The Importance of Book Covers for Self-Publishing Authors

Self-publishing has become so quick and easy that many authors are tricked into satisfying their urge for instant gratification instead of being encouraged to take a step back and look at their book as more than just a commodity to thrust into the marketplace with a computer-generated cover and a computer-generated interior. After all, it probably took you months or even years to write your book; don’t rob yourself of the satisfaction of distributing something truly amazing just because some sites allow you to “publish” it in minutes.  Computers don’t know what makes a good cover. Cover designers do.

When it comes to deciding on the cover for your self-published book, there is a simple rule of thumb: The easier it is, the worse it will be. If all you have to do to “generate” a cover for your book is click an “ok” button, you are doing your book and your writing career a huge disservice.  The cover of your book is arguably the most important element. It plays a role in your promotion and marketing. It entices buyers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It attracts people at author events and book fairs. But it only does those things if it’s good.  And a good cover is never created by simply clicking an “ok” button.  

Most self-publishing service providers offer authors a choice when it comes to book covers.  They typically provide “free” cover options, and they typically provide “custom” cover options for an additional fee that ranges from $400-$1200 depending upon your service provider. Most of the “free” publishing websites don’t offer custom cover designs, but instead, point you in the direction of 3rd party cover designers. Their “free” selections are typically limited to words on a plain background. You may be able to customize the font and the background color, but that’s usually it.   Full-service self-publishers typically offer “templates” that can be customized with colors, fonts, and even images, usually for free. They all offer custom cover design options, too.

A custom cover is always the best option, but if a custom cover design is outside of your budget, there are still some important considerations when it comes to using one of the “free” covers provided by your publishing provider.

  1. Never accept the default.  Just about every self-publishing provider will provide you with a “free” cover that you can accept without lifting a finger.  Don’t! Remember the simple rule of thumb a few paragraphs up? The easier it is, the worse it will be. That’s not to say the default cover is bad – it might be very nice.  But hundreds or even thousands of authors have already selected it. You want to make sure your cover stands out. Change the background cover. Choose a different image. Change the font.  
  2. Speaking of background cover, give it some thought.  In all likelihood, the majority of your sales are going to occur from Amazon. Do some competitive research.  Go to Amazon and type a keyword or key phrase into the search box that someone might type to find your book. Look at the results.  Look at the colors of the books that appear in the results. Is there a common color? Do you notice any books that really stand-out?  What color could you choose that would increase the chances of browsers noticing your book among all those competitive books? That’s the background color you want.
  3. If your self-publisher allows you to change the default image of your cover for something else, you should definitely do it.  Again, the rule of thumb is to avoid what is easiest. It may take some time to locate the image you want, but it is time well spent.  You don’t want your book looking like all the other books that were published by authors who chose the default cover, do you? Even if you feel the default image works for your book, it is worth the effort to find a unique image instead. In most cases, your self-publisher will allow you to swap the image without an additional charge, but even if you have to purchase the rights to an image on a stock photography site, it’s still worth doing.
  4. Most self-publishers will allow you to change the font on your free cover, and if they do, you should take advantage of that option (since most authors won’t).  Look at the font choices that are available and select a font that represents the genre of your book. Romance book covers typically feature flowing script. Sci-fi fonts, on the other hand, are typically large and blocky. Conduct another search on Amazon to see the types of fonts that are used on books similar to yours.  Stay within the vein of your genre while still being unique.

These concepts are second-nature to most professional book cover designers, which is why a custom designed cover by a professional is always the best option.  After all, what’s the point of publishing a book if your cover isn’t going to attract anyone to it?

book cover design


brent sampson
In 2002, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Semi-Finalist Brent Sampson founded Outskirts Press, a custom book publishing solution that provides a cost-effective, fast, and powerful way to help authors publish, distribute, and market their books worldwide while leaving 100% of the rights and 100% of the profits with the author. Outskirts Press was incorporated in Colorado in October, 2003.
In his capacity as the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, Brent is an expert in the field of book publishing and book marketing. He is also the author of several books on both subjects, including the bestseller Sell Your Book on Amazon, which debuted at #29 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

From the Archives: “Self-Publishing Advantages Out on the Table”

Welcome back to our Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.

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[ Originally posted: November 10th, 2009 ]

This posts and blog exists to help you make the best informed choices for the future of their books. Whether you’re still in the conceptualization phase or searching for a publisher, these are tips, each worthy of careful consideration.

For example, take a moment and write out your personal publishing goals…

For many authors, these 7 are the most important:

1) Keeping 100% of your rights and creative control to your book
2) Keeping 100% of your author royalties
3) Unlimited wholesale and retail availability
4) Additional marketing support and services
5) Publishing imprint and ISBN flexibility
6) High-quality book design
7) Complete print-run flexibility (1 to 1000s)

What would you add to this list?

I don’t know about you, but when we first published this piece on Self Publishing Advisor, we created a bit of cognitive dissonance; while the seven items listed are indeed advantages, they’re not necessarily advantages which show themselves on a shelf (unless you’re filling a shelf with 1000 copies of your book, which is quite a shelf indeed). Instead, we gave you a list of seven fantastic, but more general, advantages to self-publishing.

So, what are the advantages a self-published book might find on a shelf against other, more traditionally published books?

Many people are accustomed to thinking of self-publishing books as at rather a disadvantage, rather than an advantage, on such a shelf. This is because yes, once upon a time, the cover designs available to indie authors were far more limited in customizability than those available to their traditional competitors. After all, traditionally published authors have the full weight of their publishing houses behind them, with their marketing teams, their graphic designers, and their many other well-financed technical experts on staff.

But things have changed. So even if in terms of covers, the playing field is rather more level than tipped to advantage either traditional or indie authors, there are other ways at which indie books can–and often do–rise above the competition. First of all, there’s the local angle. Many bookstores and libraries privilege local authors over the general horde; all you have to do is bring this to the proprietor’s attention. This “local advantage” also works on potential readers, too. Don’t underestimate the immediate impact that this one simple factor can have on your ideal readers!

There are other advantages your indie book can have “out on the table,” of course! Because you control the price, you also control the price tag. The appeal of an affordable number should not be underestimated. But most of all, your book’s cover is your avatar in the world, a representation of you, and a truer one than any publication company could create. That alone is enough to make it stand out.

book cover designs

Thanks for reading.  If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments section below and I’ll respond as quickly as I can.  ♠


Kelly

ABOUT 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.

In Your Corner: The Proof is in the Pudding

Get it?  We’re going talk about book proofs this week as a part of our ongoing series about choices–the choices you make as a self-publishing author in the midst (and mist!) of an often long and complicated process.  Previous entries in this series have included “Choosing a Self-Publishing Company,” “Choosing a Trim Size for Your Book,” figuring out how to “Know Thyself (& Thy Genre),” “Settling on a Price,” “Choosing a Cover,” and last week’s exploration of what we called “The Guts of the Thing” and which essentially boiled down to interior design–illustrations and formatting.  The assumption with last week’s post was that if you struggle to summon up the skills, time, or energy to worry about the graphic design components of your book, you can theoretically find assistance from exterior (and even paid professional) sources.

But what about proofing your book?

Proofing Your Book

That thing we all hate and try not to think about.

book proofing

Here’s the deal with proofing:

It’s not really something you want to outsource, even to a professional.  Copyediting, yes, but proofing … less so.  This is because the proof is the final step before actual publication, and it’s important that you be the last person to lay eyes on it before it goes to the presses.  It was your vision, after all, that led to its creation–and you want to make sure that it is your vision, in the end, which guides it to completion.

This is the moment of truth.  So how do events unfold?

The printed proof arrives on your doorstep, or in your mailbox, or perhaps you’re overexcited and actually show up at the printer’s to get it.  The point is, it’s in your hot little hands and ready to go.  Almost.

Up to this moment, the book you’ve been dreaming about and actively shaping has only ever been real to you in the way that pixels and Microsoft Word documents are real.  Maybe you’ve printed off a copy, to get a better look at layouts and formatting and illustrations and typography–but that’s not really the same thing as a finished book, is it?

And trust me, after that initial shiver of anticipation passes, it’s time to pull out the red pen, because there’s always something that’s slipped through the cracks and that needs addressing before you click the final keys or give your Publishing Consultant the final go-ahead.  Your proof is, as its name implies, the evidence that you’ve done everything correctly.  Or it ought to be.  As I said, your first proof is usually an exercise in addressing little errors that were invisible on your computer screen or in printouts but that, in printed form, pop off of the page.  It could be an incorrect font, a weird space, typographical errors, a misaligned paragraph–anything.  As perfect as your last manuscript was in digital form, sometimes it doesn’t translate perfectly to the printed page.

 

 

 

What should I watch out for?

First of all, take a deep breath.  Now, let it out.  Proofing can be painful in some ways, mostly because you’re having to spend more time obsessing over the minutiae of your book, but it’s worth it.  A few tips and tricks and mistakes to watch out for, and your book will look and feel as good as if it had gone through the entire rigmarole that traditionally published books have to.

  • Step One: Read your book like a book.

Just go for it.  Read the whole thing through, start to finish, checking for common typographical errors and inconsistencies as you would in reading a normal draft.  Check that the text is complete, and that no paragraphs are missing or sentences cut off by a page break.  Only you, the book’s author, are going to catch omissions like that.  And while you’re reading, keep an eye out for odd or inconsistent use of fonts, punctuation (particularly hyphens and the “curled” version of quotation marks), as well as line and word spacing.  You can pass the book on to someone else to double-check your impression on these last points, too–that never hurts.

  • Step Two: Squint and stare.

Once, in college, I was taking an illustration course and my professor gave me one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: “Step back from what you’re working on, squint so that everything is just a touch blurry, and see what’s missing.”  By stepping back and letting things get a touch blurry, you as an author and artist are ignoring the content of the text and seeing it for what it is in addition to being a story: a collection of visual components.  You’ll be better able to spot orphans and widows (single lines at the bottom or top of a page), inconsistencies in running heads and chapter or part titles, and the dimensions and placement of graphic elements like illustrations, page numbers, chapter openers, and so on.  Double check that odd-numbered pages are on the right hand side of the centerfold.  Double check your references and footnotes if you have them–that they’re there, and that they’re on the right page–as well as the consistency of your paragraph indents and other alignments.

  • Step Three: Turn it over. And over.

Try it.  The front and back covers of your books should look exactly as you requested or input them to be, and they should meet your exact specifications of color, contrast, clarity, and placement.  The barcode, ISBN, blurbs, description, biographic information, and other nuts and bolts should all be in place, attractive, and correct in spelling and form like the rest of your book.

*****

Proofing your book isn’t simply a matter of going through the motions.  It’s vitally important that you care about this stage of the process the same way you care about every other stage–if you go through the trouble of correcting a proof and upload your revisions, you’ll have no doubts when it comes time to send your book out into the world to its new readers.  You’ll face whatever comes next with confidence, pride, and a sense of intrepid adventure.  And next week, we’re going to look at what some of those steps might be!

You are not alone. ♣︎


Elizabeth

ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 18 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, pre-production specialists, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

The Book Beautiful: Hard vs. Soft Cover

When self-publishing, one of the aesthetic decisions you’ll have to make is whether or not to publish your book as a hard or soft cover. The decision is one that will mainly affect your readers, so when exploring the pros and cons of this decision, we will be considering the experience and opinions of your potential readers.

books on display India

First let’s consider what the pros are to publishing a hardcover title?

  1. Hardcovers are just plain nice to look at. They are sleek.
  2. You don’t have to worry about the pages getting ‘flappy’ or folded at the edges.
  3. They absolutely last longer–I can’t tell you how many paperback books I have with torn off or taped on covers.
  4. No need for a bookmark, just use the handy-dandy book jacket!
  5. Look great as additions to a bookshelf or coffee table.

And the cons to publishing a hardcover title?

  1. They are heavy as can be; i.e. not ideal for travel.
  2. They are undoubtedly more expensive which will deter a lot of potential readers. This also means a higher publishing expense which is important to those of us self-publishing authors.
  3. A lot of readers find book jackets annoying and simply remove them, which means all that time you spent designing a cover may go to waste.
  4. It can certainly be more awkward to handle and read a hardcover; they are bulky and not easily wielded with one hand.
  5. Readers tend to only buy hardcover books of authors they are already die-hard fans of, so if you don’t already have a fan base, it may be more difficult to create one if your book is only available in hardcover.

Now to consider to pros of publishing a softcover title:

  1. Relatively speaking, softcover books are cheaper, both to print and to purchase.
  2. Softcovers are easier to travel with, they are also easier to read on the go.
  3. They are more widely purchased, so you have a better chance of people buying your book, especially first time readers of yours.

And then cons of publishing a softcover title?

  1. They are semi-easy to tear; the cover may fall off.
  2. Not long lasting, especially if you travel with them.
  3. Depending on printing costs, they may not have as high of a profit margin.

With those things in mind, the decision is now yours! (I won’t further complicate things by discussing the pros and cons of adding an ebook to your publication artillery. 🙂 )


Thank you for reading!  If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or contributions, please use the comment field below or drop us a line at selfpublishingadvice@gmail.com.  And remember to check back each Wednesday for your weekly dose of marketing musings from one indie, hybrid, and self-published author to another. ♠


Kelly

ABOUT 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

The Book Beautiful: The Cover

While the old adage “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is one all too oft repeated, we all know that we’ve been in a bookstore and picked up a book with an author and title we weren’t familiar with simply because the cover appealed to our senses in some way. That’s not to say that the heart of the matter isn’t what happens to be inside the book; I can just as easily recall how many times I’ve put down that same book with the interesting cover after scanning a few pages and deciding it wasn’t for me.

When you’ve completed a book that you’ve poured your heart, your soul, and countless hours into, it’s important that your piece physically reflects how beautiful of an accomplishment self-publishing can be. While the traditional means for designing a book cover happened to be very time consuming and left a lot of authors underwhelmed with the result, luckily for today’s authors, we live in a digital age which makes designing a book cover more exciting and involved (especially for a self-publishing author)!

Nowadays, you can ‘pin’, ‘Like’, and ‘Share’ graphics; better yet, you can share your potential book cover ideas on social media and get feedback from potential readers. You can get readers involved and have them vote on their favorite cover, or even host a contest that allows readers to submit cover ideas of their own! But perhaps we should backpedal before we get ahead of ourselves and ask what message do want your book cover to send?

As the author, you of all people know best what audience it is you are trying to target and the essential theme your book most embodies, be it: inspiration, achievement, mystery, romance, revenge, etc. etc. Once you’ve nailed down your audience and theme, the visual metaphors that you have to work with will become more obvious.

No matter who your audience is, you want them to be excited when they see the cover of your book. You want to stop people walking by the bookstore, or walking by the bookshelf, and you want to evoke their curiosity and pique their interest. If we take a look at the covers below we will see captivating images that begin to non-verbally communicate the scope of the story the author has also artfully fabricated:

When a book cover is able to explain the scope of a book, it allows the reader to save precious time wading through the myriad of titles in libraries and bookstores.

Remember when designing a book cover that sometimes less is more. The title, your name, and a striking image are often enough. Don’t feel the need to crowd the space with over-thought or crowded typography and definitely avoid stock images that could hurt your book’s credibility.  Need I give examples of cheesy, godawful book covers? No, but I will anyway.

I won’t annotate any further, as a picture is worth a million words.

Make sure the cover of your book, no matter how many words are inside of it, has a picture that is worth all the hard work you put into it. Remember that human beings are visual creatures and that the cover of your book is an important marketing tool. Be professional, be thoughtful, but also be bold!

 


Thank you for reading!  If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or contributions, please use the comment field below or drop us a line at selfpublishingadvice@gmail.com.  And remember to check back each Wednesday for your weekly dose of marketing musings from one indie, hybrid, and self-published author to another. ♠


Kelly

ABOUT 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

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : A Book’s Interior Design

When we speak of books, we mostly speak of them as one of two things: an object, made up of surfaces and contours and textures, or as a vehicle for ideas.  We rarely pause to consider the interior design of a book, unless of course it is a book that draws attention with smart graphic design and accentuation.  What readers and producers of comic books, graphic novels, and illustrated fiction take for granted, the prose community has by and large neglected; that is, when we crack open the cover of a new book by Hugh Howey or Rachel Swaby or Sarah Taylor, we forget that every letter on those pages, every jot of ink and swathe of white space, has to be carefully arranged in order to make for a pleasant––and submersive––reading experience.

For the self-published author, a book’s interior aesthetic can spiral out of control quickly.  This is because a self-published author is not, generally speaking, a renaissance man with phenomenal powers of writing and artistry and graphic design.  A beautiful cover may seem like a more worthwhile use of a self-published author’s limited time.  Though there may be the rare exception, the average person who chooses (or is required by circumstances) to bypass traditional publishing also lacks the legion of highly specialized editorial staff who comb through manuscripts and ARCs looking for even the tiniest flaw––an orphan sentence, a snafu in line spacing, you name it.  And believe me, even though we don’t tend to think of readers as detail freaks, they have a sensitive nose for anything that feels “off.”  Your job as a self-published author is to keep your reader reading your book, not caught up in the intricacies of its design.  For that reason, a book’s interior should look as polished as possible.

Here are a few tips:

1. Choose your typeface carefully.

Whether you decide to opt for a serif or a sans-serif typeface, make sure you know what it will look like on whole blocks of text at once––pages and pages of text.  Also keep in mind that while sans-serif fonts have a sort of “cool” factor and are often evocative of popular science and science-fiction––and therefore add a dash of visual interest as well as genre resonance––serif fonts are actually easier to read at length.  That’s what the serif tags are there for, to help your eyes track seamlessly from one letter to the next.  Still, your choice will come down largely to preference (mine is for Monotype Bell and MVB Sirenne, both of which read well in multiple sizes, as well as in italicized passages and headings).

2. … And about those headings?

Not every book uses chapter headings on every page.  Take a look at the books in your genre, to get a feel for what’s normal there.  I’ve found in my collection that there’s a tendency toward headings in nonfiction and certain chapter-driven science fiction pieces, but that for the most part, fiction sticks with simple page numbers.  Also keep in mind that your inclusion (or exclusion) of headers and the positioning of your page number will affect your margins.  It’s absolutely essential that you leave extra white space on the edge of the page with a page number or heading––both of these things are considered extensions of your typewritten page, and they affect the eye as such.

3. Margins do deserve the attention, I promise.

Take a look at the nearest book.  (In my case, it’s Howey’s Wool.)  Compare the inside margins of the pages (the ones adjoining the binding) to the outside margins (the ones your thumbs touch as you flip pages).  In the standard book, the standard traditionally published book, those inside margins are significantly larger.  This is to allow the book’s binding to curve as you crack open the spine, letting the pages curl away and yet remain readable.  It is not uncommon for self-published authors to forget this tiny detail, and for the book to suffer for it.  If I have one piece of advice for authors looking to format their own books, it’s this: Don’t sacrifice your margins––for anything.  Yes, it’s cheaper to pack in more words per page, and so to save on printing fees.  But I promise, more people will want to buy your book if they pick it up and it feels gracious, spacious, and easy to read.  It’s wise to aim for about 12 words per line of text––this is the standard in traditional publishing, for good and time-honored reasons.

4. Justify your paragraphs.

Take a moment to modify your text alignment from “left” to “justified.”  This means that your text still begins at the left-hand margin of the page, but that it’s right-hand side also ends at its respective margin, creating a smooth visual block of text, all the way from the top to the bottom of any given page.  Leaving that text simply aligned “left” will create a jagged line along the right-hand side of the page, wherever the words leave off.  You want to check your kerning line to line before you release it to the printer, in order to ensure each page looks perfect, of course––that’s par for the course.

5. Leave no blank right-hand pages.

The first page of your book is going to be a right-hand page, and the first page of content––not the title page, not the copyright information, not the dedication––will be “Page One” and should be marked such.  (Page numbers should only appear once the content of your book begins, and not before.)  Every succeeding chapter should begin on a right-hand page, even if the previous chapter ended on a right-hand page.  The solution is to leave a blank left-hand page, which you can utilize for illustrations, quotations, or other related material.  The point, however, is to play to a kind of “psychology of reading,” which asserts that readers find it easier to begin new thoughts if there’s that reliable visual cue there.  Blank pages should be left entirely blank, including of page numbers and page headers.

6. Go easy on illustrations, graphics, and other addendums.

It’s easy to get carried away inserting pictures into our books––after all, a picture is worth quite a few jots of ink, right?  But there are a couple of dangers to watch out for here, as with everything else related to design.  First of all, your images need to look every bit as polished as your text.  If you’re inserting inexpert photographs, clipart, or hasty sketches, they’re going to negatively impact the reader’s opinion of your book’s quality.  (We do judge ideas based on their presentation, for better or worse.)   Secondly, they need to be important.  If they’re not somehow integral to a reader’s understanding of your book, then they don’t need to be there, and they shouldn’t be there.  Illustrations, like your words, have to work to earn their keep.  And finally, your images need to be high enough in resolution that they hold up and read well at different scales, both large and small, and on multiple platforms, including tablets and e-readers.  If readers can see pixellation, they’re likely to dismiss a book as amateurish.

And last but not least:

7. Fresh eyes are vital.

The best advice I ever received from a writing instructor was to work until I thought a piece was done, and then to walk away for days, preferably a week, and then to return for a final (or quarter-final) evaluation.  Invariably, coming back with fresh eyes led to me spotting weaknesses and glitches and errors that I would never have seen otherwise.  It’s also important to remember, as a self-published author, that there’s a promotional benefit to showing early readers advance copies of your book, with a plea that they give you feedback on what’s working and not working, in terms of design as well as content.  Their advice will help you tweak your book to perfection, while also spreading the word that you have an upcoming publication on its way!

[ 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.  For last week’s post, on book cover and jacket design, follow this link. ]

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.

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.