Self-Publishing & Merchandising : Book Cover and Jacket Design

So here’s the thing: you’ve written a book.  Now you have to sell it.  But you’re going to self-publish, and you’re just self-conscious enough to do a little field research, so you drop on by your local indie bookstore, and you start thumbing through covers to see what you like and what you don’t like … and you start noticing a pattern.  The self-published books on the shelf are, for one thing, pretty thin on the ground, and they’re also often less … attractive.  What’s going on here?  And how can you prevent your own book cover and jacket from fading into the background?  Here are five tips to designing a standout, quality book cover or jacket.

[ Right now, I’m just going to deal with the outside of your book––and I’ll save the design components of the inside for next week. ]

1. Design with an awareness of genre.

Some of your greatest assets––and, potentially, stumbling blocks––as a book designer are the legacies of bygone books and the expectations of current readers.  Designing a book specifically to fit in may not be the wisest move––it may remain undiscovered by blending in too well––but there are enormous benefits to paying attention to the visual brand of your book’s genre.  Just think about it!  We know in a flash––in less than a tenth of a second––and with great accuracy whether A, B, and C are all of a set in those popular web-based IQ tests.  We will absolutely know if a book “fits” with its shelf-mates in the bookstore, because we can pause and linger and physically pick up the books involved.

Bold and blocky typefaced titles that occupy almost the whole of a book cover scream crime fiction; slim and minimal sans-serif fonts speak of literary nonfiction; distressing alludes to zombies and post apocalyptic literature; and a hand-lettered style hints at popular romance or young adult novels.  (John Green, I’m looking at you.)  There are, of course, a great many exceptions across all genres, but the clues are there: aside from title fonts and their size and placement, every genre has a long legacy of embedded symbols, imagery, and dynamic organization.  Silhouettes, guns, and blood splashes are easy to place in the crime genre, but do you notice the color balance in a Nora Roberts book cover?  How about the placement of carefully curated quotes on a nonfiction book, above or below the title?  Or the fact that nature guides will often crowd out the author’s name altogether in favor of a full-page still shot of a bluejay, or a slice of Sydney Harbour?  Before you settle, browse the aisles––and the Kindle store.  If you’re going to depart from your genre’s expectations, then do so knowingly, with every keystroke.  You may be setting your book up to stand out, but you may also be removing it from the visual radar of every reader who’s looking for a book in your genre.

2. Design with an awareness of spatial dimensions.

No, I don’t mean the astral plane, or the multiverse.  I mean you should examine the balance between text and image, busy and clean, light and dark.  Often a book cover will look radically different at different dimensions––say, as a physical book and as a thumbnail on the Kindle store––and seemingly small design choices can make your book look either extraordinary or extraordinarily terrible when the size of the image changes.  Keeping your book cover design free of unnecessary clutter––shapes and colors and forms that you don’t need to convey important information––is essential.  I can guarantee you that the titles leaping out at you as you’re scrolling through Amazon are the ones keeping their design simple enough––and uncluttered enough––that they appear beautiful, even as a tiny, 60 x 90 pixel thumbnail.  Again, browsing what’s out there is your best guide to designing a great book cover yourself.

3. Design with an awareness of industry requirements.

By this I mean, particularly, to watch your back cover.  You need to display your book’s EAN barcode somewhere on the cover, preferably without squashing or crowding the design.  You’ll need to include an author photo and biographical snippet (“John Doe works as a marine biologist at Eckard College.  He lives in Tampa with thirty mollusks and one delightful parakeet”).  You should also include the book’s genre or category, a readable price, and contact information.  The category may prove problematic, if your book is indeed cross-genre, but keep in mind this isn’t about smashing your book into a preconceived category, but about making your book findable for your readers.  If you’ve ever heard of a keyword search, your book’s category performs many of the same functions.

4. Keep it legal.

“Don’t steal other people’s artwork” sounds a bit strong, but this is essentially what you’re doing if you utilize an image on your book cover or jacket that you don’t have permissions for.  As you design your book, you absolutely must ensure you use only your own images, images you obtain by payment or permission, or images under the Creative Commons license.  Creative Commons can become complicated to work out after the fact, if you just pluck something off of a Google image search, but there are many fine websites out there that are dedicated to providing nothing but Creative Commons photographs.  Take a look at Stock.xchang (now FreeImages.com), Wikimedia Commons, Free Pixels, Fotolia, Image Base, Abstract Influence, and Flickr’s Creative Commons page (easy to find by clicking “Learn More” on their website).  Basically, there’s no excuse for taking someone else’s image if it’s not on a Creative Commons license … there are so many legitimate options to choose from!  (And if you really want, well, that image, then you should go to the necessary lengths to ensure you have the artist’s permission anyway, right?)

5. Make it yours.

One of the most commonly-heard questions in the self-published community is: “Should I pay someone else to design my cover, if it’s really so much work?”  Ultimately, the answer is up to you.  Will it significantly improve your quality of life by reducing the stress of learning new technologies and softwares and managing a writer’s life on top of all of that?  Possibly.  Never underestimate the power of a professionally-designed cover, especially in a world saturated with marginally acceptable self-published covers. 

On the other hand, will releasing the design process into someone else’s hands also take creative control out of your own hands?  Often, yes, it will.  Always remember where you draw your line in the sand––at which point you’re comfortable surrendering the artistic direction of your book.  If you want or need a designer, that’s great!  Just make sure to do a little research, and to make sure you choose someone who chooses you back––and chooses to get on board with your vision for your book.  That way, no matter who is out there shaping your visual brand, you can be confident that it will reflect … you!

[ NOTE: If you’re looking for the first blog in this post, a general overview of merchandising for self-published authors, you’ll want to look here.  If you’re interested in reading up on extras and special editions, take a look at my second post in this series. ]

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

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