The Concept: Avoiding Cliche and Being Too Literal
When the cover artist provides initial mockups for a project, they are creating a concept for that particular book cover. As the artist has usually not read the book, this relies heavily on a very good synopsis and information from the author or editor on the “feel” of the book. A reader will make assumptions about the book based on the cover, so hopefully that image will be a good representation of the essence of the book. But a “good representation” does NOT mean a literal representation.
Joel Friedlander had an extremely good article on Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism, which is very much worth reading. The most difficult (and sometimes least successful) covers for an artist to do are those for a self-published author (this is a much rarer problem when working with an editor, as they have more experience in what works well) who has a very specific idea of what they would like on a cover. Usually it is an extremely literal representation of a scene from the book, with precisely-drawn characters.
As a reader, I don’t need to know what brand of shoes your main character wears, or the exact tilt of her sea-blue-not-sky-blue eyes. I want to know who she is. I want to know how your book will make me feel, and that is why a more abstract, or at least non-literal cover, will work.
In fantasy novels I think this goes back to the classic old painted covers which were generally exactly that – a painting of a scene from the book. I loved these books as a kid, of course – I loved the covers, too. But I don’t think they work today. A simpler image is a stronger image.
1. Stock Images
I usually use iStock Photo, even if some of the stock there has gotten unreasonably expensive in recent years. You can still find very nice images if you do enough looking, and they won’t cost you Getty prices. The cost of any stock needed, if I don’t already have it on hand, will be added to the invoice separately. Bigstock is also reasonable. I’ll create a lightbox for this project and save everything I think might work in this lightbox – there is nothing worse than a client deciding that an image is perfect, and then not being able to find the damned thing again. In case you’re wondering, yes I have done that.
Every cover artist needs to keep up with cover trends in the genres that you tend to work in. (And outside those genres – great ideas come from everywhere!) In YA fantasy novels, for instance, there have been some trends which have come and -mostly- gone: Girls in Pretty Dresses, Drowning Girls and Faces, BIG Faces.
Now, these covers can be done well (the first two images are from my Pinterest board of covers that I really like), but you should be aware that these trends have been done to death. That said, who doesn’t like a pretty girl in a pretty dress?
Most of the work that I get is for ebooks, and most of those books will be sold on Amazon. As a result, the cover image will be 600px by 800px. I work at print size, however, so I start with a 300 dpi 6″x8″ file. 6″x9″ is trade paperback size, but it’s easier to work at the smaller size and have the dimensions correct for the ebook cover – I’ll show you later how you can use layers to create artwork at all dimensions.
3. Title and Author Name
At this point, I’m not making any font choices, as that is done once we have agreed on a final mockup. What I will do, however, is do the mockups with various fonts which I think might work, or which will fit in with the feel of the cover art. And here we come to over-used fonts. Interesting font treatments make striking covers…just remember that it also has to be readable at a small (160px) size, so not too thin/distressed.
There are some fonts which have been over-used to the point of being embarrassing – how many times have you seen Bleeding Cowboys used? If you find that they fit the feel of your project better than anything else available, try to change them/rework them a bit. You can also mix and match fonts in the same title for an interesting look.
Unless the author can sell a book based on his/her name alone (i.e., Stephen King, etc.) the title should be larger and the author name smaller.
The cover for Seed by Rob Ziegler is one that I love. It’s not the type of work that I personally am good at doing, but I wish I could: simple, strong, high-concept.
A great cover is essential to selling any book. I admit that I make a large part of my decision to purchase a book based on the cover art, unless it is one of my must-read authors. Actually, even then. There is an author that I have loved for years who just came out with a new book; I was extremely excited until I saw the cover, which looked cheap and amateurish. (Not going to say who it is because I really respect this guy.) Even knowing that he is a lovely, lyrical writer, it still affected my desire to get the book. Yes, covers are that important.
I’ve been thinking about doing a post on book cover design for some time. I hesitated because I’ve just recently (in the last year) launched a freelance art career and it seems a bit presumptuous to write an article as an expert on the subject. That said, I’ve seen other articles about how to design bestselling ebook covers and said to myself “Those are, well…pretty crap.” So here we go. This is a very basic look at how one artist goes about doing a book cover commission.
1. It’s All About Communication
Like any relationship, the partnership between an author and their cover artist relies on communication. Your artist will probably not read your book, but they should have a pretty good idea of what it is about, and who your main characters and themes are. These are some of the initial questions that I ask:
- What text will go on the cover (title, author name, tagline, etc.)?
- What genre is your book (fantasy, paranormal, suspense/thriller, etc.) and who is your target market (YA, adult)?
- Is this book part of a series? If so, I will work on a concept that can be carried across a series of books to tie them together visually.
- Please give me a short synopsis of the book, and any major themes that you feel are important.
- If you are interested in having a main character on the cover, give me a short description of them including age, sex, race, colouring, hairstyle, general style of dress, and personality. I can do two characters, but more than that gets messy – the simpler, the better.
- Do you have any initial ideas for your cover? (I will provide other concepts as well.)
- Are there any covers that your particularly admire, or hate? This isn’t to copy other’s work, but it is easier for most people (even writers!) to convey what they like via images rather than words, which are very subjective.
- What “feel” are you going for? Gritty? Fantasy/fairytale? Yearning? Dark, light?
2. Mockups. And More Mockups.
After I have a basic idea of what the author is looking for (or thinks they are looking for), I will start browsing for stock images and begin to throw basic ideas together. If the author has a very strict idea of what they want and if I agree that that would make a good cover (yes, I have turned away jobs at times because it was obvious that no one was ever going to be happy with the result), then I’ll probably only do a couple of mockups. Sometimes I’ll just do one, which we’ll keep changing until we get it perfect. If they are more open to variations on a theme, I’ll throw together a lot of different looks and send a .zip file of mockups for them to consider. These mockups are done with rough watermarked stock, just to provide a rough version of the cover.
Looking at stock takes a very long time. For most of the covers that I have done, I’ve spent a day or more looking for the perfect stock to use as a basis for a cover. At the end of one of those sessions, your head hurts, your eyes have shrivelled into raisins, and you have had it up to here with white toothy advertising smiles, with pouty male models, with all of the stock that is wrong, wrong, wrong! So many big white smiles on stock photo sites.
After the author or editor looks through the mockups, we start to get a bit closer to the final version. Or we start all over again, which does indeed happen. I think the most mockups that I have ever done for a cover is eighteen…but you do them until it is right. Feedback is essential, and so we’re back to communication. Authors, do your cover artist a solid and give them detail about what works and what doesn’t! Words are your business, after all, right? No “Well, I can’t really put my finger on it, but it needs to be more…dark? I don’t know. More grungy. And the model isn’t right for the character.” This makes artists cry.
The concepts below are mockups that I did for the steampunk/fairytale book that I am currently working on. During that process, I discovered that it is actually harder to create a cover for your own book than it is to create one for someone else.
Part Two: Avoiding Cliche, and Being Too Literal
I’m going to continue this with Part Two, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with some images from my Stunning Book Cover Art Pinterest board. These are covers that caught my eye for various reasons: strong imagery, excellent type treatments, etc. They’re covers that I think work for me personally, both as an artist and as a reader. I would buy these books, and I would have been very proud to have created them.
Well, the book seems to be stuck with the working title, as I’ve got absolutely nothing else. Title fail.
Below are two covers that I have been thinking about, one more literal and one a bit more simple/abstract. The story is (without giving away what it’s a retelling of) an it-happened-all-in-one-night mad chase through various fairytales and through the middle of a war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. It is steampunk fantasy, and would be placed somewhere between Middle Grade (as in the first Harry Potter book) and YA (as in the darker books which the series ended with).
Which cover would you be prompted to click through to if you saw it on Amazon? Which would catch your eye, and why? I think I fell into a quite unexpected trap, which is that I am having trouble visualising a cover for my own work because I am too close to it. In a recent post by Joel Friedlander, Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism, he writes:
The problem is that authors are so attached to their own symbolism or to an image they have lodged in their mind that would be “perfect” for the book cover, they lose sight of the role their book cover is intended to play. One of the quickest ways to kill any good effect of your book cover is to include too many elements. In fact, this is one of the most common failures of amateur designers.
Yep, I’m there right now. So since I can evidently no longer see this objectively, what do you think? Images after the cut.