What makes you decide to buy a book? For most people, it comes down to the book blurb, the opening pages, and recommendations from friends. But for the reader to pick up the book in the first place, the cover has to grab her attention.
With self-published stories, it’s vital your cover is eye-catching (in a good way) if you hope to get the sales you covet. Unlike traditionally published books, the onus is on you to nail the cover so that people will want to check the book out, and hopefully buy it. To ensure your cover shines, here are some tips from a photographer’s point of view. Even if your book is being traditionally published, some of these tips will help you if your publisher asks for your input.
Theme and Symbolism
One of the best ways to ensure the cover best represents your story is to create a list of the story’s themes (if you only have one theme, that’s fine. Just make sure you know what it is). This will help you find the perfect picture for the cover. If your themes are dark, then you’ll want to skip on the light and breezy images. Or, you might find a picture you love, that’s perfect for the story, but a slight adjustment needs to be made for it to work for the cover. For example, the above picture was originally much lighter, sweeter, but it wasn’t quite right for the story, which is about a mother’s desperate attempt to find her daughter who went missing two years ago. The image fit what the author was looking for, but the picture needed to be darkened to fit the tone of the story.
Do you have a symbolic object in the story that might work well on the cover? Or maybe the object doesn’t exist in your story, but it is symbolic of your theme or premise. The underlying subtext might entice a potential reader to pick up the book and check out the blurb.
Are there any expectations within the genre as to cover design? The cover of a romantic suspense will be different to that of women’s fiction. The cover of a middle grade book will not be the same as one for erotic romance.
Visit your local bookstore and study the covers within your genre. Make a list of the ones that appeal to you, and note if there is anything you find overdone. You want your cover to standout, not be one of several dozen lookalikes. Note what you like and what turns you off. Maybe you don’t like the overall design but there’s an element in it that you love. Write this down. All this information is important for creating the final product, especially if you’re hiring someone to design the cover.
If someone were to look at your book, would she know what to expect? When the reader looks at the above cover, she anticipates the book is for middle graders and will contain elements of magic. Also, she expects the story will involve a lighter theme.
When selecting a photo for your cover, or when layering several images, keep the following composition principles in mind:
- Keep things simple. If you try to put too much on the cover, it will become cluttered and confusing. Worse yet, the reader might assume your story has the same issue. This can easily happen when you layer too many images to make the final product.
- Keep things consistent. If you have a dark theme, don’t mix light- and dark-themed images on the cover. The result will be jarring, and not in a good way.
- Allow for breathing room. This is important for the title and your name. It doesn’t mean you can’t put them over part of the image. It means you don’t want them to compete with the picture for the reader’s attention. The reader might forget the title of the story or your name because the images were too distracting.
- Use composition techniques, such as framing, to draw attention to the subject on the cover (as in the example below). For more information on different techniques, check out this post.
Hire a Professional
Because the cover is important, consider hiring professional help. You might have something in mind but can’t find a stock photo you love, or you want something that is unique and won’t also end up on someone else’s cover. In both cases, you can hire a photographer. Some photographers are able to create magic when producing covers (read this post and this post to see how photographer Vania created her magic with Untraceable and On the Bright Side). These photographers love to do post-production work. Others don't enjoy that side of photography, and lack the necessary photo-editing software to produce a font that will draw the reader’s attention to the title. One author I know experienced this issue. But then she sent the photo to a graphic designer and the results were spectacular.
If you decide to work with a professional, gave the individual a list of words that describe your story (i.e. theme words), the book blurb, the titles of covers you admire, ideas you might have, things you don’t want on your cover. Basically, anything that will make the individual’s job easier. But be realistic. Unless you’re hiring someone to take the photos, you might have to compromise on your want list. And be open to her suggestions.
When selecting a professional, ask to see her previous work and make sure you’ll be able to have input in the final product. If you love someone’s cover, ask them who designed it. Ideally, select someone who is knowledgeable of your genre. If the individual usually designs covers for romances and has never stepped into the YA section of the bookstore, she might not be your best choice. She doesn’t understand the needs of the genre, especially if your target audience are teenage males.
Know Your Budget
This goes without saying. Unless you have a fairy godmother at your disposal, you don’t want to blow your entire budget on an amazing cover and have nothing left for professional editing. It doesn’t matter how great your cover is if the story behind it is flat and filled with typos and grammatical errors. The bad reviews will haunt you and your future books (unless you change your name).
Get honest feedback. It’s not enough to post it on your blog or show it to you friends, and ask what they think of it. They might lie to spare your feelings and you could end up with a cover that will do more damage than good. And make sure you get feedback from your target audience. Your husband, who only reads thrillers, is not the best person to ask for feedback on your romance cover. And remember, like everything else in this industry, cover love is subjective.
Any other suggestions?
(I would like to thank the above authors for sharing their covers with me. Some of the books are now available. Others will be out in the next two months.)
Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.