How to write a book · Life Form 3 · self-publishing · The writing business

How to get a great cover design – when you don’t know what it should be

181657829_582f3b7158Your novel’s cover is make or break, especially if you’re an indie. Whether you do your own art or use a designer, you have to know your book’s market and what will grab the right readers.

I tweeted two posts this week where indie authors wrote about working with cover designers – one by Andrew Kaufman at Crime Fiction Collective and the other by Terry Odell at Blood-Red Pencil.

They talk about an exciting two-way process where they discuss images and typographical treatments. But you can’t direct a designer unless you know what your cover should say. And that’s my problem with Life Form Three, which I’ve decided I’ll publish later this year. Perhaps it’s yours too, especially if you have a novel you’re told is too original and doesn’t fit a genre. This is how I’ve solved it.

I decided to do market research. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful.

What I did

I picked an emblematic scene from the book and roughed out a cover to illustrate it. I sent it to friends, who I figured might like the book but in different ways. I included a few hyper-critical writers too, because I knew they would give me the truth.

I also found I got more honest critical comment when I asked friends to show the cover to their spouses and report back. If the spouse didn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, they were far more brutal.

nynfiller2The questions I asked

I didn’t ask: ‘do you like this cover’. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you anything. Instead my questions were: What is this book about? What does it say to you? (They’ll tell you anyway whether they like it.)

Do they already know anything about Life Form Three? No – and that’s the point. They are interpreters telling me what I’ve just said in a language I don’t yet speak. I thanked them for their feedback and explained that I wasn’t going to tell them whether their responses were on the right track or not in case I needed to use them again.

And repeat

I repeated the experiment with another rough cover in a very different style, and gathered another bunch of useful responses. I added more guinea pigs who hadn’t seen the previous version.

What did it cost?

Nothing, except time researching images (which was considerable – so start well in advance). The pictures for the first cover were roughs from photo libraries, which they’ll let you download free to make dummy designs. The second cover was a detail from a painting I knew I could license. I can’t show you either of them here because I don’t have the reproduction rights. (Also, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – my jurors have been sworn to secrecy!)

Did it work?

Totally. I was very surprised by some of the responses – and that showed how much I needed their feedback. And this brings me to another point. Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next. With both trial covers, I thought I was onto a good concept. When I tested them, I discovered flaws I couldn’t have thought of.

But after these two exercises, I have clarity. Even though neither cover was right, I know what the real thing should say and I can brief a designer. (And my guinea pigs are still in suspense…)

The brief

What kind of brief do you need to provide? A designer won’t have time to read your book. Send a synopsis that captures not just the events but gives a flavour of the storytelling style. Also list the target audience including age group, imagery and themes that might be of special significance or scenes that could carry the spirit of the whole work. Also explain why you chose the title, as the art should enhance it or create intriguing tension. And let the designer know if you want to leave room for blurb quotes and loglines.

Do it early

I’m not going to publish Life Form Three until at least autumn, but I need the cover  in advance because that will set the tone for everything else. The blurb and any publicity materials will be created to make sense of it. So it’s essential that the book’s outside is faithful to the inside.

Footnote: how the other half lives

Funnily enough, as I’ve been moving mountains for the right cover, a traditionally published friend is having a very different experience. I know indies are probably past the stage where we have to stress that our production processes are up to professional standards, but this left me reeling.

Out of the blue my author friend was sent a cover by the art director. He hadn’t been consulted about it. It would be worth getting his input too, as he’s been a bestselling children’s author for more than a decade and knows what covers have sold well to his readership. He tells me that when he signed the contract he emailed the art director and offered to send briefing notes, but was curtly told: ‘We don’t need your notes. We know what we’re doing’.

So did they? No. The cover they designed was catastrophically inappropriate. They didn’t ask about the the age group, so they made it look too juvenile. While the book’s  competitors have slick images that look like computer games, this cover featured big typography (ie it was cheaper than proper art) and thumbnail graphics. Even the font gave the wrong messages – it suggested the setting was the wild west, whereas the book is set in ancient Persia. Now the author is locked in a dispiriting argument with the publisher about a cover he knows will be a disaster.

You know what? I’m glad I have control of my cover.

How have you decided what to put on the cover of your novel? How have you made sure it sends the right signals? Have you changed a cover so that it could find its true audience?

 Thanks for the pic Danorth1 

(I haven’t finished with covers yet. I may need jurors for Life Form Three Version 3. If you’d like to be one of the secret clan, email me or sign up to my newsletter)

27 thoughts on “How to get a great cover design – when you don’t know what it should be

  1. Fascinating…and very tricky. Good luck as you hone your cover! Gosh, I choose books by covers all the time (ahem, some end up better than the stories, IMO), and I groan at your relating of your friend’s ill-designed cover. That’s horrible! I hope he can make some headway for a change there…

    1. Thanks, Carol. We do choose books by cover. Even if the final decision is based on reading the sample, the chances are the cover did a lot of introductory work. My friend is hoping the publisher will change their mind, but it doesn’t help that the art director now sees it as a turf war. Insane.

  2. Great blog!!!
    I have found the perfect cover for my book, wbut it happens to be a photograph taken by a company. I have permission from the person in the photo but do I need permission from the photography place? Thanks

  3. Part of the reason I want to go with a small press for my novel, rather than self-publishing, is that I want their insight for a cover because I don’t really know what I want – but I want to have input into the process as well. I love your idea of beta-testing with people who haven’t read the book; I’ll definitely keep that in mind for future projects. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, ED! Yes, a small press will help you make these decisions – and that’s one of the good points of being traditionally published. You do have to hope that they give your book the right care and attention, though…
      As for my focus groups, one of the reasons that worked was that I’m secretive about the novel I’m working on. It’s usually because I can’t think how to even describe the book to them, so I just stay mysteriously quiet. It turned out to be an advantage when I needed help with the cover.

    1. Exactly. My agent was seeing if he could get a publisher for Life Form Three, but one of the things I was worried about was the kind of cover a publisher might put on it if they didn’t want to take time and care. I’m very happy to have such an important decision totally in my own hands.

      1. I also love not having my ideas watered down. I invested in an editor and I really can’t see what real benefit I’d gain from handing over all control to a publisher.

  4. I love this: “Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next.”

    That quote goes right alongside W. Somerset Maugham’s, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”

    I too based my book cover on a scene from the book. After my designer gave me a prototype, I posted it on for criticism and got plenty. Most of the advice was from other book designers who had suggestions on how to tweak the image, but I also got reactions relating to how well the cover indicated genre and tone.

    The final cover was definitely improved by the tweaks we made in response to the feedback. Also, I wanted the cover to say “magical fantasy,” and apparently it does.

    1. Hi Daniel! Did you mention a while ago that you asked for reader responses? Perhaps that’s where I got the idea.
      You’re right that designers will tell you the technical tweaks. While that’s useful, it’s also not the most difficult question. We really need to know what the cover says.
      Love that Maugham quote. Love Maugham anyway 🙂

  5. I imagine cover art is a big headache for the self-published… something I hope to learn soon. Thanks for this advice!

  6. I have an Indie friend who REALLY could have benefited from reading this post. Her cover art is not doing her book justice. It is sooooo immatrure. I would have done something much less literal and more conceptual. She recently confided that it isn’t selling well. I suspect it is the cover. Isn’t that crazy? The cover screams YA. It’s not right. But I’m not saying anything. Maybe I’ll send her this link. Maybe not. 🙂

  7. I always design my covers – it’s part of the enjoymet – BUT I know that the first few were as self-indulgent and unfocussed as the novels themselves. Doesn’t matter because they’re (mostly) just for me. The one I’m taking seriously I have tried a lot harder with, and have made several versions and asked folk to comment. Not finalised (no more is the novel) but this post gave me a few pointers as to how to do the final tweaks as well as reassuring me that it’s OK to insist.

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