It’s A Wrap! Create a really effective cover for your book – Part I

Whether your book is published by an established press or you are doing it yourself, it is important to remember that what the outside of your book looks like is the first introduction many of your readers are going to have to the content, tone and quality of your book. Like it or not, your cover will provide the foundation for all of your marketing efforts. You have spent so much time writing the text; you do not want to reduce its impact by wrapping it in a less-than-impressive cover.

If you are publishing with a traditional press, your contract may not allow you any say in the selection of the cover of your book, although many writers are now requesting that their contracts give them at least some rights in this area (if publishers are expecting writers to do most of the promotion on their own books, they should at least give them a great-looking product that they are excited to hold in their hands and celebrate on their websites, right?).

I recommend that even if you have no legal ground to stand on, if you really dislike a cover that has been designed for your book, you say so. I never liked the cover of my second novel, Bitters, and told the staff at the publishing house how I felt, but they managed to convince me I was wrong. They suggested that I was a writer and not familiar with design elements. I wasn’t wrong – the colours are putrid and the design uninteresting – and I’ve regretted not being more assertive about it ever since.


In the second part of this two-part post, I’m going to interview the acclaimed book-cover designer Jeff Fielder – who created the cover of the newest edition of The Woman Upstairs (it was originally published by NeWest Press and I didn’t own rights to the original cover), and is also doing the cover for my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. He has also created great covers for a number of other writers’ books, not to mention other promo materials such as bookmarks. You can see samples on his website here. Jeff will tell us how to find and work with a book-cover designer.

Before I report on that interview, however, I want to tell you a bit about what I learned about creating book covers when I worked as editor-in-chief at Lone Pine Publishing, and what I have attempted so far in the creation of a cover for my latest novel.

When I went to work at Lone Pine Publishing, my employer and the design and sales staff taught me an important thing or two about book covers:

  1. You want the cover to accurately portray not only the content, but also the tenor and even the complexity of the book itself. As far as content, think about conveying the era, the culture, the milieu the book is set in – not necessarily by portraying these things exactly, but by communicating the sense of them. For example, if your novel is set in early 20th-century Paris, you may not need a street scene that is an exact portrayal of the streets your narrator walks along; a drawing, even abstract, that evokes the same feeling as a rainy lamplit Paris street can have the same, or even greater, impact. If you’ve written a comedy, a somber cover will not suit, and a historical saga should not look like a steampunk novel. As far as stylistic complexity, if your writing emulates that of Feodor Dostoevsky or Ayn Rand, you may not want a cover image of a couple clutched in a passionate embrace à la Harlequin Romance, no matter how passionate your characters may be. Go to a bookstore: either a real one or online, or check out collections of book cover designs like this one. Look at books in the genre and style in which you are writing. Look at their covers for inspiration and guidance and to increase your own awareness: pre-teen novels do not look like detective novels for adults; books on creating effective websites do not look like biographies; westerns do not look like zombie novels.
  2. Design styles change. This can work to your advantage. If your novel is set in the 1950s, check out the original covers of novels published in that time period: emulating them can reinforce the time-frame of your book. The fact that design styles change is also something you should think about if you want your cover to remain effective for the next twenty years: you may not want to get too trendy;
  3. You will need to make choices about the content of the cover design. Are you going to use a photograph on your cover, like this one on a bio by my friend Peter Jonker does? A painting? A drawing? Perhaps a simple colour design with text? Each of these options presents a different message to the viewer and conveys something about the content of the book;
  4. Consider costs. Can you afford to commission an actual work of art for the cover of your book? Can you even afford permission costs to use a work of art already in existence? If you want a photograph, how will you access the one you want? You CANNOT use a photo or piece of art you find on the Internet without seeking permission from the creator and/or his/her estate: it is not only unethical, it is illegal. On the other hand, if you use a free or very cheap stock photo from a do-it-yourself cover-maker page, you may run into your cover illustration on the cover of someone else’s book or other product. But if you create your own photograph or work of art – or use a drawing by your clever seven-year-old – is it going to look sufficiently professional, or merely quaint and home-made?
  5. Did you know that the font you choose for your title, author name, and back cover text, is also communicating a message about the content of your book? Did you know that fonts also go in and out of style: there are quite a few people who actually “hate” comic sans because they’ve seen it in too many PowerPoint presentations, for example, and may be turned away from reading your book just because you used that font on your cover? You many want to investigate any non-classic fonts carefully before using them – unless, of course, the funky font you’ve chosen reinforces the tone of your book;
  6. Visual contrast is crucial to a cover. You want to make sure that people can read the text on the cover of your book. White text on pale gold may look great up close, but it’s almost impossible to see when the cover gets small enough to put on a website, or even on a shelf a few yards away across a bookstore. A very busy cover may also make your title invisible to the reader;
  7. What is your cover going to do to help your sales? Is it going to attract attention when it is reproduced for review on someone’s blog at about 3 cm x 3 cm? If a bookseller puts it in a book stand, is the title still going to show? Will it reproduce well on a poster, a brochure, a postcard, a bookmark or other materials you may choose to create to produce to promote your book?
  8. Remember that a cover is a wrapper for a book. It has three sections: the front, the spine and the back. If you choose different backgrounds for those three elements, what is going to happen to the appearance if the cover is cut a little “off angle” during the production process? Is the artwork for the spine going to actually appear on the spine, or is it going to angle across the spine? It is generally best to use the same predominant colour all the way around the cover so you don’t end up with off-kilter colour where you don’t want it.

These and many other questions should occur to you as you are creating your book cover, which you can do on your own for free with programs offered by self-publishing companies like CreateSpace, or online by Googling such terms as “book cover templates.” I recently read a great suggestion that you can make a jpeg for a book cover using PowerPoint.

You can also hire a cover designer who knows what he or she is doing (which is my preference, and as important to me as hiring an outside editor) or do it yourself. But whatever course you take, make sure you love your book cover and that it is “you,” as much as your writing is.

Fernando Botero, and The Whole Clove DIET Cover

Early in the period during which I was writing The Whole Clove Diet, I saw a painting at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University that opened a whole new world to me. It was by Fernando Botero, a Bolivian artist I’d never heard of at that point, and I immediately identified it with the mood I was working to convey in the novel. The subject of the drawing was a young girl – round, as most of Botero’s subjects are—and she was smoking a cigarette. She looked feisty and assertive, defiant in spite of or perhaps in part because of her shape and her age-inappropriate nicotine-delivering accessory.

As I explored further I learned that the men and women in most of Botero’s paintings and sculptures may be far over a healthy BMI but they seem not to be concerned in the least about that. If they are not flaunting their pudginess, they are at least confident in their bodies and apparently certain of who they are.

Over the years since I have sought out and found many Botero paintings and sculptures to admire both online and in real galleries. I always imagined that when I was ready to publish (I assumed at that point that the world’s major publishers would be begging at my door for The Whole Clove Diet), I would ask my publisher to approach Señor Botero and secure permission to use one of his images for the cover. I had, in fact, chosen several paintings that I would particularly have liked to use.

When I decided to pursue publication on my own, I thought at first that I would need to abandon the idea of using a Botero on my book because I did not have the heft of a publishing company behind me. But then I decided that I should leave no stone unturned, so I began a rather lengthy process of figuring out how to contact the artist. With the help of a friend, I finally figured out who Botero’s representatives were in the United States, and contacted them. They said I could make a proposal to the artist through them, and so I proceeded to carefully prepare a letter to send to them, to send to him. I gave evidence to the artist (I hoped) that I was no first-time writer, that I respected and admired his work tremendously, and that although I could not afford to pay him what it might be worth for this one-time use (which I presume would be in the thousands of dollars), I would be happy to share any amount of the cover price of the book that he might be interested in suggesting. (I would not, of course, have agreed if he’d wanted too much of the cover price!) The owner of the gallery who represented Botero was very helpful, asking for additional information I had not included and even going to all the trouble to buy and read The Woman Upstairs, my first novel.

The pitch was not ultimately successful – Fernando Botero declined to allow me permission to use his art – but I gained from the experience anyway. I acquired a fan in La Jolla California (the gallery owner, who said she liked my book and is looking forward to The Whole Clove Diet. Thank you, Mary Beth Tasende!). And even though I was disappointed that Señor Botero said “No,” I would have been even more disappointed in myself if I had not tried to reach him. I would have wondered forever if he might have said “Yes” if I had just asked. I did the best that I could do, and even though the response was not what I might have wished, at least I have it.

A couple of my friends worried that if I did get permission, some prospective readers might not like Botero’s art, and might therefore not want to buy the book. Who knows? I still love his stuff, and I think that people who love good writing are also those who love good art.

However, the message I am trying to deliver here is that as writers pursuing the new world of “independent publishing,” we need to have some chutzpah. It is no longer enough for us to just write our books. Now we need to clothe them before we send them out in public. We need invest some energy, and maybe even some money, in making our books look as good as we have made them sound.

If you have a book cover you particularly like, tell us about it in the comment and add a link. Show us what you like about it. If it’s your book, tell us why you chose it.

13 responses

  1. Mary,

    This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. When I decided to independently publish my novel (BROKEN LACES), I had a strong commitment to developing a cover that was professional-looking, thematically evocative, and would “fit in” with books by similar authors.

    One of the first things I did was go to a library and pull books off the shelf that reminded me thematically of my novel. I tried to turn off my logical brain and simply choose what “felt” right. After selecting a dozen or so books, I was able to identify some common elements.

    Then I sought out a graphics designer who was not only affordable but hungry–a senior in high school who has since gone on to study graphics design in college. Not only was she eager, she was qualified. We worked closely to execute my vision . . . and she made critical suggestions that improved things.

    Mary, I think you are spot-on with your points. I’m looking forward to reading your part 2 interview with Jeff Fielder, everyone’s fave designer and all-around bon vivant.

    If I could offer one piece of advice to a writer wanting to self-publish (besides polishing that story until it’s perfect), it would be to take great care in developing the cover. Don’t spend 2 hours in Adobe Photoshop and slap something together. Don’t post your rough draft on Facebook and ask for comments (because everyone will BE SO HAPPY FOR YOU AND ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT!!!!). Treat your cover with tremendous respect.

    Please check out the following link, which compares my novel’s cover to many others suggested by Amazon (“Customers who bought Broken Laces also purchased…”), plus the ABNA 2010 winner by James King. I did this comparison well after publishing my novel. Frankly, it’s quite eerie.

    P.S. With more than 10,000 copies of Broken Laces sold, I am confident that my work on the cover has paid off…

    • This is great — both the feedback and the additional advice!! Thank you, Rodney!

      (Also, I really love your cover. Good work!)

  2. Both you and Rodney have great points. The cover is so important and in these times it is a major factor in buyer’s decisions. I love the cover to Honolulu and I found the cover to The English Patient after seeing it in the NY Times Book Review, I bought it. I love my cover too for TREE SOLDIER. I think it sums up the loneliness of the main character and his desire to look forward. It’s also the picture of the real deal.

  3. To me where a lot of people are getting it wrong is in the choice of font. I googled the designer you mentioned and think his covers are let down by the fonts he chooses, particularly the Scarlet Letter ones. Fonts have got their own language and you need somone who is pretty good to interpret them. Make the wrong choice and that lovely picture can be ruined.

    • I agree that fonts are crucial and must be chosen carefully. For the interior text as well as the cover. (Some fonts on the inside just scream out “self-published” to me. The text should basically be invisible to the reader, as far as I’m concerned.) But it’s a stylistic decision. That’s where the art comes in. Not everyone is going to have the same tastes in covers OR fonts — which is why the author should be so involved in decisions about the cover of his or her own book.

  4. I agree that a cover is of utmost importance, rather like the facade of a store.

    My cover was done by Jeff Fielder and I think, because he is also a writer, he really gets how valuable it can be. Here is the link to my book page on Facebook. Unfortunately it’s rather small to see it perfectly but it is absolutely beautiful:

    When I saw the picture of the girl with the rose, I immediately knew she was my young heroine, Louise. She looked just the way I always pictured her. But it wasn’t as simple as that, because I wanted the harbour of La Rochelle, France behind her. My husband said I needed a good graphic artist and fortunately, I knew a great one. Of course, it was our very own Jeff Fielder.

    As I understand the process, the two separate pictures had to be layered and then parts of the first picture cut away in some magical process known only to a graphic artist. As well, the 2nd layer photo had many modern-day trappings in it, such as electrical wires, automobiles, etc. So that also had to be eliminated since the book is set in the 17th century.

    And then with his graphic expertise, he chose what, for my taste, was just the right font and colour for the title and author name; and “voila” I had my perfect cover.

  5. Jeff Fielder did the cover for my novel, Motherless Children, from a photograph I found on the Library of Congress website. The Library of Congress is a great resource for old photographs of American subjects. And many of their photographs are free for public use.

    This photograph of two women alone on a country road conveyed to me a sense of history and mystery that I hope my novel will convey to its readers. Jeff did a great job of cropping the photograph. He did some internal cropping so that the visual elements stand out even in thumbnail size.

    (I hope the link works.)

  6. Great cover, and the link does work!! I am so impressed. I have been trying to put one of those links on WordPress all week — without success.

  7. I say what everyone else says about covers.

    Well, I guess I’d better add something to the discussion or you’ll never let me back in.

    As a new publisher, I’m scared to death that our covers will turn off readers. Yes, we give our authors tons of input into their covers, and we have yet to disagree on the final choice, but that doesn’t mean that all our covers would win prizes. We just hope they help to sell the books.

    The Internet and thumbnails have made the issues of font and focal point even more critical than they used to be because some images and designs end up looking like a mishmash on the Internet – the same designs that would be a real pleasure to hold in one’s hand and savor.

    We think covers are so important, we have a contest to have readers help us choose them. You can enter here: to have a chance at winning a free ebook version of the book. This month it’s Stephen Swartz’s “A Beautiful Chill;” last month it was Kerry Dunn’s “Joe Peace,” which we’re releasing in February. Liz Kales won that contest.

    I’m in love with some of our covers, and not so in love with others, but I’m only one person. We did have an expert (a woman who was art director for a major Canadian publisher for 25 years) look at all of our existing and proposed covers, and she said we were definitely on the right track, but is ‘on the right track’ good enough? Time will tell.

    I’d like to be a little different with our covers. For example, the type of thriller I’ve written personally tends to have a similar type of cover, but the tentative cover for mine (ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL won’t be released until the second half of 2012) isn’t like most of the covers in my genre. Will that make it stand out (or stand out like a sore thumb)? You can see that cover here: (the winning cover for Joe Peace is also on that page.)

    Anyway, we and our authors would love it if you would vote in the Am I FABULOUS? Contest. There’s no place to comment, but if you’d like to, you can send comments via

    And, Jeff, I had no idea you were so talented. Wonderful covers, every one of them.


    • Great info, Sheryl, and great input (as always!) Thank you! I have a thread about this going over on the ABNA boards which you may or may not have seen. I can cut and paste this over there — or you can if you want — as I think some readers there might not see the info about your contest here. (I also started one on authonomy.)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: