Cover Design and the Self-published Author

cover design In the Arms of the Sheikh by Sophie Weston


Cover design is a whole new area for me. Before I self published, I sold my stories to big publishers. The cover was part of the deal. Sometimes a good part.

First Pitfall — Absent Author

Sometimes not so much. The Author’s input back then generally consisted of doing a précis of the story and describing the characters’ looks. The designer made of that what he/she would. It could be pretty weird. The cover design where the heroine’s only identifiable feature was a bad case of measles is burned into my soul.

Second Pitfall — Baboon Bomb

cover Tall Dark and DeadlyBut at least I never suffered as delightful NY Times Bestseller Suzanne Brockmann did. Her Navy Seal hero — the best looking man in the Alpha Squad, as she wrote despairingly — was turned by the first cover artist into a Pillsbury Doughboy.

Philosophically, she turned it into a famous joke and the present cover is delicious. (You can read more about the book on Suzanne’s website here.)

If you want to see the true horror of its predecessor, though, see the excerpt on her website. Don’t try and drink coffee at the same time!

Third Pitfall — Control Cat

cover design pitfall -- being a control cat

This is where the self-publishing author really comes into his or her own.

Right, you think, rubbing your hands with glee. This is going to be the best cover design ever. It’s going to be beautiful, true to the story, have great impact, be sexy as hell (because my characters are sexy) carry good quotes from people who love my books and make any reader from six to 110 who gets within a mile of the book part with hard cash to own it.

Result? Overload. Big time.

cover design pitfall -- the gambling approachFourth Pitfall — Dicing with Design

You learn you can’t have everything, so you take a gamble on something — anything.

Maybe it’s because you, really, really like that particular cover. Maybe it’s because you think it will sell shedloads. Maybe it’s because you’re so overwhelmed by now, you don’t really care any more, you just want to take a decision and STOP WORRYING.

Write a Cover Design Brief — words

It doesn’t matter if you’re intending to design the cover yourself, write the brief anyway. It will help you focus.

Do the practical stuff first. What words do you need to have on the cover? Is this just a front cover for an e-book? Do you need a back cover and spine as well? If so, what words need to go on them? Title, obviously. Author. Description? Teaser? Is it one of a series? Do you want some sort of testimonial on the front? ‘A bit soppy’, says Nobel Prize winning Professor Brainstawm. That sort of thing.

From a designer’s point of view words take up room. 

Write a Cover Design Brief — images

cover design well done by 50 shades series

Are there any story-specific images that might be intriguing and might make an impact?

NOTE: don’t try and tell the story on the cover. That’s what the novel is for. Find something emblematic. I admire immensely the monochrome covers of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Beautiful and implicitly threatening at the same time. Fantastic impact.

Write a Cover Design Brief — style

This is one for discussion with your designer, if you’re employing a professional.

There are certain conventions. You may not agree with them. (Hands up any romantic comedy author who hates pink?) But your cover is a product label in its way and Pink apparently says ‘romantic comedy’ to the buying public.

If you’re aiming to design the cover yourself, study the covers of books similar to your own if you don’t already know the conventions.

cover design guide by J D SmithFabulous Focus Group

Avoid getting trapped by your own preferences.

Apart from colour, I’m not very visually sensitive — even in my books I hear my characters long before I see them. So I commissioned award-winning designer Jane Dixon Smith to create my first two self-published covers. (She has a great book out for people like us, by the way.)

When she sent me preliminary ideas, I found I was responding to colour before anything else. A mistake. Response to elements like colour and perfume is visceral and won’t be shared universally. One man’s Lavatory Lime is another’s Vibrant Green Spring.

So I took those first four ideas for a blind tasting at the London and South East Chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. They are a group of authors, published and unpublished, who read widely in the same genre as I write.

The results were startling: 88% put the same cover first. The remaining 12% put it second. Other groups, not made up of writers or habitual romance readers, came up with the same favourite design, though the percentages were less emphatic. Not one of the fifty or so people whose opinion I canvassed mentioned colour!

Cover Reveal

So here it is. Coming to a website near you soon. Thank you, RNA London!

Cover design for Vertical Sex by Sophie Weston

What does that cover say to you?


12 thoughts on “Cover Design and the Self-published Author

  1. April Munday

    That’s certainly a great cover, unless there’s no dancing in the story.

    Thank you for the warning about not drinking while looking at the cover featuring the rather rotund gentleman in uniform.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, Chunky Marine is a bit of a shock, isn’t he, April? Shudder.

      Thank you for liking my Vertical Sex cover. Be assured, there is dancing in the story.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    OMG on the Pillsbury Doughboy! Had some ghastly covers myself, but nothing as bad as that. Great post. What does that Vertical Sex cover say to me? Pin immediately on my Covers that grab me board on Pinterest. Terrific.

    1. Sophie Post author

      PDoughboy was a lesson to us all, I think. So admired the way Suzanne Brockmann handled it. Must have been agonising to write a strong sexy hero and find that on the packaging!

      Ah, Liz, really pleased that you like my cover that much. I love it, I admit.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Cor, Katy, thank you. Made my day! (That is assuming you’re not referring to Chunky Marine, of course.)

  3. Barb

    Interesting blog. I wish you had taken it a little further as this is something my group and I are looking at and we have some varying opinions. For instance I didn’t like the 50 Shades at all but what you said makes sense but I would still argue it. The masks represent theatre, a tradition of great standing. There was nothing in the books to reflect this and visa versa and I remember thinking that at the time. So yours words have made me think. I would have liked to hear more.

    1. Sophie Post author

      There’s a whole essay to be written on those covers, I think Barb – the palette, the emblematic objects, their various associations and their placing on the page. My gut feeling was that the objects all had elements of both menace and allure presented with extreme control – and that the menace became increasingly threatening with each volume. Absolutely brilliant design.

      Of course, the silver mask was the middle one of three, so the parameters were already set, in a sense: see I didn’t feel that immediate association of mask and theatre that you clearly do, I admit. I’ve asked myself why. It seems that that I think of ‘theatre mask’ as comedy and tragedy so a) a pair b) facing outward and c) with a very clear emotion depicted on each one. None of which applies here.

      What the mask said to me was – Venetian Carnival; maybe Commedia dell’Arte a bit – so I do overlap with you there; masked ball; elegance and artifice; illicit flirtations and maybe worse; shady doings after dark; above all elaborate and voluntary pretence which both sets the mascherini free from their normal social behaviour at the same time as it licenses them to be – well, anything. So there are alarming aspects both to wearing the thing and to being accompanied by the wearer.

      I thought all of that fitted beautifully with what I was hearing of 50 Shades the novel.

      But I do see that if you associate the mask with theatre, you would be reading that whole book waiting for the play to start. Not good. Will continue to ponder.


  4. jadwriter

    Ah, so that was the cover that made it. The thing I like about self-publishing is that you can always change the cover of your book if and when you want to. I don’t think you can do that if you are trad pubbed.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Haven’t made it back to the RNA Chapter since, I’m sorry to say, so no chance to report. But very grateful for everyone’s input. With results like that, it was a no-brainer!

      I’m so grateful to have decided on ONE cover, I wouldn’t be up for changing, at the moment. But I see what you mean. If people really hate your first one, you could change it at the flick of a mouse. Nice one!

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