So, I often see people posting on social media asking for feedback on their book covers. More often than not, I don’t respond to these publicly for a variety of different reasons. You never can tell who is receptive to honest feedback and constructive criticism, and typically I err on the side of caution and stay silent to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or looking snobbish. My rule of thumb for all public postings is to keep it positive. I don’t want drama, but I do give feedback if asked privately. Not everyone appreciates my honesty, but… Anyway, I digress.
Back on topic, at Balticon 50 I was part of a panel discussing design dos and don’ts. This particular panel didn’t quite touch on some of what I thought was important, so I figured I’d take to the blog and share a few thoughts here that might help out someone who was looking for more information.
Now, I went to school for design, I have a degree in this, so I can’t really teach everything you need to know in one blog post. I can, however, pass on some quick tips on this topic that may help if you’re struggling to figure out where you’re going wrong, just starting out, or are simply curious about the process. So here goes.
The most important thing I can say on this subject is to do your research. Look at what’s selling in your book’s genre and try to emulate that. If you’re looking to do something different in an effort to stand out, be aware of the “rules” of the genre before you go breaking them! The idea is to sell books here, so doing something with a cover completely opposite of everything else in your genre/category will quite possibly end up hurting you more than helping. With that pro-tip out of the way, let’s get down to specifics, shall we?
Today, I’m going to list a few little things that make your book cover look unprofessional. I will not be using specific examples of covers to illustrate because, seriously, this is a job for me and I’m not in middle school anymore. No one is getting picked on here. What I will do instead is generate a few examples for you.
First up: Text effects!
A heavy use of Photoshop effects is always the first sign of a new or inexperienced designer. When I say heavy, I mean in a “it’s the first thing you notice” kind of way. So let’s break down why this happens, shall we?
The problem: text doesn’t clearly show when placed on an image.
So you can already see the issue here, The image in the background has high variation in contrast between the top and bottom, resulting in the letters disappearing at the top.
What I’ve seen inexperienced designers do:
From top to bottom: Outline, outer glow, drop shadow, beveling. These are exact things I’ve seen new designers and authors do on their book covers. Good design is invisible, so if you notice what’s been done to the text before anything else, that’s bad design. Text on a book cover should integrate with the background image, not serve as an advertisement for Photoshop layer effects.
So, what to do?
There are multiple solutions to this problem, and sometimes that means putting in a lot of extra work into the background image (or getting rid of it entirely), but other times that isn’t an option if you’re either set on an image, or, in my case, a client has insisted on a specific image. If the text isn’t working, you’ll have to figure out something else.
First up, you can try changing the font itself. If you notice in that first image, the G reads as a C due to lack of serifs (the bits that come off the ends of letters). Changing to a serif font vs. sans serif (or vice versa) can make a big difference in readability. Fonts also harken to genre, so keep that in mind.
Second, adding gradients to the background image (I typically prefer a radial gradient over others as its a more even distribution and adds framing to the image) can bring the text forward so it doesn’t disappear, but caution is advised here. Use a light touch whenever possible! In this case, however, I took another approach.
This version has a font change as well as a color change. I went to 100% white and a serif font before doing anything else here. I also used layer effects on this, but applied them in a more subtle way: namely, as little as possible. What’s most apparent is the drop shadow, but it’s a subtle one. What’s not as visible is the outer glow. I maxed out the size and range in the settings, chose a color from the image itself, and reduced the opacity so its barely there at all, but it’s enough to make a difference.
And guess what? The text still reads even as a tiny image on my desktop.
Next up: Poser people!
There’s been this rash of what I call pseudo-humans appearing on book covers the past… oh, decade or so? It’s gotten to the point that even some small presses are using these images on book covers.
What am I referring to? Images like this one:
Let me explain what these pseudo-humans are. There’s this program called Poser. It was designed to semi-realistically render people for artists who lack models and needed examples to draw from. They allowed folks to see people from whatever angle they wished in whatever pose they needed. These rendered humans were never intended to grace the front of a book.
What it says to me: the author/designer/publisher was too lazy to look for a non-literal solution to the cover.
As a person who writes speculative fiction and also does a lot of covers in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, I completely understand how frustrating it can be when you can’t find the right landscape or model for a cover. When that’s the case, I look for other ways to convey genre and plot that don’t involve absolute spot-on translations of a character or place described in the story. There’s a million different ways to do this without resorting to pseudo-humans in CGI armor. And, yep, it’s going to take an investment of time, money, and/or effort, but I cannot stress enough that it will show in the finished product. As examples, I’d offer up my Flipped Fairy Tale covers to demonstrate this, but it can be seen on many, many other books. Take a peek at George R. R. Martin’s stuff. Their simplicity makes them stand out and does not rely on pseudo-humans OR models in expensive costumes shot in exotic locations. It’s 100% possible to create a fantastic cover without resorting to pseudo-humans.
(Update 5/28/2020) So… I have not really changed my stance on this, BUT, I now recognize some leeway in using these images. That leeway is entirely dependent upon effects used to manipulate these images into something that looks more painted/illustrated, but that requires skill on the part of the designer. The average DIY-er isn’t going to pull it off, but I wanted to recognize there is some exception here. Not much, but some.
Third issue: inappropriate artwork!
Okay, so, my oldest kid loves to draw manga- and anime-style things. I think she could potentially do some awesome work in a few years if she keeps at it. Example, she drew this about a year and a half ago:
Cool, right? A bit of coloring, and that might make for an awesome book cover, right?
WRONG. Although I think it’s definitely cool, I would never put this on a cover. Ever. Well, not unless the entire book was a graphic novel in the same style.
I’ve seen so very many people use artwork on their books that should’ve been relegated to refrigerators it isn’t even funny anymore. But here’s what happens with this. Self-published authors will commission friends or family to draw/paint something because it’s cheap or they want to encourage their talents or, in some cases, they simply don’t realize it isn’t up to standard.
Here’s the truth: publishing is a business, and all authors are on the same playing field, regardless of self-pub, trad pub, or small press, mostly due to online sales where everything in a genre shows up on a single page without regard to publisher. Take that artwork and ask yourself “would the Big 5 use this on their cover?”
If that answer is no or you’re not sure (ask someone with no mouth-brain filter if you really need clarification), that artwork doesn’t belong on your book cover. Even if you paid someone for that painting or sketch, that doesn’t make it cover-worthy. If you’re set on using it for something, there are plenty of promotional ways to do so. Fanart blog pages, teaser photos, general social media sharing… all of those and more are great ways to promote the artist and yourself without hurting your business. Heck, I’ve even seen authors put together coloring books of line art inspired by their stories.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: you get about 3 seconds at max for your cover to grab a potential reader’s attention. Wouldn’t you want to make a great first impression if that’s all you get? I want my covers to stand equal to a Big 5 cover with massive resources behind it. I want the audience to have that same promise of quality. Keeping that promise is up to the words within the book, but it’s the cover’s job to make it initially. This is irrefutable truth. Ask around if you don’t believe me.
But that’s all I’ve got for you today. There’s probably a whole bunch of other problems and such I could address here, so if there’s a trend or pervasive problem you’ve seen or experienced, feel free to comment here and I’ll see if I can’t address some of them in another post. For now, thanks for reading, and may all your covers be beautiful!