When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books was actually a workshop I’d written along with several others for a convention that didn’t end up happening, but I decided to share a portion of it here today since I don’t anticipate teaching the workshop anytime soon. Never say never, right?
What follows are various pieces of advice and things to think about when you get ready to design the cover for your book. The post consists of what I consider to be the most important highlights from the workshop. A small portion of this post is right out of my Open Letter to Indie Authors, but most of it is new info. Hope you all find it helpful!
I’m a cover whore.
A big one.
Yep, I admit it, and I’m not even ashamed.
We’re all cover whores, I’m just willing to cop to it publicly. It’s not a dirty admission, it’s not a secret, and it’s certainly not even close to anything you could call uncommon. I talked about it in my Open Letter to Indie Authors. Author Joseph Lallo talked about his experience with it in his piece Icing on the Cake: The Value of Good Artwork. Artwork can make or break a book and the truth is everyone judges a book by its cover.
Everyone judges a book by its cover. Everyone. Anyone who says they don’t is LYING to you. When was the last time you looked at a book with a really bad cover and immediately bought it because you couldn’t wait to dig in??? That’s right – NEVER. Humans are visual creatures, people. We need to be dazzled. We need to be stimulated to be interested. We like the sparkly things! Putting a bad cover on a good book will absolutely ruin its chances of ever being successful. Books don’t have the luxury of winning you over with their personality first. It’s all about looks. In the world of books, buttaface’s never get laid (a little Howard Stern reference there). I am the WORST culprit of buying the sparkly things. I have a library FILLED with books I bought merely because the cover caught my eye. Not a f****** clue what most of them are about, but they sure are pretty.
– J.M. Gregoire, Open Letter to Indie Authors
I wrote that a little over a year ago. Bad covers getting slapped on good books has been happening as long as the written word has been a thing. However, in today’s industry where the majority of your sales pitch is done in a visual medium, cover art has become far more important than it’s ever been before.
As with any other element of publishing your book, there is no magic cookie cutter plan that works for everyone. Depending on many factors (your genre, marketing demographic, sales outlets, etc.), different things will work better for different people. This is to give you some guidance on what do’s and dont’s should be considered when creating the face of your book.
Dont Be Blinded By Your “Art”
I can scan through a stack of a thousand book cover images and I can usually tell you which ones were either made by the author themselves or maybe by someone the author knows who thinks they have Photoshop by the balls.
It’s very obvious when someone inexperienced is behind the cover art of a book. You may think your cover is spectacular, but if your sales suck and you can’t get a single book blogger to even blink at your book, there is a very good chance your cover needs help.
Here’s the thing: Not everyone is a professional artist. Oh, they might think they are, but they aren’t. Just because you may write the most epic story in the history of the written word, that does not mean you are qualified to make your own cover.
Let’s point this gun at me, shall we?
My Demon Legacy books are a prime example of being madly in love with your own art. I had made all my own covers for Burning, The Devil You Know, and Speak of the Devil. The move was done for two reasons: 1) I wanted to try my hand at book covers, and 2) I didn’t have the initial money to lay out on a graphic artist. Although I loved the design, and they were good concept art, but they were not nearly good enough to publish and I had to accept that. I found Rachel at ShoutLines Design, an EXCELLENT graphic artist with 13+ years of experience and a HUGE portfolio. I told her exactly what I wanted, showed her my initial covers, and she gave me exactly what I wanted and needed. It was still my design, but with a beautiful, fresh, polished look that had OBVIOUSLY been created by a professional.
The examples below are my actual book covers. The cover on the left is my cover that I made. As I said before, good concept art, but hardly anywhere near polished enough for publishing. The cover on the right is the final book cover put together by Rachel at ShoutLines Design. Click on the image to see it full-sized.
As you can see, hers are faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar better than mine. She used my basic design, but she’s a professional artist with the knowledge and know-how needed to make my idea look good.
I love her work. She listens to my needs and design ideas, brings them to life before my eyes, and doesn’t make me pay an arm and a leg to do it. Her prices are VERY reasonable when compared to the marketplace. I would use the word ‘cheap’, but that makes her sound like her work sucks. She’s VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY inexpensive given the quality of the work she cranks out. **We will tackle pricing and such later on in this article.**
For those who like to do it themselves, if you think you have mad Photoshop skills, start an anonymous Facebook focus group. Ask the random readers for their honest opinion of the covers you make. Don’t disclose that you’re the author or the cover designer. Keep those little bits of knowledge on the hush hush and watch the reactions. Unless you’ve had professional training or LOTS of practice, there’s a damn good chance the covers you’re creating are not nearly as good as you think they are. You may be blinded by loving your own art. There is nothing wrong with loving your art. The problem is you may love it but that doesn’t mean anyone else does. If you don’t care about book sales or anyone actually reading your book, if you’re only concern is writing for the art of it all, then run with it my dear, artistic butterfly! BUT if you’re looking to make writing your career, you’re never going to make the big bucks peddling a book with a cover that’s not helping you sell it. I know it’s a big, fat bucket of ice water for some but there’s a lot to be said for leaving the work to the professionals.
Sometimes, accepting that your cover is less than stellar is a very hard pill to swallow. You have to be willing to set aside your pride and do what’s good for your book, and not everyone can do that. Don’t get all defensive and aggro about it. Just stop and look at your cover objectively. I mean, really objectively. Pretend it’s not your book at all and be 100% honest with yourself. If you were walking through a bookstore and you saw your cover on a shelf next to the other covers that were so obviously done by a professional, would you stop to look at it? Honestly? If your answer is at all wishy washy, consider gifting your book with a makeover.
Sometimes, All A Girl Needs Is A Makeover
We’re going to get into it more later on in the post, but trends have a heavy sway on a lot of graphic designers and authors. The up side to planning your cover based on trends is your book gets automatically lumped in with the other books following the trend (which can be great for sales). The downside is trends pass. What may have been popular or a good design for the marketplace a year ago may now be sooooo five minutes ago.
Maybe you didn’t follow a trend at all. Maybe you had your cover done by one person for budgetary reasons and now that funds have loosened up a bit, you want to give your books a new face done by a different designer.
Maybe you just fell out of love with the original design.
Sometimes, your book just needs a little work before she’s ready to face the world again. I have a few friends who have done this recently, and in all cases, I felt it was an excellent move. This is not to say there was anything wrong with their covers prior to the face lift, but the new look brings in new readers. Why? Because we like the shiny things!
Let’s look at some examples:
Here’s the latest series makeover I’ve seen. This is friend and author Liz Long’s Donovan Circus series. Left is before, right is after. After the makeover, she released the latest installment in the series with the new cover style, so there is no ‘before’ for that one.
Liz has taken her covers from having a very fantasy meets the Big Top kind of feel to a series that screams mystery and breathy romance while still bringing the fantasy. Both are good, both have a totally different feel from each other, but both convey the basic feel of the story.
Let’s take a look at another example. Out of Reach, Wanderer Series #1, by Jocelyn Stover. She initially released the book with the cover on the left, and then had it remade to the cover on the right. The rest of her books in her series followed suit with the remade cover style and the series is GORGEOUS!
Although all of these covers were good, the makeovers look incredible. So, if you have a book that has been out for a while now and sales are stagnant, maybe you should give a thought to a makeover party. Make a big deal of it! Do a new cover reveal. Do a new tour to celebrate the new look for the series. Turn your books getting a new face into a big party for all involved. The new look will turn heads with existing readers and it’ll lure new readers in.
Too Much Symbolism Can Cost You New Readers
A cover rife with symbolism is like trying to sell your book using the punchline of an inside joke only you and your friends get. You exclude potential readers when they have no idea what the symbolism is supposed to mean. Everyone understands why someone will put symbolism on the cover of a book, but don’t get so wrapped up in it that you forget no one else knows what any of it means.
I was going to turn to one of the best indie books I’ve ever read as an example, but when I asked the author’s permission to use the cover for this posting, I was told no (I’m paraphrasing that response), so I don’t have a visual example for all of you.
Let’s look at a mythical cover in our mind’s eye. Everything featured on the cover of our imaginary book means something to the story: a cell phone, a pack of cigarettes, a movie ticket, and a ball of yarn. All of the design elements have very specific meaning to the story. The author knows what it means because they wrote the book. I, as the reader, know what it means because I read the book. But do you, the next potential reader, have any clue what any of it means? Of course not. How would you?
Although symbolism on your cover can be a very clever tip of the hat to your story, there’s a level of exclusion that happens. Potential readers are not going to look at a symbolic cover and say “Oh, I get it!” That moment only comes after they’ve read the book, and that means that something else had to sell this book. By using nothing but symbolism on the cover, that means the author has to work three times as hard to sell a book because the cover wont do the job for you.
Granted, by using symbolism on your cover, when your reader finally “gets it,” they will suddenly feel like they’re part of some secret club. They will have joined a brotherhood (or sisterhood) of people who all have this thing in common. They peeked behind the curtain and now they’re all in the know. So, that being said, don’t abandon all symbolism because it can give you a special bond with your readers. Just know that symbolism can also hamper your sales if you allow it to take over your cover.
The only exception to all of this seems to be the erotic romance sect. Thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy, everyone and their brother went for nothing but symbolism on their covers for a while, but we all knew what the symbols were implying. Just the basic design of the cover tells you the content contained in the pages more than likely has something to do with BDSM. However, this is only because of how wildly popular FSoG became.
Don’t Fall Into the Trend Trap
Everyone in this industry follows trends. The problem with following trends is trends pass. When designing your cover, it’s best to keep that tid bit in mind because what may be trending now may be exactly what holds your sales back a year from now.
The current trend of so easy to spot. It’s everywhere. Either a black/white or dingy image of a guy or girl with brightly colored “dirty” title treatments. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love it. I think all of these covers are fabulous, but after a while, who can tell them apart at a quick glance? Just a quick peruse through the Amazon bestseller list turned up all the book covers shown below. That’s just the ones that have hit the top 100 lists, never mind all the new titles out there that haven’t climbed that high….
Here’s the problem with following a trend: It’s great as long as you’re savvy enough to spot the trend before it’s actually a trend. It’s a tricky move to pull off and only very few manage it. If you’re in at the ground floor, your book becomes the trend setter, rather than being the guy running behind the rest of the crowd desperately trying to catch up.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with following a trend. It can be a smart business maneuver. I only offer a word of caution here. Just because it’s your first time seeing a cool design concept doesn’t mean it’s new. Do your research to make sure you’re not going to be one of many with a cover that basically looks the same as all the covers that came out for the three months prior to your book’s release.
Stock Images vs Photoshoots
The debate on this subject gets very heated among some indies, but I think they’re both ridiculous arguments. You’ve got the hard-core stock image users on one extreme end complaining about the models in this industry. To the other extreme, you’ve got the seemingly elitist authors who only do exclusive photo shoots because anything less is beneath them. I firmly believe the majority of our community falls somewhere in the middle of the hot mess.
Both methods of obtaining your cover’s image are perfectly acceptable. No one method is better than the other. It’s all a matter of what works for you and your cover design. If you have something very specific you’re looking for, you can spend hours and hours scouring through stock images, or you can just cut out all the work, drop some coin, and have a photo shoot done with one of the many awesome models we now have in this industry. Which way you go will depend first on your preference (some people just prefer one way or the other), and then on your patience, schedule, budget, and flexibility.
As someone who has yet to do a photo shoot, I can tell you there are plenty of stock images out there that you can make work if you’re willing to be flexible. I say you need patience because finding just the right image may actually take you days. Just because you’ve envisioned it doesn’t mean someone has shot the photo yet. That can be a very frustrating process, but with the right amount of patience, you can usually track something down to suit your needs.
On the flip side of this, if you are looking for a specific model, you’re not going to find them on a stock image site. For instance, I badly want Alfie Gordillo on Bad Wolf, the first book in my Executioner series. This is the reason the book is almost done being written and still doesn’t have a cover. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet because I am still not sure if purchasing the picture I want out of his portfolio is going to fit my budgetary needs. If you’re not familiar with who Alfie is, perhaps you’ve seen his work:
This cover is an excellent example of one you can have made with a photo shoot. Bliss got a unique image which exactly expresses the content of the book. It’s gorgeous.
Stock images are usually cheaper than a custom photo shoot. Depending on which royalty-free website you shop on, you may be able to get your image(s) for as low as $5-$10. While a stock image might be the budget-friendly direction to go, just remember that this doesn’t buy you exclusive use of the image. Not remotely. Which brings us to the next point.
Know that if you’re using a stock image, there is a very good chance you’ll end up seeing that image on another book cover. Buying stock images does not buy you the exclusive rights to the picture (something you usually do get with a photo shoot). Anyone else willing to drop the money required to use the photo can and will. When I purchased the image of the girl for The Devil You Know, I searched forever to find that one, convinced no one else would even be interested. Two weeks after I released my book, not only did I see the image on another book, but it was for a traditionally published author. *head desk*
If you’re really good at spotting multiple stock images that can be Photoshopped together and manipulated by an experienced graphic artist, that’s something I encourage you to check out if you’re on a really tight budget. Then you can combine elements of different images to create a whole new image that no one else has. For instance, Burning is made from three different images, The Devil You Know is two different images, Speak of the Devil is two different images, and Dance With the Devil is three different images.
The exclusivity a photo shoot ensures that your cover wont look like anyone else’s. As I said, I have not personally done a photo shoot, but I have heard ending price tags of $500 to $3000. You have to pay for exclusivity, but look who you could possibly have on your covers. Models in the indie world have become rock stars in their own right. They’re not authors, but they’re every bit as famous as the authors now. The same can be said for photographers. Personally, I have six photogs who I follow regularly.
See? Both have their pros and cons. It all depends on what your needs are, what your preferences are, and what your budget can and cannot handle.
Be Sure To Always Purchase the Adequate Licensing
I’m only going to say this once. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to say it at all but here we are. Google.com Image Search is not a legal means by which to acquire your stock images. That’s not to say you can’t find an image on there and then purchase it from the hosting site. No, what I mean is a Google Image Search + right-click and Save As is not the same as purchasing the rights to use a picture. If you didn’t purchase an image you downloaded, your first violation of law will be when you manipulate that image without the owner’s consent. Your second violation of law will be when you slap that bad mammajamma on your book/swag/business cards and call it a day. The simplest rule to remember is if you didn’t pay for it, even if it’s only a couple of bucks from a royalty-free website, then you more than likely cannot use it for your book cover.
Also, something I’m seeing more and more of lately is watermarks. If your cover designer hooks you up with a cover that has even part of a watermark on it, some aspect of that cover design is illegal and you should demand to see the proof of licensing. Not that I don’t trust my cover artist, because she’s a doll and never screws anyone over, but as an author, I always purchase my images and then supply them to the graphic artist. That way, there is no question of validity in my mind and no worry of liability in hers. It works out for all involved.
The adequate licensing tip goes for professional photo shoots, too. If you’re purchasing exclusive rights, make sure you are clear with the photographer or model about your intentions. In most cases, there is a big difference in price if you want exclusive rights.
Mind Your Fonty Goodness
There are a few small, very simple things to keep in mind when choosing the font for your book cover.
Remember that the majority of your marketing is done online and that most people see your book cover in thumbnail size (approx two inches tall). Your font needs to be clear and easy to read, even at that size. A lot of the more decorative fonts that are being used are very hard to read in thumbnail size. One such culprit is Angelic War, the font that graced the covers of, like, EVERY DAMN YA NOVEL in 2013:
Although the flourishes on this font are beautiful, they make it hard to read when it gets too small. You want something that, whether in a small format or from a distance, is clear and easy to read.
Another issue I see a lot of certain Windows default fonts which people keep insisting on using. This might just be me and my own pickiness, but I do not think these fonts are a good idea for covers:
Please stop using them. Please? I’m not above begging…. If you’re not making your covers yourself, these fonts make your book look like you are. Let your graphic designer know that they don’t have to be scared outside of the standard font library. Explore the wonderful world of fonts and all its glory! As long as you stop using these ones, we’re good.
Don’t Forget Who Your Demographic Is
Okay, so the point of this bullet is make sure you cover conveys the correct content. You don’t want a cover that looks like a young adult novel and fill it with erotic romance. You don’t want a new adult romance novel that looks like straight up erotica.
The example I am going to use is a slight disagreement that took on my Facebook page over Taint by S.L. Jennings. Now, I have not read this book. I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know anything of the content aside from what I glean from the cover and the blurb. However, when this book was first released, I had posted a copy of the cover on my wall with a comment stating that although the cover is GORGEOUS, the author maybe should have rethought the title. I was being a smartass, pointing out that although the image is hot for an erotica novel, the word ‘taint’ does not make me think of ‘tainted’. “Being erotica, can you imagine the mental images this title is causing in my brain right now?”
I was quickly given the verbal smack down by a handful of fans of hers. I wasn’t picking on the author, just throwing out casual observation about the title. Their problem wasn’t that I had poked fun at the name. Their problem was with my assumption that this cover is erotica:
They were quite upset that I would assume this is erotica/erotic romance, and informed me in long-winded comments that this book is a beautiful story (which is may very well be) and not at all erotic romance. Had it been just one person, I would say maybe they’re mistaken, but this was a whole handful of women, all of which had already read the book, insisting it is not erotica. Well, ladies, I’m apparently not the only one who thinks this book looks like erotica. Take a peek at which genre shelves Goodreads users have assigned Taint to:
Additionally, the name of the series is Sexual Education and here’s the blurb:
Right now, you’re probably asking yourself two things:
Who am I?
And, what the hell are you doing here?
Let’s start with the most obvious question, shall we?
You’re here, ladies, because you can’t f*ck.
Oh, stop it. Don’t cringe. No one under the age of 80 clutches their pearls.
You might as well get used to it, because for the next six weeks, you’re going to hear that word a lot. And you’re going to say it a lot.
Go ahead, try it out on your tongue.
Ok, good. Now where were we?
If you enrolled yourself in this program then you are wholly aware that you’re a lousy lay. Good for you. Admitting it is half the battle.
For those of you that have been sent here by your husband or significant other, dry your tears and get over it. You’ve been given a gift, ladies. The gift of mind-blowing, wall-climbing, multiple-orgasm-inducing sex. You have the opportunity to f*ck like a porn star. And I guarantee, you will when I’m done with you.
And who am I?
Well, for the next six weeks, I will be your lover, your teacher, your best friend, and your worst enemy. Your every-f*cking-thing. I’m the one who is going to save your relationship and your sex life.
I am Justice Drake.
And I turn housewives into whores.
That’s not erotica? Really?
Well, okay then. My mistake……along with 133 other Goodreads users. lol
Before I proceed, I want to use the caveat here that I still haven’t read the book. The ladies who lost their marbles on me over my genre assumption could be the ones who are wrong here, but let’s assume they’re not for the sake of the example. Let’s assume this book is in fact not erotica or erotic romance. If that is the case, this book is marketing to the completely wrong demographic. The cover. The blurb. The horrible image invoking name. All of it. You want to make sure your cover markets to the right age group and the right genre group. Dont put a cover on your book that screams raunchy erotica if you don’t want people mistakenly calling your book erotica.
All of this being said, S.L. Jennings, if you read this, please settle this for us. What genre do you consider your book to be?
Series Branding Is Way More Important Than You Think It Is
If you have a series, and aren’t doing it already, please consider series branding. The branding could be the font of your title. It could be part of your title treatment. It could be a common theme in the image. It could be an actual logo.
The reason I recommend series branding is because when a user is searching through the sea of books on Amazon, if they keep seeing your name with a common element, they’re more likely to remember seeing it. Repetition is the key to committing something to memory. If you have a series of eight books, all with some sort of common branding, and a reader sees only three of them while surfing the Kindle store, they’re going to start to remember your name and they’re more likely to buy one of the books. However, if they see three of those eight books, all looking nothing alike, there is nothing there to trigger the recognition.
Here are some examples of series branding:
For both Liz Long’s Donovan Circus and Jocelyn Stover’s Wanderer series, they have chosen a graphic treatment to frame their titles. This means they can vary their images and readers will still be able to easily identify books that are part of either series.
For my own branding with the Demon Legacy series, I have chosen a specific font and all of the main books in my series have the word ‘devil’ in the title. My Demon Legacy series short stories do NOT fit this same branding, but it’s done intentionally.
Amber Lynn Natusch chose the eyeball motif and a specific font for the title. Her series is incredibly easy to identify.
The titles shown above are actually two different series by Chelle Bliss. Each series has its own look which is easy to identify, but on top of that, she’s also had a signature-style logo done for her own name. She’s used this on all of the books shown, so even across series, readers will still ID the titles as being hers.
Again, T.H. Snyder has chosen a common theme (hot boys) and the titles and title treatment both easily ID the series, even when it’s in thumbnail size.
As mentioned in the section about fonts, one of the things you want to remember when choosing your branding is that most readers are going to see your book in thumbnail size (less than two inches tall on your computer or tablet screen). When you’re looking into branding your series, make sure you choose something that is easy to see in thumbnail view and doesn’t make your cover look cluttered in thumbnail view.
Well, ladies and gents, that’s all for today on the subject of cover art. For future reference, this post can be found in the Author Toolbox under The Advice Column. We have another blog post coming this afternoon with some news and some fun stuff from around the web. Stay tuned!