Romancing the Cover

Yes, I had some questions and kind of requests for genres, but it was either hazy or confused.  (Or I am. Not sure which.)

So I’ll do this post, and maybe others when things strike me.  If you do a search on my name and covers, you’ll find my other posts on this, recently.  It was supposed to be a series, but this summer intervened (and it’s been A summer) and I think I ran out of steam.

So I’ll reeiterate the principles of a good cover here, then do intermittent cover posts as I think it’s needed.  Okay?

So how to do or evaluate a cover:

1- A cover is not a representation of your novel.

Think about it. Before people read your novel, they don’t know if the cover is a scene or not. They just know it’s attractive and “signals” genre or not.

2- The cover is an advertisement for your book.

Or at the very least, it shouldn’t work against it.  I’ve recently run into a very nice man, who wasn’t getting a cover for his book “just yet” because he wanted to make money to afford the cover.  The problem is what he had looked like the free vector things we used in the 90s for company newsletters.  It screamed “Amateur” so much that even if his blurb had been the most enticing thing ever, I’d never have picked it up without knowing the author. The back of my brain would have said “Nope, nope, nope. Rank amateur. Nope.”

3- As an advertisement — or at least NOT a deterrent — for your book, the cover NEEDS to work at a subconscious level.

Why? Because no one stops to think “Should I buy this book? The cover kind of sucks/or is good.  That’s not how any of this works.  You’re browsing an endless list of books, and you have a few thousands to come.  If you’re like me, you skim past pages, till something catches your eye. If your cover is not knock down gorgeous (most aren’t.) what catches my eye is the title or author’s name (if I’ve read you or bought you before.) The cover’s job here — unless, again, intriguing or spectacularly gorgeous — is simply not to put me off.

Can it grab me and pull me in? Sure. But even for traditional publishing with what they pay artists? that’s a cover in a thousand. If you can get that, great. If not…

4- So how not to put off the reader is the important thing.

Which means your cover most of all has to look like the other covers in its subspecialties.

So, if you’re looking, to do say a YA cover, you go look at those and your specific genre.

Not only do genres (and sometimes subgenres) have very specific requirements, but they change.

For as long as I’ve known, cozy had cartoonish covers.  Now, most since the early 00s have “vectors covers” i.e. things put together, like a teacup and a cat.

That’s changing with indie, weirdly to more “scene covers” with the main character and the small town in the background, or whatever.

Historical? used to have d*mn impressive oil paintings. But since it’s almost exclusively the province of indie, it’s changed to be “pieces of masonry” or an old illuminated manuscript or things like that.  (I still don’t know what to do with musketeers.)

Mil SF used to be “Baen covers” with heroic person often in mil uniform.  Now because of indie, it’s mostly spaceships, in space.

So, here are your steps for a cover on a budget (mostly if you’re doing it yourself.) that doesn’t put people off:

1- Go look at covers.

2- decide BROADLY what you want. It makes no difference if your character’s hair is the wrong color, or whatever.  Get genre signaling.  If you have elves, indicate that by having an elf on the cover.  If you have space… anyway. That.
DO NOT GIVE ME A  PARK BENCH AND TELL ME IT’S SCIENCE FICTION.  Even if there’s a park bench in the story.

3- But Sarah, what if all I have is a picture of a park bench?
Then you’re sorely lacking in resources.  Places like and others (the last one I used was dreamstime, so I’m not up on the others) will sell you royalty free art for a modicum of money.  Like $15. You can afford that. Skip coffee for three days or something.

But if you can’t afford that, there’s free pictures, too. is where we usually get our header pictures.

4- If you need to put two pictures together, or whatever, figure out what program you’re okay with. Gimp and are free.

5- Letter that cover

A- Never use interior fonts.  So, Times New Roman, Arial, and such are out.

B- If you have a good eye, see what font is being used in the samples you browsed through.  Then go to a free font site, and browse that.  Look at the rights VERY CAREFULLY.  Most of them these days tell you whether you can use it for ebooks or not. Weirdly, even a lot that are free for commercial uses will say “except ebooks.” Meh.  Roll with it. Just be careful.

C- If you don’t have a good eye just search SF or Fantasy fonts.  Remember you want them minimally readable.


Look at the size of the fonts for author and title in your samples and MATCH THAT.

I have clue zero why, but when we first make covers ALL of us do this: we make the author name tinny tiny and the title usually not too big.  I don’t know why. Maybe it’s shyness. But that’s one of those subconscious giveaways where readers go “oh, newby. Maybe I won’t pick it up.”
So don’t do that. Be brazen, be bold. Write your name BIG.

Now go play. If you want to show me your labors in the comments, I’m okay with it.


      1. Perhaps another color for Ashley Pollard? The gold does not stand out, indeed, I missed the top strap line at first.. Are there a lot of you that you need the middle initial? Removing it lets you enlarge the fotn a bit, I think.

    1. I liked it enough that I went looking on Amazon and bought it (there are sequels!). If nothing else, a woman being the/a “bad dog” should be interesting. That might be a mis-signal for some folks, but the blurb makes it obvious.

  1. If you go to places such as SelfPublishedBookCovers, they are hit and miss. If you are doing paranormal romance, mil-sci-fi, contemporary romance, and things like that, you are almost overwhelmed for choice. Historical fantasy-ish, urban fantasy that is NOT PNR, it starts getting trickier. But it’s a good exercise in using keywords, then comparing what comes up with what is on the ‘Zon or in a book store. “Why doesn’t this work?” and “Could this be made to work if…?” are useful in teaching yourself.

    Full disclosure: My covers range from good-but-dated to “what genre is this anyway?” I am not a cover design professional and I did not stay at Holiday Inn Express™ last night.

  2. For Taghri’s Prize, we hit the historical cover issue – there’s no standard for historical fantasy, much less for the non-existent subgenre of “in a world where Islam never existed, and gunpowder meets swords in the middle east”. (That totally should be a subgenre. Anyone else want to write in that?)

    Our cover artist went for “sailing ship” for historical element, font to imply Arabia / fantasy, and a lovely pair of eyes to hit the sword & sandal genre. It certainly stands out – and yet, it still signal historical fantasy well. Readers are picking it up… and we don’t have any readers disappointed when they pick it up and get something they weren’t expecting!

    1. I have that issue with Blake’s covers, with the addition of YA and romance. No, seriously. You start with historical fantasy and you’re already in trouble….

      1. Two different reactions to that – the first, is that black and green when in thumbnail size surrounded by bright white (the Amazon screen) is hard to read. The second is that it does, however, really hit the “this is a nonfiction computer book!”

        I don’t know the nonfiction computer cover conventions, so I don’t know how well it fits that – but when I click through to Amazon, I see the cover image is a lot more faded – looking and harder to read than the one on your website. You might consider punching up the brightness on your Amazon image, in order to make it stand out better, and hit that “green text on monitor” look.

        1. Thank you for that. I can’t see a way of changing Amazon’s icon without signing up for an Advantage account, which is currently closed. Is there a workaround?

    1. Letters too searing against the background. Seriously. It does communicate “Hi, I’m a computer book” but honestly, better suited to “I died using my MAC”
      Perhaps just blockish, square letters?

        1. The main thing I got from the examples was:

          (a) A prominent picture of the main character, which I’ve got.

          (b) Some sort of magical effect to make it obvious this is fantasy. This is what I was trying for with the fire effect but clearly didn’t hit. Any suggestions on how to do better? This particular character is a mundane, so the usual “woman tossing magic around” doesn’t really work. (And yeah, I know it’s not an illustration, but I still feel that putting that on the cover would cause the reader to be anticipating her displaying magic that she isn’t going to).

        2. Okay, the other thing I notice is that there is a lot of turquois and magenta involved. Is is better if I just change the color scheme a bit.

          (I know I’m probably coming off as annoying, and I’m sorry, but I think I may be looking at the examples without really seeing what’s important).


          1. It is a pretty cover either way, but there is nothing to suggest adventure, romance, or really wild things.

            Your title says it is on a mountain road. So maybe put a silhouette of mountains, with the lighted tree further back/up, or looking like it is somewhere precarious to reach, or steep? Because it is a mountain.

            The good thing is that it does not look like Christmas lights.

            1. Ah. That may have been the element I was missing. Let me see what else I can find and see if I can add some implied action.

              Thanks for the suggesstion.

            2. Mountain road is not Urban-fantasy cueing. Zsuzsa, what examples are you looking at? Are you looking at bestselling or lowest priced or those on Kindle unlimited?
              Without seeing the examples, I not only can’t help, I don’t know what you’re seeing.

              1. These are the ones I was looking at, sort of mentally discarding the Harry Potter ones on the grounds that they will sell even with a cover that looked like it was made from an old pizza box:

                1. Okay, you have paranormal and urban fantasy together in that listing, which means it’s as useful as a chocolate hammer.
                  Which is your book? did you find the books it most resembles?

                  1. So if I can’t trust the Amazon best seller lists that are ostensibly for the genre, where do I find “best sellers in the genre” to compare?

                    My own reading list isn’t particularly popular or current. This book is kind of similar, though 10 years old:

                    And this sounds similar, though not exactly a best seller:

                    But that’s about all I can find that I would say is REALLY close.

                    If I can’t even find examples I should be following, do I just declare myself hopeless and give up?

                    1. Okay, so what are you seeing in those?
                      Because what I’m seeing is A prominent female in a confident pose, with either an urban or blank (I don’t approve of blank, but you can have fog) background.
                      What you did, if I remember, is landscape background with faded woman face on the sky? That … is not the same thing even vaguely at all.
                      Try to copy what the figure is, and where it is and look for “equivalent” background.
                      BTW do not use figures without making sure there’s a model release with it. (There isn’t, on stuff like pixabay.)
                      As for bestsellers, the problem is that they lump pnr and urban fantasy and pnr extends (often) to erotica these days, so that could go seriously wrong.

                    2. Sarah,

                      Thanks. I’ll see what I can do with that.

                      I realize my last post may have come across as a bit whiny, and I wanted to apologize for that. I really do appreciate the help, even if it’s just telling me what not to do, and I wanted to say thank you.

          2. I like the purple flames much better. Much more of “seelie” feel than the fire looking ones. The text addition obviously helped that along. Is it too small to see in thumbnail, though?

            The change in the face rendering also looks much better.

            I also see “coming of age” or “hero’s journey”. Probably because the face looks so young. Second version mutes that somewhat.

            There’s something a bit odd about the red lights – but that may be the point. I agree that they do not look like Christmas lights. They look as if they cannot decide between being brake lights or monster eyes (the point?), but it’s a bit too bright for either to be glowing. Perhaps darken the whole thing even more than grey to turquoise change? A purplish dark-grey/black to blend into the edges of the not-flames? That may do bad things to the red font; maybe move to a whiter (not pink!) or yellower color?

            The question will then be more obvious: Where is the light on her face coming from? Leaving the high contrast, could you silver it somewhat so it looks more “Hollywood moonlight” (i.e. way too bright to actually be the moon)?

            I agree with the “add something mountainous” idea. Perhaps replacing the silhouetted foliage on the right?

            Or disregard all of that because I am not an expert – not even an amateur – nor do I play one on the intertubes. Just writing these suggestions scares me away from trying covers.

  3. I’ll bite the bullet. I think it still needs work, I need to trim, and not happy with the background.

    I’m trying to convey; mil-sf, but for this story NOT “action-adventure”. Let’s find out if img tags work…..

      1. I would expect a youngish (around not-naval captain rank) military upstart to be caught up in political drama – possibly in a stellar empire with a court – with an established family. The focus could go either way (military or politics).

        The lighting/white-balance transition from background to foreground is harsh, but if I were doing it, I’d probably say “done”.

        1. If you’re rendering it, you might want to see about buying something something volumetric. If you don’t want to do actual backgrounds, it allows you to do a foggy type of hazy thing.
          Might be volumetric studio? It’s not on this computer and I’m LAZY.

          1. :sigh: Yes, I have to agree. I was on the fence, but I’m getting better at fog since I first made it. I’ve found volumetrics a pain, but I’m getting better with Photoshop brushes, I import into Gimp. (I have to watch those, as some free ones, just like fonts, aren’t for ‘commercial use’.) Greatly appreciate the suggestions. =)

      1. You did that with a mouse? Wow! It’s a lovely cover. Some fonts are all caps, even the lower case ones. Fonts are a rabbit hole…..

          1. that’s gorgeous. i just hope it’s trad fantasy… Also, B. Durbin, wanna do a cover for me when I do my mediterranean trilogy. Um… if you actually drew that, at least.

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