Sunday, August 17, 2008

On Book Cover Design

Do you have input into your cover design? If so, perhaps some of these hints from my recent personal experience will help. I've been working with a designer for the past month, resulting in the front cover you see to the right.

1) Get recommendations and references. I found my present designer (Carole) through my wife (Cherie) who studied design under Carole at Kennesaw State University. Cherie liked her work, knew that she was easy to work with, and knew a publisher she'd done covers for. I think it's always safer to work from recommendations of satisfied customers.

2) Look at lots of book covers to determine what you like and don't like. Design has a lot to do with personal preference. One book I read on self-publishing bragged on his designer and emphasized the importance of achieving a professional look. Interestingly, I found his book cover to look rather unprofessional. Different strokes for different folks, I assume.

Especially look at other books published in your niche. Since I'm writing on personal finance, I looked at scores of covers in that field. By doing that, I realized that, for example, if I had the good-looking girl holding the money on the front or back cover (another potential design that Carole gave me), some might think she's the author. Many money authors have their pics prominently on the front or back.

3) Look for images that grab you. My favorite place to browse for stock photos is . So when I first met with Carole, I gave her the photo of the four students (actually five, of which she cut one out), which I felt would well represent the four students in my story. I also gave her the picture of the girl to the right Additionally, I gave her a professional picture of myself to put on the back cover. By providing her with pictures, she could design around them rather than having to start from scratch. Yet, I told her that if she didn't like the pictures, I wanted her to feel free to go any direction she wanted.

4) Bring your blurbs and text for the back cover. If you don't yet have blurbs, have her leave room for them and remind her to leave a copy that's not flattened (still able to be changed) so that you can make last minute changes.

When she shows you her first shot at it, take a printed copy and get as much input as you can. Carole said she'd first put together some ideas, then I could see what I thought about it and get back with her. After getting those first samples, I got input from fifteen or so people - my family, people at Cherie's work, and others.

Someone on a blog said this about getting input. I find it to be true:

If you ask one person for an opinion; you get theirs.
If you ask two people for an opinion; you get confused.
But, if you ask a BUNCH of people for an opinion; you start to form your own.

First, there are objective factors that need attending to. These are the tips that don't have to do with personal preference.
  • "The subtitle words are much too small. I could hardly see them."
  • "Did you notice that this word is misspelled?"
Second, there is the subjective input, which is largely a matter of taste.
  • "The girl holding the money reminds me of a prostitute."
  • "I can see that guy's crotch a bit too much. It seems offensive."
  • "The four young people look like they're trying too hard to be fashionable."
  • "I like the way they dress."
  • "The four students look too posed. I prefer the girl."
  • "The font of "enjoy" is rather hard to read."
  • "I love the font of "enjoy".
  • "The girl looks too much like an infomercial, which people hate."
  • "The girl looks like an infomercial, which people obviously respond to."
  • "That deep color of red (on the first version) seems more professional than the lighter red with the girl."
I could go on and on with the subjective comments, which were all over the board. But I also knew that each of these opinions just might represent a lot of people, so I took each of them seriously. Many potential buyers might look and respond the same way.

They all agreed that the two designs were professional and well-done, but had specific, often contradictory suggestions and thoughts about which would be best.

On Getting the Maximum Input

I elicit input by telling people nothing when they first look at it, except that I want their honest opinion. I don't want to color their first impression. After they finish their spiel, I then mention other people's comments and my opinions to see if they agree or disagree or if that helps them come up with other ideas. Then I mention who I perceive as the target audience and ask how they think this audience might respond. This can bring a whole new range of reactions.

6) Don't overpay. Carole charged me $210 total. I don't believe I could have gotten a better cover paying someone thousands. That included designing several possible covers for me to choose from (she said that took her three hours total), meeting with me to get my input, finalizing the design of my choice with the seven or so adjustments I recommended, and a final meeting to approve the final design.

Compare this to a vanity-type publisher who told me their charges included a custom-designed interior layout and and custom designed full color cover for a $3,500 value. That's precisely what I'm getting for under $500.

Carole can charge less, partly because of low overhead. She works from her home instead of making payments on an office. She works for herself rather than paying an owner/manager a cut. She's also got steady work as a university professor, so that she's not desperate. And she likes to get work outside the university since the administration urges teachers to do a certain amount of outside work. So in your case you may wish to approach someone in graphic arts at your local university. If you're especially low on money, you may ask for a talented student who'll do it on the cheap to get something in her portfolio and resume. (We got a recent grad, Sara, to do our website design and have used her for years. She did my author site at, as well as our site at We couldn't be happier with her. Find her at . Again, extremely professional, yet low overhead working out of her home.)

7) Get Plenty of Mileage from Your Designs

So you've put all that work into a design that grabs people's attention makes you look professional...and you plan to use it only for your book cover? Are you kidding?!? Why not make a brochure, a cover and first chapter (with tear-off ordering information) to leave in waiting areas, a visual on your website and blog, a larger size for a display when you speak or do a book signing?

To have maximum maneuverability, make sure your designer leaves you with the flattened copy, an unflattened copy (like a .psd format for Photoshop), and makes the original large enough that it can be printed much larger without losing clarity.

If You're Working With a Traditional Publisher

For my first book, using a traditional publisher, they did it all. As I recall, I didn't have any say in it, although perhaps I could have had input if I'd requested it or specified my involvement in the contract. (In the end, I would have wanted to change one of the sentences on the back cover.) But I was very pleased with the look and it was, from the author's standpoint, effortless.

I'd love to compare your experiences with designers. Just add your comments below!

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