A Guide to Self-Publishing: Cover Design

Looks don’t matter.

If that were true, God would have made sunsets various shades of brown, restricted us from any lofty vista viewing, and ensured woman were completely unattractive to the male species.

It’s a total lie. Looks do matter, have always mattered, and will continue to matter.

How your book appears – whether on a physical bookshelf or a digital one – could be the difference between selling and not selling it.

But when hasn’t that been the case? I think the only exception might be the Bible. Although some people really dig all-suede covers with gold embossed crosses.

The point is, your book cover needs to look good.

Here are a few important points to consider when thinking about the functions of your own cover:

1.) A cover needs to highlight the book’s title. It might seem like a given, but you’d be amazed at the amount of amateur book covers I see that make the title almost impossible to read. The designer got carried away with their favorite new typeface, and never once stood 15-feet away to try and read the title.

2.) The author’s name is probably the second most critical piece of information. Resist the urge to be ultra artsy here. People instinctively connect last names to reputations; don’t make them have to hunt for it.

3.) The general graphic and artistic elements that make up the visual concepts need to reflect a key “hook” of your story.

One tip here is to keep it simple. A lot of people feel they need to highlight every character’s face, or show the family’s prairie house, along with all their livestock, farm hands, and a bolt of lighting that started the fire that killed Uncle Ned, and the warrant the unjust Sheriff put out for innocent Jim Bob’s arrest, and maybe the waterfall where Jim Bob fell in love with sweet Martha May. And don’t forget the oil pump that made the family rich at the end.

Can we add some doves?

Um, no. Just no.

Pick one solid idea that provokes people and execute it well. Making any design too busy with colors, images or typefaces screams “lack of professionalism.”

Recognize that the cohesiveness and integrity of your design will build instant credibility with readers. Most people can’t articulate why they like something, but our modern eye has been conditioned to know good design when we see it.

Likewise, bad design can and absolutely will be detrimental to a story. I have books that sat on my shelf for years that I simply couldn’t bring myself to read because the covers were so atrocious. Turned out a few of the stories were quite good. Pity.

Make sure that you get good critical reviews from professionals or art teachers, or higher a cover designer to do it for you. After all the work you’ve put into your manuscript, the worst thing would be to brand it with a poor cover just because you think you can design, or you really wanted to use that painting you did 10-years ago that probably shouldn’t been seen in public.

If you have a good eye, iStockPhoto.com and ShutterStock.com have thousands of incredible images you can purchase with rights to duplicate. Combine the right image(s) with solid title and author typefaces, and you could be well on your way to crafting your own covers. While I’ve seen stuff done using text boxes in MS Word (the Lord knows I was a master text-boxer before I got better software), you really need something on the level of Photoshop or InDesign for true control and output integrity.

If you’re formatting for a print book, you will need to consider bleeds (like the interior), as well as how colors are going to print. One reason I love CreateSpace so much is that you can buy proofs to review before you finalize the files in their system. This is great for checking your interior and exterior designs.

Print books also demand a spine (as well as “back matter,” or what’s on the back of the book). While the spine may seem small and insignificant, pay attention to it. Both in stores and on peoples’ bookshelves, the spine will get the most long-term traffic of a book. Clear title and author texts need to be featured. CreateSpace can automatically assign and place a UPC bar code for you if you use their templates for layout. (Obtaining a template during your title upload phase with CreateSpace is exactly like obtaining a template for the interior design portion covered yesterday).

As for typefaces, any good designer will tell you that one typeface, maybe two, is what you should stick with. If you’re using a third typeface in a composition you better have a darn good reason. Beyond that your book will scream inferior and second rate (if not worse).

I would highly suggest employing the services of good graphic designers, if not for the entire cover at least for consultation. StreetlightsGraphics.com does amazing covers for dirt cheap with a fast turnaround. And The Miller Brothers and Jason Clement of New Life Media helped craft covers for the 2011 Editions of The White Lion Chronicles.

Here’s a look at some unseen cover concepts for Athera’s Dawn that I developed early on:

Eventually we decided on a Dairneag for the cover of Rise of the Dibor, a taken warrior for The Lion Vrie, and the statue-plaque of the White Lion’s face for Athera’s Dawn.

Here is the final cover, front, spine and back:

This cover printed the darkest of all three books, but the purple is still very striking.

Tomorrow we’ll start in on the technical, financial and legal processes of publishing through CreateSpace. ch:

  • Billy Jepma

    Once again this is a fantastic post. I loved the old designs fro Athera’s Dawn! Really cool to see the different ideas you went with. But the one you went with is the best. I am defiantly looking forward to designing my cover-art, and will be asking for help as well. I’m good at many things, but drawing/design is not really one of them. 🙂

    • The good news is you have a few friends who are professional designers. Just saying… 😉

  • Gabe

    Very cool! It was really cool to see the other cover designs too. The ones you decided on were the best, though. Athera’s Dawn’s cover is my favorite. Good points on keeping your cover art not too cluttered.
    Another point I would like to add is that sometimes it’s a good idea to make the cover a scene from the book. If done right, it can look really cool.
    What about the cover art for the Bernifell books? Who did those? Were there ay other covers before that were rejected?

    • TBP were done by Thomas Nelson’s art department. There were a few original concepts that I’d have to dig up. Drawings mostly. They were very open to our ideas which was cool. The third book will be in similar style to the first two, but created by New Life Media.

  • Taisia

    Wow. I never really thought about how difficult it would be to make the book cover. You did a great job!

    • Thanks Taisia. Yes, there’s more thought that goes into it than most people may realize, but it’s not impossible. And with practice, designing with marketing in mind is really a lot of fun.

  • Great post! I’ll keep it on file for when I write a book someday… (nervous laugh).