We’re All Experts Now — Book Covers

It doesn’t take much to become an expert these days. Just claim the title, and voila! Instant expert. So we have people telling us how to promote our books (spam the hell out of Twitter),  or offering to edit our books (for a fee that looks too good to be true and usually is). The latest set of “experts” I’ve been noticing, though I’m sure they’ve been around for a while, is the cover artists.

The KindleBoards Writers’ Cafe is a great place to see a wide variety of book covers at the size for display on sites like Amazon and Smashwords. Board members are allowed to post thumbnails in their signatures, which makes them perfect for study. Whether you plan to create your own covers or are looking for someone to do it for you, there are covers for practically every genre and in every possible style.

Another excellent source is Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer which has a monthly “contest” for book covers. Each month, he chooses a best fiction cover, and a best nonfiction from the submissions. He displays all the submissions and comments on a good number of them, probably to the chagrin of a lot of entrants.

There are a few general rules guiding the design of book covers, and The Book Designer has excellent articles dealing with those, but the one single thing that stands out for me when I look at covers, is the text. And here is where many of the designers who charge for their covers, and the writers who do their own, are most alike in their lack of expertise.

I’m convinced that most of the newer “professional” designers start out with the belief that because they’re good at art, book covers will be an easy way to earn some money. But they don’t understand the purpose of book cover art. Very simply, it’s to enhance the title and the author’s name. When the designer makes the text subordinate to the art, they’ve failed in their job, no matter how beautiful the art may be.

This is why so many designs are unreadable, not just at thumbnail size, but too often, even at full size. There are many ways to accomplish this. Ornate fonts that are hard to read at any scale. Text that’s too close in color to the background and fades out. Text that’s too small. Text with applied effects that make it difficult to read.

Being an artist does not qualify you to call yourself a book cover designer. It doesn’t qualify you to charge people for your covers. What does qualify you is learning the basics of cover design and working to become competent in their use.

But what about the writers who can’t “draw a straight line” or afford to pay for a cover of any quality? You can learn. It doesn’t take art talent as much as it does the ability to recognize good design, to make intelligent use of stock art or your own photos, and to learn how to use the appropriate software.

And because all this is new and has a learning curve, you shouldn’t leave cover design until the last minute. You should be thinking about it and experimenting as you write. This has been my most important realization about designing my own covers. Judging your design is a lot like editing the book. You need time away from it so that you can become more objective. Your cover may look great when it’s finished, only to start showing its weaknesses as you move away from it, and (as you should be doing) have been studying good examples.

My two best covers are not only the simplest ones, they’re the ones I worked on as I wrote. Both were finished before the stories were, so I was able to set them aside and come back to them later and see them more clearly. I have four earlier covers to revise. Because the books were finished and I was impatient to get them published, the covers were rush jobs. They were also a product of knowledge that I could recite but hadn’t really absorbed yet. The design of book covers is a learning process, just like writing books. And it’s a process that never ends. If you don’t believe me, look at Joel Friedlander’s critiques of book covers done by real professionals. Even professionals can miss the mark.



6 thoughts on “We’re All Experts Now — Book Covers

  1. I do my own covers as well, and it’s challenging to find fonts you love that are legible at thumbnail. I wish we could upload our own thumbnails rather than Amazon resizing our images, but I can see why they don’t allow such freedoms. 🙂

    I have 2 books that aren’t super legible at thumbnail, but Amazon does list the title in plain text underneath. My less-legible titles actually sell better than the more-legible ones, though I’m sure there are other factors.

    1. There’s a lot more to it than just picking the right fonts. I just didn’t want to make the post longer. But one big fault of amateur cover designers is that they don’t pay any attention to kerning. Any typeface can be made unreadable if the letters are crowded together. I took a quick look at yours and they all read well, even at thumbnail size, except for the subtitles and, sometimes, your name.

  2. Thanks for this advice, Catana. As you know, I’m not digitally au fait, so it’s great to read these blogs and get those helpful links. I have a fair idea about the cover for the late 2013 novel, but now, I’m chucking ideas around for the following novel, which is completely different. Technically, I know nothing, but the time is fast approaching when I will have to learn. Which scares the hell out of me. I decided I’d start with the short stories, putting one a month up on Smashwords, and later on Amazon, until late next year when the novel comes out. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t, but at least I’ll begin to learn this stuff I fear so much.
    Thanks again for all the good advice. It’s heartening to me just to see you doing it – which, for me, translates into: It can be done.

    1. It isn’t that scary, Danielle, if you just take it one step at a time. I’m thinking about doing a post about my first covers — why they don’t work, and what I can do to make them better. Since I’m not an artist, I’m in the same position as a lot of writers – trying to figure out how to make the best of what I have to work with.

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