So, you finally finished your book. All those hours of plots, timelines, editing and proofing have paid off. But, since you’ve decided to take the self-publishing route, you have to figure out what to do about a cover. And you don’t want a boring, “don’t bother looking at me” cover. You want a cover that grabs a potential reader by the privates and says “Hey, look at me.” The only problem is you have NO IDEA how to make that happen. You want answers but first you need to know the right questions.
Do I really need a professional?
Your first inclination is to call (insert name of buddy, nephew, neighbor or brother-in-law) because they like play around in Photoshop. Bad idea. You worked your ass off writing this book. Do you really want to trust the cover design to an amateur? Yeah, I know, professional just screams “expensive”... but it really doesn’t have to. There are plenty of options for authors to get a professionally designed cover without taking out a second mortgage.
The best place to look is is also the most obvious, Google. Start with a simple search for “book cover designs” or “book cover art”. You’ll find multiple websites offering everything from stock cover templates to high-end custom design services for everything from book covers to social media graphics. As you would expect, the more customization, the higher the cost, so make sure you understand what you’re getting and how much it’s going to cost before making any final decisions.
Who’s your market/audience?
Before you start working on the actual design, fire up your web browser and do a bit of research. What genre does your book fit into? Is there a specialty sub-genre that would further differentiate your book?
Take a look at other books within that genre/sub-genre to get an idea of the general look and style. You don’t want to look like everyone else, but it’s a good idea to know the general visual tone your audience is accustomed to seeing. For example, a lot of books in the romance genre use images of people, bright colors and script fonts while books in the horror genre often use dark, brooding images and sans serif fonts. Obviously, there are many exceptions to these generalities but by and large, they’re fairly accurate.
Take the time to really study the covers you like. Break down the individual elements on the cover, the artwork/photos, typography, colors, layout, etc. Figure out how those individual design pieces came together to create an effective cover and then apply those same techniques when designing your cover.
Once you've done your research, get back on the Google machine and see if you can find designers who have experience designing covers within your genre. If so, how many have they done and how are those books doing on Amazon? Sales aren't always an indication of cover design quality but it provides an important clue.
What’s the book’s main idea/message?
The main purpose of the book cover design is to give a visual synopsis of the story inside, right? Not necessarily.
Let’s say your book is about a cop’s wife who’s bitten by a werewolf, then helps her husband fight crime when the moon is full. (Don’t laugh, I’ve read weirder stuff than that.) Based on the synopsis, the cover should have a werewolf and a cop, right? Maybe. Maybe not. You could show a full moon behind a police station, a full moon with a badge in it, or maybe just stylized font. The key is to capture the general mood or feeling of the story in a way that grab a reader’s attention and makes them want to read the book blurb which should also be striving for the same goal: selling the story versus telling the story.
Is the book standalone or part of a series?
If your book is going to be part of a series, you and your designer will have the additional challenge of thinking through which design elements could be consistently applied to future books in order to make each of them distinctive but also clearly tied to one another.
Some of this challenge will depend on the degree to which you’ve already mapped out future books in the series and how many books you think the series will include. The longer the series, the more difficult it will be to tie them all together which makes it even more important to think through which design elements will be used to create a consistent look.
Another challenge will be people. Your books will likely have a handful of primary characters that you’ll be tempted to include on the covers. But unless you have a budget for professional models and a custom photo shoot, it may be difficult to find enough stock photos of the same people to use for multiple book covers.
The problem becomes increasingly difficult as the number of books in the series goes up. If you have to use people, consider using them in a way that they’re not easily identified by their facial features. Back to the camera, silhouettes and blurred shadowy images are common techniques depending on the genre.
How do I know when it’s right?
You don’t. I wish there there were a better answer to that fundamental question, but the truth is there is no right or wrong. The best you can do is to trust the skills of the designer you’ve chosen and, most of all, trust your own instincts. You know the characters and the story better than anyone so, if the cover art feels right to you, it will likely resonate with your readers.
Besides, one of the coolest things about self-publishing an ebook is that you can change the cover whenever you like so don’t throw away your second and third options. You may end up using them.
Bonus question: Will there be a print version of your book?
Self-published authors usually only limit their distribution to ebook versions but Amazon makes it fairly easy to offer print-on-demand versions with their CreateSpace service. Believe it or not, there are still people who prefer to hold a physical copy of a book. Plus, it can be kinda cool to have a print edition to give to family and friends too.
If you decide to offer a print edition, you’re obviously going to need a separate print book cover in high-resolution. The sizing will be different and the designer will have to include artwork for the spine and back cover. You’ll need blurb and possibly promotional copy for the back cover as well and it should tie in visually with the front. The Amazon service offers complete specifications and instructions for properly formatting a print cover. It’s a good idea to make sure your designer is comfortable with following their guidelines.
Now that you have the important questions, the trick is to find the answers that work for you and your book baby. As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, the most important thing is to develop a cover that will grab a potential reader’s attention. The first step in selling your book, especially if you’re relatively unknown, is to make someone take their finger off their mouse scroll wheel when they see your cover. If you can accomplish that much, you’re already halfway to closing the sale.