Book Cover Design: How to avoid disappointment in the early stages

You’ve hired a designer, you’ve sent them what felt like a butt-load of information and the date is approaching for when you will receive the first concepts. You’re nervous, excited and your expectations are through the roof. You’ve seen the amazing covers on the designer’s website thus you’re expecting one of the concepts that they are about to send is going to be perfect and exactly what you envision. Your email dings and it’s finally here! You open it up, your heart sinks and you go, “What in the world?”

The first cover concepts are rarely perfect, unless you’ve been so precise on your wants and needs that the designer and you are so in tune you don’t have to change a thing. However, designing a cover is all about collaboration between the designer and the author, even if you’re allowing the designer to take the lead.

Here are some common things that lead to disappointment, lack of confidence along with other not very happy feelings and how to prepare for them.

Your expectations are too high

It is usually one of two scenarios:

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Book Cover Design: Does the author know better than the designer?

In traditional publishing, authors have zero to some say in their cover design. There’s a team of highly skilled designers who make the decisions on what the book cover will look like. If the author loves, it great! If the author hates it, well, that’s too bad because they’re designing a cover that will have the greatest potential of selling, so to them, does it matter if the author loves it? All that matters is if it sells.

However, with self-publishing authors now have a say in everything. Self-publishing authors wear so many hats – writer, editor, proofreader, promoter, designer – and even when they hire people to edit their book and design their cover, they still get the final say. It’s an amazing opportunity that the author gets to make all the decisions – but does that make them the best fit for every job?

Authors are experts at writing

You know the ins and outs of writing and how to be a storyteller. Therefore, you know your story better than anyone else – but that’s the catch. You know your story and characters so intimately, that it’s hard for you to break down your book into a simple, visual message since you’re use to focusing on details. So you may not be the best judge for your cover because you’re going to be stuck on the detail.

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Book Cover Design: Simplicity is Key

Writers are great at, well, writing. No matter how talented the author’s literary skills are, most are writers and not designers. As a writer, you’re focused on details, whereas designers need to focus on a simplistic image that will capture a reader’s attention and convince them to pick up, or click on a book.

Some authors may not realize, especially new authors, that a book cover can make or break your book sales. You have roughly 3 seconds to capture a readers attention – if a cover is too detailed/busy/etc. readers are just going to scroll on by because they are looking for something interesting. When most people think of the word ‘interesting’ they think that to be interesting you have to include a variety of things, because there’s no way just one or two images can be interesting. Right?

Wrong. Look at some of the bestsellers in the past few years.

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What makes an effective book cover design?

Establish a main focus for your cover

Every book has a story, and you want your cover to reflect that one idea clearly .
There should be that one element of the design that takes control of the cover and demands your focus.

Effective Cover
Joel Friedlander has a great analogy:

“You could think of your book cover like a billboard, trying to catch the attention of browsers as they speed by. Billboards usually have 6 words or less. You have to “get it” at 60 miles per hour, in 3 to 5 seconds. “

This is exactly what needs to happen with your book cover. Readers should be able to tell at a glance:

  • Your genre
  • The general idea of your story
  • Sense the tone of the book
  • Spark an emotion (love, fear, sadness, curiosity, etc)

A romance novel will have a different tone than a mystery novel, and a nonfiction book cover should appeal to your brain instead of an emotion.

Legibility of the title

This is still a highly debated aspect of a cover design. Some professionals say that you have to be able to read the title at thumbnail size, and others say it’s not necessary. Some say it’s not necessary because Amazon (and other online retailers) displays your title right next to the thumbnail of the cover so if the reader really wants to know the title, they can read it there. However, it never hurts to make sure the title is readable at thumbnail size because when you run ads for promotions, you want people to be able to read the title.

Keep it simple

This ties back to the first point made but a busy cover can look amateurish and can actually turn readers off from wanting to look at your book. An author may see the cover as a masterpiece because the hero, his best friend, the space ship, the mountains and the dog are all represented on the cover. But not one thing stands out so all a reader sees scrolling by is a busy cover because they can’t make out what is happening or what the story is about within those 2-3 seconds. Remember, you design a cover based on grabbing your readers attention. They are the ones who are going to buy your book.

Don’t go overboard on fonts and colors

The general rule of thumb is 2-3 fonts maximum. The whole design has to work as one and this includes the font choices. Typically, the title is one font style and the author name is another. Try to steer clear of using two serif fonts or two sans-serif fonts. They typically don’t compliment each other and can make a design look amateurish.

Limiting your colors can also be beneficial, unless you have a specific (and logical) reason to use the entire rainbow. There are quite a few color palette pickers online to help you choose colors if you’re not sure where to start. Another good idea is to research what different colors represent. I am constantly referring back to the color book I own: Color – Messages & Meanings: A PANTONE Color Resource by Leatrice Eiseman. I’m sure there are other great books but I’ve found this one quite helpful.

Make sure images have a purpose

If you’re going to include an image on your cover, make sure it communicates something to the reader about your story. If the image doesn’t tell a reader something related to the main image, then maybe it’s not worth having on there.

A professional book cover designer should already know these, but the more the author and book cover designer can be on the same page, the better the cover design will be in the end.

ISBN 101 for Authors

More often than not, the authors I work with have questions about the purpose, use and how to purchase an International Book Standard Number (ISBN). I’ve found that many authors confuse the ISBN with the Bookland EAN barcode that goes on the back cover of printed books, thinking they are the same thing. They are also confused about whether they need to buy their own ISBN or if they should just use the free ISBN that some print-on-demand companies offer. If you fall into any of the these categories of confusion, I’m here to help.

About the ISBN

The ISBN became an international standard in the 1970s to solve the issue of it being difficult to locate a particular book since titles and author names can overlap. It allows each version of a published book to have its own unique identifier making it easier to track. The information associated with your ISBN includes your title, author name / publisher name, price and more.

Who needs an ISBN?

If you plan to publish and sell your book through any retail channels, you will need an ISBN.

You don’t need an ISBN if you are planning to create the book for private use only. This could include:

  • Personal publications: ex) recipes, family history, photo book
  • Workbooks for seminars or presentations
  • Training manuals, handbooks or other material for internal use within a company
  • Books or materials that are only intended as incentives or for giveaways

However, if you plan to eventually publish it for commercial use, you’ll need an ISBN at that time.

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Copyright Page

There have been times where I’ve received a book to format and the author hasn’t included a copyright page. I always add in a very minimal one at that point, but it makes me wonder how many other authors just don’t include one.

Elements of a copyright page for U.S. authors

There are only two elements that are required for a copyright page.

  1. The copyright statement.
    Copyright © 2015 by (Author Name)
  2. All rights reserved.  Which it can be as simple as just that statement. However there is additional information that can be added like the example below.

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Picking Your Trim Size

Book sizes in printing terms are called trim sizes. In the last stage of production a book is trimmed, which is how it gets its name. There isn’t a set size that you should choose, but there are a few things to take into consideration when picking your trim size.

Most authors will be using a print-on-demand service like CreateSpace or IngramSpark. Both have a large list of trim sizes to choose from. So, how do you know which one to choose?

First, break it down based on what type of book you have written. Then look at your word count and determine how many pages your book might be*. Once you know that, look at the cost of producing the different sized books and make your decision from there. Also, take into account the page color, as that can limit your selection as well.

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Pagination Styles (Widows & Orphans)

There are two groups out there when it comes to pagination style, so you’ll have to decide which group you fall into. There’s the “squared-off pages” group and the “no widows or orphans” group. Let me explain the difference.

Image 1
Image 1

Through the years, different generations have learned alternative definitions of the word “widow” and “orphan”.
Here’s how I learned it:
A widow, is a lonely line at the very bottom of the page. It’s when only one more line will fit at the bottom and that line is the start of a new paragraph.
An orphan, is a lonely line at the very top of the page where the paragraph ends.

(Image 1 depicts these two instances)

Now, other generations learned the opposite meanings. So for some, a widow is at the top of a page, and an orphan is at the bottom. Regardless of how you learned it, the information below is still the same. For this, we will use the words as defined above.

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Paragraphing Style

There are two types of paragraphing styles used in the book industry and I often see them misused. Now, you may be wondering what is a paragraphing style? Writers organize their books into parts, chapters, sections, and then into paragraphs. Paragraphs have become a standard way for writers to organize their ideas into a book or story. When there is a new paragraph, it breaks the flow and sends an important signal to the reader. This is the author letting the reader know that a new thought or change is happening and by using a new paragraph you’re sending that subtle signal. Readers barely notice this interruption since they’re familiar with the conventions of written language.

These are the two basic ways to signal a new paragraph:

  1. You indent the first line of the paragraph. This indent is typically about .25″ and gives a clear, visual signal that a new paragraph has started.
  2. You add space between each paragraph. The width is typically a line space, which is the same amount of space between one line in the paragraph and the next. With this style, it appears that there is a blank line between each paragraph, which is the signal.

The second method is due to the internet where this is utilized all the time. For instance, I’m utilizing it right now. However, reading on screen is very different than reading a printed book. Having the extra line space on screen makes it a smoother read, however in a printed book it’s more of a disruption and doesn’t aid in continuous reading. Not to mention that there are times writers use a line space or paragraph break to indicate a scene change, point-of-view change, or different theme within the chapter. Therefore, it’s best for the readers if you stick with the “indented paragraph” style.

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Headers and Footers

Headers and footers are often overlooked, yet play an important role in book design. They are the area above and below the main body of text that contain the page numbers along with other information. The official term for the text in the header is “running head” and the footer is “running feet”.

The running head usually contains the book title on one page, and then the author name on the opposite page. Typically, the author’s name is on the left page, and the book title is on the right page. Depending on your book, you can choose from different options for the running heads, which I’ve listed below.  Your running head can be located on the outside corners of each page, or the center of each page. I don’t recommend positioning them on the inside of each page as it can make them harder to read and a distraction. More advanced running heads can get away with it – for example, if you have information all the way across – but for your typical fiction novel, it’s best to stick with the outside corners or the center.

Page numbers can be located in either the header or the footer. The classic style is to have the page number centered in the footer, and then the author name/book title centered in the header. But, there are many different combinations that you can do. I recommend picking up a few of your favorite books and seeing how they treat their running heads and feet.

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