Writing is a lonely business. Authors spend the majority of the life of a manuscript in their own heads, fiction authors playing God to a cast of characters in situations of their own devising, and nonfiction authors gathering information they distill into a form that fits their own purpose and vision. As anyone who’s ever written or tried to write a book can attest, it’s a massive undertaking that can easily dominate one’s life.
So it’s not surprising that when it’s time for an indie author to hire a cover designer, it can be a wrench for them to let go of some of that control. But book covers are a very particular kind of beast, and unless the author also happens to have extensive experience in design, layout, and typography, not to mention the elusive element that makes browsers pick up a book, isn’t it to their advantage to work with a pro?
Authors often feel it’s crucial for their covers to exactly reflect some person(s), setting, or event from their books, which is understandable, but not always the best choice. And while we’ve probably all experienced the frustration of a wholly misleading cover — something that may look like Wuthering Heights but turns out to be a Cold-War thriller — an enticing, appropriate cover often focuses more on suggestion rather than actual representation. After all, the point of the cover is to make a potential reader stop and look at your book. Hooking them enough that they then want to read it is the job of the writing inside.
So how does the process work?
Like any artwork, a cover design starts with inspiration and material, and in the case of a book that means the genre, description, and elements of the story and its characters.
The cover for A. Husain’s aviation thriller Angel America was designed by a very experienced cover designer named Pete Garceau and needed to convey an edge of danger, the thriller genre, and several other elements.
With that information and a plot summary provided by the author, Pete created the first round of cover comps, which are mockup samples of potential designs and layouts. These were some of the first ideas:
After reviewing the first samples, the author chose a couple of favorites to develop into the second round of mockups:
The author (and the design team) loved the big commercial thriller feel of the wing emblem, and so with further refinement, the black-and-blue color scheme was merged with the seat belt texture background to arrive at the final:
It had just the right feel for the story and the suspense-thriller genre, with encroaching darkness around a bright sky-colored text, and the broken wing emblem of the airline in the book.
Cover Design FAQs:
What should a client expect from a professional cover designer?
First, the business arrangement between author-client and designer should be defined as far as costs, expectations on timeline and who’s responsible for what (for example, licensing fonts or images), and how many rounds of revision are allowed without incurring additional cost to the client.
Second, a qualified designer will produce the print-ready file to the specifications of the printer as far as bleed, trim, ink saturation, spine width, etc. so that nothing is off-center or gets cut off the edges. They will also provide a high-resolution digital cover for the e-book and preferably a low-resolution web preview size for use in emails, social media, etc.
Third, and possibly the most important but difficult to define, a client should expect high design standards as far as image quality, layout of the cover, typography, and a genre-appropriate “feel” to the overall design.
How much creative control should an author have over the process?
If a design project is micromanaged by a client without design experience, the result might be exactly what the client wants, but it’s also unlikely to sell as many books. The best way an author can exert creative control is by choosing a designer wisely and then offering as much supporting information as possible (for instance, similar book covers they like in the genre, character descriptions and synopsis, back cover copy, anticipated market, etc.) Finally, if a cover designer is allowed to use their skill and imagination freely, and then the client gives clear direction on revisions, the end result is almost always something both the designer and the author can be proud of.
What are some ways to keep the costs of cover design down?
It’s important not to skimp on cover design. It’s not only part of the book’s production but should also be the strongest piece of marketing collateral you have, so hire the best cover designer for your book, not your budget. A poorly-matched but inexpensive cover designer will end up costing you more in the long run, both in revisions or even a cover re-do, and in lost sales.
That said, you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to get an amazing, professional book cover. Book designers are conscious of budgetary restrictions and as long as you’re able to be open to cover designs that may not be what you had envisioned, there are ways they can help you keep the costs down–using stock photos instead of rights-managed images, for instance, or providing fewer mockups to choose from.
Whatever designer you choose and however much money you spend, you’ll get the best results from doing a little homework ahead of time:
- Go online and find other book covers you like, remembering to think in terms of style and theme as much as genre. Bookmark them to share with your designer.
- Collect all your materials: author bio, genre, book description, jacket copy, target market, character thumbnails–anything that might help the designer get a feel for your project (briefly).
- Read up on some terminology. It will help you understand the process so you can make good decisions.
- Do an online search for “bad book covers.” Seeing what can happen when authors don’t work collaboratively with qualified designers is sobering.