What Makes a Good Book Cover Design?
Updated: Feb 8
Guest post by Donna Scott
Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover—Except Readers Do!
We all know the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But many readers do exactly that, which is why finding the right cover designer for your book is an absolute must! Equally important is finding the right editor, because that great cover is only going to get you so far. If your content is riddled with errors—whether grammatical, craft-related, or topic-based, that reader is going to let you and the rest of the reading community know it. And you certainly don’t want that to happen.
If you are traditionally published, these two important decisions are already made for you by the publisher. Should an editor submit your book to acquisitions and the publisher purchases it, that person would be your editor. The publisher would then assign a cover designer to create the perfect image for the front, back, and spine of your book. Sometimes, a publisher might go through a few designers before they find the right one. The expense of a cover designer and editor is assumed by the publisher.
For self-published authors, this process is somewhat different, and the expense associated with it can be costly. For this reason, you want to make sure you select the very best people for your book to fill the roles of editor and cover designer. Find professionals who regularly deal with your specific genre and/or subject matter.
If you don’t, you may regret this later on; the consequence could be negative reviews which might result in poor sales.
Apply Due Diligence
Since I write historical fiction, I wanted a cover designer who not only specialized in my genre but had a cadre of notable designs, a stellar professional reputation, and a wealth of marketing experience about what works and doesn’t work with historical fiction. After some due diligence, I found Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial to design the cover for my debut novel Shame the Devil. We tossed around some ideas before she got started and after a few days, she sent me some options.
I love the idea of a split cover with a figure on top and the setting below, so she sent me separate images and we mixed and matched them until we found the right one. It was such an interesting process, and although several options could have worked, I chose the one that I thought would appeal to female readers as well as male readers.
Does Your Cover Suit Your Genre?
It’s important to remember that a reader should be able to pick up your book and know instantly what genre it belongs to and the tone of the novel.
In my case, the clothing of the figure should send the message that the story takes place in the 17th century and it involves someone of means, perhaps a noble. The large manor below also speaks of wealth and possibly the countryside. The dark earthy colors are brooding, suggesting that what lies between the pages could be laden with drama, intrigue, and potentially dangerous relationships.
As an aside, I absolutely fell in love with this figure’s full lips, as they further suggest something sensual. If you’ve read Shame the Devil, you know what I mean. ;-)
The font used was also important. Jenny found the perfect feel for the title and my name, which almost looks like a hand-drawn signature. I loved it so much, she used it again on the cover of my second novel as well, The London Monster.
In this case, the story was more of an historical mystery, also dark and brooding. We stuck with the split cover idea, even though the books are completely unrelated.
I thought it might be a good way for a reader to recognize my novels and perhaps see this as part of my brand.
Become a Recognized Brand
You might want to consider creating a cover that is recognizable to your readers as something that would clearly belong to you. If you look at romance novels, you’ll see that many of the authors use similar figure placement, settings, and fonts to distinguish their books from other authors’ works.
Your cover designer will also design the spine and back cover for you. After I sent Jenny a short synopsis, she parsed it down to a brief book blurb for the back cover copy.
Remember to disclose any awards your novel has won or testimonials from other authors, so your cover designer can include those too.
An attractive cover that accurately portrays what lies between the pages is all fine and good. However, once a reader turns that cover and delves into your book, what’s inside better match the outside or you’ll find yourself under scrutiny. That’s why you need to hire the right editor.
Does Your Editor Specialize in Your Genre?
This is where the majority of your expense will come from, but do not scrimp on this by any means.
Find an editor who strictly works on your genre and even subgenre, if possible.
I chose Jessica Cale, also from Historical Editorial, for several reasons. After considering a few options, a fellow historical fiction author recommended her and suggested I read a couple books she worked on. I purchased a few books she edited, and it wasn’t long before I was convinced. I checked into her background, which included attending school in the UK (Wales), experience working for the BBC History Magazine, and—to my delight—specializing in British history.
She also writes a fabulous blog called Dirty, Sexy, History, which is filled with strange tidbits about the crime, filth, and sexual immorality of the past. If you write historical fiction, you can use her site as an excellent resource for your work. She’s also an author of fiction and non-fiction that focuses on Britain. Since that’s what I write, she seemed the perfect match.
I can’t begin to tell you what a pleasure it was to work with her. She’s incredibly easy-going, supportive, and talented. As a former Professor of English, I thought I had turned in a fairly clean manuscript, but she found every misplaced comma or anachronism, whether it involved word etymology, an article of clothing, or a character’s behaviour. She edited both of my novels, and I hope she’s on board for future ones as well.
How to Find the Right Editor for You
I suggest you read self-published books in your genre and search the Acknowledgements page for the editor’s name in the novels you enjoyed the most. Make a list of a few editors, and then research them. Look for complaints or grievances first, then eliminate those with any valid ones. Sometimes people will gripe about something that clearly has nothing to do with the editor’s expertise or ability, so focus on the legitimate ones.
Then reach out to those you’re most interested in. Some charge by the word count, others by page count, and others by the type of editing they offer. The good ones ask for a sample chapter of your work first, so they can edit it. Not only will this allow you to see the types of edits they make and their level of competence, but it will give them the ability to suggest a price based on the amount of work they need to do.
Only you know what works for your budget, but don’t just go with the least expensive one based on that. Really consider who will make your work shine. Also, don’t just go with the one who says your work is fabulous just as it is. None of us submit a perfect story the first time around or even the sixth time around.
You want someone who will be honest with you about any issues—plot, character, setting, dialogue, grammar, etc.—you might have.
Let's Back Up a Step
Having said all this, before you submit your work to an editor, give it to several beta-readers first. They may not be able to help you with grammar or syntax, but they will definitely let you know if there are problems with your characters, dialogue, plot, etc. You want to have all of this ironed out before your editor sets eyes on it. Otherwise, it will take longer for her to edit, and it will add to the cost.
Remember . . . your book is a reflection of you and your brand. If you don’t have the winning combination of content and cover design, no one is going to pick up your book and give it a good review.
Don’t make that mistake, or your journey as an author could end before it even begins. The right team is out there for you. Now go and find it!
Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction. Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia. She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University. She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband.Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews.
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