joan Reeves says:

    I think a great cover is even more important on an ebook than a print book. I’ve been doing an Ebook Success series on my blog, and the section on Cover Art turned into 4+ parts because there was a lot to say about this simple element (simple, not easy).

    Isn’t it great to have an artist to do your covers? My daughter who is a graphic artist does mine.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves

    • Hey Joan – I’ll check out that series – sounds interesting.

      And you’re right – in many ways, a great cover is more important for an e-book. The bookshelf is much bigger and you need to work harder to grab the reader’s attention.

  11. writingsleuth says:

    so totally helpful, thanks, David, especially the process, and something I wouldn’t think of: using social media for feedback. Yes, I’d love more posts in a similar vein, regarding the process you used with beta readers and/or editors. I would also like to hear a ballpark figures regarding out of pocket costs to self publish, since few of us have such talented cover designers in the family.

  12. David Wright says:

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes info. Being an illustrator (in addition to writing), I’m a HUGE cover nerd and love to see any discussion involving the process.

    I love your sister’s work. I like the “Into the Woods” cover even more. Did she draw the art for that one? It’s one of my favorites.

    • Hey David,

      That’s a collage she put together of several modified shutterstock images, with some extra effects and layers she did herself. I have so little knowledge of the technical side, that I don’t even know if I am using the right words here!

      The actual discussion, of course, had a lot saltier language. But this is a reasonable representation!

      Dave

  13. You have one cool sister, David!:) Though I’m partial to faerie tales, I think the cover for ‘Transfection’ really hits one between the eyes. Hmmmm, now am thinking hard about spending money on cover design and editing for my full-length fantasy novels. I plan to release them towards the end of the year, so I have time to get them professional edited etc but though I know inside how important it would be to invest in these two aspects of self-publishing, I can’t bring myself to shell out the dough just yet. You’re on the way to convincing me though:)

    So far I’ve been relying on BookCoverPro software for my poetry and short stories and – funnily enough – my sister’s artistic tendencies have been of immense help:DD Blogged about my cover designing process last month actually – if you’re interested to check out a DIY approach (with all its admitted failings:D), do have a look at this post: http://isabellaamaris.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-was-reading-through-some-posts-in-my.html. Cheers.

    • hmmmm, okay now I’m leaning towards the ‘Into The Woods’ cover… it really is intricately designed… and that bird somehow manages to look cute and chilling at the same time lol really good work…

      • It’s all about the red eye. She spent quite a bit of time on that alone, testing different sizes and shapes. It’s those little details, barely noticeable, that make a cover really good.

    • Thanks Isabella – I’ll look at that link now.

      Put it this way. The #1 reason people buy a book is because they read something by the author before and enjoyed it. The #2 reason was a recommendation. The #3 reason was cover.

      Out of those three, the cover is the only thing in your direct control.

  14. Elisabeth says:

    I was going to ask if your sister did freelance work, but you beat me to it with the answer. :) I’d also have asked the same question Jen did about how much discussion one usually gets to have with a hired designer. Thanks for posting all of this – the amount I’ve learned through reading your blog is tremendous.

    • Hi Elisabeth,

      It’s not that she wouldn’t take on a project at all, she is just too busy at the moment for anything outside the day job. But I always tell her when someone is interested, and she is thinking about drawing up a price list for the occasional project. She wouldn’t be cheap, but she is very good.

      Dave

    • Most designers will do plenty of back and forth…if you are willing to pay for the extra time. I had one extra mock-up done of my cover before I made my decision, which resulted in an extra 30 mins of her time ($40).

  15. mesmered says:

    Bingo, David.
    Family rules. My designer is my daughter who is an award-winning graphic designer and I could almost track ever step we make in your own steps with your sister. I think the phrase ‘long suffering’ has great resonance as well as our designer rellies put up with us. But I trust my daughter’s vision, her empathy and most of all her ability.
    She was also instrumental in publicity (bookmarks, press releases, ads in specialist mags, and in working with the book trailer where needed). In respect of the book trailer for my first book I was also lucky to have available family as my brother is one of the Directors and a cameraman for a post-production house and was prepared to do a bit of work at home to help me get a trailer together. But on reflection, I would have to publicise a trailer far better than I did in the past to get the hits. I’ve learned an awful lot since 2008-09.
    My daughter and I discuss concepts but inevitably I leave most to her as she is a designer… I am a writer. We have a business arrangement but I get a good family cut. Professionally she would charge a recommended fee and frankly justifiable I think. You want quality? You pay for it.
    Thanks for this. It is a great post…

  16. LK Watts says:

    Fabulous post, David. Thank you for sharing it. The part where you mention crowdsourcing – sharing your cover ideas with the online community, I think that’s a great idea. After all, you never know what people will think of your book cover until you put it out there. It’s a good way of sharing your book too.

  17. As long as you are understanding this is kinda like the Bible on e-pub for some of us. . .

  18. Pingback: Weekend Reading, Live Chat With J Carson Black & More | David Gaughran

  19. Pingback: Why Is My Book Not Selling? | David Gaughran

  20. I redesigned my book cover a few months ago, and am about to go live with the paperback; so far, my cover’s been well received. I’d like to give a shout-out to Joey Rosa for his technical wizardry, as well as his assistance with some design decisions; please see the attached link for the cover, and I hope you enjoy!

    PW

  21. Pingback: “Why Is My Book Not Selling?” Guest Post by David Gaughran | Yaminatoday - A Literary Blog That Entertains & Educates

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