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5 Things Every Author Needs to Understand about Book Cover Design
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2018
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2018
Outlining

We all know that books are, in fact, judged by their covers. Because of this, and because the marketplace is so crazy competitive, your cover can make or break your book. But there’s a bit of a rub where cover design is concerned, which is that many authors fancy themselves book designers. But being the expert on your book does not necessarily make you the expert on your book’s design.

I’ve worked in book publishing—and therefore with cover designers—for more than fifteen years. Some of the best designers I’ve worked with are prickly and opinionated and uncompromising. In a lot of ways you want a designer like this, because it means they care about their work. These designers are like Gucci or Oscar de la Renta on Oscar night. Your book is wearing your designer’s work, and presentation really matters.

As an editor at a traditional house, I always bent over backward to try to help authors get the cover they wanted. There are only two times I can recall that I forced covers on authors, and they thanked me later. There are countless other times I folded, choosing to let the author have their way rather than put up a fight. And there are a few covers I regret not having fought harder to change. It’s often difficult to articulate to authors why the cover they visualize in their minds or mock up using their rudimentary Photoshop skills isn’t strong. Cover design hinges on good taste and being original. It’s a work of art that evokes an emotional response in a viewer—who happens to be a person who’s considering whether the text behind that cover is worth their time.

Chip Kidd, Knopf’s famous and talented associate art director, offers an education about design in his TED talk, “Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is,” in which he talks about book design as a first impression. A book cover’s job is to create a feeling inside its potential reader, and while it can and should tell a story about your book, it should not tell the story of your whole book. It simply can’t. It’s a representation, an emotional hit, an impression, and a work of art.  

Here are five things to consider when it comes to your cover:

1. It needs to look good thumbnail-size.

Most designers are paying a lot of attention to this lately, but just in case they’re not, shrink your cover down to the size it will be on Amazon and see how it looks. Does it pop? Can you read the title? Does it make you want to click?

2. Being overly literal won’t do you any favors.

Kidd addresses this topic in his talk when he tells a story about going to his first graphic design class. The teacher writes the word “apple” on the board, then flashes an image of an apple. He covers up the word and says, pointing to the image, “You can either show this.” Then he shows the word and covers up the image and says, “Or write this.” His message: Do not do both. And yet so many book covers do exactly that. The image in the cover is so “on the nose” that the reader is seeing your title manifested into an image. Avoid directing your designer to do this because you think your reader needs it. They don’t. It underestimates their intelligence.  

3. Avoid too much de- or re-construction in your feedback.

I’ve witnessed many authors, upon being presented with four or five designs, feeling compelled to pick and choose from those various design options to create a composite based on all their favorite elements. This can work sometimes, if you’re swapping a font, for instance. But largely this kind of high-level directing ends up diluting the power of the original design, and the vision of the designer. If you don’t have an eye for composition, consider asking questions of your designer before offering your feedback or direction. Ask them why they made the choices they made, and consider their rationale before you deconstruct or reconstruct.

4. Driving your point home across too many fronts is the kiss of death.

This is similar to being too on the nose, but it’s writing the word “apple,” showing an apple, and then also, for good measure, asking the designer to use big block type with bite marks taken out of each of the letters that spell APPLE. In essence, it’s going too far. And yet many authors love to go too far where book covers are concerned. This stems, I think, from a desire to be clever, but be forewarned. Design elements whose sole purpose is to provide yet another reference to your title or theme is more often overkill than clever.

5. Personal attachment will limit your possibilities.

The most common forms of personal attachment are family photos and artwork done by a friend or family member. Memoirists often want their cover to have a personal image, which is great when it works. But remain objective if you can, and ask your designer for their unbiased opinion. Same goes for artwork from family members. I’ve seen authors so invested in an opportunity to showcase the artwork of a loved one that they forget that the artwork has zero sentimental value to their readers. Include it in the mix maybe, but don’t mandate that a particular piece of art be your only cover direction.

At the end of the day, be grateful if you’re working with a designer who has strong opinions. I often say that I sometimes—not always, thankfully—work to save authors from themselves. At She Writes Press I have the great privilege of working with our incredibly talented and experienced art director, Julie Metz, whose high standards, good instinct, and general savvy about the business have helped inform how I think and talk about covers. It’s important to remember that there’s no one perfect cover for your book, and the thing that matters most is that it evoke an emotion that’s pure and on point with your book.

Tell me about your cover. Were you proud of the outcome? Did you have an easy or a difficult time getting there? Do you have any regrets? Or maybe you’ve received high praise for it? I’d love to hear about it.

 

* This post was originally published in January 2016.

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Comments
  • Romi Grossberg

    I am working on my graphic designer/book cover as we speak (which also means my book is ready, yey!)

    My title is lengthy so the tip about thumbnails was very handy. I will try that now. Thank you

  • Suzanne McKenna Link

    This is the cover or my debut novel - it wasn't exactly what I envisioned but when a co-worker said it showed a couple in conflict, which is the strongest plot of the story, I changed my tune. The only alterations I requested of the cover artist were to switch the background color from the original shade of tan to blue and add in the arm tattoo. The tattoo isn't exactly like the one I describe in the book, but I had to let that one go. I believe the cover is appealing and have received many compliments on it.

  • Leigh Goodison

    Great information, thank you! I'm going to share your column.

    I've gotten a lot of attention with the cover of my recently released medical thriller, The Jigsaw Man. 'Creepy' is the word most people use when they see it.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Kelly, yours continues to be one of my faves!!

  • Kelly Kittel

    I love my cover and I get so much positive feedback about it! In fact, my 16-yr-old son just won a Scholastic Arts and Letters Gold Key Award for a ceramics project he did based on my book cover!

  • Karoline Barrett

    Thank you, Brooke!

  • Suzanne Hoffman

    Thanks Brooke for your kind words. This is my first book, indie published and we're very excited about the traction its getting ahead of release on June 2nd. Printing in Verona, Italy. 

    http://winefamilies.com/2016/01/labor-of-love-piemonte/

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Karoline—I like that. It makes you take a second look! And Suzanne, very compelling and spot on for what your book is. Brava.

  • Lorelei Elstrom

    Here's an info graphic of my own experience with covers.

  • Jill G. Hall

    Brooke, I'm so proud of my book cover. My gratitude goes to you for encouraging me to ship the real black velvet coat, my novel's inspiration, to Julie Metz. Her design is so enchanting and really captures the essence of the novel.   

  • Ellen Sherman

    Like Monica Starkman, I feel really lucky to have had Julie Metz as the cover designer and Brooke Warner as cover consultant for my novel Just the Facts, released in September. When I first signed on with She Writes Press, I already had a cover in hand, which had been designed by my brother, who happens to be a talented artist. But while this was a pretty neat-looking cover, Brooke helped me see that it was so wrong for my novel, which is both poignant and comic, but not dark in mood as the cover suggested. I was thrilled that Julie incorporated some of my ideas for the cover, but she gave it a spin all her own. Months later, I was showing an Advance Reader Copy to a friend at a bar, and the bartender said, "Wow, what a great cover. Can I see that?" I thought my friend might have put him up to it, but this was an honest, unsolicited reaction -- and I've had so many similar ones since!

  • Karoline Barrett

    I'm published by Penguin  and while I initially wasn't crazy about the cover - it was totally not what I envisioned - readers  LOVE it.  Penguin did warm it up a little by changing the color and some other minor details.  The cover of my second book was more what I had in mind and I love that one! The first one is below and it has grown on me! 

  • Roselee Blooston

    What timing! I have been thinking about the cover for my upcoming memoir, as I anticipate meeting with my designer next month. I'm printing out this blogpost. So useful. Thank you.

  • Suzanne Hoffman

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks, Monica, and I love your cover!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks, Linda! And yes, Suzanne. When that happens I'm always so pleased. I find some authors almost distrust that nailing of it on the first time out the gate—but in my experience those are sometimes the best ones. :)

  • Linda Kass

    As always, Brooke, you offer wonderful fundamentals about book cover design and I echo your accolades for Julie Metz. Thanks to your leadership, and to your and Julie's standards and savvy, She Writes Press has a strong reputation of executing high quality cover design for its authors. I loved the process--one that was collaborative and sought the author's vision of the book to inform a creative and beautiful result. I absolutely love the cover for Tasa's Song. The feedback has been terrific.

  • Suzanne Hoffman

    Good tips. And then sometimes you're just so darn lucky to have a designer who nails it on the first round. That's what recently happened to me. I was in the verge of breaking some of those 5 rules you suggested, but my designer took control and what we've ended up with has been incredibly well-received. 

  • Monica Starkman

    What luck I've had in having Julie Metz as my cover designer and Brooke Warner as my publisher for The End of Miracles.  Together, they helped me drop my original working title and choose this current one.  Together, they presented me with five unique and different cover designs,  many of them excellent, and let me choose the one that immediately aroused in me - and hopefully will in prospective book-buyers - that emotional response Brooke talks about above.  When I was uncertain about any of this process,  I told myself that they were the professionals here, not I, and am so glad I put myself in their hands.  Brava to Julie and Brooke.

  • Delia Latham

    Wonderful article! I so agree...and have learned through trial and error that each of your points is totally valid. As a cover designer, I had to learn to stand my ground about certain things, especially when I get an author who wants to take all the samples and turn the cover into a composite of them all. It's important, as a designer, to remember that you're the one who will be credited (or discredited!) by the end result.

  • Hollis Giammatteo

    As an author, it was initially challenging to let go of my concept and image preference, but then I "got" it.  My job is to write as well as I can, and to leave the art to those who know their business.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Great suggestion, Stephanie!

  • Stephanie Bond

    Terrific guidelines!  And I second reading Chip Kidd's books on design--a visual treat and so inspiring.  Also, if your book is traditionally published, take a look at the cover in black and white (print it to your b/w printer) because most print sales catalogs/flyers feature at least some of their covers in b/w.  

  • Irene Allison

    Great guidelines, Brooke! Thank you. Just have to add my two cents too in the discussion about Lene's cover for Beautiful Affliction. I absolutely love that cover, loved it the moment I saw, and still love it! Obviously the Gods, the artist, and some great publishing advice(from Brooke) all conspired into making it amazing! 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    You were great to work with, Lene. All of this is food for thought—not finger-pointing. :)

    And your cover is AMAZING. Love it so much.