Covers! What are They Good For?

Well, for one, with a paper book, they keep the first page from getting shredded.


Okay fine, covers are only good for one thing: selling your book.

That’s it. That’s what covers are for.

What covers aren’t for:

1- to be beautiful. I mean, the eye is attracted to beautiful things, so beauty helps, but is not needed.

2- to be an accurate representation of your book. Again, if your character is a slim redhead and the cover model is a zaftig brunette (who is also very pretty) no one cares. Before they read the book, the readers don’t know that. And after they read the book they might leave a review that says “I don’t know where the cover brunette came from” but that won’t stop them promoting you if they loved the book.

3- be exactly what you envisioned in your head while writing the book. Unless of course, you’re an amazing cover artist on the side, and know exactly what sells in your genre or subgenre the month your book comes out.

4- (Contra insty trolls) signaling to the world how smart and sophisticated you are. (Unless you’re selling litewawy and little because the illusion of smart and sophisticated is essential there.)

What covers are for, in order of importance:

1 Attracting the attention of the RIGHT READER FOR THE BOOK.

Okay, let me unpack this: this is mostly on fitting the cover to the book, which means taking in account:

a- Genre. If you have a beautiful cover with a spaceship, but your novel is Harry Potter, you’ve already failed. I mean, people who like spaceships might buy the book — I’m shocked at how many people don’t read the blurb — but they’ll be very upset it is about a boy wizard. And if you have a cover with frolicking fairies, and your story is horror, ditto. Or say you have a black and white picture of a castle — as one of my friends does — on your space opera cover: you can tell me till you’re blue in the face that your book doesn’t sell because you’re not very good. That’s not true. Your book isn’t even opened by most people who assume that Amazon vomited up the wrong book in its search for space opera. Or it’s an advertisement out of place, or something.

b- Subgenre: if you have a naked guy in the cover, against a background of stars, but your book is hard science fiction, you’re going to have a ton of upset readers. Because those looking for sf romance/spicy subgenre will not be at home to your beautiful equations. It’s the wrong kind of hard.

c – Mood and tone. While my first cover for Draw One In The Dark had a guy and dragons, so fantasy, and the main character is male (he even had a leather jacket.) The guy looked like a zombie, and the dragons were set against the background of a gothic castle (yes, there is a castle in the novel, it eventually becomes a b & b but it’s a little/play castle like rich gold strikers built. And the novel takes place in a diner.) Not only was the cover horrific and somehow conveying a feel of sexual perversion (don’t ask me. I mean the main romance, they don’t even kiss in that book) BUT if anyone was attracted to that cover they’d hate the book. Which was light and humorous.


But– NO. The most important thing your cover can do is signal the genre right. Even if you get everything else wrong, there’s a chance that if it comes up in a search someone will look at your listing and find out it’s their kind of book.

90% of science fiction covers (unless post apoc) would be all right with: a background of stars/generic spaceship.

It doesn’t matter that the background stars/planets might make no sense. That’s “science fiction” to most humans.

For Post-apoc, honestly, you could go with some ruins. Just make sure it looks drawn (filter, dude) otherwise it might look non-fiction.

3- If you can, DO signal subgenre.

“But Sarah, I wouldn’t know subgenre if it bit me in the *ss.”

Oh, yeah? Think of a book that has the same “bits” as yours. — Not those bits. Get your mind out of the gutter. At least teach it to do the backstroke in the ditch above the gutter, really — like… do your characters fold to monsters, or are they fighting monsters? Is your book set in the historic past, in Tolkien’s general world or in the future? What kind of supernatural creatures does it have? Vampires? Or dragons? Or witches? Is there a murder in your book, and does solving it consume your entire plot? In that case, is there supernatural in the book or not?

Anyway, think of a title or two that have most of your “bits” in it, and look them up on Amazon. If the books that come up in also bought also are in the general same area as yours, congratulations, you found your subgenre.

And BTW NO ONE CARES if you have a personal hate-on for sexy aliens. The people who are looking for those books like the covers with naked men whose face you never see. If it’s not your cup of tea, don’t drink it. No one is forcing you.

You don’t have a right to despise other subgenre covers. They are what they are.

4- Have your covers fit with the covers in the genre and subgenre.

“ARGH, Sarah, you already said that.”

No, as a matter of fact I didn’t. This isn’t on subject matter, or whatever. It’s on whether the cover is photo realistic (even if rendered) or painted or cartoon figures, or whatever.

Heck, for a while there cozy mysteries was a weird assemblage of vectors of things that appeared in the novel. A cup cake and a bloody knife, say.

I’m not sure now because the mystery I’m reading is weird in itself. So….

For Austen Fanfic you’re completely allowed to have flowers with the lettering over.

For clean regency romance, find a painting (yes, you can use them. There are restrictions. I’ll talk about them later) anywhere between the 17th and the end of the 19th century (Yes, purists will yell at the dress style. Most people don’t care.) and letter over it.

“But Sarah, most spaceship covers look like they’re painted, and all I have are these bits from Pixabay.”

Well, there’s a ton of filters that do AI paintings from your image. The caveat is that unless you know what to use, you’ll probably have trouble with it. BUT trial and error are your friend. Or find me in an idle moment and ping me. I have suggestions.

5- Be minimally competent

Look, learn photoshop, okay? Or gimp (I’m hopeless at it) or Paintshop. (What I actually use.)

Yes, your early ones will be atrocious, but if you keep at it, you’ll get better, and you can go back and fix it. That’s the beauty of indie.

Next week: How to ACTUALLY do it!

41 thoughts on “Covers! What are They Good For?

  1. I am noticing a lot of chatter about covers and marketing and advertising lately. It *could* be my own bias, as looking at my own, five minutes with gimp and image manipulation tools but still crappy cover. Yes, it signals sci-fi. No, there’s not a hint of sub-genre, unless you count the title.

    But I need to do the writing nao! I don’t have the time for migraines and cat drama. There is story drama going on, mysterious mysteries to be solved, zombies to smite, and a certain plot point to hammer out before the end and the wrapping up of some loose threads!

    1. If this is the zombie story, had you looked at marketing materials for the videogame “Dead Space” for reference?

      I personally find working on covers a nice change of pace that sometimes jars stuff loose on the writing front and (sometimes just kills the hands), but schedule’s not allowing me a lot of time for either right now.

      1. I have. That’s somewhat similar in character to what I’m thinking of- dead space is more sci-fi horror than sci-fi post apocalyptic adventure mystery pulp, or whatever the silly thing is these days.

        My problem with art and covers is that I am usually too much a perfectionist, and slow. I can do mediocre sketching and bad oil painting, I can do D level image manipulation and the like, but for me it is usually more frustrating than not. I can get lost in 3d image creation in blender, though. Not cover-worth stuff, but just sculpting.

        I really do need to finish the next chapter though. And plot out the bit after that, which is still in flux.

    2. Hello. I came over from Instapundit because this talk about art for book covers was just the thing I’ve been awaiting. Foxfier recommended awhile ago that I pop over here, so finally, I’m trying out. I enjoy stories and art, and I like to help people find something they want: an item, a suggestion, useless trivia, writers looking for artists or artists looking for writers, for example.

      Being new here, I don’t want to just barge in and make a mess. What are the rules for commenting here? How about self-promotion? Nobody wants spam, and I won’t be a spammer. Does the blog run occasional “everyone promote your stuff” posts wherein contributors and fans can all toot their horns at once? (I’ve explored only a bit so far, so I haven’t come across that yet.)

      Thanks! I’m going to peruse the site more.

        1. Hello there! Thanks for the info.
          I’m not sure how my first comment seems to have ended up as a reply to another comment instead of being its own thing to the main post. :-\ I used the big box at the bottom. Oh well.

  2. BTW, if you have photoshop, or a software capable of converting photoshop brushes to png (there are some free options for that out there, just make sure of what photoshop version they’re compatible with), go to and look for a vendor called “deviney.” I’ve found his product “Ron’s Space Brushes” to be very useful.

      1. I think the last sale he had I was sad because I already owned most of what he’d made before he switched to a version of photoshop that my abr converter couldn’t handle. 😀

    1. Absolutely agree on all points!
      I use abrMate and it will still convert his brushes to png. There is also XNConvert (I think that’s the name) that will do it…and if you are desperate, GIMP uses abr natively now, so you can load them up in GIMP, stamp down the one you want and save as PNG.

      I was talking with him about working with him to convert his brushes to Native PD Howler brushes, but, we have both gotten VERY busy lately, so haven’t gotten back to him on it yet, though he has said, yes.

      GNDB on Daz also does very nice brushes and have recently come out with some more/new ones. Also, ArtStation has a market place with lots of brushes and backgrounds (Lots of space backgrounds!) that are sold and even free. I have a whole series from there.

  3. I do cover design and layout for hardcovers, softcovers, and ebooks. I’ve found stock photo footage to be very helpful with different cover styles. If you can find a deal on 100 photos from DepositPhotos (they were doing this for $50 pre-COVID), it can be a great way to go. Unsplash is also awesome–and free with an attribution.

    DAZ3D is interesting–and it’s really coming along nicely, but I keep thinking that the models are still a bit stiffish. I haven’t worked with them yet much, but I want to knock the edges off, make them more human/rounded/imperfect. I like my models a little more real…

    1. As Sarah implies below, the Genesis 2-8 figures are only as good as their poses, their clothes, their skins/materials, and their lighting. There are morph kits for any given model to give them a quirkier, more offbeat look. I’d been mucking around with the software for a decade-ish by the time I came up with a series of human-centered images I used for six months or a year on one of my series. (Then, for branding purposes, I switched to what I’m using now for that series, which is more of a straight image manipulation job).

      Daz Studio is best approached as a hobby separate from any actual design work you handle, until you get more satisfied with your DS output.

    2. What they said! ^^

      With Daz (or Poser or Unity or Unreal Engine or Blender or iClone, all of which can use Daz characters), it’s about what you do with them after the come out of the box. (Which can get real expensive if you aren’t careful! Although there is ShareCG dot com for lots of free stuff, just check the license). You have to start thinking like a photographer or a theatre director and use morphs and lights, etc to really start getting good characters. It is definitely possible to do so, but then you can take a so-so render and do a paint over (kind of like paint by numbers) and start coming up with a beautiful cgi vibe on them (check out “Joolz and Jarling” on the book of faces).

      The YouTube channel PhotoManipulation has lot of great tutorials on how to do various things for covers (They are all professional cover creators) in PS.

      And anyone is welcome to talk to me about how to do things in Daz or recommended add-ons if you want to go that way as I moderate several forums on it, as well as teach tutorials. (Under Digital Art Live’s umbrella on Daz3d as Tiffanie). So, I’m happy to help with problems, or recommend a place to find answers.

  4. Subgenre: if you have a naked guy in the cover, against a background of stars, but your book is hard science fiction, you’re going to have a ton of upset readers.


    And of course NOW my brain is trying to find a way to make this work, because it threw up a redrawing of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man ….probably done in light blue, with a dark blue background studded with stars?

    Maybe gold-ish equations, faded in with the stars…..

    1. Half of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s standard SF illustrations were naked people. And swirly blobs, and swirly lines in contrasting colors. Maybe a dark blue or black background to denote space.

  5. Covers! They’re good for telling books apart once you buy them!

    All they need for that is to be distinctive, though.

  6. Is there a marketplace where artists can do book cover commissions for indy authors for reasonable rates? I’m an aspiring digital artist (meaning I create art but don’t have time to sell anything because I have a full time job) and an aspiring writer as well (ditto). I would be interested in doing cover art commissions.

    1. The problem with trying to sell ab initio commissions is the same as with any other form of art for pay: first, trying to attract customers such that they notice you, and second, convincing them that you have what they need, in a price range that signals you’re serious, and yet is still affordable.
      Some people work on sites like fiverr, some on their own websites and trawl the author gathering points, offering services.

      Another well-worn path is to create premades, and by offering them through a premades website, this means your portfolio is your product for sale, and the number of changes a customer can ask for is limited. (Nobody is happy when the customer wants the 14th change to a piece of art. This means the customer doesn’t actually know what they want, they just know they don’t want what they have… and the artist has gone way past the point where they should fire the client and return the deposit, if any, because they could spend 300 manhours on the piece that normally takes 6, and the client is still not going to be happy. Neither will the artist, because after too many change orders, everything becomes design by committee without clear vision, and the result is at best mediocre.)

      The fun is: if you get good at making and selling premades, then it’s a natural path for clients to contact you with “I like your style, *but* I need something more like this but also that.” and then you negotiate a commission.

      (In fact, skimming the premade sites like The Book Cover Designer, I can often see “these 2-3 were rejected concept sketches; the client went with a different cover, and these alternatives were uploaded as premades so the manhours put into it still might turn into an income stream.”)

  7. Sarah,
    Thanks so much for this series. I’ve been playing around with PhotoStudio (basically Photoshop for the Mac), and am starting to learn Daz3D. I want to add an alternate cover for my wife’s book because it’s too abstract, and I’m trying to figure out a cover that signals romance, time-travel, thriller laced with Chinese culture. Also I will have at least 2 books coming out when I retire that need covers as well as a few short stories. On some of them I can see them in my mind, but don’t yet have the skill to create the art yet.

    1. Two pretty people, obviously in love with each other. One in ancient/old Chinese clothing. Possibly a jagged line separating them as they reach for each other.

  8. Off topic, but hopefully of interest to Sarah and others, HarperCollins has finally put some different Agatha Christie Kindle books on sale for $1.99 each (The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Seven Dials Mystery, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories):

  9. The best advice I’ve ever seen about “what kind of cover do I need” is to find (recently published) books similar to your book and see what they do on the cover. (Not the bestsellers; those work on different rules, usually by mega-featuring the author name.) This is especially important in YA, where the cover fashions seem to shift with the tides.

    Just… don’t overdo it. There was a fashion for “a guy in a hooded cloak” for a while that was so prominent that the *exact same picture* was used on at least half a dozen books, with near-identical photos used on at least a dozen more. Or the Twilight clone style of the black cover with a featured item.

    1. Oh lordy, I remember “Cloakman” covers. And the “shirtless dude in hooded cloak” paranormal romance fad.

      Oh no. I have this sudden onset idea about a prop cloak that, when donned by a man, makes his shirt disappear. *whimper whimper whimper*

        1. *shakes paw in a Sarahward direction* Drat you to heck! Because that would work really well with something else I’ve been kicking around for a few years now.

  10. So help me, I now want to see the “terrible, no good, very bad’ original cover for Draw One In The Dark just to know…

    And I recall reading various books and wondering if the cover artist has even skimmed the text, for the genre might been right, but THAT WASN’T THE SHIP IN THE BOOK! Yeah, now, I know, but then it felt like incompetence to me. Yeah, yeah, ODD….

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