7 Rules for Cover Design
I feel like I harp on this topic. Covers, cover art, cover design… if it’s ever too much, tell me. Here’s the thing, though. It’s not just that I’m an artist and designer and I enjoy the process of book creation. It’s that even though people will say they don’t care about a book cover, they actually do. They will totally judge your book by it’s cover. And your book cover signals a lot about your book, whether you are conscious of it, or not. Every little choice, from font to color focus, says something about the book. I think by now everyone reading this knows the cardinal rule of a book cover: cover art is a marketing tool, not a scene from the book. Sure, there are rare exceptions where a scene depiction works as cover art. But it’s not common, and besides that, the second rule of book cover design is: it absolutely must be legible at thumbnail sizes.
- Book Covers are Marketing Tools
- Clearly Readable at Thumbnail
- Fits into Genre Conventions
- Use Legible Fonts
- Choose Good Art, or at least Clean Backgrounds
- Make the Author Name Bigger
- Never, Ever, Use an Unfiltered Photograph on Fiction
So there’s my seven rules of book covering. I think rule one is an umbrella rule that covers all the others, so I won’t address it directly. Instead, let’s talk about why the cover must be clear at a very small size. Most readers are not going to encounter your book cover for the first time on a print book. That’s not to say you cannot have a great cover which works all the way from thumbnail to poster or even banner size. You can, although it’s trickier than a simple, punchy ebook cover. However, when you look at your sales numbers realistically, where are the majority of them coming from? Ebooks or online purchases? What size is that cover on screen when you go look at it? Ok, now you understand.
Third rule, genre conventions. Genre may have evolved as a means to shelve books of a kind together, and you may not want to label your book as a specific genre. I get that. I really do. My Pixie for Hire series is technically Urban Fantasy although there’s nothing urban about it. However, by looking at books similar to yours, you can better design a cover that will attract readers who want to read that kind of books. The best way to do this is to take a look at the top 100 best sellers in your sub-genre on Amazon. This will give you an idea of the colors, styles, and general feel of art on the books that sell. Sure, rules are meant to be broken. But if you break them too hard, the results will be disappointing. Covers set the mood for the reader as they enter your book – think of them as a door. If you have a playful, colorful door on your book, but the material inside is dark and heavy, the reader is going to experience cognitive dissonance, and not in a good way. Also, the character on the cover is going to lead the reader to believe that’s what is is the book: put children or teens on a cover, and everyone is going to assume that is the target audience, even if you think it’s good for all ages.
Using legible fonts seems obvious, right up until it isn’t. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of fonts out there. If you go take a look at dafont, you’ll find yourself clicking through for hours (ok, maybe that’s just me). Font choice is huge. You can, in theory, signal genre and mood just with font choice, leaving out art or using minimal art. However, here’s where we come back to thumbnail. Step across the room. Can you still read it at a glance? Ask a friend. Can they read it? Worse, does kerning make it appear to say something you didn’t intend (imagine ‘flick’ in a very Bad Font)? You can use an expressive font without crossing the line into purely decorative. Some simple rules to keep in mind: never use more than three different fonts (and really, two is plenty) on a cover. Never use a font you’d use inside the book: i.e. Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, Georgia and so on.
Cover art runs the gamut from expensive and effective, to cheap and effective. You can certainly commission a professional artist to create art, but keep in mind that artists are rarely also designers, and a brilliant piece of art with poor design is almost worse than bad art. Almost. I have seen some phenomenally bad art, and if you want to see a gallery of mistakes to learn from, check out Lousy Book Covers. That being said – take a look at the latest versions of the Harry Potter Books, at the Game of Thrones books, and Twilight. The art is excellently executed, minimal, and leaves plenty of room for text to highlight what they are at a thumbnail size. I am not saying copy them – don’t! – I am suggesting that when it comes to art for an ebook, less is more and too much detail can make for a muddy thumbnail. Which is also why you don’t want to recreate a scene on a cover. I once had a potential client approach me wanting about six figures on the cover, telling me which celebrities those characters should recognizably resemble, and I politely declined. It would have been a hot mess, and a potential lawsuit. Another thing to keep in mind with cover art is that if you plan to have a print edition, the art will appear darker in print than it does on screen.
Make your name bigger. I really mean it! Bigger! Years back when I first got into this game, I took a workshop from Dean Wesley Smith on cover design. If he is still offering it, you should invest in it if you will be publishing multiple books – even if you aren’t doing your own covers. I wouldn’t spoil it and share all the secrets, but the one thing that really stuck out to me was the psychology behind making an author’s name bigger. It’s not just that it signals Best Seller status (see above minimal cover art examples), it’s that it sticks the name in the reader’s mind, so when they are looking for books, they remember your name. It’s that simple. You have to be remembered, and the best way to be remembered is to stick your name out there loud and proud. So make your name bigger than you think it ought to be. Seriously, don’t make me come find you and give you the Mom glare.
I am seeing this trend more and more, and I really hate it. Yes, I know that photos are cheaper (i.e. free from Pixabay or Morguefile) and you don’t have photoshop. There are other options to make your photo you really want to use as cover art into something that can actually be used as cover art, it’s just going to take time and effort on your part. Well, given the proliferation of art filtering apps for photos (take a look at the hastag #filteredaf on Instagram, for example) it’s actually neither hard nor expensive to do. Sarah Hoyt favors Filter Forge, which can be spendy to start, but it’s effective. Photoshop (which can be had for $10 a month, sucks, but still) has a built in filter gallery that can be layered up for useful effects. Look up double exposed effects, and spend some time playing with tutorials – there are more than you can imagine. Invest some time. But please don’t use unfiltered photos on fiction, it looks cheap, and crappy, and readers will be put off.
So that’s my seven rules, although I reserve the right to add more later! And this is my latest cover. It’s a blended piece of a photo (hah!) and illustration, and font to signal humor. The primary color of greens and yellows is to signal gross, and a bit creepy. But it’s not pure horror, so I stayed away from reds. Lab Gremlins is my latest novella, which will be released on Halloween day. I’m pretty excited about it!
Plus! Continuing my Halloween month of giveaways, you can click on this cover, which absolutely does signal horror, mystery, magic, and yes, a child… for a free novella.