Anatomy of a Cover Design

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. You know why they say that? Because everybody does it. That’s why getting your cover right is so important. Without a good cover people may never pick up you book. And if they don’t pick up your book, how will they discover the many delights that lay within.

Front cover of Dexter & Sinister

Some writers relish the idea of working on a cover for their book. Hell, some writers will start designing a book’s cover before they’ve even started writing the book itself. Others though will approach the prospect with a little more trepidation. There’s a lot goes into designing a book cover, and it can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before.

What follows is a rough overview of how I ended up with the design for my debut novel, Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents. I’ll tell you what I did, describe what it was like working with a designer, give you hints and tips, and hopefully demystify the process a little bit, so that even those with no design experience can get a handle on what to expect.

Animated gif of the cover developing

As with pretty much everything else in life, it all starts with…

Research

There’s a certain amount of expectation in book cover design. The cover for a thriller looks different to the cover for a romance novel which looks different to the cover for a YA coming-of-age story.

Whichever genre you are writing in you need to know what people expect. I’m not saying you have to adhere to the norms, but you need to know what those norms are before you can subvert them.

For Dexter & Sinister I found two main threads in the steampunk novels that I looked at; fantastical machinery, and a hint of gritty dystopia. Not always both (or indeed, either) and not always to any extreme, but more often than not.

I also looked beyond the genre. I looked at fantasy and crime and comics, anything that contained the same type of story I was telling. If I thought my potential readers might be interested in it, I gave it a look.

I went into bookshops and photographed covers that stood out to me. I tried to work out why they stood out? What made them work? Why did I like them? I looked for common themes, themes that I could incorporate into my own cover design. In short, I thought about it A LOT.

And what monumental conclusions did I come to? I like the colour red because of how it draws the eye, and I needed a character on the cover. Abstract wasn’t going to work for me. I needed for people to know what they were getting from the very beginning.

I also needed a cover that was instantly recognisable as a Hammersmyth novel, one that stood out at a distance. I was going to be selling a lot of books at conventions, so I needed something that would draw people in from ten feet away.

And I needed a layout that was repeatable. This was the first in a series, so I needed a layout that could work for multiple stories.

Clearly there was a lot going on in my head by the end of all this, so for clarity I decide to create a…

Design Brief

Simply put, a brief is you telling your designer exactly what you want, and when it comes to writing briefs, clarity is your friend. Be clear, be concise, and don’t hold anything back. The person you are sending the brief to is coming at this fresh, with no preconceptions, so the more precise you can be in your brief the better.

Now that’s great if you know what you want, but what if you don’t? I am fortunate enough to have a bit of a design background, so I was able to sketch out my ideas first. That gave me a head start in knowing what would and wouldn’t work for me.

But if that’s not you don’t worry about it. You’re not expected to know about design. You’re a writer. So instead, focus on what you want to achieve.

Here is the original brief that I wrote. Note how I discuss the type of reader I hope to attract, and that I need it to work as a series. I know that I also mentioned in my e-mail the fact that I needed it to be eye-catching at a distance, for conventions. This sounds like something that might be obvious, but again, assume nothing!

Original design brief

Notice how the cover described in the brief differs to the one at the start of the article. We’ll get into that later.

Once I had a brief I needed to find a…

Cover Designer

Unless you really know what you are doing, you need a cover designer. People can spot a poorly designed cover a mile away, and if the cover looks disorganised and slap-dash they’re going to assume what’s inside is disorganised and slap-dash as well.

That’s not to say you have to spend a lot of money. There are a lot of cheap options out there. But making your own cover to save yourself £20-30 isn’t doing anyone any favours (and yes, if you go on Fiverr.com you can get a cover done for that much).

I knew I would need an original illustration for my book cover, since it features one of the characters. I looked on Fiverr for designers, as well as Twitter, Deviant Art, Instagram, all over the place. I even messaged a publisher to ask who had done the design for one of their covers that I liked.

It’s a special kind of frustrating to find an illutsrator you like only to discover they are not open to commission, but then I was fortunate enough to come across Jasmin Garcia-Verdin, a very talented artist who was doing the kind of thing I was after and was available.

After agreeing terms and a fee, I sent Jasmin the brief, along with a ridiculous amount on supporting material. I’m talking design sketches, cat photos, maps, anything I thought might help. As previously stated, when it comes to getting your ideas across, clarity is key.

Jasmin then took my brief, came up with some initial designs, and together we started…

Developing The Idea

Based off my initial brief, Jasmin came up with this.

Initial design sketches by designer

You may think you know what you want, but that’s like saying you know how your story is going to end. Ultimately it’s best to keep an open mind, especially when working with someone else.

Two things leap out at me looking at these initial designs. First, that designs A and B, which fit my original brief, weren’t as good as design C, the wraparound cover suggested by Jasmin. And second, that we were going to have to change the colour of Dexter, as he just did not stand out enough against the background.

We then had a period of back and forth where we discussed changes, I sent further supporting material – pictures of ships, block and tackle rigs, lop-sided celebrity grins, even more cats – until eventually we agreed upon this as the final design.

Second round of design sketches

Note the airship with the number in it. That was Jasmin’s idea. An illustration to use as chapter headings, which I was very much on board with.

At this point I’d like to underline the need for you, as the client, to be decisive. It’s not for your designer to tell you what you want (and if they try, then by all means tell them to get stuffed). It’s the designer’s job to offer up possibilities, and the client’s job to consider those possibilities and either go with them, or turn them down. Be polite, be respectful, but if something doesn’t work for you then say so and move on. No one’s feelings will get hurt, this is all part of the process, and it’s a part that your designer will be all too familiar with. At the end of the day it’s your cover, so you need to get it how you want.

I’m quite visual in my thinking sometimes, so I couldn’t resist taking her design and adding a little text, so I could get my head around what the final thing would look like.

Design sketch with very rough blocks of text added

Once the design was finalised we then went into…

Production

From the author’s point of view, this is the easy part. Just sit back and wait for it to be done, right? Wrong.

Whilst the general direction has been agreed, there are still going to be a number of decision that have to be made along the way to help keep things on track.

For me, these decisions came in two parts. First, because Jasmin was also doing the layout for my cover as well as the illustration, we had to discuss text placement and title design. And second, because I was self-publishing, we had to figure out how to make it work on Kindle Direct Publishing (aka Amazon).

KDP upload test

As you can see, my first upload test into the KDP cover creator (I had to use the cover creator because the manuscript was still being edited – which is a whole other thing I need to go into) did not go well.

Now, I wish I could tell you why this was, but I can’t. We thought we’d done everything right, but KDP can be a law unto itself sometimes. You can do everything right and still get it wrong.

Thankfully it was something that we could fix simply by zooming in on the image a little bit, losing some of the edges but enlarging Dexter along the way, so swings and roundabouts in the end. It could have been a lot worse.

For most of you, you won’t run into this kind of problem. It’s only because I went with a wraparound cover that I experienced issues with width and height. If you just do the front cover, as long you get the ratio right, it won’t be an issue.

But if your cover is going to bleed over onto the spine or back, you need to get your starting calculations right. And my best advice is for doing that is finish your edit first, because how many pages you end up with is going to affect the width of the spine, and that’s going to affect the entire design.

Once we had the image the right size it was all a question of text placement and title design.

As you can see, we went through a number of iterations, moving the text around, and even changing the colour of the original image, to better make it work with the final title design.

Once again, as the client, decision making is key. You have to know whether something works for you or not, and you must communicate that to your designer. I know that can be awkward for some people, but it’s a necessary part of the process. And if your designer is in any way worth their salt, they will want you to be happy with your final design, so they will welcome clear, honest feedback.

I am lucky in that I know a little about Photoshop and image editing, so rather than just telling Jasmin what I thought was wrong, I could do a little cut and paste (image three above with the clumsily cut out text) and colour correction, to show what I wanted. If this is an option for you I heartily recommend it, but if not don’t worry about it, designers are used to interpreting verbal feedback. So long as you are clear you’ll get there eventually.

After all that, we ended up with our final image.

Finished cover design

Job done, right? Nope. Wrong again, because now we had to deal with the joys of…

Uploading To KDP

As I mentioned before, KDP has its own little foibles. Take a look at the image below.

Uploaded design with print marks

See all those dotted lines. The white one around the edge is the trim line. That’s the part of the image you can expect to lose during the printing process. But it’s not exact, you might lose a bit more, so the red line is the safe area. So long as the text and image you want to keep are within the red lines you should be fine. I say “should” because, you guessed it, there are no guarantees (to quote Dirty Harry, “If you want guarantees, buy a toaster.”)

Getting the text and the title in right right place, in the centre of the front cover, in the centre of the spine, in the centre of the back page, took over two weeks of work and six proof copies. Again, because it was a wrap around cover, changing one thing affected something else, so there was a major amount of tweaking going on.

One of the main problems, and not something they tell you about, is the helpful soul at Amazon who would move the image around to get the title in the centre. Now, whilst that seems like a good idea, it pushed the back page text, the spine text, and Dexter, to the left. And getting it so that didn’t happen took a lot of work.

I mean, we got there in the end, but it involved multiple versions of the cover with the title shifted by increments, to get it right. The final proof arrived the day after launch day, so you can see what a long, drawn-out process it was.

NB: I bought a font to use on the cover. You don’t have to, but I had something very specific in mind, and I wasn’t going to settle for what comes packaged with any design software. It was easy to do and only cost me about £25/$30. You can learn how to install fonts online.

So You’ve Got Your Cover. Now What?

Did you know that you don’t have to settle for the same, boring, flat book cover that everyone else has? With a little effort you can make your cover a bit more eye-catching, and hold people’s attention a little longer. And the longer you can hold their attention, the more likely they are to buy your book.

The two main things I did for mine were a 3D mock up that I could use in advertising, and getting an animation done.

3D mock up

I used a free website called DIY Book Design to do the design above. Pretty neat, huh? What’s great about it is that it gets across the fact that Dexter & Sinister is available as both an e-book and a hard copy without me having to say that, and, because you can also download a transparent version of the mock-up, I was able to use it in advertising as well.

Advert with 3D mock up inserted

NB: If you’re getting an illustration done for your book cover, make sure you get a clean version which you can use as a background in adverts and the like. It’s extremely useful. I was lucky in that Jasmin very generously provided me with a number of separate elements that I could use not only now, but in the future as reference for any future book designs (like a clean background plate for the title).

I also had an animation done, as I had seen a few of them on Twitter, and they are very eye-catching. Let’s be honest, a moving image will draw people’s attention more than a static one will.

Cover animation

This one was done by Morgan Wright, who was a pleasure to deal with and who is also very affordable indeed. I consider it money well spent. In fact, anything you can do that will allow you to tweet/ blog/talk about your book cover in a slightly different way, is money well spent in my book.

In Conclusion

And there you have it. That’s how I went about getting my book cover designed.

From this, to this.

It’s not the only way, and it’s not the easiest way, but I had the time, the money, and I wanted to publish Dexter & Sinister like it was the only book I ever will (you could get run over by a bus tomorrow) so I jumped in with both feet.

Don’t fear the process. It seems like a lot, but really it’s just a lot of little decisions that lead you from where you are to where you want to be. If you don’t know something research it, and if you need to ask, ask. No one expects you to know everything, and people are always willing to lend a hand and will give you the benefit of the doubt if your inquiry is humble and earnest.

There is a path to a great cover for everyone, regardless of budget, experience, or time restraints. It might take a little more work on your part, but I guarantee you will end up with something you’re happy with if you just put in the effort.

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Cover Design

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