You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? Well, the trouble is, everyone does. I had a rapid and interesting education on the subject earlier this year when I commenced my search for a suitable cover for my epic fantasy novel, formerly known as ‘Rian’, and I thought I’d pass on some of the findings for the benefit of other writers who are embarking on self publishing and wondering what to do about a cover.
Before you start looking, its a good idea to check what style is being used for your genre at present. Cover design is subject to fashion just as anything else. Years ago, it was standard to have a painting of some kind; this was especially so in the fantasy and science fiction genres, where it’s not exactly easy to obtain a photograph of a dragon or alien. But over the years, photographic manipulation has become the standard and is now used widely even in these genres. In fact, there now seems to be a trend towards what I think of as anti-covers, where there is no image, just some rather boring looking text in strange fonts on rather bland colours. I think that started with literary fiction and let’s hope it is a short-lived trend.
For most genre fiction, photographic manipulation is still the standard method employed, usually utilising images available from the many online stock image libraries, such as Shutterstock. My own theory is that this is due to the general developments in the traditional publishing industry over the past twenty years, driven by the need to reduce costs. For example, the slush pile disappeared, so that publishers didn’t have to pay in-house or freelance readers (the people who filtered the slush pile and passed the decent stuff onto the editors) . In the same way, it must be a lot cheaper to employ someone to manipulate images in Photoshop, taken from stock image libraries, than to engage a traditional artist to paint a cover from scratch (whether old-school or on a Wacom tablet or something similar). But that’s just my theory.
Doing Your Research
Before plunging in and buying premade covers or commissioning your own, have a good look at books in your genre that are doing well on Amazon, or visit your local bookshop if you’re fortunate enough to still have one. Preferably do both. Be aware that, online, covers are shown only as small thumbnails, so you need to aim for something that will be intelligible to the person scanning their monitor, or more likely their smartphone or tablet. You only have a second or two to snag their attention, so you’ll need a design that doesn’t get lost when miniaturised. For this reason, a lot of modern covers show only one character unless it’s a romance, in which case a clinch is standard. But even if your story features three or four important characters, the lesson is, don’t try to depict them all on the cover or it will be crowded and muddled in thumbnail view.
One article I came across when researching available designers, is a blog post on the top 10 ebook cover design sites from Big Sky Words. I checked out all the referenced sites and found that they varied from pretty reasonable to what I have to consider expensive, but it was an interesting starting point. And JM Madden’s site provides a large list of predesigned cover artists, some of whom I’ve used myself.
There are quite a few articles around to give tips on how to approach the design of your cover, especially if you are going to commission someone to produce a cover from scratch, what’s known as a ‘custom cover’. See for example, this initial article from Scribbly Roo, illustrator and graphic designer, and the linked follow-ups.
Of course, you can end up with some really clichéd covers when the market is heading in one direction, and this Book Smugglers article considers the cover clichés affecting the fantasy genre. In fact, this site has some sage advice on how to ensure your book is not immediately written off as ‘self published’.
As ever, things move fast on the internet and you’ll find as I did that a fair number of the links in these articles now go through to ‘page not found’ messages. But there are enough that should be useful.
Budget is obviously a big consideration. Some of the sites are quite pricey even for just an ebook, and the charges for custom covers can exceed $600. On the other hand, you can obtain covers very reasonably without resorting to the many sites that offer very cheap covers indeed which flag up ‘self published’ to the reader. The more professional your book looks, the more likely it is that a reader will take a chance on an unknown author.
Personally I’ve found that you can obtain very good, pro looking covers for $70 or less, and that’s including a print on demand version for CreateSpace. Generally, you should avoid those at the cheapest end that look as if they are just a single image with a title and author name superimposed, because it’s more likely that the image has been used by a number of other book covers. Having said that, the first one I purchased cost $35 for ebook alone (with the option to add print later at another $35) on Littera Designs, which has some unusual reasonably priced premades (see more below).
Planning Your Cover
So what should you consider? Well, the design should fit in with the general feel or emotion of your story. It should not be a literal portrayal of a scene, and preferably you should avoid being too literal about character appearance either, though I have tried with my choices to at least have characters that don’t jar with the descriptions in the book. One way covers frequently get round this is to show the person from the back view or to decapitate them! But this has become quite a cliché in itself, and some readers do not like these covers. Having said that, I’ve gone for that approach with my custom cover for ‘Rian’ (now to be renamed as I’ll reveal in the next few months) for the reasons I’ve explained below.
Colours are a consideration. You quite often come across those which have a mainly blue hue or red theme. There may be a psychological element with these, with colours suggesting a thriller theme – grey, black, blue – and romances perhaps being pastel and pink. There may even be colours that put people off.
Keep it bold and uncluttered, as I’ve said above; don’t try to cram in references to all the important characters or elements of your story.
Designers I’ve Used
I’ve already purchased the ebook version of a cover for ‘Green Magic’ from the very nice people at Litteradesigns and will be going back there when it’s time to do the POD as they will add the spine and back cover very reasonably. I didn’t go out of my way to deal with that book first; I just happened to see a cover that I thought would do very well when trawling through umpteen cover design sites for a cover for my fantasy epic.
I also bought a cover for ‘Mageborn’ from the very nice people at Fantasia Frog Designs and again will be returning in due course for the POD. This was another one I stumbled across when searching for a cover for ‘Rian’. In fact, I first purchased a web banner for the Ann Bradbury site from Fantasia Frog Designs, then came across the cover on their sister site, Spittyfish, and they very kindly did a few alterations to make it more fitting to the book’s main character. I’m very pleased with the result, so much so, that I asked them to do a custom cover for ‘Rian’, having exhausted the possibilities, as my hero is a wiry, slender, dark haired nineteen year old, not one of the mightily thewed barbarians, bald headed blokes or blokes-in-cowls, that appear to dominate fantasy covers at present. I’d looked for a back view with head not visible, in my quest to find a suitable image, though I’d not been successful. Anyway, they did a lot of trawling for me and came up with one that was acceptable and were very patient and flexible while I requested various customisations.
I’ve also now purchased a couple of covers from Amygdala Designs who produce some very nice covers for a reasonable fee covering both print and ebook if you need them, and one from the Cover Collection. I came across the Cover Collection early on in my search and loved quite a few of their covers, but they sadly did not fit any of my pending novels, so I was happy to find one on their sale page that should be usable for a not-yet-written sequel to ‘Mageborn’.
Now I just have to get on and edit (and in some cases write) all those books!