Cover Issues

This post is a very brief one – either a rant or a bit of helpful advice depending on how you choose to take it.

It’s common knowledge that ebooks and self-publishing are on the rise; I’ve even taken my own first baby steps in this brave new world. And while some people, hopefully a minority, are using self-publishing as a shortcut to get out the manuscripts that have been multi-rejected and putting little or no thought into it, most of us really want the best for our babies. Er, sorry, books.

So why, why, is there still not enough importance put on cover design? I have to admit first up that I do have some interest in this area as my husband’s launched his own design business, part of which is Design for Writers. Which is, er, designing stuff for writers – including websites and book covers. But this post is mostly provoked by a series of things I’ve read lately.

The first is in this month (June)’s issue of Writing Magazine. In Q&A on p73 a throwaway sentence made me bristle: “If you typeset your novel…design your own cover (if you are or know an artist or photographer this won’t be difficult)…” I’ll be writing a letter to Writing Magazine but can I just say, this is not particularly good advice! And I really love this magazine, I get it on subscription as it’s really helpful. This bit, though, just… isn’t.

It kind of sums up the problem with self-published covers. Almost everyone thinks they are, or can be, an artist or photographer. It isn’t that easy! Writers get notoriously (and rightly) prickly when someone mentions in casual conversation that they “always wanted to write a book” or similar because writing is not just a question of getting words on a page. Cover design is not just a question of getting a picture and a title on a wrap-around bit of card (and ebooks are a minefield unto themselves)!

Go into a bookshop. Any one, any shelf, any section. Pick up and look at a few professionally-published books. You will see none of the following things:

  • clip art
  • fancy fonts
  • BORDERS!!
  • a variety of fonts and colours “because they look pretty”.
  • any trace of Comic Sans.

Go on, test me, and come back and gloat in the comments if I’m wrong.

A properly designed cover has had someone with a talent for design spend several hours asking the editors (or author if it’s self-printed) what ‘feel’ the book should have, considering the genre, playing with any images used to get the best out of them, trying a range of typefaces to find the most suitable ONE  (and having a good knowledge of the typefaces available) and arranging all of the necessary elements so that the cover looks as attractive and enticing as possible.

The other thing that sparked this post is that I’m just reading the section on cover design in Catherine Ryan Howard’s new book, Self-Printed. I’m lucky enough to be a proof reader for this, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go to Catherine’s blog, subscribe to updates, and get in line to buy this when it’s released if you have even the vaguest idea of venturing into this area. It really will be invaluable. And, as I expected, Catherine is spot on when she talks about cover design. She says that most writers forget everything they know about books when it comes to the cover design for their own, and she’s absolutely right.

A good designer, which I have to say my husband is (and he designed Catherine’s covers, if you’re interested), will listen to the writer about their book but then take their ideas and make them better, just as a good ghostwriter, say, would take someone’s idea and make it into a readable book. I know one of the benefits of self-printing is having control over things that you wouldn’t through a traditional publisher, but this can be a double-edged sword. Step back from the book with your hands in the air, and let someone who really does have a talent for design handle the situation. This is an emergency, people (sorry, watching a bit too much ER lately).

If you can’t afford a professional designer, at least do yourself the favour of doing some research into current cover design and limit yourself to one font, one picture and NO borders. Yes, some books have more than one of these but if you’re not totally sure what you’re doing then play it safe. A clean, fresh design is better than one that makes your eyes bleed.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll get back to reading…

11 thoughts on “Cover Issues”

  1. The last bit of advice is the best bit. If you are doing it yourself, then play it safe. Cut down on the elements in your design until you feel you can cut no further, and then cut some more. As with your manuscript, if you’re too close to the Project, you might find this bit hard. A good designer will advise you honestly on this.

    Oh, and you’re right, go into a bookshop and you will definitely NOT find Borders. They closed months ago! 😉

    You can follow Design for Writers on Twitter @design4writers – don’t judge me on the cringeworthy use of the number 4 in that username. It’s all down to the Twitter character limit.

    Oh, and feel free to ignore all of this advice. But trust me on the Borders.

  2. *Applause* Simply the best, clearest, most sensible advice on cover design I have ever read. Nothing to add here, only to say I agree wholeheartedly with every word of your post. If the time ever comes that I’m in the position of needing a cover designing I will recognise my limitations and, to use the old adage, I’ll, “get a man (or woman) in” to design my cover for me because you see, I’m a writer, I’m not an artist; I wish I were, but I’m not.

  3. Thanks Chris; exactly so! And like writing, there are times to break these rules but you have to know what you’re doing before you decide to do something completely different!

  4. Oh what a lovely comment, thanks Sam! I think that’s it – recognising limitations. If I wanted to do a triple heart bypass, I’d call in a cardiac surgeon, not whip out the bread knife (sorry, again, too much ER…).

  5. Intriguing subject especially as the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” couldn’t be more inaccurate when it comes to attracting attention on crowded bookshelves! One of the first things that drags my hand to a book is its cover…so an appealing, well designed cover is beyond essential.
    Great tips in this post for those of us who aspire to eventually getting that novel finished!

  6. In my last business I was always willing to spend money on graphics because I know their impact, however, with my first book, I decided to go for inexpensive and recommended – only to get dropped and ignored by the designer, so I went back to my favorite graphic designer and said: design me a cover. She did and it’s the most awesome cover ever and evokes the tone of my book perfectly.

    It amazes me how few people think that presentation is important, from quality covers to well edited/proofed books.

    And now I’m off to check out Catherine’s website…

  7. Thanks for commenting Alex! Yes, it shows almost a contempt for the skill of the designer, the reading experience of the reader and even for your own work – having spent so much time (hopefully!) on something, WHY wouldn’t you want to finish it as well as you possibly could?!

    Lovely to meet you, thanks for reading 🙂

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