It’s not that we judge books by their covers. But if you’re standing in a bookstore staring at a dozen photo-realistic illustrations next to one cartoony sketch, you’re gonna notice the cartoony sketch.
A great cover makes us look.
Will you have any control over your cover? If you self publish, yes. If you go the traditional route, it depends on your contract. Typically you’ll be allowed to voice your opinions, but the publisher makes the final decision. This can be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, their marketing department probably knows more about selling books than you do. On the other hand, you know more about your book.
So if you’re self-publishing, here are some cover design tips. If you’re going traditional, here, at least, are a few notes you may want to bring up when they ask for your opinion.
1. Keep it simple. Go to any bookstore and stare at the shelves for awhile and your eyes will start to burn from the colors and clutter. Those tired eyes will naturally gravitate towards negative space to get some rest. That’s why, often, the simpler your cover, the better. Think Google vs. Yahoo search.
2. Promote natural eye flow. Choose the sizes and colors of each element – title, byline, images, etc. – based on importance. Where does the eye fall first? Where does it go from there? Where does it end? Does the eye flow easily from one element to the next, or is there a war of elements all screaming for your attention at once?
3. Avoid photo realistic illustrations of people. Stand in the romance section and that’s almost all you’ll see. Shirtless guys with their arms around buxom blondes, long hair waving in the wind. Add a dragon for fantasy or laser guns for science fiction, but with or without the shirtless guy, you’ll see this pattern everywhere. If you are only targeting an audience that reads your genre exclusively, the typical cover may benefit you best. But if you want to appeal to a wider audience, pick something simpler, with greater contrast. Do you really think Twilight would have gotten so popular if it had looked like every other paranormal romance book out there?
5. Aim for bold and iconic. Negative space with one or two contrasting colors will point you in the right direction. If it’s still recognizable when you squint at it (this advice per Karen Kavett), you may have a winner. Especially since online shoppers are only going to be looking at a thumbnail about a square-inch big.
Along those lines, consider also how the design can translate to other materials. Website. T-shirts. Think of your cover more as a signature or a logo rather than exclusively a glimpse at the scenery. Like the mockingjay pin on The Hunger Games, the puppet-master hand of The Godfather, the burning paper man of Fahrenheit 451, or the bent tree of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Just check out some of these titles for comparison:
What are some of your favorite book covers? Tell me in the comments!
Stay tuned: next week, we talk book titles!
–Book links: Kiss Me Dead, Irish Moon, Yours Mine & Ours, Her Dark Angel, Bound in Darkness, Twilight, Fair Game, Shadow’s Fall, Game of Thrones