Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to Create a Great Book Cover

A great book needs a great book cover.  However, for many authors, like me, designing a cover that is even half-decent can be a frustrating challenge. Therefore, when I saw H. S. St.Ours stunning book cover mentioned on my page, Great Book Covers, and found out that he had done it all himself, I asked him if he was willing to share his expertise and luckily he said ‘Yes’!  Below is one of the most useful and inspiring guides I have read on how to design a winning book cover.  I hope you find it helpful too.

Thanks, Katheryn, for the opportunity to talk with your readers about great book cover design.

Hi everyone! I’m H.S. St.Ours, and I wrote Little Women - Young Moon, a young adult, sci-fi adventure for girls. I absolutely love book cover design as an art form, and was thrilled to find Katheryn’s site showcasing great covers.

Even though we know we shouldn’t, we all judge a book by its cover. At least initially. That’s why choosing (or designing) the right cover is so important. For generations, most authors have relied on publishers to provide the professional insight and expertise necessary for their cover designs, and there are, of course, hundreds of extremely talented professionals who make magic every day. One of my favorite book cover designers is Chipp Kidd (Google him), who designed some of my favorite covers of all time and who also wrote the great novel, The CheeseMonkeys. I like it when designers can write too (and vice versa!)

Most folks are too shy or think they have no talent to create a good cover. But I believe that, with a little effort, everyone can. Especially in today’s self-publishing world, I find multi-talented people everywhere, and I think part of the fun and excitement for indie authors is to evoke just the right sense of mood by building their own cover. It’s not hard, really, but it takes a little skill and practice.

The first step, of course is that you must do your homework. Look at hundreds of covers and focus on their used of color, photos and type, until you get a sense of what works for you and what falls flat. You’ll see a great variety of styles and techniques, so take note of the ones that work, and try to ask “Why?” Does a complicated design get your attention, or do you prefer something bold and simple? Does the cover have to have a face fill the space to get you to look inside, or is a montage of designs, assembled together, more your style. There are as many different approaches as there are designers.

Remember, the cover is the visual equivalent of your blurb - that 30-second “elevator pitch” you’ve been practicing for months to get folks interested in reading your book when you answer their question: “What’s your book about?” A cover has an even more immediate impact than a blurb. It’s visceral, and cuts right through all the senses to create an instant impression.

No one knows your work better than you, so why try to explain it to a designer if you can do it yourself? If you have even just a little experience with drawing or sketching, you should be able to distill your cover idea in a few iterations. Even if you do decide to have a designer create your cover later (and most publishers will insist upon it) at least you can present some ideas to help them get going. As a professional designer myself, I find it enormously helpful when clients can express their thoughts visually.

The most important tip I can pass on to you that might help make your cover great is: go for big, bold graphics. Whether your book is offered only online, or is piled high in a stack at your local book monger’s, you’ll want it to stand out. Overly complicated covers can work, if you can get your audience to slow down and look, but usually a moment’s glance is all you’ll get. So make the best of that time.

I began designing the cover of my current book, Little Women - Young Moon, early on in the process. I am a traditional artist by training, having studied sculpture and painting long before I began writing, so I think I have a good sense of the value of drawing as a communication medium. I used sketching to help me visualize my main characters and important plot points.

The novel is a saga of the terraforming of the worlds of the Inner Solar System as seen through the eyes of generations of young women. Young Moon is a talented and extraordinary girl, born in North Korea in the near future, who’d like nothing more than to be left alone to talk to the visions she sees in her drawings -- visions that come to warn her of an impending catastrophe. So it made sense to me, initially, to use a drawing for the cover.

I loved my original drawing. It encapsulated everything I thought was compelling and mysterious about my character, including the launch of a fateful rocket, and the image of dragons -- a recurring theme in her drawings. I used Photoshop, which, like many designers, is a tool I have been comfortable with for decades. (Too many people think Photoshop will do the art for them, but it won’t. It’s only a tool -- a powerful one, for sure,  but nevertheless, a tool.) I scanned my drawing, opening the file into Photoshop, then added some text, experimenting with different type faces until I found the one that “felt” right. I was very happy with the results. But it simply didn’t look right on Amazon’s Website. The reduction scheme they use to place a thumbnail of the cover on the book’s page made it look too pixellated. After a few weeks of looking at it there, I decided to try again.

I enlarged the character’s head, eliminating the other complex elements, and re-designed the text to make the scene more readable. The composition was tighter, now, and more focused, and it had a mysterious, brooding quality that I loved. I was again very happy with the results, I but it still didn’t “read” right on the book’s Amazon’s page, and of course, that’s where it’s most important. Much of the detail was lost, and the fine gradients and subtle colors were completely lost. After a few weeks, I decided it was time to return to the proverbial drawing board.

This time, I decided to use a photo for the main character rather than a drawing. I went to the professional stock photo site photos.com, and researched models who had the look I wanted. I found just the one and bought the photo. I layered the text using a slightly different font, and posted it. My satisfaction with the design only lasted a few days, though. Somehow, it conveyed more of a romance novel quality than I wanted. Although there is a good bit of romance in all of my adventure stories, an actual photo turned out to not be the right choice for Little Women - YoungMoon.

Here, it’s important for me to say a word about copyrights. Please, do not steal images from the Web, or download poor quality images from the so-called “free” stock photo Web sites. When you want professional results, you must pay-to-play. Remember, if your book hits big, your cover will be seen by thousands, and trust me, someone will notice and check on your rights. Don’t get in trouble by using images for which you do not have the rights.

Meanwhile, my search for the perfect cover design went on. My maxim has always been: Keep it Simple. So I wondered, what was it that could best express the excitement, romance and mystery of my novel? What theme ran through the book that might be symbolic of the story, and still entice potential readers?
I fell upon the dragon. My original, hand-drawn dragon was too cartoon like, too much of a caricature, to use as the symbol I wanted, so it was back to my favorite stock photo sites to research dragons, where I found (and purchased) one that was just right. I re-drew it with pencil, then scanned the image and opened it into Photoshop. After cleaning up the design a bit, I knew I was on to something. I stylized the lines, filled it with solid color, and now had the “logo” element I wanted.

It was time to add the background and text, and complete my cover composition. For the background, I wanted something with texture and appeal. I try to avoid white or very light pastels, as they don’t always show up very well as a background. First, I tried leather. I scanned an old piece I had, then sized and cropped it into a standard book size. There are many formats to choose from, but I recommend you simply measure one of your favorite books and use that size.

I composed the text and the dragon element so it dominated the composition, and reduced the opacity of these layers to about 80% of original, so some of the background texture from the leather would show through. I used a pillow emboss to give the floating layers a feeling like they were “pressed” into the surface of the leather. Photoshop users: you can find this effect in the Layer menu. Use the path Layers>Effects>Bevel & Emboss, then choose “Pillow Emboss” from the pop-up style option.

I made sure the text was large and filled almost the entire width. After all, I want it to be visible even if reduced to postage stamp-size. The results were very pleasing, but again, the true test was: how did it look posted? Alas, Amazon’s reduction process again made this cover hard to read, and I had to change the design once again, but I knew I was on the right track.

I decided the best approach to avoid the constant cover distortion on Amazon’s Web site was to use bright, bold colors and a simple design. I scanned a beautiful piece of board in my art papers collection, and used that for the background instead of the leather (which I still like and may use for a hardbound edition someday). It had much less texture, but was still wonderfully rich and had a great, natural color. You can almost “feel” the surface with your eyes, and that’s great for cover design: it makes you want to pick the book up and hold it. The color combination was easy for me: I wanted blood red to symbolize adventure, so I chose a deep, sanguine hue. Finally, the result was not only pleasing, but readable on all counts.

Now, the sequels will have a theme that I can easily match. I need only change the background texture, title and symbol for each subsequent adventure (“Little Women - Sami” is due this spring!) I also placed a copy of my cover on the first page of my ebook. Since I self-publish, there is no other mechanism for readers to see a large version of the cover -- until it’s picked up by a traditional print publisher, of course!

Over the past few months, while LittleWomen - Young Moon has been gathering excitement and picking up sales, I have changed the cover a half dozen times, always tweaking the look,. Now I have what I consider to be the best, final result. As for the previous covers, I think of them as “collectible variants,” and am equally happy to have them out there.

So don’t be afraid to design your own cover. You might find you have a whole, new talent. Just don’t let it distract you from finishing that manuscript!

All the best to this great community!
H.S. St.Ours

H.S. St.Ours lives and writes in Maryland.
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hsstours
Subscribe to his blog: http://littlewomen.me/


  1. Thanks for doing a blog on this Katheryn. If you're not an artist it can be excruciating to come up with the right cover.

    As for H.S. St.Ours, you have written a clear and detailed account of creating a good book cover. Thank you so much. The way you've laid it out gives me hope that I can do better covers, and the motivation to try.

    I do have one question if you don't mind. Is there anyway we can view what our book covers will look like on Amazon before we actual post it there? Is there a standard size they use in those little thumbnails so that we can resize our covers, before posting, just to see how they will appear?

    1. Thank you Pamela! I'm glad you found the article useful. We can't all be both writers and artists - I certainly can't!

  2. Good question, Pamela.

    The problem I have with pre-testing images is that they look great on my computer at any size, but Amazon compresses the file using a low-quality JPEG format for their thumbnails.

    That's like making a photocopy of a photocopy. Most detail is lost, and, at least in the case of my hand-drawn images, the reduced image is filled with JPEG artifacts, which are the little square halos that rim the edges of designs at high contrast points. It's the result of the JPEG reduction algorithm (nothing we can do about, in other words) and makes images look "crunchy."

    What I do is, I post it and see. After initial publication, covers are usually updated quickly -- within hours of upload -- and if I don't like the look, I can put up another quickly. Hope that helps!


  3. What do you do with hour used art?


  4. Used art. Now that's an interesting idea for a business. What do you mean, exactly?

  5. It's an extremely well written and believable story with memorable characters who are great role models.

  6. A book cover is as important as the book itself since it is the first thing that the readers and consumers see. A good cover design adds appeal to the manuscript and grabs the reader’s attention. One key to make a good book cover is to know the story and the manuscript. Writers and book designers should have a mutual understanding on what the book cover should look like. Remember that a wonderful packaging for your written work is a gateway for good sales and reviews.

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