A good book cover will do several things at once.
It will reflect the book’s content accurately. The reader should get a good idea of the book’s subject matter, tone, genre, and the author’s personality.
It will add information that’s not available in the title. For example, if the title of the book is “Apple” then putting an apple on the cover is redundant. Maybe it should be a sultry woman’s face, or a child in a swing, or two people holding hands with fig leaves over their crotches. Maybe it’s just the apple, but the apple has a clean cut out of it. Each of these images will give the reader a better idea of what the book might be about than either the title or the illustration could do alone. For example, the woman’s face may suggest that the book is about temptation. The illustration with the child might imply that the theme of the book is about how ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ The fig-leaved couple will give the idea that the book is going to talk about original sin. The clean cut out of a real apple may signal that the book is about Apple Corp., and since it’s a real apple instead of their logo, maybe it’s the story about the people behind the company.
A good book cover will make the reader want to pick the book up because it’s their kind of book. For example, in fantasy books, there’s often a dragon either mentioned or depicted on the book cover because a lot of fantasy readers love dragons, and it signals to the reader that this might be their kind of book. People who want a self-help book may reach for soft, soothing colors because they need comfort. Art styles will let the reader know if they’re looking at manga, a book set during the renaissance, or in Japan.
Readers are sensitive creatures on a quest for a good read. The book cover must tell them, 'pick me up, I’m exactly what you’re looking for!' That’s why so many book covers of a given book type are similar. It’s not because designers are lazy. It’s because once readers learn that a particular style of book cover contains a certain kind of book, they look for more covers just like the cover of the books they like. Make sense? If you want the readers who will love your book to find your book in that great sea of books out there, your cover has to accurately tell the readers 'hey, this is the exact book you’re looking for!' If they’ve been looking for a book about the car show industry, your cover has to instantly convey that this book is about that subject, or they’re gone in less than the blink of an eye.
Cover design is not just about the image, either. Font choice is very important. (Look for a future essay on fonts and why book designers obsess about them.)
All these factors and more add up to one fact: if you don’t know what you’re doing with book design and you decide to design your own cover, chances are that you’re going to make mistakes that will impact your book sales, usually in the negative. Even if you have a beautiful cover that makes people pick up the book, if it turns out that the book isn’t what they expected (in designer lingo: the book didn’t fulfill the promise made by the cover) it upsets the reader. The human mind is very sensitive to art and social cues, so if your self-help style cover contains gore and violence, the reader will feel angry and betrayed, even if they don’t mind that kind of book. They’ll be upset because it wasn’t what they wanted when they bought the book, or when they sat down to read. To them, it would be just the same feeling of betrayal as if you put a famous author’s name on your book cover and then they found out the book wasn’t written by that author at all. It wouldn’t matter if the book was really good. They didn’t buy (with their money or in the case of a library loan, with their valuable time) what the book advertised with its cover. So, most importantly, a good book cover makes a promise to the reader that the book will fulfill.
Designing book covers can be complicated. This is why book designers can’t do just any kind of book. They have specialties. In their specialized area, they know the audience for that book pretty well, well enough that they can accurately tell the reader what kind of book they’re looking at, using the silent language of design. I usually do non-fiction, with a focus on martial arts, self-defense, fitness, sports or other related topic. I can also do contemporary fiction as long as it’s somewhat related to my area. I can certainly discuss doing a book cover outside of my specialty, but be prepared for the possibility that I’ll have to decline. In that case I’ll try to refer you to another cover designer, or give you tips on how to find a good illustrator and typographer if I think that will be a better choice for your book.
If this sounds expensive, it can be. It doesn’t have to be thousands of dollars, but expect to pay hundreds of dollars. Good cover design takes a lot of hours, and those hours are what you’re paying for.
You can, of course, learn how to do this yourself. Prepare to spend several months or even years of research and practice. You’ll also want quality feedback. If this seems like a lot of trouble, it is, but it’s worth it. If you’re a writer, it probably took you months or years to produce a book worth reading. Expect to spend at least that much time on the cover, especially if it’s your first time designing anything. Why in the world would you put all the time and effort it takes into writing, revising, editing, and proof-reading a book, only to slap a cover on it that took you a couple of hours to slap together with a picture you thought was ‘pretty cool’ and Times New Roman for the title and byline? You can be the best software engineer in the world, but if you walk into your interview wearing a paper bag, expect to be shown to the door before you can shake the interviewer’s hand.
For more information, check out my short essay on Learning Book Cover Design. It’s definitely worth your while to learn it. Like any new skill, it helps open your eyes and your mind to a whole new way of looking at things. Learning design will also keep your mind nimble and give you a new appreciation for everything from street signs to the layout in a magazine article.
I spent most of high school and some of college doing art in my spare time. Later on I did some acrylic, watercolor, and pen and ink for fun. I even took some classes.
I thought this gave me a good chance of producing a good book cover, so I decided to give it a stab.
The results were eye-gougingly bad, but I didn’t know that. Why? Because I had worked on it for several days, and my mind had ceased to be objective about it.
That’s an ongoing problem for any designer at any level. You work on something for a while, you lose objectivity. Thankfully, there are a whole bunch of tricks of the trade that help keep the designer honest, and help produce a high quality graphic that sends a clear message to the viewer. It’s magic. It’s telepathy that transmits a feeling and a message into the mind of another human being without speaking a word. It’s awesome. I love graphic design. But when I started, I didn’t really understand it beyond the fact that it existed and that ad agencies hired graphic designers to help them sell stuff. I also knew graphic designers set magazine covers and articles, and created logos. In my mind, they were taking elements that someone else picked and moved them around, changed sizes and colors, and arranged text in a way that pleased the eye. They studied color theory so that they had control over whether something looked vivid or subdued, stark or rich, and so that they could attract shoppers to look at the thing that they were trying to sell.
I had a better idea of what graphic designers did than most people, but it was still a pretty shallow view of the reality. I knew that graphic artists were actual artists who needed a lot of talent to do their work well, but in my mind fine artists were ‘real’ artists and graphic designers were commercial artists who took a lot of measurements and attended a lot of meetings with focus groups in order to make their clients happy. To me they seemed like the accountants of the art world. I had no idea at how amazingly artistic and talented graphic artists were, and how they have to reach deep over and over again to find inspiration and to create designs as profound and impressive as Rembrandt.
Okay, maybe not as awesome as Rembrandt.
See, there’s that bit of snobbishness, still hanging on in there. But guess what? Rembrandt was a compositional genius. He used many of the same techniques that graphic designers use today to help direct his paintings. Many of the world’s greatest fine artists use the same tools as fine artists. They measure. They look at color choices. They decide how the direction of brush strokes and patterns of light and dark will lead the viewer’s eye. Some of it is unconscious, but the really good artists either plan it in advance or follow instincts that are well-founded in design techniques they’ve learned about through trial and error or by educating themselves.
Still want to give this design thing a stab? Great! Let me give you some guidance to help you on your journey. I hope you have as much fun learning graphic design as I have.
First, do some reading. If you Google ‘graphic design books’ you’ll get a lot of hits, but the same books will come up over and over again. That’s because some of the world’s best graphic artists have written some amazing books on the subject. Here are two of my favorites:
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Reading isn’t enough, though. Go to the library at least once a week while you’re studying the graphic design books. Look at book covers. A lot of book covers. If you have a book you want to design a cover for, go to the section in the library where your book might be filed and look at all the books around it. Notice how book designs have changed over the years. Maybe you had an idea for a cover, and now that you’ve seen all these books you get a better idea, or maybe you realize that your idea is old-fashioned, or too contemporary and you want to go for a retro look.
Reading and studying design still isn’t enough. Now you have to practice.
From your reading you’ve hopefully come across the concepts of grid, golden rectangles, and other technical stuff. Make some practice layouts. Figure out where the text will go. Will the author’s name go at the top, the bottom, the middle, the sides, or some unusual way, like in a circle? How will the title fit in? Will the author and title be important to the cover’s concept, or will they just frame an illustration?
While you’re doing this, keep working on your book. Think about the themes in the book. Maybe you have a symbol in it that would work well for the cover, like the bat that influences the name, art and design of Batman. That’s a great example, actually, because the color schemes, shapes, and language in Batman comics, graphic novels, movies and tv shows all wrap around the idea of bats. Even his lair is a cave, and bats play into his childhood fears and dreams. If you have a strong element in your book, even if its abstract like ‘love conquers all’ then think about how you can bring that out visually in color, style and composition.
Don’t be surprised if learning about graphic design makes you a better writer, btw.
Have you finished reading a couple or three graphic design books? Have you been to book stores, browsed books on Amazon? Have you started thinking about fonts? Maybe you’ve already stumbled across these wonderful books:
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If so, you’re starting to think like a designer. Designers don’t just think, 'what picture do I need to have on this book cover?’ They think about how to make a person feel using words, shapes and colors.
They also think, how can I do this with as few things as possible? Maybe they want just an apple in a white field, and Teacher is in tiny letters in the middle, barely visible. Maybe the author’s name will be beige, the same beige as the inside of an apple that’s been bitten into, on white, so that all the potential reader sees at first is this juicy, perfect red apple that will make them think about Snow White, or teachers, or sin, or late summer, or Halloween.
How do we make the reader pick whether they think about Snow White vs. Halloween? I guess we’ll need some more clues on that cover, won’t we!
Speaking of beige on white, you’ll find that your designs look better if the colors all fit together well. One of the easiest ways I’ve found to do that utilizes a feature found in GIMP, Photoshop and other graphic programs. (If you don’t have graphic software and you’re trying to cobble something together using Word or a similar program, prepare for an uphill climb that will be made somewhat easier by websites like Colourlovers.com.) Take a photo of something you love, load it into the program or online database and then use a color picker to pick colors out of that photo. Even if the colors are wildly different, they will still ‘magically’ harmonize because they came out of an existing, real-world image. Tada! So if you want a cover that uses a lot of purple, grab a picture of purple pansies and you’ll have your whites (which won’t be pure white) yellows, oranges, purples, greens and browns all from picking colors from that flower. And they will work so much better than if you picked them at random on a color wheel. Write down their CMYK and RGB codes. You’ll need them for typography and graphic elements for your cover.
Learning things like this and more is how you’ll be spending much of your spare time when you learn book cover design.
You’ll learn white isn’t just one color, and neither is black, or gray. They have hues, just like blue, red, and yellow. You’ll learn less is more. You’ll learn that piling too much makes a mess … except when you deliberately crowd it into a vast field and suddenly it’s a graphic element that belongs to a larger scheme.
Maybe now you’ve put your design ideas away for a bit and you take them out now that you’ve finished proof reading your book. One stands out. You like this one best. So you go to The Book Designer’s website and find out there’s a contest (http://www.thebookdesigner.com/e-book-cover-design-awards-submissions/). Win or lose, you realize this is a good way to get professional feedback for free. But before you enter, because you’re smart (and probably nervous) you look at previous submissions. And oops, there’s a cover sort of like yours that just embarrassed itself in front of the whole world.
Back to the drawing board.
Does this sound like fun? If not, you might still give it a chance. Read a book. Look at book covers and try to figure out why you like one book cover and hate another.
Or, give up the idea of making your own book cover and hire a designer.
Just don’t wing it. The results won’t be pretty. Trust me. Your friends and family will say it’s fine, or nice, or like it when you post it on Facebook. But it will never be right.
You want it to be right.
And that’s the perfect reason to learn about book design. Because even if you decide its best to contract out, you’ve now learned enough to help design your cover. You can give the designer helpful ideas instead a mess of cluttered elements you want jammed on the cover, or worse, micro-manage the appearance of the character’s flecks in the irises of their eyes ….
As a person educated about graphic design, you’ll know better than to focus on something minor like that, when you have bigger design fish to fry. You’ll be less concerned with whether the bird is an ibex or a snowy egret and more concerned about whether the design is working. And you’ll be able to pick out a design expert from an amateur, talented or not, whose designs initially seemed great only because you hadn’t learned the difference between good design and bad.
That may be the most important lesson of all.