book cover design

How to Prepare for Your First Book Cover Design

Everyone judges a book by its cover.

Once upon a long time ago someone got that wrong and we’ve all been parroting it ever since. But you know the truth; that’s why you’re here. You’re exhausted with seeing smart, well-written stories get ignored in favor of flashy yet empty titles with gorgeous-looking covers. Or maybe you’re a purveyor of pulp-fiction who understands the value of a one-click cover. You could be someone in between, with mad respect for every word, but also craving a consistent creative career.

Art is important, but readers will sustain you. Even if you don’t have the experience or time to design your own covers, you should have the vocabulary required to provide your story with packaging necessary to sell it.

I’ve worked with Sterling & Stone for the last couple of years. Counting my time with the studio, I’ve done well over a thousand covers. I know what works, what doesn’t, and what stands in most authors way — and ends up costing them the most money seeing as cover design is the number one conversion element for most books in any given marketplace.

Painting houses ran strong in my family. My grandfather, father, and I all painted houses, and one of the most influential things my dad told me that his dad told him was that painting is 90% preparation (scraping, caulking, priming, etc.) and 10% finish work (painting, avoiding wasps, falling off the ladder into the rose bushes, etc.)

Your book cover project will also greatly benefit from some crucial prep work before you contact a designer to see if they want to work on your project. You will not only end up with a cover much closer to your vision, but you will get there faster, saving you and your designer time and making your relationship with them less stressful.

If all goes well you will have added another vital professional to your team. Here are the six simple steps to keep in mind.

1. Choose the Target of Your Story

This may seem obvious, but some authors don’t have a clear idea what the target genre of their story is before, during, or after they write it. Since genre is the most important factor your designer will use to decide what fonts, colors, and images to use on a cover, a murky idea of your target genre can waste everyone’s time. This usually manifests itself in one of two ways.

First, the author may have chosen a genre that’s extremely specific and/or rare. Sometimes this is because the author is trying to be the first to initiate some groundbreaking new genre in which they will then be top of the heap.

If only I would have thought of LitRPG first, they think, I would be sitting in a gold-plated recliner sipping whatever year is the best Dom Pérignon and talking plot points with Stephen King and George R. R. Martin.

But this type of category-creation strategy is an extreme long shot. The choosing of an obscure genre usually happens because an author was following their story (I’m looking at you, pantsers), but then they reached The End and realized their book had taken a wide-ranging trip through a few too many Amazon categories.

I’ve had more than one author try to describe the genre of their book in our cover design questionnaire using more than five words, e.g. Alt-Precambrian Apocalyptic Amish Nanopunk Military Romance [with mermaids].

If you can’t find a solid Amazon category in which to place your book, you should absolutely rethink your story.

Second, since the author hasn’t solidified the genre before working with their designer, it morphs and changes during the course of the design process. I’ve followed author’s design questionnaires only to find that the first design I send elicits a response such as, “Even though I said there are dragons in it I think my book is more sci-fi than fantasy because it’s set on a distant planet a thousand years in the future.”

Most designers won’t have any problem re-working a design for an author to best meet the needs of their story, but it can (again) be a waste of time if you are trying to decide genre during the design process. Your designer’s desire for a concise genre doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the story. They want to create the best cover, and a design that waffles around genres is a guaranteed headache.

I realize that stories morph and grow and weave into things we hadn’t intended (still looking at you, pantsers). You may not be sure if your story is more sci-fi than fantasy. Star Wars is a great example. It had fantasy elements like light sabers, heroes swashbucklingly swinging on ropes carrying fair maidens who were also their sisters, the mystical Force (pre-midichlorian, thanks, George). But the movie was promoted as solid sci-fi and has been primarily seen as such ever since.

If you do have a cross-genre book, it’s critical that you provide some examples of similar covers to emulate so your designer knows what direction to take. Besides, you’re going to need to know your genre for marketing purposes.

How will you know what readers to target in your ads if you don’t know your genre?

Nail your genre and you’ll be that much closer to a successful cover and launch.

2. Review Your Title, Subtitle, and Tagline

At the risk of ruffling some author feathers, consider shortening the length of any long words in your title. Why? The length and number of words in your title greatly impacts how a designer will lay out the cover. Longer titles will fill more of the page leaving less room for eye-catching images. Long words in your title mean the font size will most likely have to be smaller, meaning your title may not be recognizable in thumbnail size.

For example:

This may be nonnegotiable if you’re locked into a longer word because it’s a place or character name. But if a substitution will work (job instead of mission, or riddle rather than conundrum), you should at least consider it. Shorter, single-syllable words have more marketing punch as well.

Similarly, having a long subtitle (E.g., ESKIBAR VON PANTALOON OF PUCKLECHURCH AND THE ROYAL MERRYCATCHERS OF LYTHWYNCORRR-ON-THAMES BOOK TROIS) can eat up valuable horizontal space. Cramming a subtitle of this length on only two lines can be one solution, although that then uses up twice as much vertical space. So keep those subtitles concise.

Sometimes a longer title (or subtitle) is integral to the story or series in which case the title length is crucial to communicating the story. YA fantasy books or stories with humor such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are solid examples of this.

Consider adding a tagline. Condensed and sometimes clever one-line synopses of a book or movie, such as “The true story of a real fake” (Catch Me If You Can), “Escape or Die Frying” (Chicken Run), “Great Things Come In Bears” (Yogi Bear) are some examples.

Taglines do two positive things for a cover. First, if they are well-written, they can add an extra hook to the “first page” (your cover) of your story. Second, since taglines are seen frequently on popular books, readers tend to ascribe to them a sense of professionalism. Often these aren’t taglines so much as New York Times Bestselling Author and such, but the space they fill does provide additional visual impact and balance.

A solid tagline also forces you to boil your story down to a single statement, which is an excellent way to synopsize the book when you discuss it with others, while also helping you to better target your market.

3. Decide Whether You Will Need a Print Cover in Addition to Your Ebook Cover

In almost every circumstance, the design you are paying for from your cover designer is for an ebook cover only. Most designers should offer a paperback print option for your cover either in a package price or as an add-on price. Currently the two main Print On Demand (POD) companies are Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and IngramSpark. IngramSpark also has the capability for hardback printing, which we have done for some of our authors.

Most designers can create a print cover in the future after your ebook cover is completed, so don’t feel beholden to being sure in the beginning. However, if a designer knows you will eventually want a print cover, that can help them during the design process, and give them space in their layout for a full print design to be finished later. Print covers are often completed at a later date as your designer will need to know your title’s page count to determine the spine width, and that information isn’t known until the manuscript has been fully edited.

4. Find 4-6 Covers in Your Genre That Best Match What You Want Your Cover to Look Like

As book cover designers like to say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of more accurately getting you the cover you want.” For me, example covers are the single most important thing an author can provide to help me home in on the kind of cover they are looking for. I once had an author tell me she wanted to sleep with the cover we had designed under her pillow. That’s what we want to achieve for all our authors. If I can get a feel for colors, font styles, or whether you prefer characters on your cover over symbols, I’m that much closer to getting you an under-the-pillow cover.

You can find example covers on Amazon or anywhere you can shop for books by searching in your category and checking out the covers of the top 100 books listed. Obviously not every cover in the top 100 belongs in that category (thanks, Amazon), but you should get a feel for which style of covers would best match your story. Pinterest also has boards where users post their favorite covers.

Check out the covers in the portfolios of designers, especially ones you are interested in working with. It should be relatively easy for them to match a style of cover they’ve already created.

5. Write a Solid Synopsis of Your Story

Contrary to semi-popular belief, you don’t need to provide all or part of your manuscript to a cover designer. You may have a fantastic story, but if we had to read everyone’s book in order to generate a cover idea we wouldn’t have any time for designing. A synopsis is best for us both because it boils the narrative down to a nice, concise elevator pitch.

If you don’t have a solid synopsis then I recommend waiting until you do before contacting a designer.

Besides, if YOU don’t know your story well enough to distill it into a few sentences, how can you expect your designer to know which direction is best to focus on?

6. Prepare Yourself For Compromise

I had an author who loved the design we came up with but not the font. They were in love with the highly-stylized font they had used on their original self-designed cover and were insistent on using it again on their new cover. But the font was difficult to read, made doubly hard by the fact that the second word of the title was a long name of one of their characters which would contribute little about the story to a new reader. The author also wanted to use a different font for the first word in the title (which was also a character’s name). I pushed back, providing other options along with their original favorite font, but it was the one they ultimately chose.

It was not a battle I could win. The end result was a disjointed looking cover that I’m sure they were pleased with but which also raised unnecessary barriers in front of the reader. The opposite of a “one-click cover.

Compromise is key in any working relationship, even ones that are work for hire. Yes, you pay my fee, but I consider myself part of your team, just as important as your editor or proofreader. I believe most of the authors we work with would agree. In a practical sense that means you need to trust your designer’s experience. I don’t send a list of all the grammatical and spelling errors to my proofreader; that’s their job and I trust their skill set. This is the way most designers are likely to think.

Micromanaging may make for some funny scenes in The Office but it can ruin a cover, or at the very least make it far less effective. If you’re telling your mechanic exactly what brand and grade of oil to use and what sequence in which to tighten the lug nuts on your wheels, you’re going to get a lot of eye rolls in the shop and quite probably a more poorly-maintained car.

Your designer is a professional and you need to trust their skills and experience. If you insist on certain colors or fonts or placements of specific objects you will end up with fewer sales and be the customer that slumps your designer’s shoulders whenever they see your name in their inbox.

A designer that does not enjoy the work will get it finished as soon as possible, even if that means delivering an end product that is less than effective just to appease you. Some hassles aren’t worth the money.

“But what about customer–provided designs or photos? I’ve got this obscenely cute photo I took on my iPhone of my cross-eyed pug Petunia in a ballerina outfit that I think would look fantastic on this book I wrote about my Aunt Beatrice. She’s such a nut!”

Every designer has at some time had an author insist on using a particular image for their cover. Usually the book was, understandably, about a pet or some other very personal subject. In almost all of these situations these images were not professionally shot and were too low of a resolution to use for a full-size ebook cover — not to mention a print cover, which would look even worse.

The end result may have been lovely as a keepsake but not successful at selling books. Unless your suggested photo is professionally shot and at a high resolution, your designer won’t want to use it. Even then, it may not have the composition, color, or contrast to be effective in your cover. It isn’t unusual for me to spend as much time searching for the best stock photo to use in a cover as I do in the actual design process.

Choosing the best images to use in your design is an art best left to the professionals if you want to sell books.

Other Common Questions:

How soon should I have work started on my cover?

The glib answer is “as soon as possible.” Most cover designers are booked out 1-3 months (the most-sought-after ones can be busy for up to a year!). Wait until you get your final draft back from your proofreader and you may have to sit for months with your finished book cooling on your hard drive before getting your first cover design concept. Finding a designer should be one of the first things you do when writing your book. And the earlier you get your cover done, the earlier you can start promoting it and building excitement for its release.

What about the next books in my series? I’m rapid releasing all ten of my Southern Gothic LitRPG series in two days (don’t mock my strategy) and will need to have covers for all of them at about the same time.

If you’re doing a rapid release of a series then you’ll need to give your designer enough time to complete multiple covers over a few weeks or months while attending to their other customers. It will depend mostly on how different each subsequent cover in your series will be. A simple color change or primary element change can take much less time than the creation of a relatively new concept. Let your designer know your potential release schedule ahead of time so they are aware, and you’re not learning too late that they can’t fit you into their schedule.

I’ve used everything from KDP Rocket to Klytics to KindleSpy. I have autographed copies of all of Chris Fox’s books on my Kindle (don’t ask me how). I stole a pencil Joanna Penn once chewed on at Thrillerfest. I’ve dug through Jeff Bezos’s maid’s trash hoping to find a clue as to how Amazon algorithms really work. Is a book cover designer really going to know all the latest tactics and trends that will help my cover to sell?

Your designer may not be as adept at losing money on Facebook ads as you (sorry — been there), but they should be aware of current trends in cover design. What sold in space opera two years ago may not be selling now, and probably won’t be in another two years. They should be knowledgeable about which covers in your genre are selling and what tropes to use. It’s their job to know so you can get back to cursing the AMS ads dashboard.

What is negotiable and what is non-negotiable?

As the saying goes, “everything is negotiable.” To be honest, I’ve done little negotiation on price with my authors. Most designers will have their prices listed on their website, so there shouldn’t be no surprises when the bill comes. There are circumstances where a job may not fall under a pre-set price list, such as hardback cover design, box set design, the cost to design subsequent books in a series, or other special requests an author may have. In those instances there should be an agreement on price ahead of time. You can request a few bucks on the asking price, but we’re not selling cars. As I mentioned in the section on compromise, some things aren’t worth the money. Beginning designers may be hungrier, but if a favorite designer isn’t within your budget then you’re both better off finding one who is.

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