How to create a book cover

Knowing how to create a book cover that draws readers is vital if you want to build a loyal following. Recently Bridget wrote a book on how to write a novel. As it turns out, we don’t know everything about publishing a book (including how to create a book cover) and so had to call on the experts for some help. Luckily we have Peter Barlow,  who amongst his other talents is Designer of Books at Now Novel, and  he helped us out with our questions. We found Peter’s insights extremely helpful so of course we couldn’t withhold them from you. Enjoy!

How to create a book cover: Examining function

The most basic function of a book cover is, of course, to attract a potential reader’s attention. The cover is a book’s free advertisement and creates a lasting first impression that can make or break sales (yes, people do judge a book by its cover). However, non-fiction and fiction covers differ intrinsically in their functions and these are tied to what a reader is looking to get out of reading that particular book.
In a nutshell the cover of a book is integral to the sales process and must:
1) get a potential reader’s attention,
2) create interest as well as credibility and,
3) convince potential readers that the book is something of value to them and worth their time and money (you are asking readers to invest both resources).

The psychology of covers and the purchase decision

Non-fiction covers need to look professional and authoritative – potential readers need to get the sense that this book is credible and that, if they invest their time and money in it, they will learn something from it. If the book is tied to a business with an established look and feel (e.g.: colours, fonts, icons etc) then that will need to be brought through to the resulting cover as well.
Covers for fiction books primarily need to intrigue readers into buying the book and investing their time for the pleasure of reading. In other words, potential readers of the fiction book need to be convinced that they will be entertained and want to pick the book up. Many authors try to cram too much onto a cover which is a mistake (see “Less is more” below).
Instead the cover for a work of fiction should attempt to capture the essence of what the book is about so as to compel the reader to purchase the book. This could either be through a particular theme in the narrative, an important event/scene in the book or the main character in a particular setting (use characters on covers with care, see “Putting people on your cover” below).
For genre fiction it is extremely important that the cover at least creates the feeling that the book belongs in that genre. For example, there are certain commonalities in covers in, say, the romance genre which (the often voracious) romance readers will look for and feel comfortable with.
Creating a cover that strays too far from the general look of the genre could put some readers off and harm sales (see “A word on trends below”).
less is more

Some general thoughts approaching designing covers

Less is more (fiction and non-fiction)
Some first-time authors naturally feel very insecure about their books and want to cram as much information as possible about the story onto the cover in a misguided attempt to draw potential readers in.
This approach actually has the opposite effect as the title often gets lost in the clutter and these sorts of covers end up looking quite unprofessional. Covers that attempt to say too much sometimes can also look dated and boring very quickly while cleaner covers are definitely more intriguing and interesting.
Putting people on your cover (primarily fiction)
In my view, the hallmark of a good book is one in which the author really draws the reader in by not describing things in too much detail but focuses on the action and advancing the narrative. In other words, the author gives just enough of a description to set the reader’s thoughts in motion but leaves certain things up to a reader’s imagination.
This should be taken into account when deciding what should be included on the cover. For example, if you put a very clear image of your hero on the cover, you are potentially robbing your readers of the joy of forming an image in their minds of what they hero looks like – thereby becoming more invested in the story by making certain parts their “own”. The same can go for scenes, buildings, vehicles and so on. Nobody said covers were easy to get right.
A word on trends (primarily genre fiction)
While I would rather focus on creating a cover that is as timeless as possible instead of doggedly following trends, the resulting cover still has to be fit for purpose and send the right message for the genre/subject. Many authors want their covers to be wildly different from others in the genre but I believe that this can alienate some readers. The challenge here is to make the cover different enough so as to stand out and draw attention but not so different that it makes the book look odd sitting on a shelf next the competing titles.

Working with a designer and crafting a brief

The cover design process should be seen as a collaborative one between the designer and the author. First-time authors often come to a designer with very set ideas of what they want to see on their book’s cover. I encourage authors to come to me with cover ideas because they know the project the best, but authors also need to keep an open mind to a designer’s suggestions and the rationale for those ideas (a good designer will always be able to explain their concepts and choices).
It is important to remember that the designer is a professional who also wants to see your book succeed and operates with the best interest of the project at heart at all times – they are not just a hand on a mouse executing your ideas verbatim.
A good cover will be true to the book’s story while also being fit for purpose and able to compete for a potential reader’s attention against other books which may have been traditionally published and had cover budgets of thousands of dollars. The process of getting there is starting off with a clear and comprehensive brief.
An effective brief should chart the starting point of a project, not necessarily dictate its final result. In other words, some initial ideas should be outlined but these should be flexible as they could change for the better as the project progresses and a clearer direction becomes apparent. At the same time the brief should clearly define the scope and objectives of the project which help to set up some boundaries and focus the project so that it does not run on forever (thereby helping to keep costs down too).
In keeping with the collaborative nature of any design project, the brief should also be written collaboratively too, with the designer collecting pieces of information from the author and then putting them together to form a brief that everyone can work from.

The information which every cover design project needs to get started is as follows:

  • The title of the book (is it final? Does the author need help coming up with one?)
  • The genre and sub-genres of the book as perceived by the author
  • The book’s intended audience and age group (especially important for books aimed at children and young adults)
  • What is the book about? What are the major themes? (This may take the form of a bulleted list or a synopsis.)
  • Is the book going to be part of a series?
  • Will the book be an e-book only or appear in print as well?
  • If the book is going to be in print, what size have you chosen? Do you need help deciding? (The size and format of the book can actually say a lot about it and affect the profit margin so this should not be an arbitrary decision).
  • Are there any particular covers out there you like? (I throw this question in as it can create an interesting starting point for the initial concepts of the cover while also giving an insight into what the author may want for their book and whether or not they may need to revise this, given the various factors I discussed above).
book cover
Once the brief has been written and negotiated, the cover design process can begin. The designer will most likely put together some rough concepts which may either be in the form of sketches and/or paragraphs explaining what directions the designer is suggesting.
These concepts are talked through and the strongest one chosen to be developed into the final cover. During this phase, an illustrator may be commissioned (after seeing samples related to the concepts and if budget allows) or stock images purchased (as approved by the author).
The designer will then set about creating the first proof and present it to the client with a rationale for things like typography and colour choices. From there, the cover could go through several rounds of tweaks or changes before being approved, depending on whether or not the direction proved to be sound and what sort of budget the author has approved.
Good luck with your cover!
Images from here, here and here



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