This was a question that popped up in one of the many groups I am part of and after leaving a monster-sized response I figured I might want to post about this topic for those who need an answer to this. Not to mention my fellow Author L.E.Perez and I have been discussing this topic all summer long. So here it goes, the Full Monty on Book Covers.
BONUS: Author Learning Center posted a clip of me sharing some advice about Book Covers in March 2018:
Why Are Book Covers Important?
Human beings are rather visual creatures. When we see something shiny or pretty, we are drawn to it and feel a need to have it. Naturally, this rings true for a large portion of readers. We’ve all seen a book cover from across the room and HAD to go see what the book was about. As an author, it’s our first impression with new readers and if you have a strong cover, fans will show it off and be more willing to share.
Strangely enough, the images and colors on our book covers are the hints as to what kind of story we have crafted for them. A light-hearted romance is going to have completely different color scheme than the dark fantasy erotica. Same thing applies to a Romance cover versus a Murder Mystery versus a Young Adult novel. The market has developed a standard in what the covers for these should look like as a signal to consumers what genre and story they are purchasing or might want to lookout for. Following these trends, or at least being aware of them can make or break your ability to attract the RIGHT readers to your novel.
For example, you see a book with Fabio and a half-naked lady and you think, Oh, a classic romance novel, sweet! You get home, snuggle up in your couch and discover it reads like a Stephen King novel. It’s throwing when a cover does not line up with the content within. So let’s talk about where we can find cover designers and even discover how you can create your own.
Do Free Book Covers Exist?
Technically, no. I only say this because sweat and tears, someone’s time, skills and talent had to be used in the making of that cover. Yes, you can do it at no cost, without spending a penny, but in the end, free isn’t the right answer. You can indeed find some amazing people out there willing to make you a cover for fun, practice, heck, even for their Graphic Design class or project. The downside to this can have a lot of factors you may be okay with or completely against. Let’s think of some of the terms and complications or even things you should keep in mind when someone does a free cover:
- Very little say-so in the design.
- No obligation or deadline for the artist. Even if they promised you they would do it.
- Often you can’t ask for re-design, fixes or changes
- Hard to find if you wish to use them again.
- One time deal in most cases
- Quality not guaranteed
- May not be well researched or lacks the going trend for your genre
- They designed only the front cover, no spine or back design
- Design may not translate or need adjustment to accommodate printed format
- May prefer to remain Anonymous – no way to contact them.
The list can go on forever or into greater detail, but these are the risks you take going with a volunteer. Again, not to say there aren’t wonderful ones out there. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them out either. Just be aware of what their wants are compared to your needs. So, let’s say you are determined to go through with a volunteer, or at least check them out and look to see what is out there in this section. Some recommendations or places to look are:
- Forums – A lot of writer, author and artist forums have sections for such request
- NaNoWrimo does a “30 Covers, 30 Days” Challenge in November
- Graphic Design students may be willing to accept your challenge
- Family/Friend discount (comes at a risk)
- Trades and Barters can also be a great way to get an artist
- Enthusiastic Talented person who has nothing better to do.(Rare, but does happen)
Again, be sure you take in the limitations, wants and needs for both you and them. Try to make sure you get a print and digital layout. Even then, you may lose contact or they decide not to work on the project. Not being paid has that risk, no obligation to do it anymore is a very real ordeal, especially if you start demanding too much without offering some sort of barter or monetary value for them taking extra time and effort into the design. Be respectful, it’s a free book cover! And don’t hesitate to tip them or send them a little cash as a thank you!
What Do The Paid Services Look Like?
Just like with free options, there is a wide spectrum of paid book cover designs. Some are experienced or simply great artist while others are devoted to covers and keep up with the trends. Many vary from needing input about the book from you, wanting to read the book, or just going from the seat of their pants with trends and the blurb in mind. It’s really amazing to see how they can bring something new to the table, completely different from your vision. They still need your input to catch mistakes though! For example, your story takes place in Florida so those mountains in the background need to go (True story from a best selling author here in Orlando!)
Where can you find these services and designers? Just about everywhere. A lot of the Self-publishing venues such as CreateSpace and Lulu have services available to pay their designer to create a book cover for you. Many sites and networks lists freelancers who do such work like over on Booklife and Independent Book Publishers Association.
Another resource is a new trend on Facebook, of all places. There are groups and book Designers banging out some great pre-made designs that can accomodate most genres. Some of the ones I am aware of are as follows:
Don’t hesitate to ask authors who have stunning book covers who designed theirs! If you like work done in books on your shelf, often the cover designer is listed in the copyrights or you can search the internet to see who was responsible. Sometimes you might discover a fellow author has talent in cover design and you can use someone you know and trust. It simply falls back to asking around, getting referrals, and make sure you look at the designers portfolio.
Sure, its the definite free way, but there is a large learning curve. You pick this option because time is less valuable or scarce than money. It can be a frustrating venture, but with enough patience, hard work, and studying, you can make this possible. First, let’s look at the things you might want to be aware of before breaking into designing a cover. These are things a designer with experience and/or college education in Graphic Design are well aware of, but may not be known to someone attempting this for the first time.
The first question I normally get is, What software do I use to make a book cover? Adobe Photoshop is a leading program, but not all of us are able to afford a high-end program. Well, it used to be that way, but now Adobe has some great options that allow you to gain access to this software far more affordable. Even so, there are free variants that imitate what Photoshop can do. Here are your options:
- Adobe Photoshop – Monthly rates starting at $9.99 a month for PhotoShop and Lightroom. Discover more here: https://www.adobe.com/creativecloud/plans.html?promoid=P3KMQYMW&mv=other
- Adobe Photoshop Elements – This is a simplified version of Photoshop, but it’s missing the hi-tech tools. You can still get the job done, I only had this to do my college work by and it forced me to learn other ways to master effects. Regardless, you can buy this software for about $79.99 and no monthly subscription needed: https://www.amazon.com/Adobe-65273274-Photoshop-Elements-15/dp/B01KICI4LQ/
- A FREE OPTION: GIMP – This software has some great tutorials and YouTube videos to help you do anything and everything! It can’t function at the same level as the above, but you can get pretty far with enough practice and time to master how to recreate the right qualities: https://www.gimp.org/
- FREE: Firealpaca – This has some great line art options (Including assistance for shakey drawing) and again, plenty of YouTube tutorials on various things including animation. This may be a better option for MAC and PC users. It even has to ability to save files as a PSD or Photoshop file: https://firealpaca.com/
- FREE: Krita – This OC/MAC/Linux software is comparable to Corel Painter, a software that focuses on imitating actual painting with similar aspects as Photoshop. Again, great resource on their site and videos on YouTube as well: https://krita.org/en/download/krita-desktop/
Finding Your Assets: Photos, Clipart, Fonts & More!
Assets are important aspects of creating a cover. It’s not simply artwork slapped to fit a book, but a combination of elements that come together. Titles with eye-catching font, photographs manipulated in unique ways, brush strokes of color to signify mood, and even on occasion artwork that leaves us in awe on a fantasy cover. Besides finding and knowing where to look for assets, you have to be aware there are rules and things to be aware of so you don’t find yourself infringing on copyrights nor being sued for “stealing” or “misuse” of someone’s work.
The Rules for Assets
- COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: Be aware of what you are using. If someone has copyrights to the asset, you can’t use it without being rights to do so. Especially since book covers fall under “commercial use.”
- COMMERCIAL USE/ PUBLIC DOMAIN: These are keywords that mean this should be safe to use for a book cover design. Be sure to double check for any stipulations. Sometimes Artist and Photographers request you send them a link of how you used their work so they may share it as a means to help them drive freelance work. It’s a pretty fair exchange in that regards since you help one another in terms of exposure.
- PERSONAL USE: You will see assets marked with this and that means it’s NOT for commercial use aka book cover. Look into what the terms or how to buy usage rights if you REALLY love what you found. There is always a way to purchase these items, just reach out to the designer.
- BRANDS: Do your best not to have name brands and known logos on your cover. Mock versions of them is ok and common in the comic book genre. For example a “WacDonald’s” or “McRonald’s” logos instead of the actual franchise of “McDonald’s” can come in handy. Many of these companies have huge teams looking out for those who accidentally use anything like their logos. This comes into the infringing on copyrights sector of things. I mean, Dodge even went after a High School over their logo, so don’t take the risk of being in a sticky encounter like this one: http://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1042798_chrysler-lawyers-order-takedown-of-florida-high-school-logo
- NO RIGHTS LISTED: Be careful. Because there is no immediate markings or indications of the rights, doesn’t mean it’s safe for commercial use and your book cover. Be sure to reach out to the designer, and if you can’t find them, pass on it. You never want to create a book cover and find out later you have to change it or can’t use that particular asset. Best to stay clear of the unmarked work and be respectful of the unknown creator.
Where to Find my Pictures, Artwork, and Clipart?
There are quite a few places to find photos and clipart out there. Again, be mindful of the rules I listed above to make sure you are paying attention to what you are saving in a File Folder of potential resources to use for the design. It’s always a great idea to grab 2 or more variants of elements you think you might use. Don’t fret if you decide not to use over half of what you shove in there. Think of this as you creating a tool box that can be flexible to the job you are about to embark on. Ok, now where to find those pictures:
- Creative Market – I have fallen in love with this site. The prices are reasonable and every Monday they release 6 freebies for you to try out. It’s not only fonts and clipart, but layouts for social media or magazines, textures, photos, brushes and tools for Adobe, and even product mockups. A great one to sign up to and be aware of at all times: https://creativemarket.com/free-goods
- Pixabay – is a great place to acquire free photos for commercial use. Be sure to double check the listed rights and I would be kind and mention them in the copyright sections as “Photography provided by USER on pixabay.com“. Be aware that a lot of people pull images from here and you might have an image you will see on another cover, though I’ve only seen it about three times in the last few years: https://pixabay.com/
- Shutterstock – has some great images! This is a paid service to gain access to their photos, vectors and such. They also have several subscription options to fit one time usage to monthly or annual access. Find more here: https://www.shutterstock.com/subscribe
- Adobe Stock – has some sharp images as well. If you went with their software option, you sometimes get 10 free photos from this. Even then, they have subscription options comparable to Shutterstock. Find those details here: https://stock.adobe.com/plans
- DeviantArt – can be a great resource with a mixture of free and paid access to photos, clipart, and artwork. Each user here has different rights listed, so it may take some emailing, messaging, and reading what is listed for the image or profile to know what you can and can’t use. Still, it’s a great creative resource: http://www.deviantart.com
- 1001FreeFonts – You can find free fonts here, but the rights vary. Be sure to secure one with free commercial rights or marked for Public Domain. Still, those that are labeled Private Usage usually provide a link to buying rights so you can use it for commercial use. You can search by types and styles here, so take your time and look through them all. A great resource: http://www.1001freefonts.com/
- My Fonts – Is a shopping, pay for the font setup. They constantly run specials on the fonts here, rotating them often. Also, be sure to check out their Bundles, they give you a massive amount of fonts for cheaper than buying them individually. Some super unique fonts can be found here: https://www.myfonts.com
- Fonts.com – Has a large selection and a subscription option. Again, shop and pay for what you want is an option here. Deals rotate out often and several ways to search for fonts. Find out more here: https://www.fonts.com/
- DaFont – is another Free font site. Again, watch carefully for rights on the fonts that are listed. There is an overwhelming amount of Personal use labeled fonts, but they do link you to the creators and refer you to MyFonts and Fonts so you may buy them for commercial use: http://www.dafont.com/
- Adobe Typekit – Of course, Adobe must compete! There are free options and subscriptions available. Depending on whether you bought a subscription might give you wider access. Regardless, another option to consider for finding fonts: https://typekit.com/plans
- Font Squirrel < Amazing site of commercial use fonts (or course if in doubt then check the license, but they curate the site pretty well). Recommended by Emma S.
- Unsplash < Free to use stock photography that has a bit more of a trendy/hipster/”real life” feel. Recommended by Emma S.
- Kaboom < Again nice free for commercial use stock site. Recommended by Emma S.
Where Do I Start?
Research covers of your genre. See what the trending look and feel is for the genre your book falls into for marketing and try to write down recurring themes, or details you like. For example, Romance novels always feature a couple or half-naked people on their covers whereas Fantasy has dragons, swords and similar versus Vampire novels with blood and fangs. Even thrillers, Young adult, and so on each have a flavor.
Do the research, Google and Search out the genres and marketing banners for the genre of reader you will be pushing your work onto. Ask yourself questions and answer them in earnest such as:
- What sort of covers have your readers been trained to look for?
- How are the unique aspects of the story reflected?
- What colors are constant?
- What sort of art or photographs are being used?
- What fonts are and are not working well for titles?
- What do I like and want?
- What do I hate and want to avoid?
- How are the subgenres reflected? (Paranormal Romance, Regency Romance, etc)
- Recent Bestsellers for my genre: what do these covers have in common?
- Does the cover appeal to Adults? Young Adults? Middle Grade? Children?
Here is a visual smattering of what I am talking about. Look at the questions and see how the answers change drastically for the genres featured below. Each has a different flavor for font, images, colors, and even layout of the cover. Keep this in mind when creating your own:
Practice & Rough Drafts
I cannot express the important of practicing, learning, gaining experience with the software makes a huge difference. Research How-To’s and advice! Watch videos every chance you get to see the different ways tools in the software are used for different affects. More importantly, write it all down in a notebook! Sometimes it’s easier to read instructions or reminders on how to do something from our own words.
Rough sketch layouts, and do several versions. Pick two or more you like and try to rough them out in the program. At this point, show them to people and get feedback. Find individuals who are not afraid to tell you when things look like crap, pixelated, blurred, awkward, hard to read, hate the font, hate the image and so on. Don’t take it as a personal attack, you are trying to appeal to others, not yourself when designing a paperback. What works for you may turn away a potential reader. Make note on what is working and not working and don’t be afraid to take in the info, trash the current versions and make up 2-3 more versions to test again. Rinse and repeat, I promise each pass and the more you work at it, the stronger the outcome!
Here’s my own early learning attempts. The final version was when I finally stopped and did some looking at what was on the market and took in consideration of the audience I was trying to entice to come over and open my book:
If this is too hard, you get frustrated, or upset… When all else fails, hire someone. There is no shame in that. In a recent survey result, Self-Published Authors who pull in over $5,000 in a year from book sales hire out cover designers 79% of the time. It’s not a sign of defeat to do so! As a Self-Publisher, it can be overwhelming to wear all the hats (Writer, Editor, Publisher, Designer, Publicist, Marketer, etc).
Find a copy of said survey here: https://www.bookbaby.com/free-guide/official-self-publishing-survey-results
Ebook VS Paperback Covers
There are a few ways to handle this. Recently, thanks to my wonderful coach and marketer Alinka Rutowska I am learning more and more about covers for ebooks and getting them to pull in readers. I thought to make a different cover to see if it could pull in more readers for Kindle and KindleUnlimited. After much debate, she convinced me to let her give it a got and now my Kindle, or ebook edition, of Cedric the Demonic Knight features a very different cover. So what changed?
- A central item or element to focus on. In this case, the eyes.
- Change in font, but also made it take up a larger area of the cover making it more legible and readable from the thumbnail size.
- I’m not Anne Rice, so adding the genre was also a great way to show what might make this a unique read.
- This was teamed with adding it to the subtitle section in KDP (the site where you upload a Kindle book) and increase its search-ability.
Many of my established readers are attached to my paperback, but I realize it’s simply because AFTER reading the novel they understood the symbolism in the cover. BUT! As for drawing new readers in, it was doing quite the opposite and this became very loud thanks to a reviewer who stated (I received a 4-star Review on Amazon ❤ from them):
The Morrigan, demons, magic, and knights, Cedric the Demonic Knight by Valerie Willis had me sold with the synopsis. Then, I saw the cover and thought oh no, did I make a mistake? The cover didn’t grab me or sell me as much as the synopsis did. I put off reading it, thinking oh no, I have made a mistake. But finally, I picked it up and boy oh boy, is this another case of not judging a book by its cover. The writing is actually really great, as is the story!
LATER in the Review….
This is a fantasy series, despite its drab cover, that really lives up to the genre and is a great read.
In short, I reached out to a marketer, someone who would know where I was falling flat and could take the wheel for decision making and improve my ability to bring in readers more consistently. Alinka’s suggestions made a HUGE different. Before the cover swap, I would get excited selling a book… one… may be two… a week. Since the swap? HUGE DIFFERENCE. This tiny change in its first full month (February 2018) of being in place sold 29 copies of Cedric as well as over 6,500 pages read in KindleUnlimited.
BOOK COVERS CAN MAKE AND BREAK SALES. Don’t be afraid to change it up!
Do Covers Really Effect Readers?
Yes! A book cover is your first impression/introduction to a reader. If you don’t feel that way, than you are a far greater person than myself and a large portion of the consumers we are aiming to have buy our books. It’s important to have a legible title and imagery that reflects our genre.
For myself, it’s been a challenge to find the readers, to appeal to all my potential readers. I have written a Fantasy Romance novel, which at heart is a Kitchen Sink fantasy with mythological influence. Within that scope, I inadvertently have a Romance, a tale of not just one couples struggles, but several love stories unfolding as the series plot unfolds and comes to bloom. Worst, I want this to be a fun read for male and female readers alike. In designing a cover, I was torn as to how to capture this. I wanted to warn them there would be dark elements, that it wasn’t a Romance in a Fantasy setting, but more of a Fantasy with Romance as part of the plot.
Needless to say, it was infuriating. So I decided no classic couple on the cover. To me, it was uncomfortable to read a book like that in public and I can’t imagine male readers feeling any less comfortable with it. There was medieval inspirations, so I ran with that feel with a cobblestone backdrop. I knew the story will be traversing from past to present day, so the inclination of a stone clock embedded in the wall at the binder, something to pull it together. I chose a shadow of a sword, the feel of a “Dark” or “Demonic” knight. The font is reminiscent of Paranormal Romance, Paranormal Fantasy, Dark Fantasy and even Gothic Romance.
Still, even with all those elements, my cover misleads readers at times depending if they come from a hardcore Fantasy or hardcore Romance readership. It has proven to be appealing to both, enjoyable and fun to read. The cover does the job of making them pick it up, even buy a copy, but at times it will leave them unsure if it should be read next.
For example, I received a review for Cedric the Demonic Knight that stated:
“I saw the cover and thought oh no, did I make a mistake? The cover didn’t grab me or sell me as much as the synopsis did. I put off reading it, thinking oh no, I have made a mistake.” -Lulu RoadsideReader, 4 out of 5 star Amazon Review
You can read the full review here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1WTE1YA3GWWIA/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B00FN2YFL0
I knew this was a risk with Romance readers since they look for a VERY different cover and feel. My cover is more reminiscent of a Fantasy or even Medieval historic piece. But! In the end, she had a copy of my book, and better yet, the cover kept catching her attention, building the want of reading this mysterious off wall Romance outside her normal reading zone. Still, the cover brought her to read my synopsis/blurb and that says my cover is doing its job. I simply need them to get close enough for my writing to do its job and close the deal!