The Cover’s the Thing

By Claire Ryan

…the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
—Hamlet

Shakespeare was talking about theater, but the principle is the same: just like a play is a reflection of real life, a book cover is a reflection of what’s in the book.

At least, it should be.

I honestly believe that every book needs a good cover. Some indie authors like to publish with a serviceable cover and upgrade it to a better cover later, after they’ve made some sales. I think this is horrible advice. The cover is the first point of contact for most readers – going with a merely adequate one is just going to make it that much harder to get those initial sales. Authors should strive to publish with a cover that gives their book the best chance it can get from the very start, depending on their budget. Sometimes this does mean creating their own, but it’s not a job that can be done in a few minutes. A couple of days is not an unreasonable amount of time to spend on a cover for a book that took a couple of years to write.

Covers are tricky as well as important. They have to communicate a lot of information, consciously and unconsciously. If you’re going to create your own, you probably already know the basics – readable title and author name, looks good at scale, etc. Unfortunately, a truly effective design takes more than just the basics.

Visual Cues

It’s very interesting to examine what kind of visual information people pick up on when they see a cover. Little things make a lot of difference in how the book is perceived, and perception is everything. The cover should entice the reader to look at the blurb. The blurb should interest them enough to read a sample. The sample should convince them that the book is worth buying.

It’s obvious that the blurb and the sample can’t do their part if the cover doesn’t pop.

The visual cues of a cover are things like the fonts, the placement of text, the colors, the focal point. They can be simple, but they should never look unprofessional. Here’s an example:

writers week cover design

This is by far one of my favorite examples of good cover design. You can see that it’s quite simple at first glance, but there’s a lot going on there that you may not even realize you’ve processed.

The illustration is the focal point. That’s the first thing you see when you look at it, as it’s a large, centered block of color, and it tells you exactly what the book is about. It’s about struggling with questions. (The book is a literary work in which every sentence is a question.) Now, look at the position of the figure and the way his arms curve in the same rounded shape as the upper part of the question mark. He is effectively a bigger question mark that surrounds and emphasizes the smaller one.

Look at the choice of font, and how the question mark itself is a different, probably serif font to the sans-serif of the title and author name. Using a serif font there is less harsh, and more elegant, and this communicates that the question he is wrestling with isn’t entirely serious.

Now, look at the placement of the text. Why would the artist offset the first and third words in the title instead of centering them all? To leave more room for the illustration? No, that would be too easy. Instead, look at the sight lines of the cover – this is examining where and how the viewer looks at it as a whole.

writers week cover sightline

The eye starts at the focal point, then is pulled up to the title, which is the biggest text and the next most obvious thing. The offset of first and third words pulls the eye to the side and down, where it crosses the little description – “A Novel?” – and ends at the author’s name, which is centered.

Notice how the sight line also makes a curved shape like the top of the question mark?

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the obvious information, like who the author is and what the title is. Visual cues are just as important in describing a book as that. A viewer can follow the sight lines of a cover in a single glance without realizing it, and it’s up to you to make the most of that glance and make sure your book is reflected in it.

This is why nothing about a good book cover is accidental or done for convenience.

What Information?

Okay, knowing all that, the next question is what information should you convey about your book. The title and author’s name is obvious, but the choice of visual information isn’t.

It comes down to what your book is about in a couple of words. It’s about the big ideas, and there are always big ideas. I don’t mean what actually happens in the book, although you can use a scene as the illustration, because the plot is just a means of delivering the big ideas.

Think about this example: the sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama is about encountering something far beyond what we have ever known. It’s about the wonder of a technological marvel, and the fear of what it might do to us. This is reflected in the cover. The strange, cylindrical Rama dwarfs the human spaceship, beautiful, threatening and fascinating at the same time. This is what I mean by the big ideas of a book.

Fantasy and sci-fi books sometimes fall into the trap of putting a scene on the cover without any kind of context and without really saying anything about the big ideas of the book. (The original covers for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are guilty of this. The most interesting one is The Dragon Reborn. The rest are generic and mainly consist of people standing around or on horseback. They don’t do any kind of justice to the rich world Jordan created or the major themes of sacrifice and epic destiny he incorporated into his writing.) Now, it’s certainly important to follow the trends of your genre and develop a cover that will play to your target readers, but there’s a difference between having a good cover for a particular genre and having a cover that could be put on ANY book in the same genre if you changed the text. If your cover is too generic, you’re not making the best use of it.

Start with an elevator pitch, if you like. Think about how to describe your book in as few words as possible. Think about how you want the reader to feel when they read it. This is what the cover needs to convey.

Useful Resources

Here’s my round up of the best resources to help you dig in to cover design:

Inkscape – I know plenty of authors make their covers with Photoshop, but my preferred program of choice has always been Inkscape. Just watch out for the steep learning curve, and the filters tend to slow it down considerably if you overuse them. Inkscape is a vector program, so you need to have your photo or illustration ready beforehand, but it makes the actual construction of covers very easy once you get used to it.

Google Webfonts – here’s a couple of hundred free fonts. You’ll find something there you can use if you want a particular look for your cover.

Color Scheme Designer – mostly used for websites, but I also like to use it for testing different color combinations and for getting ideas. Just be aware that the color in print (if you’re publishing on something like Createspace or Lulu) will not be exactly what you see on the screen.

The Book Designer’s Ebook Cover Awards – good for looking at a snapshot of different trends from month to month, and you can submit yours if you want.

ConceptArt.org – the pit of sharks itself. If you want to get brutally honest feedback from design professionals, post your cover in the Graphic Design forum here. They may not be able to tell you what’s right for your genre, but their feedback will help you make your cover look as good as it can be.

TutsPlus – this can get you started on the nuts and bolts of design. Scroll down to the very bottom of the screen and you’ll find the Tuts+ Network, which has hundreds of tutorials (free and paid). They concentrate on Photoshop and Illustrator so their usage might be limited, but they’ll definitely give you ideas.

Noupe.com’s Graphic Design Primer – interesting reading if you want to dig into more of the theory behind design, with examples.

Claire Ryan is a graphic/web designer, all-round computer expert, programmer, data analyst, and aspiring writer. She currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, having escaped from the untamed wilderness that is the south of Ireland. Claire currently runs the Raynfall Agency, a publishing business that handles technical things for writers. 

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