Posts Tagged how to design a book cover

A wrong cover and a revamp – case study of rebranding an indie novel

bookshop 12 april 023 smlYou know my bookseller friend Peter Snell, of Barton’s in Leatherhead? (He’s the co-host of our Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want To be A Writer.) Peter is a staunch supporter of indie authors, and he mentioned to me that he’d been talking to an indie writer I know who wanted advice on revamping her novel cover.

Oh you mean Alison Ripley Cubitt, I said. Her science fiction novel?

It’s not science fiction, said Peter. It’s a contemporary eco-thriller.

And therein lay Alison’s biggest problem.

So how did she end up with a cover that sent the wrong message? How was she persuaded to change it – because she’d made that choice for a good reason. And what did she change it to?

I thought this would make a useful case study. Publishers often rebrand covers if they keep a title in print a long time, and I’ve known other indie authors who’ve rejuvenated their books with new covers, aiming to catch the eye of different readers (here’s the post). And as we’re making our own decisions about everything, it’s inevitable that we’ll take some wrong turns – I’ve nearly chosen a disastrously misleading cover myself when I was releasing Lifeform Three. (Here’s the confession. You will howl.)

So thank you, Alison, for agreeing to share your process. (Alison writes with her husband under the name Lambert Nagle @LambertNagle.)

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RM: How did the original cover design come about, and why did it seem like the right choice?

ARC: The photograph we used showed the terrible drought in the Australian outback and came from our extensive research. Although I knew it hadn’t been digitally manipulated, to potential customers it looked like the opening shot in a Mad Max film. We were naïve enough to think we could do the design job ourselves.

RM: I’ve found this is a classic indie mistake – to use a picture because it’s significant to the author. The reader doesn’t know your reasons and may get the wrong message.

Also, note the difference in typography between Alison’s covers. Her designer has used colours, contrasting fonts, different sizes, which all add up to a polished result.

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Alison Ripley Cubitt

RM: What made you decide to change your cover? Was there any feedback that made you consider it?

ARC: As I stood in a room with indie authors in Foyle’s bookshop at an author event earlier this year, I looked at their covers and realised that I’d been far too complacent. Luckily our stand was next to that of the delightful CJ Lyons (@CJLyonswriter). I asked CJ what she thought of the book and her response was, ‘it looks like sci-fi!’ I loved her honesty. With another book on the way, we decided it was time to look at the design.

RM: Peter Snell mentioned he’d given you advice. Tell me more.

Peter Snell is a real champion of indie authors. On my visit to Barton’s bookshop, I was able to compare our current cover with the thrillers on Peter’s shelves. This underscored that our cover wasn’t working.

RM: I’ve had the incredibly useful Peter cover-brainstorming tour. When I was figuring out what to do about Lifeform Three, he took me round the shelves and pulled out titles with similar themes and atmosphere to show me how this could be communicated by the cover. If you don’t have a friendly bookseller to hand, you could research the comparison titles online.

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Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop

Peter had a further point about the trim size of Alison’s book. She told me she’d chosen 6 x 9 because it was the most economical in price, but …. (here’s Peter):

PS: The trim size was too big for the pagecount so the book looked too thin, which made it look self-published. In a smaller format the spine would be thicker, making it better balanced in terms of look, weight and feel. It would also fit better on bookshop shelves. Also, the design needed to be repeated on the spine so that customers could find it if the spine was the only thing visible.

RM again: Alison, how did you find the new cover designer? How many ideas did you try?

ARC: I liked Eliza Green’s cover for Becoming Human, by Design for Writers. I filled in a detailed design brief, with information about the genre, target market and tone. I told them which book covers from competitors I liked and those that I thought were clichéd. They sent me a design that I loved. They got it right first time.

RM: How much did the new cover cost? And the interior redesign (for the new smaller size)?

ARC: We were given a 10% Alliance of Independent Authors member discount which brought the cost of the cover redesign to under £200. I have allowed a budget of £100 for the reformatting of the interior, So far, we haven’t had to spend that money, as we’ve done much of the work ourselves.

RM: How are you publicising the change to ensure your fans don’t get confused?

ARC: I am stressing to readers that the print version is a relaunch and not a new book so that they don’t inadvertently buy the same book twice. It’s easier with an ebook as a potential purchaser gets a message stating that they have already purchased it. We are kicking off the publicity campaign at a book signing at Barton’s in Leatherhead on July 11th.

RM: On the new cover you have a lot more supporting text – the series tagline, the review stars. This makes it look more ‘dressed’.

ARC: In the original cover, there was no supporting text. That’s because we did it ourselves! I was pleased that we were able to fit both the pull quote and the stars from one of our reviews on the cover. The series tagline was important as it tells readers that Stephen Connor is a character they’re going to see again in the next book.

RM: It’s a challenge to get a lot of elements onto a cover and make them look good. If you don’t know about typography, you can end up with an unholy mess. But notice how Design For Writers makes it all work.

ARC: We lengthened the synopsis on the back cover too.

RM: Many indie authors don’t pay enough attention to the look of the back cover. But it’s a chance to hook readers with an intriguing teaser, and quotes from reviews. Don’t waste this space.

RM: What about badges? The indie world is bristling with awards and rosettes. Alison mentioned to me that she had a Brag medallion and an Awesome Indies seal, but they’re not on the front cover. Alison?

ARC: We’re thrilled to have the badges but we didn’t include them on the cover as readers might miss some of the lovely design details.

RM: I’m in agreement here. I’m very grateful for my various awards, but they clash with my cover designs. But if you’d like to inc lude an endorsement, a good solution is to write it as a line of text.

To return to the start, Peter and I recorded an episode where we toured the bookshop, discussing covers and why they worked. Cover art on the radio? We are fearless. Listen to it here (slide the cursor onwards a little – the file includes the songs that were playing before our slot).

RM: I’ll leave the last word to Alison:

ARC: I would love to get feedback from writers who have had new covers made and to find out how it worked for them.

RM: The floor is yours – discuss!

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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)

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