Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dealbreakers: Yes, we judge your book by its cover

I hear, “My friend designed my book cover,” or “I designed my book cover using MS Word, what do you think?”

As someone who’s been immersed in the media industry since she first crawled out of her Spur waiter apron, I *cringe* when I hear these words.

Thing is, you can have written the Best Book Eva, but if the cover makes me feel too embarrassed to be seen within a twenty metre radius of your voluminous tome, then, Houston, we have a problem.

There’s that wonderful adage about not judging books by their covers but we all know that’s a stinking pile of camel turds. Your book’s cover will be the first thing that catches a person’s eye, and I’m going to make you very sad by saying that the first time people see your book cover it will most likely be a teeny-tiny thumbnail-sized image on a vendor’s website and not in prime shelf position in a swanky bookstore. So it becomes even more critical to design with that in mind even before you start having a thromby over what you want on your cover.

A cover doesn’t tell the entire story in one picture, it communicates the essence or theme of your novel. For instance (and excuse me while I gag) there’s a reason why a large percentage of African literature dressed up for the international market will have a glorious sunset with thorn trees in the background. It screams Africa. Even if the novel only has something vaguely to do with the bushveld. The publisher wants to immediately tell a potential reader that LOOK HERE IS A BOOK ABOUT AFRICA.

It sucks. But it is industry standard.

Think about the recent explosion of GrimDark fantasy. How many of those covers have a Bloke in a Cloak on the front cover. Or romance and erotica covers that have the prerequisite headless male torso?

A book cover gives you *seconds* to snag a reader’s attention. If they’re already attuned to a specific genre and your cover’s style matches, chances are better that they’ll bother to read the blurb. (Pay attention, I may repeat this later on because it's fucking important.)

But I’m going to digress a moment. Bear with me. With the advent of modern technology getting all spiffy like, I’ve seen an alarming increase of the use of CGI modelling for the people used on covers. My word: DO NOT DO IT.


Why? I promise you, it looks like shit. Really. It looks like crap. It makes your novel look like a bad video game from the late 1990s. Don’t believe me? Just feast your eyes on this hot mess. Then thank me for talking you out of it.

But let’s get back to style, shall we, because that’s the catch. Every genre, be it a thriller, a whodunnit, military SF, romance or YA dystopias, has a range of styles in cover art that will appear within a genre. Your romance novels tend to have photo-manipulated images featuring torsos, wolves etc to give a quick, dirty hint that we’re dealing with a ménage à trois vs. shifter romances. Fantasy novels tend to have one or two heroic figures (and of late, the near-ubiquitous a Bloke in a Cloak) in a near-realistic illustrative style. Literary novels often feature stylised illustrations related to the theme of the novel. Colour is important too – bright, primary colours often feature in children’s books while horror novels may go for plenty of dark tones with flashes of lurid red to catch the eye.

Effective nonverbal communication encapsulated in your (hopefully) awesome cover art might mean the difference between a potential reader continuing with their desultory scan of a selection of works vs. them slowing down to read the blurb and check out the reviews of your novel. A cover that differs from its brethren in horribad way, will reflect your novel in a poor light. (Well, if the cover looks like it was shat out by a goat with chronic diarrhoea, the writing can’t be much better, amiright?)

If you’re an indie author, it’s even more important that your cover matches the standards of its traditionally published brethren. At a glance, your book must appear no different. Which means you need to take a good stab at emulating the style of illustration and typographical treatment of your competitors (who often have considerable budgets). And that will extend not only to the style of the artwork and design, but also to the subject matter.

If you’re writing about a kick-ass heroine with a magic sword, chances are extremely high that you’re going to have a sexy, bad-ass lady on the front cover standing in some epic pose with a drawn blade on a cliff. The artwork must scream EPIC in big letters. Likewise, if you’re writing a sweet romance, you will in all likelihood opt for a fully clothed couple looking all lovey-dovey comped into some sort of pastel-shaded landscape. With doves. And pretty flowers.

Okay. Enough of that. [Stomps on fairies]

Resist the temptation to try show the entire story or a key scene from the novel (unless it's a shit-hot key scene that just yodels cinematic oomph – like omigod they're all gonna get eaten by that there dragon). At best, you’re aiming for is mood and theme, and the image on the front cover may not necessarily even take place in the novel. You may even opt to go for something completely abstract – for instance an Indiana Jones-style adventure thriller might have a map and an ancient artefact on the cover, with the typography. The two items already communicate the essence of what the novel is about without having to resort to using human figures.

Not quite sure what you want? LOOK at a dozen books that are similar to what yours is. See what they share in common. Figure out what you’ll need to match it.

At the very basic, you need a) an image, b) a graphic designer with experience in book cover design. (Later on you may get kinky enough to hire your own photographer and creative director, mkay?)

Now, where do you get your images?

First of all, let’s talk about where you DON’T get your images. If you want to get yourself into a world of trouble, you’ll download and use images off Google willy nilly. This is stealing. Don’t do it. You really, really don’t want to taint your name in this reputation-based business by stealing another artist’s hard work. DON'T BE A DICK, IOW.

If you need visuals, you can purchase the rights to use royalty-free images from sites such as iStock, Shutterstock or Adobe. And it’s really not that expensive. One image can cost anywhere from $30 upwards. These sites will have photos, illustrations and vector graphics – so if it’s something you need for a comped image or that you’re happy to use ready made, there’s a lot to look through.

If you decide to go with an illustrator, there are loads of really talented people you can find on sites like Behance or deviantArt. Take time to browse and be sure when you eventually engage with them that their art matches your final vision closely.

When you negotiate, set your terms. Some artists may want a 50% upfront with balance paid on sign-off. Do discuss a kill fee. This protects both of you in case things don’t work out so you don’t feel obliged to pay for something that doesn’t work and the artist still has some compensation for their time. Provide your artist with a comprehensive brief – so this is a full description of characters, poses. Supply examples of the cover art you’re trying to emulate, the mood. Even pictures of clothing, people who resemble your characters, backgrounds, props – all this is gold for your artist and will help them meet your vision halfway. Make sure to tell your artist what size you require – I usually brief in at A4 for 300dpi but comic book artists I’ve spoken to will work at about A4 at 600dpi. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the terms too well – suffice to say that we’re talking about page size and the amount of dots per inch (resolution) of image. You don’t want small images on your cover that look blurry and pixelated. Oh, and discuss a deadline. That's important too.

Once you have your final, signed-off image, be it a photo manipulation, photo or illustration, you’ll go speak to your graphic designer (though some graphic designers do offer photo manipulation services, so be sure to ask). You’ll brief them thoroughly too, showing them examples of those other book covers you’re trying to outshine. You'll also take a gander at their creative portfolio to be sure that they'll be up to the task. You’ll talk to them about the end product and supply them with the technical specifications for the print and ebook covers (which you should be able to get from your vendor’s site). You’ll make damned sure that they have all the information they need so that all you’ll need to do is upload that file without any complications. But as you would with an illustrator, for the love of dog, find a professional who has the right equipment and experience for the work. Don’t ask your cousin’s boyfriend or your best friend’s neighbour who allegedly knows a thing or two about CorelDRAW.

I said CorelDRAW. Ugh.

You want a professional-looking cover. This means you’re playing publisher and taking the financial risk for a product that looks awesome. Unfortunately this does mean you’ll need to spend money. Don’t cut corners.

And, unless you’re actually already employed in the media industry with years and years of experience with the relevant apps, don’t try to do it yourself. Therein lies only pain, unless you can be completely honest about your attempts and invest hours and hours until you get the fucking thing right. (And let’s be honest, most folks won’t be able to tell when their design is shit.)

So my advice here is SPEND THE FUCKING MONEY. Get it done properly, by professionals. The first time.

My experiences with small presses have been mixed. Most small presses with which I’ve published have skimped on design, and if you look at my earlier book covers, it tells. A great illustration looks like shit when the typography is half-arsed. Yet every time I coughed up the dough or pulled in favours with the right people, I ended up with something awesome. (Though I’m really fortunate that my lovely husband is a shit-hot designer, and occasionally I can twist his arm to get him to help me out with cover art.)

What this means from here on in is that I’m no longer going to put myself at the mercy of others. I am ready to drop hundreds of dollars to pay the right artists to get the job done so I don’t end up cringing when I see my older books.

You owe it to yourself to avoid your novel from showing up on this Tumblr.

And if you’re looking for help with your book cover, feel free to contact me at Chat to me about what you need, what your budget is, and I’m happy to advise and quote, and put you in touch with illustrators and photographers, and have my lovely husband design something super awesome for you. I won't break your piggy bank. And I won't sugarcoat my opinion either.

A small selection of our work...

Illustration & design, Thomas Dorman

Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman

Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman
Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman

Photography & image manipulation,
Thomas Dorman

Image manipulation & design,
Thomas Dorman


  1. Great advice. I tell everyone in my critique group how important it is. One gal designed her own and now years later she's having a professional do it! Loved the "hot mess" I think they look like bad video games, too. Thanks for a good read and some LOL moments. Best of luck.