Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book cover design tips

A beautiful illustration that would be a powerful eye-grabber under the spotlight in a Borders store may become a tiny incomprehensible blob when displayed on a website. Subtle color combinations that win awards in art school may not have adequate contrast to allow potential customers to separate the text from the background on computer monitors.

Make sure your book looks good in the size in which Amazon and other online booksellers will show it. It’s possible for people to click on the thumbnail image and see almost a full-size cover, but try for a design that works well in postage-stamp-size. Excellent artists have designed very attractive stamps. (The cover shown here is not the final design.)

Also consider how your book will look when converted to grayscale (black and white). It may show up in a book, catalog or newspaper that doesn’t have color pages.

If you have a photo or illustration on the cover, make sure it does not overpower or conflict with the title. It should reinforce the title. Don’t use a photo so big that it necessitates a small title that will be hard to read.

If the photo or illustration is important, make sure the title or subtitle doesn’t mask it.

Make sure you have adequate contrast between your type and the background. Red-on-orange may work for a day-glow concert poster, but it makes a book cover hard to read.

Choose the appropriate binding for your topic, audience and price. Most how-to books are perfect-bound paperbacks (soft covers). If your book’s price is $24.95 or higher, many people will expect a hardcover book, probably with a dust jacket. Hardcovers cost more to manufacture than soft covers. A casewrap is a less-expensive hardcover binding without a dust jacket. Instruction manuals and cookbooks are more useful if they can lie flat when open and are often con-structed with a comb or spiral binding. Unfortunately, these two binding methods are fragile and pages may become detached if the book is used frequently.

Make sure the mood of the artwork complements the title and the purpose of the book. A pastoral scene with cows grazing near a brook is probably not right for a “get up and take charge” business book—even if those cows are really bulls.

If you are supplying the cover design, your publisher or printer can provide a custom template with lines that show where you should put words and pictures, and where you should not. The template above is from POD-printer LightningSource, which prints most of my books.

Diagram above shows boundaries in the lower-left corner of a cover design template.

Book covers are very different from other “documents” in one important way: If you’re writing a term paper or a letter, you wouldn’t dream of letting your words go all the way to the edge of a page. Book covers (and magazine covers, ads, posters and packages) often have graphic images that go all the way to the edges. It’s just not possible to predict exactly where the printer’s trimming blades will chop your paper, so the cover is designed with art that “bleeds” outside the normal borders. The typical bleed is ¼ of an inch. Keep important text and images out of the bleed space so they are not lost. A typical 6-inch-wide book cover has a safety zone that stops ¼ inch away from the theoretical trimmed edge. Beyond that safety zone is the danger zone that should not contain anything important. The danger zone and the area beyond the trim are considered to be the bleed area. Without a bleed, your cover may have an unintended white border beyond the edge of a color graphic element. Your cover may be designed to bleed in just one direction, or it can bleed on two, three, or all four edges (full bleed). Cover alignment is not precise. Don’t be surprised if part of your front cover or back cover ends up on the spine. For this reason, I caution against bleeds that might accidentally wrap around. On the other hand, if your book has horizontal color bands or a large illustration that deliberately wraps around three surfaces of the cover, the design can be very dramatic with little danger.

Unless you have a tiny budget, do not use a pre-made cover design from a self-publishing company, where you just pick a title, a color and a typeface. It’s much better to pay for professional help to get something original and interesting. If you do use a template, check out the available variations, and also see how you can tweak your art and text to provide the best results with the enforced limitations. The cover shown above is a quick-n-dirty free design I made with a CreateSpace template. When the book is published next month, it will have a different cover.

There are already books about self-publishing for “big dummies” and “complete idiots.” Dummies and idiots can’t publish books, and probably shouldn’t write them. This book is for smart writers—but not necessarily geniuses—who want to learn about self-publishing. It's part of my growing "Silver Sands Publishing Series." By next month the series will include books for writers who want to use self-publishing companies, writers who want to start their own publishing companies, and the book shown, for writers who are not sure which path to take. 

There are online “budget book design” services that can provide a cover design for about $300. I have not tried any of them, but I’ve heard good things about some of them. Take a look at the online samples and customers’ comments. Some self-publishers are very pleased with low-priced cover designs produced by freelance artists all over the world through For $10 you can post a project description, and then sort out the proposals and references.

A simple design is better than a complex design. You have only a second or two to capture a shopper’s attention.

Check the final design very carefully. It’s easy to miss errors in unexpected places, like the price, a URL or a Zip Code. Have your copyeditor check the cover.

Watch out for conflicts and inconsistencies. Sometimes a number (“10 years in preparation”) might be inside the book, but the cover says something else (“11 years”). I know of one book with different titles on the front cover and spine, and another with the wrong title on the back cover. BE CAREFUL.

(This is more an issue for bookstores than for online selling, where people search by topic.) Don’t deceive browsers just to attract their attention. Bikini babes and muscle men don’t belong on the cover of a book about gardening or contract negotiation.

Some publishing authorities suggest evaluating cover designs by looking at them from three or four feet away, to determine if they are readable by the average shopper wandering down the aisles in a Barnes & Noble store. It’s a nice test, but it may be utterly unimportant for a book that’s sold mostly online. Some other authorities completely dismiss the value of having an attractive cover for online sales. I disagree. I think people prefer to own attractive things. Also, a better-looking book is more likely to be noticed and picked up by visitors to one of your customers’ homes or offices. Each of your books can help sell additional copies—and you don’t have to pay a salesman’s commission.

I like the crisp and clean look of a white cover, and that’s what I used for my first three books. Unfortunately, they blend into the white pages of booksellers’ websites. A color background or a dark border would be better for online sales. Be careful with borders, they may not be printed exactly the way you want them to be. I've given up on borders.

Every part of your cover is an advertisement that should help to sell books. If you are an unknown author, your name on the cover can be accompanied by a one-line bio, such as “Professor of Nuclear Medicine at Harvard University.” If you have no such claim to fame, use the space for a blurb from someone to establish your credibility, either through her own fame or by what she says. If all you can say about yourself is that you wrote an unknown book in another field, don’t say it. Find someone to say something positive about you or your book.

(binding illustrations from

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