Good covers are massively important and buyers, increasingly, rely on visuals (the cover) rather than the blurb. That was the latest advice from an independent bookseller at a Society of Authors virtual meeting in early 2021. The bookseller recommended authors aim for clear, concise, beautiful covers, with fewer words and, hence, more impact.
Professor Snape (left) may not be beautiful—and that’s not a cover, either—but he’s certainly clear and concise. And if he made you feel guilty, he’s had impact, too 😉
Criteria for Good Commercial Fiction Covers
Apart from being clear, concise and beautiful, a Good Commercial Fiction Cover Will…
- make the genre clear immediately
- represent aspects of the story to draw the potential buyer in
- shout out the title
- shout out the author’s name
- work well in thumbnail
- and SELL THE BOOK
That’s a pretty tall order and lots of covers fail it. Not only self-published covers, either.
This blog (based on a recent presentation I did for the Society of Authors) aims to help self-published authors work with cover designers like me to get clear, concise and beautiful covers that will sell the authors’ books.
Warning: this blog is long, because there’s a lot to cover.
(Is that a Pratchett-type pune?)
Start by Looking Critically at Published Covers
Look at some book covers online. Include bestsellers and also-rans.
Ask yourself if they fulfil all 6 criteria above.
If they do, how do they do it?
If they don’t, where do you reckon they have they gone wrong?
Here’s a fairly random selection of thumbnails—various genres, including literary fiction—so you can try out these tests for yourself. [Click to enlarge a bit.]
Look particularly at thumbnails of covers online, eg in bestseller lists.
Can you make out what’s going on?
Even if you don’t know the author, can you tell what genre they are?
Can you read the title, the author’s name?
Does the cover grab your attention in thumbnail? Enough to make you want to look more closely at the book? If so, it’s had real impact. If not…? You decide.
Choosing a Cover Designer to Work With
It sounds basic, but when it comes to choosing a designer, some authors don’t do their homework. Even if a designer is recommended to you, don’t sign up with them until you’ve looked at samples of their work. If you don’t like their covers, if you don’t think their designs are beautiful and full of impact, look elsewhere.
Find out what the designer’s fees are for new clients.
Ask about likely image licence fees that you’ll also have to pay. That should give you an estimate of what one cover will cost. Then ask yourself: can you afford it? will you sell enough books to recoup the cover cost? If not, you might want to look for someone cheaper.
Ask how the designer works and how much input the client will have.
If you don’t like the images, or the fonts, or the layout, will the designer change it? Or do you have to take what the designer decides? If you’re paying a very modest fee, it’s understandable if the designer isn’t prepared to put in hours of extra work to tweak your cover. If you’re paying a reasonable fee, you should have the right to be picky.
A truly professional designer will want to produce a cover that delights you.
Starting Work with a Cover Designer (eBooks)
Agree the fee at the outset. Ensure you know what it includes. Ebook only? Ebook + print? Fees for image licences and non-standard fonts are normally extra, payable at cost.
Give your designer all the cover words at the outset, including the final title. If you want a series name or PR puffs or logos on the cover, include that detail, too. If you make changes to that basic data later on, the designer may have to charge you extra.
Describe for your designer the sort of cover you are after. Provide examples of covers that you particularly like in your genre. If it helps, show covers that you hate, too. Seeing examples gives the designer a starting point.
Your designer will not read your book in order to design your cover! So you need to give them the basic information they need. Genre, setting, plus a very short blurb (max 50 words) should do it. Don’t make the mistakes that Sophie described in her earlier blog on working with cover designers. Her strong advice was: Think like a publisher, NOT like a writer.
Tell your designer the sort of main images you would like on your cover. Your designer should then offer you several main images, all low-res and watermarked. (You don’t pay for those images.) Pick one or two that you really like and that suit your story and characters. Be prepared to change and research for more. Images that look great in isolation don’t always sit well on a finished cover as you can see from the examples below.
If you want a background image that reflects your story, rather than something generic, explain what you want and ask your designer to get background images, too. The series covers below show (left to right) St Petersburg, Vienna (Schönbrunn), Paris, Lyon.
Images can be manipulated, within reason. Your designer can crop images to get rid of parts that don’t fit or can cover them up. A designer can also change colours eg hair colour, dress colour. But best not to ask for radical changes like brunette to blonde or beard to clean-shaven. It’s a huge amount of work for the designer and it’s rarely totally satisfactory. If you must have a blonde, choose an image that starts with a blonde.
Discuss fonts with your designer, especially for your author name. I recommend creating a brand/logo of your author name that you repeat on all your covers. This is mine against a zingy background. You’ll have seen it, in white, on the covers above. It uses two fonts: the curly capital M is different from the other plainer letters.
It can often make sense to use the fonts from your author name for your title too, but you don’t have to. In part, it depends on the genre. Look at bestselling covers in your genre to see the kind of fonts that are conventionally used. SF fonts will be very different from romantic comedy, for example. But you don’t have to do what other authors do.
Other recommendations re fonts. Choose legibility over “fancy”. Avoid too many different fonts on a cover which can look messy or unprofessional. Avoid requesting special fonts that your designer doesn’t already offer, as you will probably have to pay for the licence which can be a very expensive extra.
Discuss other aspects of your author brand for your covers, especially for series books. Do you want a repeatable cover “look” in relation to layout, colourways, approach (eg models/no models; original prints; etc)? Your author name brand/logo may be enough. Add, at most, one or two other repeat factors so that you’re not too constrained. On the covers below—from two different series—only the author logo and the main title fonts are repeated. (The R of Reluctant is the same curly font as the M of Maitland.) Even though the font spacing is different, the brand is still clear.
Towards the Final Design
Your designer will create a cover image by layering images on top of one another. You won’t be involved in that but, once you see the final result, you are entitled to say whether you think the layering works well, or not. Are the images well blended together? Are the right images prominent? Do you like the overall colour scheme?
Your designer will show you draft covers based on low-res free images. These will normally have watermarks on them (to prevent illicit use). Try not to be distracted by them.
Once you decide on the cover design you want, your designer will buy the licence(s) for the image(s) in that cover. You will normally be charged at cost for the licence(s) in addition to the designer’s fee. Licences based on library subscriptions can be as cheap as £2-3 per image, though £5-10 is quite normal. Images from specialist libraries can be expensive, often $20 or more for a high-resolution image for single use. Image licences from sources such as the National Trust (for paintings, for example) run into three figures. So make sure you really know what you want before you ask your designer to press the buy button. You’ll have to pay, even if you change your mind.
The designer will work on the high-res image cover, sending you PDFs of various versions until you are happy with it. You are entitled to be picky, even about small details. Remember that you are paying.
Be particularly careful that the cover works in thumbnail.
You should also look at it in monochrome, as older Kindle e-readers are black-and-white only and lots of them are still in use. For monochrome, your cover needs good contrasts and the text must still be legible.
Once your designer has produced a high-res cover that you are happy with, they will send you jpegs of the final version, usually in 3 different sizes—large (for ebook), medium (for web use), small (for avatar use). You will probably receive the designer’s invoice at the same time. It is polite and professional to pay for the cover before you start using it.
You should acknowledge the cover designer on the copyright page of your book. Ask your designer how they want this to be worded. Your designer may want a clickable link to their website. I recommend that you also include an acknowledgement for any images you licensed. This can all be quite simple, for example (from His Cavalry Lady)—
Cover Design: Joanna Maitland
Cover Images: Adobe Stock / Andrej, Anneke
Interior Formatting: Joanna Maitland
Your designer may ask permission to display your cover on their website, for PR purposes. It is polite to agree to that—and it will be good for your PR, too—though you may want to ask for a delay on publication there if, for example, you are planning a big cover reveal at a later date. A professional designer will always agree to such a request.
Print Covers are More Work All Round
All of the above applies to ebook covers. If you want print instead, or as well, the fee is usually higher. There’s a lot more work to be done, both by you, the author, and by your designer. Compare the ebook cover (left, below) with the print cover (right).
If you’re going for a print cover, tell your designer what book size you want. Your designer can advise. Common fiction print sizes include 5.06×7.81 inches (B format), 5×8 inches, 5.5×8.5 inches. The US still works in inches, so Amazon mostly does, too. Ingram Spark offers a huge range of sizes—inches and metric—and provides useful resources for calculating costs, discounts and earnings on its website.
For a print cover, you must also provide the final back cover copy, including 50-100 word blurb, ISBN, price (if you want to include it), publisher etc. The designer will do the barcode. Barcodes do not have to include the book price (see below).
You must also provide the precise finished page count of your book at your chosen size, so that the designer can calculate the exact width of the spine. That means your interior formatting must be complete before print cover design starts.
The bookseller mentioned at the start of this blog recommended strongly that self-publishers should omit the price from their covers. Why? Because authors have to negotiate discounts (35%-55%) with booksellers. If authors set the retail price too low, they may end up making no money from bookshop sales. I’d also add that if your print book is to be available in more than one currency market, you would need covers tailored for each market with a different barcode. Much easier not to include a price at all. If a particular bookshop wants prices on your books, you can always add price stickers once you and the shop have decided what the price should be.
That’s it! Easy, eh?
It’s not as daunting as it sounds, honestly. And if you’d like a copy of my notes on how authors can work well with a cover designer, my two-page Authors and Cover Designers Handout is available by clicking on the link. The handout includes all the key information from this blog.
Finally—shameless promo here—my fees for new cover clients are very reasonable. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’re interested.
Such a useful post, Joanna.
Thanks, Liz. I plan to give my handout to new cover clients so they know what to expect. When I first worked with a professional designer, I hadn’t a clue what to expect. Luckily my then designer, Jane Dixon Smith, was brilliant and incredibly helpful to a newbie like me so I learned from her. But I’m hoping to help other newbies so they’ll start out knowing far more than I ever did.
Excellent rundown, Joanna. Impressive covers that you designed yourself and I love your branding. I found an excellent very reasonable designer on Fiverr who created my branding. By coincidence she also designs for my publishers, Sapere Books, and her covers tick all the boxes. It’s probably the most important data for indie authors as far as PR goes. The cover is, after all, your shop window.
I like your covers very much, Liz, especially your author branding. And you’re so right that the cover is our shop window. Particularly these days when readers pay so much attention to visuals rather than our carefully-crafted blurbs.
Great article, Joanna, and clearly written from the heart. You clearly have an eye, as they say. I really don’t, especially not at this level of detail. Makes me all the more impressed by what designers can achieve. Sometimes.
I admit that I have hated some of my covers and, considering them in the light of this article, one or two were truly terrible. But some of it was just personal taste and, from a professional point of view, I can see mine is unreliable.
Even if an author has “unreliable personal taste”, as you claim, she is still the paying client and I’d say the designer has to accommodate it. That doesn’t mean the designer shouldn’t try to persuade the client towards a better design, if the client’s choice is a disaster. But the designer can’t have the final say, in my view. After all, the cover can always be changed for something different if #1 doesn’t work.
I’ve had some terrible covers, too, and I sympathise. Some were simply inappropriate such as a blonde on the cover when the heroine was a redhead. But one, you may remember, totally floored me. It was supposedly the back view of my heroine but what I saw was the back view of a man in drag. And once I’d seen it that way, I could never unsee it. Unfortunate, to say the least. I’m very glad to say that said cover is long gone.
I also have to be fair to our publisher. The tests I’ve set out in this blog are for present-day ebooks. The covers our publisher produced for our books were in the print-only era. They were never intended to work in thumbnail, for example, and mostly they don’t, but it’s unfair to criticise them for that. A lot of them worked very well as print-only covers.
An excellent piece Joanna.
Thank you, Clare, and welcome. Glad if it’s helpful.