Friday, July 23, 2010

A Cover That Sells

As self-publishing becomes more common and accepted  in the book world, all of the responsibilities of producing an excellent product fall on the author's shoulders. Beyond hiring an independent editor and handling marketing, the job of creating the book cover as well as book design within falls on our shoulders. Alas, most of us are ill-equipped to tackle these crucial elements ourselves. Today we welcome Sherry Wachter of Magic Dog Press, a professional artist and book designer and herself a published author. She'll cover many aspects of this important issue in future posts - because a good book cover and interior layout can help ensure the success of your book, whether self-published or not.
Welcome, Sherry!
A good book cover is more than just a matter of prettying up the outside of your book. It is your first--and quite possibly your last--opportunity to turn browsers into buyers. If you're considering designing your own cover you might want to check out some of the posts at Magic Dog Press, where book design is often the subject of conversation.

Do-it-yourselfing has become something of a national pastime, but before you decide to take a crack at book cover design consider the following:

1. Usage rights. Are you familiar with how these work? While many sites offer lovely photos for very reasonable prices, some have conditions on usage (for instance, that they can only be used for non-profit purposes, may not be used or sold as art, etc.) Before you download and use anything, please check this out very carefully. It can get you into a boatload of legal trouble.

2. Outlining an object. Do you know how to do this for printing? If not, I'd suggest that you not try this approach; things that have been badly outlined will kill what might otherwise be a pretty cover.

3. Designing for print. Is this an area you're confident in? There are a number of requirements for print design that don't apply to web design. For instance, image resolutions must be much higher than they need to be for online viewing. Colors must sometimes be adjusted and balanced (by number, mind you--the first terrible lesson probably every designer learns is that You Cannot Trust Your Monitor). Images intended to go to the edge of the page must be extended beyond the edge of the page by no less than one-eighth of an inch--and you must output your file in certain ways to preserve that setting. Many printers require cropmarks and registration marks; do you know how and where to apply them?

4. Do you understand enough about color theory to be able to produce an eye-catching, inviting cover without becoming a self-parody?

5. Do you know what you need to do to make your cover distinctive from a distance of about six feet--the standard browsing distance?

6. Do you have a fairly good idea of how printing works? And if not, are you willing to take a field trip to your local press?

The point of all this? Book cover design isn't brain surgery, but neither is it as easy as falling off a log, as my father used to say. Designing book covers is a lot of fun; I do it myself. But it is a process that can be fraught with difficulty for the inexperienced. If you'd like to design your own cover, you might want to invest a little time in talking to print designers, press operators, and book binders. Find out what works. Ask, "Why do you do it that way?" And when they answer, take notes.

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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. Good points. I assume Amazon provide book cover art for self-publishers because I've seen several books of different titles all with the same artwork. That puts me off a bit.

    Writers write - I'd be happy to let someone more experienced design the cover. Great post!

  2. It all sounds dreadfully scary! Which I guess is better than a scary cover that doesn't sell the book. Mercy, there are some ugly book covers out there. My pet peeve is poor photography.

    Thanks, Sherry. Will look forward to more tips about designing - inside the book, too. All this font business gets to be a bit much as well.


  3. Thanks from me, too, Sherry! Fortunately, the Southern Indiana Writers Group has a great artistic director as a member, who designs our books and does most of the covers, as well as some wonderful artists (not including myself--I am lame at it) to do interior illos.

    I've shared the post on FaceBook and Twitter.

    Blood-Red Pencil is SUCH a valuable resource!

    Marian Allen

  4. I would like to design my own covers. But all the measuring seems daunting. Perhaps I'll do the artwork and let a professional prepare it for the cover. Or maybe I'll just let them do it from the get go.

  5. Great introduction to cover art and book design. I hope a future post might focus on covers for e-books. There is such a swell in e-book sales thanks to the Kindle and other reading devices, that some authors are self-pubbing strictly in that format.

    I know the process is different for what is going to a press and what is going to be strictly digital.

  6. You're right, Charmaine, most self-publishing sites do offer cover design--I actually have a post about that over on my website--but those designs are designed to be generic, since they will be applied to a lot of books. However, some self-publishing sites, like CreateSpace, offer page templates, which basically provide margin, spine, and "live area" (the part of the page you can safely put text and vital images). Sites like that offer a lot more freedom to those who wish to design their own covers.

  7. I can sound scary, Dani--but that fear shouldn't be a barrier to the idea of doing your own cover--just a warning that it's a good idea to figure out what you're doing first!

  8. It's great that Southern Indiana Writers Group offers a service like cover design--it's a huge benefit to members, Marian.

    As you point out, interior files are something else entirely--(I'm going to be writing about that, too, for those just starting out).

  9. Cover design--and print design in general--is a field that probably forces us to combine creativity with technicality more than about any other, N.R. All that measuring CAN seem daunting, and it really has to be done right. If you'd like to hire a designer, check around with some of the editors and writers who post here and get the names of designers they've worked with successfully. Or email me, and I can give you some names of good book designers.

  10. Yes, Maryann, the process is different for e-books. And I will be posting about that. There's even a different process for books designed for Kindle, for reading onscreen on a conventional computer, and for books designed to be printed out and read in other locations. The field of publishing has just exploded, and the new media each carry with them their own challenges and benefits.

  11. Shery, I'm a professional artist by trade, and would no sooner design my own book cover than build a house - even though I can draw a pretty picture of my ideal place. The mechanics and knowledge in the underlying "works" goes deeper than a nice little drawing or painting. Illustrators and book designers are not necessarily the same animal. Not having the design sensibility to choose the right font, margins, and all that other "stuff" can kill a book package. On some unconscious level, viewers have an "ick" reaction and set the book back down. The opposite also happens. I wouldn't have read a Sarah Addison Allen book but the lush paintings on the covers and the lovely book design sucked me in. And of course she writes magically, too. ;) I'm now a dedicated fan - and I know exactly why.


  12. I wish I were artistic. I loved drawing in grammar school, but hav no talent in that regard.

    Yes, cover art can make or break a book. Unfortunately, many authors have no control over that aspect.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. You raise a good point, Dani--being an artist and being a designer are two quite different things. You're right in pointing out that a book cover involves a lot of elements that most art doesn't--and that the technical know-how to design a cover that actually prints and functions effectively on the bookshelves takes more thought and training than many writers have.

    Morgan, you're right as well in noting that most of the time authors have little or no say in what goes on the book cover. In some cases this is a good thing. There are those among us who, as the saying goes, carry all their taste in their mouths.

    On the other hand, there are designers who carry the idea of temperament to extremes--the buffer who is the art director often earns every penny he or she receives.

    When I design book covers, though, I tend to like to talk to the author (or as my art director questions that the author can answer). Authors can often offer interesting ideas for design possibilities.

    Major caveat here, though--just as you would probably not thank your designer for their editing comments about your writing style, it's important to hire an qualified person, and then let him or her do the job you need done.

    In the end, whether you "like" your cover or not is in some ways irrelevant. The cover has a job to do--it has to sit on the shelves and call, "Pick me...pick me..." to every person who goes past. If your cover does that, you've got a good cover.

  14. Very interesting - informative. As an unpublished writer (police procedurals) I'm always thinking about what I think the cover should at least include or suggest thatwould relate the the core theme of the story. Not that I'd ever be the one to do the artwork.

  15. And as most trained artists know, you don't have to "like" a piece of art to acknowledge it as a good piece or work. Same goes for a book cover. You may hate it, but it may brilliantly serve its purpose.


  16. <a href="">Sherry</a>July 23, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. I agree, She, that book covers should relate to what's inside. For one thing, when we're buying a book by an unknown author most of us really are "judging the book by its cover." Having a great cover is what gets us in the door; we won't stay there if we don't have a book that fulfills the promise the cover made on its behalf.

  18. Right, Dani--

    I'm going to go way out on a limb here and admit that I really don't care for Picasso's art. I really, really don't. And yet, I would be the first in line to support his place in art history. The man changed the way we draw, paint, and sculpt. He did his job. Brilliantly. Will I ever be in an e-bay auction for a Picasso? Nope.

  19. Welcome Sherry! I'm really looking forward to more of your articles. I recently had a gift memoir printed for a family member and went through a steep, but interesting, learning curve in design for printing.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  20. You bring up an interesting point, Elle--lots of people who have no plans to actually sell their books find themselves in need of a cover. It used to be that published--even self-published--authors were very much "them"--an esoteric, somewhat exotic breed. But technology has advanced to the point where I'm considering offering classes in using self-publishing resources to scrap-bookers. I've had a couple managed-care facilities express interest in the idea as a way of keeping families and their elders connected. At this point, when I talk to people about publishing it's like that line in Jurassic Park--the question is no longer "can we"--yes, we can--but "should we?" And that's a different, more complex question.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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