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 effort, a professional outlook, and a little bit of cash, self-publishers can match or exceed the digital production standards of New York.
A digital self-publisher can produce work at the highest level only by spending money on editing and cover design (and learning the rest), so there is no reason to skimp here.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Step 2: Design Your Cover
Let’s face it, everyone judges a book by its cover. If you have an ugly cover, people may never read your story.
There are certain conventions in book design—play with these at your peril. A reader selecting a title depicting a cartoon blonde overburdened with shopping bags and teetering on stilettos is not expecting free-form poetry.
If you set false expectations, your sales will suffer. George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice nearly never got off the blocks. For the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, the designer opted for something a little different, and sales were muted.
Thankfully, his UK and Australian publishers went for a more traditional fantasy cover, and the international success of the series convinced his US publisher to stick with it. It has since sold 7 million copies worldwide. Make no mistake: design matters.
Every genre has its conventions, whether science fiction, thriller, detective novel, or romance. Literary fiction allows a little more latitude but tries to avoid looking like a “genre” book. Make sure you have a good idea of what is standard for your genre.
The stigma attached to self-publishing, although not as widespread as it once was, exists partly because many of the covers of self-published books appear unprofessional. You don’t want to put people off before they even get a chance to sample your writing. Also, remember that your self-published work won’t just be up against other indie authors—you have to compete with the rest of the publishing world too.
If you are a graphic designer, great, do the cover yourself; if not, hire one, preferably a designer with experience in book cover design. This, along with professional editing, is one of the very few areas where you should spend money. It’s worth it: a bad cover can sink a book.
Most writers know this deep down, which is why some publishing contracts include a clause stating that the author has final approval over the cover. Unfortunately, in practice, more often than not the trade-published author has little say over cover design. This is either because they are left out of the loop until the final possible moment, creating pressure on them to quickly approve the design rather than risk delaying the book’s scheduled release and nixing planned promotional efforts, or because their opinion is not valued as they are not design professionals.
Designers simply don’t have time to read every book and often only get a blurb or synopsis to work from. While cover designers do their best, they also need approval on the cover design from marketing and editing. So many fingers in the pie can often result in a cover the writer is unhappy with but can do little about.
When self-publishing, you have none of these concerns. You can do whatever you like. Be sure you use that power wisely.
To ensure you end up with something you’re happy with and don’t harass your designer with endless revisions, which will cost you money and make them hate you, it’s important to give your designer as much information as possible.
Give them a copy of your book, and because they may only flick through the book, give them a blurb too. Tell them exactly what you are looking for and don’t just say “something fresh.” You can use examples or provide copies of covers you like. Spend time looking at best-selling covers; there are plenty of websites out there that collate them. Make note of what you like and don’t like and explain these features to your designer. The more information you can give, the better chance there is of the designer coming up with something that appeals to you.
You will find excellent tips on cover design in the Resources section at the end of this book, but there are two crucial elements of e-book cover design you must be aware of.
Your cover must look good as a thumbnail. Most people will only see your cover on search listings. Images are pretty small, maybe one inch by half-an-inch, so keep images clear and fonts big. It also should look good as a grayscale image, as many readers will be browsing for books on their Kindles. In short, keep it simple. Keep radical or ornate design for a print version. We’re talking about e-books. They’re not going to be on anyone’s coffee table.
In an effort to keep costs down, I had my sister—a book cover designer for a UK publisher—do a little moonlighting for me. That might seem like cheating, but you must use whatever advantage you have to publish as cheaply as possible. The less you spend, the less you have to sell to cover your costs; everything after that is profit—forever. You want to get to that point as quickly as you can.
There are tips on how to find a designer in the Resources section, but whomever you choose, make sure you see samples of their work first. If you are on a tight budget, try sticking up a poster at your local art college. A student designer, keen to build his or her portfolio, may do your cover at a reduced price or in exchange for something you can provide (like copy for their website), and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Whatever you decide, make sure your designer is aware you will need two files. One is actually inserted into the e-book and one is the cover displayed on the sites, and they have slightly different specifications.
The e-book file should be 600 by 800 pixels and can be a JPEG, TIFF or PNG file. The cover file should be a minimum of 500 pixels wide and a maximum of 1280 pixels tall, and must be a JPEG or TIFF file for Amazon, and Barnes & Noble only accept JPEGs. They should be saved at 72 DPI for optimal web-viewing, and with images displayed in RGB color mode. Retailers will compress your images when displaying them so they should have minimal compression to begin with. Also, for a pale-colored cover, it’s best to outline with a narrow (3 or 4 pixel) border in medium gray to define the boundaries, as it can get swallowed up in all the white space. Don’t worry if you don’t know what any of that means; your cover designer will.
Most importantly, make sure your designer knows what you are looking for, and don’t be afraid to reject a design you’re not happy with. This is the “face” of your book. Make sure it looks good.