J.S. Leonard

Welcome back! This is the second article in my two-part series about creating a dazzling cover that enthralls your readers. If you haven’t read it yet, head here.

In the previous article, I ended by outlining the basic elements of a great cover and then how to bring those elements together with a designer—and potentially an illustrator. Here we dive deeper and learn how to quantify our cover's effectiveness.

A Quick Size Litmus Test

Let’s revisit the Annals of Anzabar cover design.

Annals of Anzabar Large Annals of Anzabar Medium Annals of Anzabar Small

Assessing the cover at different sizes is an excellent habit that will give you a good idea of how the cover will perform in various contexts. Here I’m happy with the largest size but unhappy with the author’s and title’s legibility at the smaller sizes. To remedy this, I may ask my designer to thicken the letters or increase the contrast of the logotypes and background or reduce the logotype’s background complexity or increase the logotype’s size. You get the point. The background painting is also hard to distinguish at the smallest size, but I’m okay with this. At minimum, the smallest size should have readable logotypes and a memorable color scheme.

On Cleverness, Context and Thin Wallets

I know you are thinking, "You realize I’m a small-time author. Hiring one person runs shivers down my bank account." It’s okay, I get it. Though I believe spending more upfront leads to spending less down the road, often that isn’t an option. Let me reiterate: it’s okay if you hire a single person, just be sure you have them focus on the right Lego pieces in the right order.

Right Lego Pieces, Right Order
  1. Author name and title logotypes
  2. Primary graphic metaphor
  3. Secondary supporting elements like quotes, blurb, etc.

Once #1 is accomplished, the world’s your oyster and you can cut corners by investing in cleverness over hiring talent. Let’s say I wrote a book called Torn. It’s an adult mystery-thriller about, I don’t know, a devolving marriage that splits two brothers apart only to be reunited in the same platoon—a decent if not trite premise. Now, I don’t have the monies to hire an uber-artist-extraordinaire, so I tell my designer "Let’s be clever with this, let’s think outside the box…and inside my gasping coin purse."

What’s your box? Context! Where will your book be viewed? On shelves next to other books! How can we exploit the crap out of that? Play on the "torn" theme while also making your book stands out against other books. Here’s a concept:

Torn Logotypes Annals of Anzabar Large

Neat right? A printed cover that appears torn, but really isn’t…genius! Okay, maybe not genius, but at least a strong contender.

This fictitious cover takes a literal interpretation on the book’s theme while creating a distinct separation from other books. Readers are immediately made aware that this book is about separation and angst. Imagine passing by the New Releases bookshelf at Barnes and Noble—it would catch the eye, right? It doesn’t fit, it’s not like the others, it doesn’t conform to convention. Yet it satisfies expectations.

It also only took an hour to create.

Once I had the author name, title and other elements, I could quickly throw this together and revel in my foxiness. How foxy you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I’ve learned to raise a reg flag if I begin swimming in the glory of my proclaimed genius. I’ve simply qualified my cover. It’s time to take a step back and quantify.

"Reduce until all extraneous elements have gone."

Grade your cover on context worthiness (a bookshelf, digital and traditional) with a spot check. A spot check is an advertising technique where the product is mocked up and made to look real in its desired habitat. Let’s attempt this:

Traditional Torn Spot Check Digital Torn Spot Check

Here are a few current best-sellers I nabbed from Barnes and Noble’s website. My initial reaction is "Yea, it looks sweet," but my reaction means nothing. Now is the time for other peoples’ opinions—seek those who read your genre.

Ask them:
  • Does my book feel like it belongs?
  • Would you pick up my book and read the blurb?
  • Does my book feel professional?
  • What do you think my book is about?

Four to five opinions are plenty. Their consensus will reveal any flaws. Address them. Rinse and repeat. Once the consensus says "Well done," congratulations, you have a solid book cover.

Here’s another cover that explores the same theme as Torn, but is even more minimal:

Psycho Cover

A Word on Overdoing It

It’s easy to overdo style, to go from clear and concise to murky and gaudy. The first rule of design is simplify. Reduce until all extraneous elements have gone. There should be no question as to whether an item belongs on the cover. If there is a question, kill it. Kill that darling like its out of style. Great creative work allows for no superfluous items. Do not allow this to be a stubborn elephant haunched in your path to greatness.

Pay special consideration to typography and color. Believe me, simple is better, less is more. Choose the clean font over the wild western calligraphic script, unless you have empirical evidence to suggest otherwise and your designer has the skills to bring it together. Liking something is fine and dandy, but quantify it through research and external opinion.

When to Switch Things Up

So, you’ve already spent money on a cover and the curtains are drawn for the world to see. Of the reasons you should change your cover are underperforming sales or a new release in a series. If your books are selling well, and people have made positive comments about your cover, worry not! You’ve satisfied the quality contract. However, if your sales are dwindling and you’ve noticed your cover has violated any of the above rules, it might be time for a redesign.

Regarding series, if your books look like a motley mix of monkeys, papier-mâché and Monopoly pieces, all completely unrelated, then it’s best to homogenize them. Remember to reuse logotypes, color schemes, illustration/photograph styles and fonts. Ask friends if the redesigned books feel like they "belong together." Tell them to be harsh—give them a criticism hall pass—better to learn mistakes from a close friend, than from swarms of pissed off fans with fingers poised on an unlike button.

Anatomy of a Money-Making Cover

At this point, you should have a darn good idea of what makes a great cover and how to go about achieving such. To recap, a great cover has the following:

  • Nothing left to remove
  • Author First, Book Second, Publisher Third
  • Cuddles with the Genre
  • Compelling visual metaphor
  • Stellar blurb and secondary elements

Good luck in your cover creating adventures! I’d love to see what you come up with.

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