J.S. Leonard

The self-published author faces two terrifying facts: you must produce an error-free and well-written, remarkable book and that book must be sheathed in the best possible cover. Often writers are not editors or designers, and when you reach the final stretch—just before the hallowed launch—the inevitable million-other-things-I-didn’t-think-about problem surfaces and despair soon swoops you up. You think, “Oh my god—I need a cover. Now. No, yesterday. Damn!”

You see that Amazon has a cover designer and you think “Great!” but are gobsmacked by how utterly useless it is. A kid could design a better cover. And you need a better cover. The best even. That cover must outshine all in its class and separate you from the dreaded cacophony of competition. It must radiate, shining like a stellar beacon, sucking in readers like a tractor beam. It must rock.

I’m a designer by trade. I want to empower you with my years of designing beautiful things. I want you to apply it to your own material—without needing to dredge through Photoshop tutorials or spending buckets of blood-drenched cash on the wrong artist. You will soon learn the basic elements that any great cover must possess. You will be proud to see you name upon your book and wonder, “Wow, how did I get here?”

Your Cover is an Ad and You are the Brand

Treat it like such.

Before you get all, “Ewwwwww marketing!?” on me, let me preface this section with this: We live in a consumer driven society, and to be recognized, you must live up to its demands. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in permission based and relentlessly helpful marketing, a la Tim Grahl or Seth Godin or Amy Hoy, but I also know the impact a well-engineered ad campaign can have. Many marketers have given their lives to dissecting consumer brains, picking them apart, finding out what makes them tick. I respect that—and I’m going to use that to your and my benefit.

You want a <Your Name Here> novel.

An ad is simply a communication medium constructed to sell a product. A brand is the embodiment of an idea used to sell more ideas or products. Cool? Cool. Your cover is the ad, you are the brand and your book is the product. People buy brands. Ads just help move that process along. Your cover’s purpose is to entice a reader, to hypnotize them so they cannot help but pick up your book and explore your universe.

Let’s build a hierarchy here. First, the author is what people buy. Not the book. Not the publisher. But the author. Look at Stephen King’s covers.

Doctor Sleep - Stephen King The Stand - Stephen King

What is most prominent? His name. People know what to expect when they crack open a King novel. It’s not a Carrie or Cujo or Mr. Mercedes novel—it’s a King novel.

Don’t believe me? Try it: an Evanovich Novel, a Grisham novel, a Dan Brown novel, a Clancy novel, a Gaiman novel. I could do this all day. You want a Your Name Here novel.

Second is the title of the book. This provides context as to what story the reader will spend their excruciatingly limited time with. Third we have the imprint or publisher. Some publishers provide context also, like how TOR circulates fantasy and sci-fi, but most readers could give a damn if it’s a Big 5 or Pete’s Indie Publishing. Plus, you aren’t relying on a publisher, otherwise they’d be doing this for you. People recognize quality—as long as you satisfy that contract, they will be inclined to trust your product.

Primary Hierarchy

  1. Author
  2. Title
  3. Publisher

Then there are the ancillary elements of a great cover: graphic metaphor (illustration), quotes/by-lines, accolades, series distinction, author bio and the blurb. I’m telling you right now that if you don’t nail the primary hierarchy above, then none of these ancillary items will have the desired impact. You will be left with mud. And readers despise slogging through mud.

Supporting Elements

  • Visual Metaphor (Illustration)
  • Quotes/By-lines
  • Accolades
  • Series Distinction
  • Author Bio
  • Blurb

Have the written items completed before designing the cover.

Is it Really an Ad?

Yup—and the product it sells is a journey. We aren’t selling boxes of Tide™ or stock photos of young couples in love. We sell experiences. Let’s look at some examples of other ads that do that the same.

Alfred Hitchcock - The Birds Inglorious Bastards Movie Poster Kill Bill Movie Poster

Movie posters are glorified book covers—and sweet, sweet inspiration fodder. Movies also rake in heaping piles of cash. This attracts freakishly clever and creative people to focus all of their energy into making ads that draw massive audiences. And we can be just as clever.

Let’s relate some of the elements here

Kill Bill Movie Poster with highlights

See? Basics nailed! Oh—and it’s an ad. So is your cover.

Where to Derive Style and Tone

Great marketers exploit context—they take advantage of where the ad will be seen. You need to consider where your cover will appear and that is only in two places: next to other books and on a shelf.

Is your work literary or commercial fiction? To what genre does it belong? Begin looking at bookshelves where your book might sit. This is the context from which you shall start shaping your cover.

When in search of similar covers, I frequent sites like Pinterest or Google Images and type in keywords like “book,” “covers”, “best,” “<insert genre here>”. Overwhelm yourself with ideas from this approach. Research like this will enable you to make better decisions (and spend less money) when the cover is designed.

Typography is King

Steve Jobs attended typography classes at Reed College. This led to his inspiration for Apple. Typography is all powerful and deserves respect. After all what are you selling? Words. Readers want to read—reinforce your book’s amazing content through beautiful, clean typography. Avoid slapping your readers across the cheek with discouraging, hard-to-read titles.

Marketing mavens refer to brands as identities and their logo as “marks” or “logotypes.” A logotype is fancy word for a logo that is comprised primarily of letters. Think VISA, FedEx, ABC, Disney or Mailchimp. Your title and author name need to embody your brand and theme within the letters. They should be able to stand alone. For instance, let’s look at a few book covers.

Christie - Murder on the Orient Express Christie - Affair Christie - McGinty

Notice a common theme? The author’s name remains rich and expressive and the same across each book. This glues Agatha’s brand together. These are Agatha Christie novels. Then liberties are taken with the title of each book, conforming the typefaces to the book’s content. It doesn’t take much to convey author, title and metaphor. Let’s go one step further and remove the supporting illustration.

Christie - Murdered Cover with Elements Removed

A great deal of information remains. You have the asian-flecked art deco letters of Murder on the Orient Express giving us time period and theme. Then you have Christie’s signature, tying all her work together and making it hers. The illustration was just icing on the cake, a yummy, emotional element.

Focus first on the design of your author name and title logotypes. Yes—first. These are typographical design elements, not illustrations or photos. Start simple. And guess what? Once you’ve created your author logotype, it can be reused. That means your next cover will cost less—learn to reuse elements and spread them across your catalogue.

You may be wondering, “Um, how? I trust my designer to kill it! I call shenanigans!”

On Creatives and Abilities

If you want to stick a stock photo on your cover and call it done, life may be peachy, otherwise steel yourself, for I have sour news. When it comes to artists, there are designers and there are illustrators. Designers are those who spend hours mucking over letter kerning and constructing their own fonts. Illustrators are those who spend hours sketching naked models and fuss over every hair on King Kong’s ass in their bitchin’ concept paint. Think mouse vs. pencil/brush. It is a rare, rare combination when someone masters both typography and painting/drawing. This leaves us in a quandary: how do we get both?

You have options:

  • If budget permits, hire two people: the obsessive designer to slave away on your logotype and an illustrator to embark upon some dazzling image. Have the designer bring the two pieces together. Better yet, have the designer and illustrator work together from the start.
  • Hire a unicorn, or rather a single individual skilled in both, but explain to them that you want to focus on your logotypes first.
  • Hire a designer and keep the illustrative elements simple or photographic.
  • Hire an illustrator and keep the typographic elements graphic and painterly.
  • Learn Photoshop and Illustrator.

At the time of this writing I’m rocking out a Modern Rituals short story called the Annals of Anzabar. I will use it to demonstrate how this process might work with a designer/illustrator. Here are the logotypes my designer produced (in this instance, it’s me, but whatever):

Logotypes, or, Lego Pieces

These are Lego pieces. I like the simple, tall and compressed treatment of my name—it reflects my attitude toward writing: keep it clean, quick and rife with gusto. Annals of Anzabar is set in a relic time period that explores the magic and technology of a by-gone age—the type has an Egyptian or Byzantine or Stargate feel, each of which were advanced for their time. Then I have my Modern Rituals stamp, which appears across all of my Modern Rituals series and is a cohesive element.

Kudos to my designer—basics nailed! (pats own back) Now I turn to the illustrator (in this case I borrowed an image from Fenghua Zhong on ArtStation) and say: “Here’s my story, paint me something amaze-craze! Embody and distill my theme into a beautiful, graphic metaphor!” We then go through a few critique rounds—be sure to loop in your designer—and when all’s said and done, you are presented with a final image like this:

Annals Concept Cover

Not bad. Not bad at all. While I could further integrate the type and add more secondary elements, this example cover displays crispy, KFC-fried typography and draws the reader in. Would you be confident and proud to kick this little bird out of the nest and onto Amazon or Kobo or BNN?

Key Takeaways

By now you should understand what comprises a delicious cover. Once you’ve knocked out the basics, it’s much easier to make good decisions about the secondary elements. If you neglect those basics, be prepared to take a step back and revisit. When in doubt, compare your cover against the Primary Hierarchy and be sure it satisfies those rules.

  • Your cover is an ad, treat it like one
  • You are the brand, focus on selling your name
  • Nail your logotypes first: author name and title
  • Consider hiring two creatives, a designer and illustrator, or a single individual skilled in both
  • Reuse the primary elements across your entire catalogue

Be on the lookout for Part 2 soon! Happy pubbing! J.S.L. out.

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