Building A Better Book Cover

Let’s Talk About Your Book Cover.
Along with being a writer I am also a designer. I’ve been designing for 15 years now, having done everything from posters, logos, email campaigns, web sites, before eventually settling into user experience design. I mention my pedigree such as it is, only because I want to talk about some concerns I have over design advice  given to indie authors who are diving into self-publishing.

There seems to be a great many folks out there who claim you can make a well designed book cover with a cheap stock photo and a bit of text. I have seen these articles pop up on blogs all over. Every single time I just get frustrated. Why? Well, frankly… they’re totally wrong.

A Short Design Lesson

A well designed cover is so much more. It’s clever. It’s engaging. It’s attractive. It’s enticing. Chip Kidd—arguably one of the best cover designers in the world today—is quoted as saying:

“A book cover is a distillation.
It is a haiku of the story.”

The primary essence of a haiku is the Japanese word きる or kiru, which means to cut or slice. In a good haiku everything is removed but the perfect words to formulate the perfect line. A good book cover should also strive for that same perfection. Just like a haiku, it should reduce thousands and thousands of your words into a few simple elements. These elements should work together to do one thing: engage the viewer.

Staying simple is key. One of my favorite sayings comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

What does that mean? Let’s take a look at one of my favorite covers from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There is so much going yet it’s so simple and clever. Excess distraction has been stripped away and it still oozes intrigue. The choice of hand lettering. The tear and the peeling back of the paper to reveal the titular goldfinch. It’s compelling. It’s engaging. It’s clever. It leaves the viewer wanting to know more. It makes me want to read the book.

Often stock photography tends to be the most cliché take on a subject. Cleverness rarely comes from cliché. To get past the cliché I think you need to go beyond visual imagery, sure…a piece of stock photography might show up, and yes a typeface choice will be a part of the final design, but just slapping together a few things that are “close enough” won’t do your story justice. A good cover goes beyond all of that, it becomes that perfect line.

Creating A Better Cover

Okay, my lesson on book cover design theory is over. You want to make a simple engaging cover. So how do you go about doing that? I get that not everyone is a designer. So what can you do as a writer to really make your book cover stand out and look professional? Here’s a few suggestions.

If you are willing to spend some money:
  • Hire a designer
    Seriously. A designer will help your final work look it’s best. Make sure you have them read your book and approach you with a few concepts. If you have a few ideas throw them out there, but be willing to bend a little. It’s their job to distill your story down into that perfect haiku, that is what they are good at, let them be good at their job.
If you are going in alone:
  • Study well-designed covers
    There are numerous resources out there for you to browse award winning covers. One fantastic place to start is The Book Cover Archive, a site I have mentioned before. But there are other collections all over the web. Use them as a resource, see what works and learn to recognize what doesn’t.
  • Learn from the masters
    Chip Kidd had a great TED talk I suggest you go watch. There are also a ton of books out there as well with instructions on how to get started.
  • Sketch out ideas
    Sit down and start sketching out ideas. You don’t have to be a good artist. Just get a feel for what you want. Does it involve people? Does it need to even have a photograph? Is there something representational you could use instead?
  • Get messy
    Look back at The Goldfinch‘s cover. A lovely (and I believe in the public domain) painting by Carel Fabritius. Some paper. Some rough handwriting. It’s all laid out and photographed. It looks great. Don’t be afraid to try some weird crafty things to capture that cover you want for your book.

A Few Final Thoughts

So does the cover even matter? Some would say in our post-bookstore eBook-flooded-world a cover isn’t anything more than a thumbnail—if even that. Some would say the interior is what matters and cover design is a waste of time. Both stances are probably right on some level and sure, a well designed cover means nothing if your book isn’t up to snuff, and yes a cover is rarely seen in an eBook but I don’t think those are good arguments for bad cover design.

If you can put in a little effort into making your book look that much more professional thus making it more appealing to readers…why wouldn’t you? Quality sells. People look at covers before they buy a book (yes, even with eBooks.) There’s a reason why folks like Chip Kidd, David Pelham, and Barbara Dewilde can make careers designing some of the most iconic and recognizable covers on the market. It’s the same reason why people are drawn to smartly designed book covers, and why readers remember their favorites.

Imagery resonates. You have spent all this time writing a pretty amazing book. Spend a bit more time and give it a pretty amazing cover.

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22 thoughts on “Building A Better Book Cover

  1. I really liked that you included tips for do-it-yourself-ers in this article — because some people really can’t afford to hire a proper designer and have no recourse but to try it themselves! Great post :)

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    1. I’m glad you liked it and I totally understand, hiring any professional can be expensive. With a little research and some willingness to work hard I think most people can come up with a great cover for their book on their own that goes above and beyond what seems to be the norm.

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  2. Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    This is pure gold. While I have worked as a desktop publisher and am aware of how hard it is to put together a great book cover, I had never considered stock photography as a cliche. It is when you think about it. Its a good thing I can rarely afford it! Thank ou K.M. Alexander for a really useful post.

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    1. You’re welcome! There’s quite a few resources available to find a designer. Writer.ly is a local Seattle startup designed to help writers find talent. I know there’s others our there as well.

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  3. I absolutely agree with what you say about stock photos and also the way the cover should sum up what’s in the book. I’m an artist but a rubbish designer, so in the end I paid one to make sure I got the covers I wanted for my books.

    Cheers

    MTM

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    1. Yeah, I had a similar experience when creating the cover for “The Stars Were Right” – I couldn’t get the hand lettering down the way I wanted so I eventually sought out help from a really talented friend of mine. His work completely transformed the cover. Totally worth it.

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  4. I have a BFA in design and I’m a writer. I loved this article. I find myself analyzing all the beautiful book covers as well as the stories. It’s the best of both worlds. I do agree that a bad cover can make or break a book, since so many people will choose a book by its cover. I wish people who aren’t artistically inclined would hire a designer, you can usually work out some great deals and a great looking book is just as important as the content.

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    1. Glad you liked the article! I think people often assume designer = expensive when that actually isn’t the case at all. You’re right, designers can be quite affordable and they’re a good investment, especially when it comes to really nailing that first impression.

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  5. I totally agree. I worked as a designer for 20 years and I still find it shocking that people try to sell professional services using bad marketing material. Good design is a promise of what’s inside. It’s like working hard for your dream job then failing to turn up at the interview.

    Good article, well tackled. I hope writers will take your advice.

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  6. Thanks for giving me the link to this post. I loved it. When I first thought about self-publishing I got all excited to do the cover myself. I spent hours, days and some nights just playing around with ideas. They didn’t look professional, but I loved them. I

    Here’s where I think I may have made mistakes (good learning experiences). I let createspace design my cover. They did a fairly decent job–but not quite. There was no one on the other end reading my book to get a feel for it and financially the price kept going up with each new choice I had to make. Once I went down one path the other path was closed.

    I let the experts run the show and was maybe a little too polite–as if they were doing me a favor though I was paying them :)

    I didn’t take enough time to really look at other books in my genre (or really any books except Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events which I adore for cover design even if it’s for kids).

    I’m not a designer but for book two I’m at least going to give myself more say and maybe go it alone. Anyway, thanks again!

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      1. Thanks, K.M. That is very helpful. I’m going to get the book–a lot of very pleased customers on amazon. I’d already been thinking about type and the usual stuff just isn’t doing it for me as I begin to play at the second novel. I really want to go back and do the first cover again to fit with the rest of the series. Very exciting!

        All the best~
        Adrienne

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