In Part II of this mini-series of blog posts about book covers, I talk to my friend and colleague J. Allen (Jeff) Fielder about how writers can ensure that their covers attract readers to their books. Jeff is a graphic designer who has created covers for several independently published authors in the past few years, along with a number of other related products such as bookmarks and web graphics. He is employed full time as a graphic artist, and is also a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a photographer. His own second book – and first book of fiction – a collection of short stories entitled Voices of the Field, is currently in production. Check out some samples of his covers and info about him on his website: JAllenFielder.com
MWW: So, is it true that “You can’t judge a book by its cover?”
JAF: It’s completely untrue. You can judge a book by its cover—and people do it all the time, probably even more so in the digital age. Today, what your book looks like on a screen at about 1 inch by 1.5 inches can be the tipping point between whether someone clicks on it to read more, or just keeps scrolling.
MWW: Aside from being interesting to look at, what else does a good cover do?
JAF: Every genre has its own expectations about what a good cover looks like. Black and minimal is the style, for example, in young-adult urban fantasy, colorful and cartoony for feel-good adult fiction. A designer can help guide you through what your cover should look like, based on its tone, content and target audience. But there has to be more to it than just looking good: the cover has to look good up close as well. The covers of many self-published books I’ve seen have no depth to them. They are flat text on flat photos. That sends a message to the reader: if the cover is flat without depth, the book probably is, too. The designer has the experience that helps you to overcome issues like that which you might not even be aware of.
MWW: Okay, so clearly we can’t afford to go with something we whipped up in PowerPoint. But authors are often afraid that they can’t afford a cover designer. How much do you people charge, anyway?
JAF: Be ready to spend $200 to $500 on a good cover. You can probably get by with cheaper, but just like buying at a dollar store, you’re probably going to get what you paid for. You can find hungry designers in high school and college, but will they know how to work with vendors? Will they know how to set up bleeds, and trims, and the format types each vendor requires? Will your designer spend more time trying to figure out how to set the file up than actually designing?
MWW: Tell me about the process that a designer goes through when creating the cover of a book.
JAF: In my case, first I have to understand the book, either by reading the manuscript, or getting a detailed brief. Then I need time alone, maybe even a few weeks, to go over ideas, before I involve the author. I might spend days upon days going through stock-photo sites, or thinking about how I can shoot a photograph myself – evaluating whether a photo is even the right approach. After that, there’s constant dialogue with the author. I ask them questions about their tastes: “Do you like minimalist art? A particular text? What other book covers do you like?” Together we explore color palettes, and font treatments, and theme. In short, there’s a lot more than just going to a photography website, typing a key word or two, finding an image that appeals to you, and slapping Comic Sans on it.
MWW: You can’t just go to a website, find a photo and use it on your book anyway, can you?
MWW: Sometimes you can’t get the image you want at all – as I recounted in Part I of this cover series, I ran into that with my efforts to get a Botero on my cover.
JAF: Or it might just not be worth it. One writer I was working with found a shot he really liked for his cover from a professional photographer. I contacted the photographer, hoping to work out a deal to license the image for the book. She wanted $500 to use the photograph, and $2,000 to buy the full rights. The $500 would have included the first 1,000 copies, and then the contract would have a continued life where every 100 copies after that would include royalties ($200). There’s no way the writer could ever have recouped that cost: it was probably more than the royalties he would make on his own book.
MWW: What advice do you give writers on how to work with a designer to get the best cover possible?
JAF: A good relationship with your designer should be one where there’s back-and-forth and understanding. A designer shouldn’t dictate, but neither should the writer. As a writer, you need to be able to bring ideas to the table, know what you want, and be able to express yourself. But you also need to have an open mind and be flexible. If either side lays down the law and won’t budge, you’re probably going to get poor results. Ultimately, you might get what you want and find out it’s not what your readers wanted. Your cover shouldn’t be about ego: your cover should help sell your book.
MWW: Obviously, choosing the right designer is almost as important as choosing the right cover.
JAF: You have to be able to trust your designer to take care of you. A good designer is not only going to give you the cover you want, but will know how to make it usable for all of your needs. Today, you may just want a great cover design so that you can sell the electronic version of your book, but when the time comes that you want to produce a paperback, a single front cover that can’t continue the theme to the spine or back flap isn’t going to do you any good. You need to be sure that your designer will set up the file so it can print large scale as well as small. Electronic images might look good at one inch by one inch, but if you go big and your cover wasn’t designed for it, you might have to start all over.
MWW: Thanks, Jeff. The ball’s in your court with the cover of my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. I am looking forward to seeing what you (we) come up with!
* * * * *
Note to writers/independent publishers from Mary the Editor aka The Book Charmer: The text that goes on the back cover of your paperback version of your book is also critical. Go to a bookstore and pick up lots of books and really look at the elements on the back cover. What do you want? An author bio? An author photo? Quotes from pre-publication reviewers/readers of your manuscript? Reviews of one of your previous books? A brief summary of plot that gets the reader hooked?
Don’t try to include all of these components on your back cover – you don’t want the text too dense. And make sure you get your cover proofread: one of the first books I supervised through production as editor in chief at Lone Pine came out with the name of a government minister (who later went on to become prime minister!) spelled wrong on the back cover. And in those days, you were stuck with selling an entire print run before you could fix the error. Ever since then I triple check the text on the cover, and get someone else to take a look as well.
Once you have the text prepared, your cover designer will be able to help you compose a back cover layout that complements the design of the front cover and the spine. For a great example of this, check out the layout (and the design!) Jeff created for John A. Aragon’s first novel: Billy The Kid’s Last Ride
(Sunstone Press). The images on the cover are from John’s “Last Ride” mural in Santa Fe.
Excellent column, and I’m very impressed by Jeff’s cover. I’d love to see more!
Thanks, Alison! Jeff has some of his other book covers on his website, on this page (scroll down)
And btw, I’ve always liked the cover on your book. (I see it’s changed, but I like the new one too!)
Good advice, Jeff–and I know you know what you’re talking about!
Wonderful interview with a great guy, Mary. Jeff is really special to work with really cares about the writer’s thoughts on the matter.
Great post. Good sense and lots of useful advice. Would recommend this to anyone considering how to put their book’s best foot forward.
@Liz, I know this post is really geared toward authors and working with a designer, but if there are designers reading this I’d like to share one thing I’ve learned: The author is always right. A designer may have ideas on what a cover should look like, but ultimately it’s the what the client wants, not what the designer wants. There has to be back and forth, but in the end, you have to give the client what s/he wants. There are some covers and projects in my catalog that I would have done differently, or didn’t go in the direction I would have preferred, but if the client is happy . . .
I’ve often said: The client’s check is bigger than my ego.
Oh, great interview! Who knew Jeff knew so much… er…. Seriously though–the cost isn’t as bad as I’ve sometimes feared. My only ‘in press’ book is with a big traditional publisher, so I hadn’t investigated, but I was thinking more in the $1000-$1500 ballpark. This seems quite reasonable.
Excellent news, Hart. I hope the “traditional publisher” route works out better for you than it has for many of us.