You Can’t Tell a Book . . . or Can You?

Designing a book cover is tricky. There’s a good reason professional cover designers deserve respect and can be invaluable. On the other hand, having artistic control and designing your own cover is also appealing. The difficulty in DIY is making the right choice of cover material, anticipating what will make the reader pull your book off the shelf for a closer look, and attracting your target audience. Often, determining your consumer demographic is a feat in itself.

I’ve designed several book covers, and just redesigned the cover of my novel. One cover I did was easy and required nothing more than some items I had in my desk drawer and my desktop color printer. Others took hours and caused no small amount of angst. All were a learning experience and fostered an even greater respect for the professionals.

Here is what I learned:

If the author is well-known–with faithful readers waiting for the next book–the cover doesn’t seem to matter that much since the author’s name will dominate. For example, recently I read several books by an admired author who sets her stories in the Southwest. Her characters tend to be experienced, hardened women coping with difficult men and tough circumstances, yet her covers have an elegant, pastel quality that is reminiscent of an Old South veranda on a lazy, summer afternoon (one actually appears to be just that–an idyllic front porch). Occasionally, I can find a relationship between the cover and the theme of one of her books, but not always.

Genre-specific covers are the easiest: the reader of a particular type of fiction will be drawn to cover art that indicates the genre–will, in fact, expect it. This works fine for action-adventure, fantasy, horror, chic lit, or romance novel covers that follow certain formulaic design features. But, what do you do with a book that is an outlier?

You may have written one and find it hard to describe. Maybe it falls into several categories. Perhaps it is literary–but not too literary; commercial, but also appealing to a specialized population; attractive to both mature adults and young adults; borderline soft porn but limited. If it’s difficult to slot it into an established category, then it will be equally demanding to choose an appropriate cover.

I had coffee with a very discerning friend today who pointed out that contrast and color, artfully executed, make a cover attractive–and attracting. Another friend at the same coffee shop, who is a book lover, said she likes a cover that causes her to think about what it means, and how it relates to the book. Yet another person I spoke with recently said that for him, “Less is better,” and a good work of literature should stand on it’s own and simply declare what it is. In other words, artistic but not over-the-top artifice.

I wish there were definitive answers, sure-win guidelines, brilliant solutions; but, alas, it is a crap shoot. What I do know is that, along with some great covers, there are some truly awful ones, chosen by respected publishers, that have no doubt harmed a well-written, interesting book. I also know that I’ve been lured by terrific covers and was disappointed by the contents. Unfortunately, not even the cover descriptions and claims are always reliable, and some are just plain sloppy–even to the point of getting the characters’ names wrong.

My best advice:

If your book has been accepted by a publisher, defend your vision. If they like your work well enough to publish it, they are usually open to discussion. If you disagree with the artwork, or believe it misrepresents your theme and intent, explain why in a logical, unemotional manner, even if you are upset. While, to you, it is “your baby,” to the publisher it is a product they intend to market for profit. Trust yourself, but trust them as well; they know what sells.

If you design your own, study other covers in your genre. Find the commonality.

Use a computer program that allows you to experiment with color, opacity, and placement. Play around until you get a good mockup, then print it to the size you have chosen for your book and wrap it around any book you have that is the same size. View it from a distance. Put it on your book shelf and see if the spine stands out and is easily readable.

Ask a few friends or acquaintances what the cover  design conveys to them. Ask them if it would make them curious enough to read the back jacket or back cover (paperback). Ask them if the text on the back cover or jacket would interest them enough to open the book and read a few pages? Ask them if they would buy it if they didn’t know the author?

If you’ve dealt with designing your own book cover, I’d love to hear about your experience.

In Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare said, “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,” as did Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (in Molly Bawn), who is credited with the modern version,”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,”