Have you ever designed your cover in your mind? I used to design covers in sidewalk chalk while my preschool-age children drew flowers and monster faces. They were about as good as you'd expect with sidewalk chalk, which is to say about as good as I'd be able to produce even in a professional art studio with the entire contents of Oil Paintings And More at my disposal. I'd splash my title across the top and my name along the bottom and then some stick figure bit in the middle.
Then the rain would come, and the world was thankfully spared my artistic genius, assuming anyone even recognized that as a drawing in the first place.
You can't tell a book by its cover is the truism, but of course we judge books by their covers all the time. It's the face your work presents to the world. Your book cover is the introduction you're making to a potential reader.
My first novel's cover arrived in the mail one day. I was given no opportunity for input, but I thought it was okay (it grew on me later). Since then, working with small presses, I've had the opportunity to design four covers, and if this happens to you, you should know what to do. (Because at least one of those cover artists probably put a picture of me on a dart board.)
First, your book is a multifaceted work filled with interlocking meanings and chained symbols overlaid over a theme and a mood. And before you step any further, you need to know: a cover won't capture it all. You thought a 250-word query letter was insufficient? You're going to be longing for those 250 words.
What that means is you can't ask the cover artist to cram every bit of meaning in the book onto the cover. I've seen covers where the author and aritst seem to have plotted out every molecule of space: We'll put the main character here and the love interest looking in the opposite direction over there, and we'll superimpose that over the image of a rose, and beneath that we'll have the images of a locked treasure chest and a kitten, and in the background we should have an old Victorian house with birds flying overhead.
(I pulled that out of thin air, by the way. If I accidentally nailed your cover, my apologies.)
The problem with a cover like that is while you might think your book cannot be encapsulated without the rose and the kitten and the treasure chest, someone else's brain can't process it all in a glance. We don't know where to look first, and we don't know what the story is about.
So back up. The most important thing you can keep in mind when working with your cover artist is that the cover art is a selling tool.
It's an ad. It's not space graciously donated by the publisher so you can have a pretty picture. It's an ad, and its purpose (its only purpose) is to make someone pick up your book and read the description. While working on the cover for The Wrong Enemy, I told the cover artist that if she thought a picture of a rusty can opener would sell a million copies, then a rusty can opener was what should appear on the cover, even though one never appeared in the book.
If the cover artist chooses a scene from the book to illustrate, don't shriek with horror that the climactic sword battle took place in a wood shed, not a Gothic cathedral, and the knight's sword had a silver hilt and should be just a bit longer. Cover art is not an illustration. Repeat after me: it's a selling tool.
Don't duplicate information on the cover. If your novel's title is "The Dying Rose," don't ask for a dying rose on the cover. We already know about that. Space is limited: make every pixel count. It's not a lesson: it's a selling tool.
With that in mind, try to choose an image that captures the book. One image. One emotion. One tone. And something that asks a question.
Secondly, keeping in mind that "selling tool" bit, when you get your artwork, make sure the title is readable. Make sure your name is readable. Shrink it down to thumbnail size and double-check. (And at thumbnail size, that little locket from chapter five that you wanted in the lower left corner? No one would see it anyhow, so leave it out.)
Thirdly, work with the cover artist. The first time my publisher asked for input, I said something to the effect that I'm not an artist. Bad author: that's not helpful. What the cover artist needs to know is the theme and tone of the book, the genre, what audience you want to reach, and what you think is most appealing about the book.
The artist didn't tell you how to write the book, true, and you're not going to micromanage the way the artist covers the book, but at the very least give your opinions and thoughts. The artist will appreciate if you can explain what you're objecting to and why (or why you like what you do.)
For example, while designing the cover for The Boys Upstairs, the cover artist saw from the description that part of it takes place in a church, so she used an image of a cathedral. The problem? The story takes place in an impoverished inner-city church. The cover was lovely but the wrong tone. The artist was perfectly happy to change the image to something that better fit the struggles of the book.
Finally, if your publisher has guidelines about how to work with the cover artist, read and memorize them so you don't make a total pain of yourself. If you get three tries and then the publisher picks a design without your input, don't expect a fourth try. If there's a fee for authors who try to change the cover art after it's finalized, pull out your checkbook if you try to change the cover.
The cover art in conjunction with the title is a selling tool. The purpose of the title is to get someone to pull your book off a shelf and look at the cover. THe purpose of the cover is to get someone to flip the book over and read the back cover copy (or to click on a thumbnail and read the description.) The purpose of all three together is to entice someone to give a vendor ten dollars in order to read your book.
So keep all that in mind when you're working with an artist: focus, questions, theme, identification. The artist and the publisher are your teammates, and they want you to have a cover you're proud of, and since this is the public face of your book, you want that too.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, two cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise a family. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.