How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Cover Design

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

self-publishing, authors, indie publishing, writingThis is part two of a six-part series.

Good cover design is the single most obvious way of making sure your book stands out on the shelf and looks professional.

Do Your Research

Look at your competition, both in hard copy and online. What looks professional and what looks bad? Why? Make your own list of some pitfalls to avoid and features that you like.

Think About the Ebook Version

It’s important to remember that something that works well in hard copy might not look so good as a thumbnail. A great design, though, should work in both formats.

A detailed background and delicate colors can get swallowed up at thumbnail size. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them at all, but you need to make sure that the overall design still works on a small scale.

What Type of Book Is It?

One piece of advice that I’ve heard over and over again is to make sure your cover design correctly conveys the genre of your book. You might not want your work to be pigeonholed, and you probably want it to look different from the competition, but you need to put those feelings to one side. Readers use some basic visual cues to decide whether they think they’ll enjoy your book or not. Embrace a healthy dash of cliché. If you’ve written a romance, the cover needs to say “Romance” loud and clear so that your intended readership will pick it up and have a look at the blurb.

This aspect of cover design has a big impact on completion rates. If people think they’re getting a cozy mystery and it turns out to be gory dystopian sci-fi, they’ll put the book down without reaching the end. They might only read the first chapter. If you’re publishing an ebook, this kind of thing can be tracked, and makes your book look poor when it might be a fantastic dystopian sci-fi novel! You might even get bad reviews if the content doesn’t match readers’ expectations.

Choose Fonts Wisely

It sounds obvious, but make sure your fonts are legible in thumbnail size. Test out various sizes and designs to see what works. Avoid typography that blends into the background or is over-complicated. Remember that your subtitle, if you have one, will probably be illegible on a thumbnail.

Don’t Overlook Your Branding

Is this book a one-off or are you thinking about a sequel or even series? Even if another book is only a twinkle in your eye, it’s still worth thinking about branding. Keep your “brand” in mind, because there’s no publisher to do it for you. Are there any visual elements of the cover design that can stay consistent from one book to the next? If so, they will help readers to recognize your books—and hopefully buy them if they liked the first one they read!

Use a Professional

Now is probably the right time to put in a good word for professional graphic designers. If you can possibly afford it, use one. Your aunt or your friend’s son might be a whiz with Illustrator and Photoshop, and you might even be good at design yourself. It’s not my place to tell you that your skills or those of your friends or relatives don’t cut the mustard. Maybe they do—stranger things have happened! I’m just warning you to be wary, as it’s easy to get into a position where you can’t see the design objectively anymore.

A good designer should work in partnership with you, so you can be involved with the creative process, and she shouldn’t insist on a cover you dislike. Work by a paid professional can make a huge amount of difference to the quality and “polish” of your cover.

Whatever you do, don’t just grab a stock image—especially a free one—and slap some text over it. Even if the image itself is visually striking, the chances of it looking good are vanishingly small. And if you use a free image, there’s a high chance that someone else has used it before.

Don’t Fall at the Final Hurdle!

Don’t forget that the spine and back cover need to be designed as well. It might not seem like much, but a professional touch here can make the difference between your book looking amateurish and looking professional. If you look at the back of any book on your shelves, you’ll see that there’s quite a lot going on, and it needs to look clear and harmonious.

Make sure you get the front and back of your book edited, as well as the content. Have your editor give it all a once-over. This includes the title, your name, the spine, the blurb on the back and anything inside the covers, such as an author biography. Yes, it is possible to have a typo on the spine—and imagine how you’d feel.


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2 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Cover Design

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: \Whatever you do, don’t just grab a stock image—especially a free one—and slap some text over it. Even if the image itself is visually striking, the chances of it looking good are vanishingly small.\

    That’s both true and not-true. If you \just grab a stock image,\ it is likely to be a poor choice. But if you spend hours examining hundreds of professionally done stock photos from multiple sources, you’re like to find one that is marvelous.

    I’ve been doing a series of books about hospital care and how it can be improved. Here’s the one about when I worked with children with leukemia. The front cover is a lovely girl just before she was diagnosed. The back cover is her in the middle of her treatment. That, I note inside, is precisely what treated leukemia means. It means taking children who look like that front cover and making them look like the back cover. Grim but real.
    http://inklingbooks.prosite.com/221883/2467804/gallery/my-nights-with-leukemia

    Another in the series is practical advice to hospitalized teen girls on how to avoid embarrassment. Since gowns create a lot of the embarrassing situations, I chose that theme, suggested by a friend, for the title and front cover.
    http://inklingbooks.prosite.com/221883/2467790/gallery/hospital-gowns-and-other-embarrrassments

    The most recent book suggests nursing morale could beneft from having a specific hospital speciality called a senior nurse mentor dedicated to nurse morale. The cover perfectly illustrates what such a nurse might look like, experienced and capable but a bit older:
    https://indd.adobe.com/view/c1892142-ecf8-4621-a7a9-eee8f0ce19ab

    And the one I’m working on now deals with how hospital staff can make the stay of all patients less embarrassing. And yes, if I’d simply grabbed a stock photo it would have looked awful, perhaps a dull picture of a doctor and nurse standing at the bedside of a patient. I actually explored that option. But I also spent hours thinking and rethinking how I could deal with a theme like embarrassment in a creative, inventive way. This is the draft cover. I think it’s a marvelous solution.
    https://indd.adobe.com/view/094714fb-82c3-4f13-bfa1-07215cc064d1

    Quite frankly, you can get dull, repetitive covers by any of a hundred different paths. The only way to get a good one is to put in the time to make it stand out. There aren’t any shortcuts. The advantage of using stock photos is that, once you’ve found just the right one, you benefit inexpensively from the talents of a professional. Use a pasted-together collage of images like many book covers do to be different and you face double trouble. 1. Only a really talented (and expensiver) cover designer can manage a collage well. 2. That collage won’t scale well down to a thumbnail.
    —–
    I also wonder about this remark, particularly for print books: \If you’ve written a romance, the cover needs to say “Romance” loud and clear so that your intended readership will pick it up and have a look at the blurb.\

    My hunch is that quite a few women don’t want that romance novel’s cover to shout to all around them, \Hey, look at the shirtless hulk on the cover of the book I’m reading. My life is so devoid of romance, I have to read about it.\
    —–
    I’ll toss in a practical suggestion about the relationship between the two covers and spine. POD from Ingram Spark/LightningSource/CreateSpace all have spine alignment issues. Don’t use a design that features different colors for those three sections. If at all possible, have the same color wrap around the spine to all three. (As you can see above, for all but one of my medical books, that’s white.) You can’t keep the spine text from being off-center, but you can prevent an ugly vertical bar of a contrasting spine color from intruding onto the front or back cover.

    —Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

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