How to create a professional looking cover for your self-published book (Part 2 of #SelfPublishing series)
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
We all know this saying. But that’s how your readers would certainly judge your book. By its cover. If you’re publishing as an ebook, it gets even more trickier.
This is how a Kindle ebook looks like on Amazon’s website (I tried to keep it the exact size it is on Amazon).
Now, take out a printed book, keep it next to the screen and see how huge it looks. With a printed book, getting attracted by the large cover, bright colours and captivating fonts is easy for a reader. But getting attracted by a cover that’s this tiny? Hmmm!
So how can you create professional looking and aesthetically pleasing cover for your book? Let’s see 5 steps in which you can achieve that feat.
Note: Click on the pictures in this article to see them in expanded view.
If your book doesn't look great on outside, your readers are much less likely to peek inside.
1. The Subject
What I call a Subject is the main character or object on your book cover. Now, this would change from one book to the other. If you’re writing a crime fiction, your subject might be your lead detective or someone who represents the victims. If you’re writing fantasy or adventure, you might choose a magical object your hero pursues (like a wand) or a place where your heroine went on an adventure (a mountain). It would be entirely based on your book’s story but it’s important that you have a clear subject in mind before you start designing your book’s cover.
Let’s see two examples.
I’m picking both books written by the same author to show the differences. Brida is about a girl who goes in search of magic and meaning of life. The main subject used is the picture of a girl who represents Brida herself. The thick croplands she is walking in whose end is not visible clearly conveys a feeling of mystery; that Brida is searching for something.
Now, Aleph is a different story. A major part of story takes place in the Trans-Siberian Train from Moscow to Vladivostok (and the towns/cities on that route). The story reveals past and present life mysteries to the lead characters of the book as the journey progresses. The train journey acts as a metaphor. Hence, the railway tracks makes a perfect sense for the cover. The railway tracks also symbolise the two main characters of the story, Paulo himself and Hilal, a girl who joins Paulo on his trip, and the fact that their lives can never intersect, just like the railway tracks.
However, there’s an important factor to consider here. While Brida’s cover gives the intended feeling and tells the reader how the book is going to be, Aleph’s don’t. If you walk into a bookstore or visit Amazon and see Aleph, you cannot imagine what the story is. But Paulo Coelho is one of the leading and most renown writers in the world and his name itself is enough for the book to sell. When you imagine the name of an indie writer there, Aleph’s cover risks being ignored.
Before moving to the other steps, please note that the cover should ideally be different for ebooks and print-on-demand books. Ebooks are shown as tiny icons and are displayed in low-resolution while printed books have high resolution and are printed on glossy finishes and high quality papers. Ebooks should not have too bright colours or designs that feature minute details while print-on-demand books can't have low resolution images or stock images and should have details that don't pixelate when printed. They can afford to have high level of details in the design. One test you can use is compressing cover design into a tiny jpeg or png image and see how it looks for ebooks. You can print out a design on a high quality paper and see how it'd look on a printed book.
As one design cannot take advantage of the benefits ebooks and print-on-demand books offer, I strongly advise to create two cover designs for both formats. But the differences should not be too much to make the reader think both books are different. Only subtle changes in the background or colour combinations, minor changes in fonts or small differences in details are to be done.
2. The Background
Now you have your subject. But you need to place your subject in an environment which, when combined with your subject and the title of your book, tells the reader a story.
This is where many of the self publishing writers tumble. They think complex designs with lots of elements would attract readers. It’s not always true. I personally like minimalist designs because they are easier to create, are clear at conveying meaning. I’m not saying complex graphics are bad; in fact I’m myself opting for such a detailed cover for my coming novel Finding Nour.
For instance, Harry Potter series uses complex designs efficiently. They are not only beautiful but also tell a story. You can see The Deathly Hallows (Hardcover) and The Goblet of Fire (Paperback) versions below.
Let’s see another kind of example.
This is the cover of the Swedish version of Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess. You can immediately imagine it’s a mystery with some dark feel to it.
This cover is also a good example of using details in the background to your advantage. The scratches on the wall above, the muck at the window and the shadows on the bathtub and the floor that looks as if they have been casted by the moon outside adds to the aesthetics and intrigue of the picture. This cover is one of the best examples of how to design a crime/mystery/suspense novel covers.
Let’s see an example of minimalist design. Where no complex details are needed.
Camilla Lackberg’s another book, The Mermaid, predominantly focuses on its subject. And the background is quite simple and natural - water. The white fonts appear attractive against the dark background. The author's name is larger than the book's Title given the fame of the author (more on text elements and fonts below).
3. Text Elements
What’s the other things that appear on a book cover? Yes, Title of the book and the Author’s name. These are a must. But you can have some other elements to convey information to the reader. But beware, don’t fall into the trap of shoving a lot of information on the cover in the hopes that it’ll attract more readers. In fact, it does the opposite; it makes the reader go away because he/she gets confused by the cover.
The first additional information you can have is a small line saying what the book is about. A tagline. Or you can tell about an award or critique the book has received, reviews by some industry expert or magazine or if it’s a part of a series, you could indicate that.
When choosing the additional elements, it’s quite important to take care that the cover doesn't get messy. If you look at the cover of The Mermaid above, you do have some place to have a one-line information without making the cover messy. But the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn’t. Get my point?
Let's look at an example. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a story of India after independence beautifully crafted and presented. Note how Winner: Best of the Booker is highlighted on the top. It’s quite important because The Best of the Booker is a special prize awarded in commemoration of the Booker Prize's 40th anniversary. Eligible books included the 41 winners of the Booker Prize since its inception in 1969. There are more additional elements like the New York Times Bestselling Author of The Enchantress of Florence above the author’s name and also a review by The New York Review of Books. Even this cover won’t look great as a tiny icon on Amazon but it still works as important elements, the Title and the author’s name are clearly visible.
Now that you’ve decided all the things that go on the cover, there’s only one thing to work on. Fonts. Yay, my personal favourite.
Face. Style. Size. Colour. A lot of combinations to add that extra flare to your cover.
You’d need two sets of fonts for your cover. There’s two reasons why you need different font sets. Firstly, a single font face all over your cover is quite…boring. Secondly, you’d ideally want to highlight certain text more than others.
You can use a single font face for the Title of your book and the author’s name. But make sure they differ either in size or colour. That’s the easy part. It gets tricky when choosing fonts for additional elements we have discussed above. Your awards, reviews or other such things should not overshadow the Title and the author’s name. They can be in a small different font, usually in lighter shades, at the top or bottom edge of the book. But make sure there are only subtle differences in these two sets of fonts. Don’t use a Helvetica and a Comic Sans, please.
What kind of fonts should you use?
This is a valid question especially because there are a lot of fonts out there.
They should be super-easy to read.
They should blend in with the background graphics.
Anything cursive, fancy or twisty is bad. Remember, your readers will see your book as a tiny icon first. They should clearly read the title (though the book’s name will be clearly mentioned below the icon on these websites, a font that looks confusing still won’t attract the readers).
You should also need to know a little about the two font families: Serif and Sans Serif. I’m not going into the details of these two font families or their inherent differences. You can know more about that here. But there’s one thing to remember.
Any one font family is not suitable for both ebook and print publishing. Serif is the best for printed books as the letters are more distinguishable for the brain so that the brain can recognise the letters in less time than it needs to understand the sans-serif letters. But sans-serif is the ideal font for the ebooks because, ebooks which are published online and read on the screens, are of low resolution than printed books (almost 1/3rd resolution of print). Serif is hard to read in low resolution. Hence, sans-serif is ideal for ebooks. Times New Roman, the old and often considered boring font is a serif font while Arial, yet another boring old font is a sans-serif font.
Your fonts should look attractive but, at the same time, they should not jump at your reader. Size matters too. Nothing less than 11 or more than 16. They shouldn't shout.
Use colours that are neither too bright nor too dull and that would naturally blend in with your background. Go on Amazon and see some covers; you’ll see many with blue fonts on black background or yellow fonts on the white one. Come on, who can read that?
Let’s look at some examples to better understand (now that we have seen about the subject, the background, elements and fonts, let’s consider all of them in these examples).
5. Back Cover & Spine
All we have discussed so far is how to design the front cover for either ebook or print-on-demand books. It’s the most important part of the book but back cover is not something that you can easily ignore. There are certain elements of back cover that readers expect.
Front cover makes your readers pick up your book. Back cover makes them buy it.
This is true at least for print books but remember, your readers can see the back cover of your print-on-demand book too on the internet. The first thing they will look for is a strong compelling blurb with powerful narrative and wording that attracts your readers into buying your book. It should be short, crisp and intriguing.
My strong suggestion is not to use your picture on the back cover. Unless you’re already famous, your face isn’t going to sell your book (don’t feel sad, you still are very beautiful). Instead, have your picture and a small biography on the inside of the cover, either in the beginning or at the end.
Please note that the blurb is not same as the book description. In my upcoming book Your Guide To Self-Publishing, I clearly make a distinction. A blurb is what appears on your book’s back cover. A book description is what appears on a website and is more detailed than a blurb.
You need a little box for your barcode/ISBN. If you publish using print-on-demand services like Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu, they will generate an ISBN for you. But they will remain the publisher of your book. Alternately, you can buy an ISBN yourself and then you will be identified as the publisher of your book. Whatever you do, there should be a place for your book’s ISBN to put.
You have testimonials? YOU HAVE TESTIMONIALS? Heck, keep them on the back cover. If you have more, put them in the beginning of your novel. USE THEM. Readers believe testimonials more than your blurbs or descriptions. A few qualitative testimonials are what you need.
The spine is the easiest thing to design. Keep your book’s Title and author’s name on it and you are good to go. Make sure you use the same fonts on spine that you used on your front cover. Also use the same background colour on your front, spine and back covers; it should look naturally flowing.
Let's look at two examples that uses the back cover and spine in the most effective way.
The Hobbit’s back cover introduces the book as the prelude to The Lord of the Rings which is important given the latter’s fame. The blurb is short and mentions adventures, trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, giant spiders and dragon-guarded gold. It also mentions lighter moments like good fellowship, laughter and song in contrast. The blurb clearly conveys what the book offers - adventure to attract children and the value of fellowship and friendship to compel parents to buy it for their children. There are three reviews which encapsulate the soul of the book in a line. Then the bottom part is dedicated to the price, ISBN and the barcodes.
To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the must-read books for any writer, no doubt. It’s cover is also one of a kind. A sleek flowing design across the front, spine and the back. The blurb is short and very effective. Awards, number of copies sold and the kind of story it is - everything has been condensed into the blurb. The design itself is beautiful creating a contrast of age between the characters on front and back covers. The spine is a natural extension of the design instead of a long black box. The hole in the trunk of the tree appears on the spine when closed but completes one large picture when the book is opened - it’s a really aesthetically pleasing design.
Designing a book cover is not science, it's an art. A beautiful art. A art that requires skill as well as creativity. If you can't design a cover that presents your book in the most beautiful way possible, hire an expert to do so. You don't need to invest a lot in it but make sure your cover is perfect because that's what your reader will judge your book by.
If you are concerned about writing blurbs, author's bios or book descriptions, subscribe below to get updates when I publish posts on them in coming weeks.
Busting the Myths of Self Publishing (Part 1 of the #SelfPublishing series)
This is an excerpt from the chapters Designing Your Book's Front Cover and Designing Your Book's Back Cover from my upcoming book Your Guide To Self-Publishing. In the original chapters, I discuss in depth about how to design book covers that compete with books published by traditional publishing houses. I also talk about other elements of self-publishing where quality matters a lot (even more than your novel’s story), what kind of fonts are best for what kind of covers and different tools you can use to design high quality covers for ebook and print versions. We will look at more examples and see how you can design the perfect cover for your book. We will also go a little deeper into back cover design, blurb writing and Author's bio.