Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Unless you’re a seasoned graphic designer and not only that but also an expert in book-cover design, I recommend, right away, that you don’t even consider designing your own cover. Yes, I know it will be faster & cheaper to do it yourself, but you will pay dearly in the long run. Dearly!

The cover of your book is instant visual branding…

Neil Mach

More than half of all readers make their purchase choice based solely on cover artwork. The publisher “Little Brown Group” conducted a recent poll and found that ‘dark and moody’ designs were favorites, although images of animals and / or men seemed to put people off. And in this world of social media and instant photographic images, the visual impact of your product (because that’s what a book is, a book is a product) must cut through (if not hammer through) then overtake all the other books in the book-buyers universe if you wish to succeed. The imagery of your product must be especially competitive now that marketing graphics overwhelm our lives.

Clockwork Orange

Your book cover must do two things: 1) it must jiggle a new reader’s curiosity buttons so they pick it up (perhaps click on a thumbnail) and read the blurb, and 2) it must represent the genre or writing style they seek (so they don’t waste time clicking on books that don’t interest them.)

So the cover of your book is shorthand. It’s a shorthand icon. An instant visual branding. And it’s the first step (therefore the most important step) in a new customer journey. If you fail at the first hurdle, what are your chances of success and achievement? Answer: none. That’s how important your book cover design is. It’s the difference between blockbuster glory, living a fabulous life in a castle filled with servants or lacklustre ignominy, living a miserable life in a low-rent trailer filled with cats.

Even the color palette you dare choose needs to function as identification and insight — for example, a horror or thriller will use dark colours, while a romance will use pastels. And that’s just a taster of all the nuances!

Are you absolutely sure you want to design your own cover?

Let me add, for all the reasons I just gave, a book cover design project is too darned important to allow an amateur dabbler anywhere near it! Although there will be lots of goofers & braggarts who’ll offer to take on the project for peanuts; But be sure they’ll hand over a dog’s casserole in return for your gullible trustfulness. You have been warned! If anyone offers to do your cover, be suspicious. Be reluctant to say yes. Because why would an experienced book cover designer offer a freebie — or trade away hours of work in return for trinkets? Think about it! They’ll be exploiting you (and your beautiful book) so practice two simple words and use them freely: “no thanks” and you will be released from a nightmare. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a cover you loathe (see William Goldman’s, below) and in that very icky place where you feel you have to keep something even though you hate it, because you will look stupid if you don’t “stick with it…”

The Princess Bride

And, another thing, never rope-in an enthusiastic friend to do the job, especially if he or she is “good with art.” Because being “good with art” is not a qualification. It’s a compliment. And your treasured friendship will founder on the jagged rocks of shortcoming and the icy shards of deficiency when they present a design to you that is simply not up to the task. You’ll have to say “not on your nelly” — which will be equally galling for you and your friend — or (worse) you will be stuck with a stinky cover because saying “no” would cost a friendship.

But if you are still thinking about doing it yourself, at least do the following things. Here are four vital elements that most novice authors don’t even think about before designing their own book cover:

1: Develop your book cover ideas

Gather some friends. A dozen ought to do it. Provide snacks and drinks. It’s going to be a party. Once they are nicely settled and suitably squiffy, tell them you need help. Explain your book idea to them (the theme and the blurb). Then, together, develop ideas for the cover art. Keep things light and chatty. A good sign is lots of belly laughs. Take notes. Be sure to tell them (a lot) how much you love and need them. Don’t talk anyone down. Never argue. Just listen to the world of possibilities. The reason you’ll have to do all this (and, yes, you’ll need to pay for the drinks and snacks out of your own pocket) is because you don’t work in a vibrant and expressively witty creative “space” like all the thinkers-and-visionaries do in “real” design houses: so this party will be the next-best-thing. You have to be honest with yourself too: you don’t have the right frame of mind for book cover design (because you’re an author) but your friends will have successfully bought books from retailers and so they’ll know all about it. They are the audience. An audience of book buyers. They are perhaps even prospective readers of your books. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? So get them involved from the beginning. You can call your party a “brainstorming event” if you absolutely must, but I suggest you call it what it actually is: a helpful chitchat.

2: Choose the right fonts and color schemes for your genre

As I already mentioned, fonts matter! First, do you know your genre? (If not, why the heck are you already working on your cover design? Holy flapdoodle! Stop trying to run before you can walk!) But, let’s trust you know what your genre is, go look at all the other books in your chosen genre and see what they’re like. (Well, clearly not all of them because they will take forever) but go check-out almost all the best sellers in your chosen genre either in your local bookstore or on Amazon. See them? See them all? What font do they use? What is the predominant color scheme? How big are the titles? Where is the author’s name placed? How big is the name, compared to the title? Is other writing on the front? What is it? See how some covers stand out from others even when they are insignificant thumbnails. Why?

I know you might think, right now, you want “something different” and you probably have a deep-seated desire to be contrastive. Or inconsistent. Or peculiar. I understand it. I get it. Of course you want to be distinctive. That is precisely what makes you the extraordinary human being you have become. But, trust me, that stance won’t help your customers. In this matter, they come first. Do you remember I already told you two things that every book cover should do? Do you remember the second of these essential things was that it should represent the genre or style of writing that they (the book-buying public) were looking for? And that’s why (on this occasion) you must comply and conform with their wishes. Like the Madmen say: give them what they want.

So you’ve developed your book cover ideas and you’ve created an impressive list of “must haves” following research on fonts and color schemes… what’s next?

3: Create some different cover options (at least three)

I’m not going to explain magically (in a blog post) how to create art using design software. If you don’t know how to do this, you are not just running before you can walk, you’re running before you can crawl across the room in your diaper. But let’s suppose you are moderately proficient in graphics editing and you are more-than-familiar with image editing software (and you have reviewed recent advancements & best practices) don’t settle for creating just one option for your project: layout at least three very different design options. This is how they would do it in a fancy design studio… they would never go to a client with a single idea. They’d lay out a (minimum) of three design concepts for him or her to mull over. So get to work, work, work, work, work, work (as Rihanna would say) and ultimately present three cover options.

4: Test your cover options on a real audience

So you have your three best cover options… it’s time to show them to an audience. I am optimistic at this point and assume you have, by now, accumulated a healthy & flourishing group of followers on your social media or your fat email list (if you go that route) so the next thing to do is create a post and ask them for their honest, unrestrained (and ruthless) opinions about your three best hopes.

Once you’ve dealt with the fierce and untethered criticism (it won’t be nice, but it will be instructive) and after you’ve duly made the changes & alterations they demand before they stop their squawking and growling, the next step is to force them into choosing a favourite or at least ranking them in some kind of order. I normally opt for most-worst to least-best. I customarily do this by running a poll on my socials.

Warning: What’s scarier than fierce, untethered criticism? Nothing! If nothing comes back after you submitted three cover options for a barrage of criticism, you have a problem, Houston. At this point you will understand the adage: in space no one can hear you scream! If your most loyal fans have ignored, evaded, or even cold-shouldered your designs (or they simply weren’t aware of your covers) how do you expect the larger book-buying public will react?

So what went wrong? Try pushing your three book designs again. Try throwing another party and asking guests what they think. This will mean buying-in more snacks and drinks, and I suppose there will be less cooperation this time around because your friends will be wise to your hidden agenda… so you might have to you do something crazy like hire jugglers, celebrities, or — in worse case scenarios — troupes of Chippendales and/or sexy burlesque dancers. Tip: always ask for thoughts about cover designs before Chippendale dancers do the jiggle!

So there you have it. What’s the object lesson of this sermon?

Get a pro to handle your visual communication. Stick to word mangling!

Words: @neilmach June 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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