I have been a professional graphic designer for more years than I can now remember and have designed more things than I care to name (but will): T-shirts, CD covers, packaging, Ebay listings, websites, flyers, posters, letterheads, signage … the list goes on. But strangely enough, until I decided to put some of my own stories on Amazon through KDP, no book covers.
Through my lurking on the KDP Forums, and checking out the competition in the last 4 month, I’ve seen hundreds of terrible, hideous, trashy, horrid, nasty, vomit-inducing book covers that break every rule of good design.
Boy these people must really love losing potential readers, I thought to myself at first.
But then more kindly, thought: well they probably don’t know about design.
So rather than being a Mr-Know-It-All, I figure it’s about time I sat down and put some of my thoughts down to help out my fellow writers.
My tips are by no means exhaustive and like any art form, design can be a rather subjective subject. So please respectfully disagree – comments very welcome.
But before we begin, let us talk about what design should be, this is easily summed up in one word: functional. So what functions should a Kindle book cover fulfil?
- In the traditional sense, it should stand-out on the book store’s shelf saying to the potential reader, “Take me down and have a look inside of me.”
- It should set the mood for the story (the Vintage Murakami Covers a perfect example).
- Establish a brand (if part of a series).
- Show that there is a high-level of quality in the writing. If a cover is poor then the potential reader will not have high hopes for the writing.
1. Photos: Set The Mood and Don’t Be Literal
The worlds of the visual arts and the written word collide on a book cover, and this is the first real big problem we run in to. If we are talking about fiction, the reader dreams the world in their head from the words the writer has put down on the page. The moment you put something too literal on the cover you run into the problem of the reader having that image in their head.
It spoils the glorious affect reading gives us.
If you have selected an image that simply tells us what a character or a place looks like you have made a mistake. You might say to yourself – but the photo I have found looks exactly how I see the characters in my head – can I not use it?
Well, I’m sorry, no you can’t, that’s rude – you’re taking away the reader’s imagination from them.
Literal pictures should be avoided at all costs. So, you want to use a photo, but don’t want to be literal – what can you do? It’s simple use an image to set the mood. Make it abstract. Take a step sideways – as a writer you should already have these skills in your toolbox – the simile and the metaphor. Use these to come up with a good metaphoric or abstracted idea for your cover.
The above example is a Noir Pulp thriller I’ve made up called Kidnap! Avoid the obvious: if we have a victim on the cover, we’re seeing what she looks like before we’ve even discussed her in the book, we’ve given the game away; likewise, if we have a Private Detective on there, we’re saying, he looks exactly like that (it’s lazy, it’s as bad as Dan Brown saying the hero in The Da Vinci Code looks a bit like Indiana Jones – before anyone tells me out there that yes he did say that in the novel – I know).
So in this instance I have abstracted the concept of the hard drinking PI – and thought something ominous and dark that fits – right, whisky moodily lit. That image took all of 5 minutes to find on iStock. It works, it’s simple strong and gives a flavour of the story.
Here are some more examples, I quickly knocked up, of imaginary covers that set the mood. Each gives a feeling for what the book will be like rather than telling you out-right.
2. Photos: Avoid Stocky Stock
I don’t know how I can explain this well to none-designers. But there are some images out there which just have the feeling of stock images. The top right example above might be one, something that everyone would think is cool and is used over and over again – because it’s so obvious.
As well as the written cliché, there is the visual cliché.
As a good example there’s a famous case of a stock image that has been used for so many different album covers it’s untrue – yes it’s a nice image – but when you find certain images you know they’re going to be re-used. I think we should leave the explanation of this particular no-no to another designer I admire – he’s very eloquent on the subject of avoiding stock clichés.
3. Photos: Pay For What Works
If you don’t have permission to use a photo or you don’t know who owns it, then chances are you can’t use it. Would you want someone stealing your writing? You need to show the same respect to your fellow artists; the photographers. Having said that, there are free places out there to get photos but you will end up getting what you pay for: poor images.
If you’re selling more – you’ve really designed yourself a good cover and written yourself a good book.
Free Site: Stock.Exchange
4. Photos: Don’t Create Composites
Unless you are master with Photoshop (or it’s free equivalent GIMP), then I would steer well clear of this technique. Photos are lit from different angles, have different colour saturations and styles.
Let me tell you what lots of images put together on a single cover will look like: like you have cut pictures from different magazines and glued them onto a piece of paper – and unless the theme of your book is Scrapbooking, it will look amateurish and denigrate the quality of the masterpiece you have written.
Is your novel a jumble of styles? Does it skip around in tense? Have you just thrown words down randomly? No, I thought not. So don’t do it on the cover because otherwise that’s the message you’re sending out.
Another thing you need to consider is the more complex your image is the harder it will be make out on the thumbnail.
One great image is more powerful than 5 different competing ones that you think encapsulates your book.
5. Avoid Home-made Drawings
There are very few people that are as talented at drawing as they are at writing but there is a temptation to want to write, act-in, direct and compose the music for your own film; and say to yourself – I can paint an amazing cover, sitting down with some water colours then scan your creation and use that. Or worse get your friend who is just “brilliant at drawing” to draw a picture of the main character or a scene.
This too is a no-no.
You might think it gives it a personal feel. But that’s just what it will feel like, some sort of craft-circle vibe. People are judgemental; they won’t even bother looking at your writing if they feel the cover is poorly drawn by an amateur.
So what if you do want a drawing rather than an photo, it’s not a problem, those stock sites I listed above have illustrations as well – all quality controlled. Pay a few dollars and get something professional that fits.
Here are some examples I quickly knocked up using stock drawings:
6. Layout: Colours
Here’s were we run into big problems. It’s very hard for me to teach you how to use colour well. It’s something that you feel, it’s something that you need to experiment with with over and over again to get colours to gel well together.
I’ve been designing for more than 20 years and I still only just feel I’m getting to grips with it.
My advice here would be to use a some software that allows you to change the colour on-the-fly as you’re designing your cover. I personally use Xara Xtreme Pro Version 4 – which is a vector application from years and years ago – to design. It’s just what I’m used to.
But the simplified advice I would give is this:
- If you use something bold have something that contrasts.
- Don’t use more than 3 colours.
- Avoid primary colours you find on MS Paint (full blue, full red, full green).
- Mix your own colours yourself – shades of strong colours.
- Find out what colours work by testing testing and testing again. Try different combinations next to each other to see what works.
- Google ‘Beautiful Colour Palettes‘ ‘Colours That Work Well Together‘ or something similar.
I’ve been working on my own covers for my short stories and they’re from all around the world, so I have a starting point for my palettes because I am using a colour for the flags of each country. But then I want something bold and attractive that stands out. They might look simple but I can spend anything up to a hour fine tuning the colour on one cover, so it really looks good and works for me.
7. Layout: Don’t Be Afraid of Space
Like colour, when it comes to designing layout, it’s a lot of trial and error until something just looks right to you – looks balanced. But one of the main problems that I’ve seen a lot with covers I’ve come across is that people think because it’s going to be a thumbnail it must fill the whole of the canvas.
With design what happens is, the eye is naturally drawn around what it is seeing; all the elements compete for priority. The best way for a design to work is to give the elements lots of space to breath.
It’s no different to writing – if you put in too many complicated words or adjectives in the same sentence, or too many elements into a metaphor or simile it becomes confusing. Good writing is balanced by space. So is design.
On the design below, the right design is the final design design, but a designer worried about using all the space might do something similar to the left or middle. I’ll let you make up you mind which has the most style and sets the best mood for a short story.
8. Type: Use Commercial Fonts
There is a temptation to use a font that “looks cool” downloaded from somewhere like Da Font, like a nice horror style font for your vampire book. As well as fitting into the “no-no” of being too literal, the greater consideration is the quality of the tools you’re using: free home-made fonts are usually designed very badly themselves – not weighted properly, illegible at small sizes (think about the thumbnail), not kerned or spaced properly. I would avoid them at all costs.
Always go for something classical, clean and easy to read. It makes all the difference. You might think the two first options, in this speedily put together example below, look cool! But if you can’t read the title straight away they’re not functional – as design they don’t work: design should always be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.
But I don’t want to pay for fonts – I hear you cry. No problem, there are some commercial fonts that foundries will give away for free – modern, clean, well designed. And Free. The Posts on Smashing are fantastic – some really excellent stuff there:
9. Type: Don’t Be Afraid of Typesetting Only
“Do I have to have a picture on your cover?” This is a questions none of your have probably thought of asking. That would just be boring wouldn’t it. What no picture?! Think again. If something is typeset nicely it can just be effective as good design. And can be powerful and arresting.
For book covers, a little voice in my head says, “CL this is the best option because it says – this book is about words.” How more conceptually correct can you get? It all comes down to selecting the right colours, using the right fonts, and spacing them nicely (my top tip is learn about kerning).
The examples below are typeset covers I found on the Book Cover Archive that I liked:
10. Type: Using 3D Effects & Drop Shadows
If you look on the above examples, you’ll see that none of them have 3D Effects, Drop Shadows or any other special effects on them to make them look “cool”. There’s a very good reason for this, you might think 3D Effects and Drop Shadows make your text stand out – but this isn’t the case, it actually makes the design more complex – harder for the eye to understand.
If you want your text to jump off the page then pick the right colours and a nice clear font. If you are using gimmicks to try and make your design sing because it’s not standing out then it’s more likely a problem with your colours or font. Go back to the drawing board and pick new ones. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.
11. Type: Size & Placement
There are no hard and fast rules about where you should put your text and what should be given more prominence. But I would say this, to make a memorable or engaging cover – your name, the name of the author doesn’t have to be in massive letters on the front covers, as I see a lot.
You might say – yes, but I want people to remember my name.
People will remember your name from becoming famous for your writing, not for your name itself. In a way, the bigger the name, if you’re not well established, the more egotistical and desperate to be famous, it makes your look. It might work for James Patterson or Dan Brown or Ben Elton when they’re all vying for attention in an airport book store.
Likewise, is the novel title that important? Not necessarily so. It’s all about what you want to say with your cover. And I would take it back to that simple mantra – the most important thing is to set the mood – so someone gets a feeling for the writing and entices them to ‘Look Inside’ or click ‘Buy’. Does your name massive on the cover do this if you’re not famous? I think not.
12. Take Inspiration From The Past
Like all good artists – whether they are graphics designer, painter, musicians or writers – we will steal a little inspiration from elsewhere. We are affected by other people’s work we enjoy. To this end there’s nothing wrong with finding a style you like and coming up with something similar.
The only thing you need to make sure of is that you’re not just lifting their images and taking their design wholesale. So people confuse the two covers and your run into copyright issues.
The links below are a great starting points to see some of the best cover out there. The really “amazing site” has links at the bottom of the page to yet more great sites with covers on them.
13. Remember: Keep It Simple
As a final point here, I would say this, the strongest point I can make is this – good design is simple, or based on a simple concept – it’s more relevant than on Amazon because you have small images in the thumbnails, lots of products vying for attention and lots of messy, badly designed covers – so keep it simple and clean and your cover will shine like a diamond in the junk yard of mess. But only if you follow the points covered above.
And if all else fails … 14. Get a Professional In
You can have all the tools at your disposal: good fonts, the time to mess about with colours and spacing, bought the perfect mood-setting image but still come up short on your design and it might not look right.
This is because you’re not a designer.
You’re a writer. You’ve perfected your own craft – maybe over years and years.
It’s no different with graphic designers – they’ve worked long and hard to get to the point where they’re at: collected ideas in their head, always thinking visually; paid thousands for fonts over the years; developed a perfect eye for what looks right.
There are plenty of good designers out there. Picking the right one could be difficult. But I would proffer this as a piece of advice: If you are going to shell out for a nice cover for your little baby make sure they ask you the right questions.
What a good designer should be asking:
- What feeling are you trying to get across in the book (name three emotions you’d describe your books as)?
- Is there an item or concept that is thematic in the piece?
- What sort of colours do you see the book as?
- Are their any great covers from books you have seen that you like?
- If your book was a famous film what would it be?
A good designer will always confidently ask the right questions before starting work because otherwise they’re wasting their time and yours.
Is it worth paying $100 or $500 for good cover design?
Well that’s all down to you. If you think your book is good enough and it would double your sales because it’s eye-catching and makes your look professional – you have to ask yourself if you’re going to sell more than a hundred or a thousand copies of your book. If not, it’s just vanity to pay someone to design a cover.
But on the other hand, if you are selling lots of books with a bad cover, then chances are the right cover will allow lost potential readers, who have been put off before, to judge a book by its cover and make a purchase because they see quality from the get go.
My offering …
My commissioned work starts at $200 and you can find all the details here Commissions or if you are running to a smaller budget why not try my pre-made covers, there are thousands to choose from and they start at $45 … you’ll find them here Pre-made Book Covers.