Saturday, 3 May 2014

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Artists can be stubborn and I am no different. When I decided to self publish my 3 fiction novels a year ago, I wanted to do so with my own covers. I wanted them to be personal. To have a genuine connection to the story. My first 2 novels were inspired by my days backpacking and as such, I was determined to use photographs from those travels as the basis for the covers.

Below are the images that I chose and I have stuck with them through all of my redesigns.

When I began,I had no experience of photo manipulation and no real vision for how the covers should look. Suffice to say, the results were not pretty. The first attempts were nothing short of hideous.

Would you see these on the shelves of the local Waterstone's or Barnes & Noble? Of course not. They would look just as out of place on the virtual shelves at Amazon. Pretty soon, I realised that a lot more work was necessary. So I got back to the drawing board.

An improvement. Particularly with Stealing Asia, but I was far from satisfied. Neither successfully conveys any sort of tone for the book. Again, they just do not look like the sort of covers that you get on published books. They look amateurish.

For my latest (and hopefully, final, designs) I tried to figure out exactly what a book cover should be. My conclusion surprised me, as I realsied that I had been approaching the task in completely the wrong way. When I started the designs, I had begun with photographs. I had mistakenly assumed that the cover art was the most important aspect. It is not (unless your target audience is children). The most important feature on a book cover is the text.

Many publishers dispense with the cover picture altogether when it comes to their big name authors. They simply state the author and title in as big and bold writing as possible and that is enough for readers. Obviously, I am not yet a big name author so I cannot rely on my name alone to sell the books. I need an image, but one that is firmly in the background. It is the text that overlays the image that makes a book cover. Without this, all you have is a pretty picture.

The cover text has 3 components: Title, author and subtext. The fonts you use depend on the genre. For thrillers/action/horror (I am a member of the trans-genre community - don't judge me) bold capitals are the way forward. Believe me, this is important. I have tried my name in lower case and it looks like I am selling chick-lit.

The title should be the biggest and boldest (remember, it has to be instantly legible as a thumbnail, which is how the readers will first see it on Amazon). For the author name, I think that consistency is the key. If you have multiple books, then always use the same font, size, colour and placing for your name. It is all about establishing a recognisable brand.

Lastly is the subtext. The subtext can come in many forms. An author can simply state their credentials (if the book/writer has won any awards or topped a bestseller list, this is where to put it). If you have had a prestigious review - quote it here. Alternatively, a teaser line can be used. This is where you need to hook the reader. A title alone does not reveal much about plot so this is your last chance to let the reader know what kind of story they will be reading. The teaser should contain keywords, which capture the tone of the book. As you will see in my final designs, for The Outback, the keywords are backpacking and murder. For Stealing Asia, it is paradise and not what it seems.

Below are my new designs. For the first time, I feel that they are actually book covers.

One year into my publishing journey and I have finally nailed all of the elements I discussed above. Sure, it would have been a lot easier to have simply hired a professional designer from the start, but where is the fun in that? There is also a great deal of confusion in the indie world over what constitutes professional. A real pro costs money. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are a lot of sharks out there who think that just because they own a pirated copy of Photoshop and know the basics that they have the right to call themselves professional designers and charge money. They do not. If you are going to pay somebody to add a bit of text to a stock image, you would do better to invest the cash into learning how to do so yourself.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.


  1. Thank you this is great tips.

  2. What type of program do you use for your covers? I use PaintNet but it's very limited.

    1. I actually used the most basic tools available. I did both of the covers using an online editor called Ribbet. From my experience, I actually think that it is best to use basic tools unless you have had some training in design. Each cover was done in just 3 steps. First I applied a tint, then I used an effect called "vignette", which darkened the edges and gave it a more intimate and 3 dimensional feel before finally overlaying the text.

      The reason I think it is best to keep things simple is that I have seen too many terrible covers built on Photoshop where people have been completely out of their depth. They use too many layers and try to encompass too many elements. Tools that are designed for professionals should only be used by professionals.

      A neat analogy is this. Put a kid in a go kart and he can ride around to his heart's content. Put him in a car and even if he figures out how to start the engine, he is not going to know how to work the clutch or operate the gears. He is going nowhere unless he accidentally knocks the handbrake off in which case he is in trouble. If you don't know how to drive - stick to the go kart.

    2. I have looked at your covers and I think you are on the right track with the images. If you wanted to improve them, I would suggest experimenting with different fonts for the text. The best way is too think as if you are designing the cover for a paperback rather than an ebook. Look at published books and see what kind of fonts they use. For Chip Off The Old Block I would suggest placing the 2 lines of the title directly over one another at the bottom. I would then add some subtext along the top end (ie a teaser line or quote from a review etc) to add balance. Good work though.