Admit it. You’ve judged a book by its cover in the past. No, you may not have put the book down and refused to buy it, but I’m willing to bet you picked one up and read the back because the cover caught your attention.
Am I wrong?
A bad cover may not hurt your sales, but a good cover will improve them. Human beings are visual creatures, and as writers/publishers we need to take advantage of this whenever possible. So how do we make sure we’re producing the best possible cover?
KNOW YOUR GENRE
This can’t be overstated. Every genre will have its own set of expectations on what a “good” cover looks like. Even within genres those expectations may vary by a huge margin. For example, in my genre (Fantasy), you see covers ranging from the abstract/conceptual to covers that depict a scene from the book. I’ve always gravitated toward the latter as a fantasy reader, so I decided early on that this was the type of cover I wanted for my own book.
Just keep in mind that if your audience is looking for a cloaked figure with a dagger, and you give them Fabio with a beautiful, scantily-clad woman in his arms, you’re probably going to alienate a large part of your core audience. And vice-versa for you romance writers who are playing around with the idea of putting nothing more than a king’s crown on your cover.
STUDY PROFESSIONAL COVERS
Your primary goal, as an independent author at this stage of the publication process, should be to produce an end product that is virtually indistinguishable from the big publishing houses. If a reader can hold your book in one hand, and a book published by Simon and Schuster in the other, and see the difference immediately, you have failed. Remember, you’re trying to remove the obstacles between your reader and the checkout stand (virtual or otherwise). The cover is the first indication of the quality within, whether you abhor that statement or not. Look, I’m not telling you how the buying public should behave. I’m telling you how they do behave. And if your cover smacks of unprofessional quality, don’t be surprised when the reader buys the Simon and Schuster book instead.
For now, start studying professional-quality covers in your genre and see how the big boys do it. I’m not suggesting we start producing copy-cat cliche covers. But I am suggesting that we have a duty to produce covers that meet or exceed the quality of the big publishing houses. We owe this to our readers. We owe it to our own sense of professionalism.
DON’T DO IT YOURSELF
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a king’s ransom on a cover. But unless you’re a professional cover designer with some mad artistic ability, you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re producing professional quality covers by throwing together some composite stock images. Keep in mind that artistic ability and the ability to design a book cover are not the same skill set. You may know how to draw a great logo, or create scenes worthy of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but unless you know something about composition in the context of a book cover, the art may work against rather than for you.
In the process of producing the cover for Necromancer Awakening, I discovered a wonderful service called Elance. This is a web-based service that connects freelancers with hiring managers. All you have to do is create a free account and post a job announcement. Voila! You’re a hiring manager! You set the date range on how long you’ll accept “proposals”, and then you sit back and watch the bidding war begin. You can state a price range on what you’re willing to pay for the work so that artists don’t waste their time on a bid that has no chance from the get go. But since this was my first attempt at hiring a professional artist, I had no idea what a reasonable price would be, so I didn’t supply a price range. I wanted to see what people would bid, given the detailed description I offered in the job announcement. The bids came back from as low as $50 to as high as $2000.
And I noticed something interesting.
The $2000 artists were no qualitatively better than the $50 artists. Yes, some outliers on both ends of the spectrum demonstrated their cost-to-ability ratio, but this was the exception and not the rule. Ultimately I settled on a wonderful artist who charged me $200 for the work, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome or the experience of working with her. For that price I received front, back, and spine images, and she allowed me as many revisions as I wished prior to final approval.
An additional word about Elance: It’s written in their terms of service that as soon as you approve the work and pay the artist, all intellectual property rights to the work are transferred to you.
AUDITION THE TALENT
makes this easy. When an artist submits a proposal, they include a link to their portfolio, some of which are managed by Elance, and others link to external sites that host their images. Whether using Elance or not, make sure the artist you’re considering has a style that speaks to you. Remember, if the cover doesn’t conjure an emotion in you, then how do you expect it to do so in a member of your core audience? Also—and I can’t stress this enough—make sure the artist you’re considering has experience designing a cover. If you know a lot about cover design and feel as if you can mentor a cover design “newbie” through the process, then go for it. Only you know if you’re capable of doing that. But if you don’t have the knowledge and experience to do so, you’ll be far better off hiring an artist who does.
CREATE A DESIGN BRIEF
Just because you’re not a professional cover designer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some idea of what you want to see on your cover. Your artist isn’t a mind reader. You need to do your homework up front and be prepared to hit the ground running when you hire an artist who catches your eye. While sorting through job proposals, I developed something called a “design brief”, which is nothing more than a document I can hand off to the artist to answer basic questions and give them general guidance. The design brief included the following bits of information (in order):
- Title of Book
- Description (the entire back cover copy)
- Short description of the emotions I wish to invoke in the reader/viewer
- Specifications (a general list of “must haves”. e.g. “Title must be legible as thumbnail.” “Image must look good in gray scale”, etc.)
- Entire Elance job description.
A note about #6: I spent a couple of hours hand-crafting the job description before I posted it. It was a painfully detailed description of the scene I wanted illustrated. I did this because, as I mentioned above, I had no idea what the “going price” was for this kind of work. I wanted the potential job candidates to have as much information up front as possible, so that I’d have no nasty surprises after hiring someone (I didn’t want to hear “Whoa! I had no idea you wanted THAT much! I need to either drop out or ask you for more money.”) Had I not written such a detailed Elance job description, then I would have included that painfully detailed description in the #6 slot above. I strongly recommend you do the work up front, however, to avoid any surprises down the road.
Above all else, make sure you’re happy with the cover before you give final approval. Your target audience is you. If you don’t like your cover, neither will your target audience!
Happy cover designing!
[UPDATE 5/10/2014] I’m happier than ever with my decision to hire a professional to develop my cover. Though there were naysayers when my cover was first revealed (primarily by other cover designers), the cover I went with for Necromancer Awakening is routinely complimented by critics. Necromancer Awakening is now an Amazon bestseller, and I’d like to think the cover had something to do with that.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.