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Brandon Sanderson is famous for his epic fantasy series called Mistborn. Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, but up until a few years ago, I had read all his novels except for the Mistborn series.
I could not get past the boring covers, and apparently, neither could a lot of other fans.
The book covers were terrible. They made the books look boring even to Sanderson’s major fans. The most tragic part was that the covers lied.
The Mistborn books were amazing! Some readers would argue that they are the best books for new Sanderson fans to begin reading.
After some of my friends forced me to get past the covers, I discovered the books were some of my favorite Brandon Sanderson books.
If bad book covers can keep super fans from giving a good book a chance, imagine how strangers who’ve never read a Sanderson book would feel about the covers.
When Sanderson realized the covers were such an obstacle to sales and they were keeping readers from enjoying his books, he had the covers redesigned. In fact, they’ve been redesigned several times.
What difference does the cover make?
A good book cover causes a reader to pull the book off the shelf. Online, a good cover causes a reader to click to learn more.
But bad covers undermine all your other promotional activities. A weak cover makes your emails, ads, and bookmarks less effective. It can even undermine the word-of-mouth marketing that might otherwise work in your favor.
When you’re publishing a book, you should never ever skimp on the editing or the cover design.
Indie authors have full control over their covers, and traditional authors often have some say in the cover design. Whether you’re an indie or traditional author, you need a good book cover.
How do you get a good book cover?
To guide us through the dark forest of book cover design, I interviewed Kirk DouPonce. He studied traditional illustration in college and spent the first decade of his career as a graphic designer in the publishing industry. He’s designed over 1,000 book covers for publishers like Enclave Publishing, Barbour, Harper Collins, Penguin Group, Simon and Schuster, and many indie authors.
How has the internet changed the way you design book covers?
Thomas: When you started designing book covers in the nineties and early two-thousands, the primary format was a six-by-nine-inch paper book. Now the primary format for a book cover is a two-by-three-inch digital thumbnail. If you’re on a phone, it’s a one-by-two-inch image.
How has book cover design changed?
Kirk: Most people will see book covers in the thumbnail size. It’s very important to elicit the wow factor in that small image. Contrast becomes very important. It’s critical to have a dark figure on a light background or the other way around. You could also use color contrast. Ultimately, you want to intrigue a potential reader enough so that they click on that image.
Thomas: Authors often fail to use contrasts in their cover typography. I often see typography that isn’t bold enough or isn’t contrasted from the background. You can read the type when you see the six-by-nine-inch cover, but the title gets camouflaged when you’re viewing the one-by-two-inch cover.
Kirk: That happens a lot in indie publishing.
Thomas: That’s one of the ways that you can tell a “budget” cover. The author or the budget designer may not know how to design for thumbnails.
Can you walk us through your process of designing a book cover?
Thomas: If an author or publisher brings you a title and description of a book, what do you do?
Kirk: You want your book to fit within the genre, so I always research the genre first.
I’ll read the book if I can, but that doesn’t always happen. Publishers rarely have the finished manuscript available at the cover-design stage since the cover is designed a year before the book’s release.
It’s more about marketing at that stage. The author may only have a few chapters finished.
Indie authors often have the book available to read, even if it’s a rough manuscript, which is fine. I like to read it and immerse myself in the story to get an idea of what the mood for the cover should be.
After that, there’s a lot of coffee involved.
I’ll ask indie authors which covers they’ve seen that speak to them and which covers they hated. I wouldn’t want to go in a direction the author hated.
I want to begin with an understanding of what the book is really about. I always tell authors that I’m not trying to tell their story on a book cover.
We want to capture and communicate the feeling and atmosphere so that a potential reader can look at it for one second and tell whether it will be a thriller, dark fantasy, or something whimsical.
Thomas: Many indie authors make the mistake of wanting to tell the whole story on the cover. They want every character, location, symbol, and plot point on the cover. But the more symbols you cram into a cover, the less any one of those symbols has a chance to grab the attention of someone scrolling on Amazon.
You might have been able to get away with a complex cover back in the day. Those were the days when people bought records albums so they could view the giant piece of album artwork while the music was playing on the record player.
Today, you have a tiny little thumbnail on Spotify.
Design technique has changed in many of the same ways. Designers have to simplify, pare down, and decide what the most important element is.
There are two major approaches to covers. Designers either use a strong symbol or image as the main element, or they use the typography as the main element of the book cover.
In my experience, most authors want the strong symbol, even though the strong typography often works better.
Kirk: I don’t know if there’s a formula for determining which works best. I just did a book cover for Enclave where I didn’t have an opportunity to read the book. They did send me their marketing materials with the synopsis.
After I read the book or the synopsis, I determine which story elements or symbols from the story could work for the cover.
In this book, there was a chalice full of poison, and when I read that, I knew a chalice would work great as a symbol for the cover. The author also gave me specific scenes and environments they thought might work on the cover, but I was drawn immediately to the chalice with poison.
For some books, it’s better to put a character on the cover.
I did a cover for Morgan Busse’s Mark of the Raven, which was all about a female assassin. It sounded fantastic, so I knew I wanted to put her on the cover. She had two swords, and I thought that could look tough.
There’s not a specific formula, but it is intuitive. I ask myself, “What image comes into my brain when I’m reading this story?” Sometimes it’s best to have an element on the cover, and sometimes it’s best to have a person.
There’s also an argument against using the face of the character on the cover because readers want to use their imaginations to create the character’s face. I don’t disagree with that.
Thomas: I disagree with that.
My background is web design, and there’s been a lot of heatmap tracking research conducted to find out where people look on a web page. Researchers have discovered you can direct people’s eyes to certain parts of the webpage, and one of the best ways to do that is to use a face in the design.
The classic example is the baby looking at the camera. The heat map shows that the viewer’s eyes are on the baby. If the baby is looking at the web page’s headline, all the heat, which indicates the viewer’s eye movement, is on the headline. But if the viewer is looking at the back of the baby’s head, you lose all of that heat.
Using a face in the cover may take away some of the imagination for the readers, and I understand the artistic side. But the web designer in me knows that a face is a powerful tool to direct or grab the reader’s attention while they’re scrolling past.
Kirk: Yes, it’s true. If you see a face, your eye goes directly to it. But then again, there’s the argument where people will say, “When I read a book, I want to make up this character.”
I’ve done plenty of covers using both directions. I don’t know which is best. Again, it’s always about the mood for me.
Thomas: That’s one of the interesting things about design. There’s no one right design. Even if there was a right design, that design would get tired.
For example, the Dummies series design works well, but it only works well for Dummies books. You couldn’t copy the bright yellow cover and put it on your fantasy story.
One of the interesting things about book cover design is how varied covers can be. You can have two different potential covers that are both good for the same book.
The Mistborn books had three covers. The original covers were not very good. Since then, they have designed one set of covers for the ebook and another set for the audiobook. Both sets are really good covers, and they’re both very different. And both the audiobook and ebook covers are different from the original covers.
How do you know when you like a cover?
Kirk: Ultimately, it comes down to the viewer’s emotional response after looking at it. Everyone is different. Some people might have loved those Mistborn covers that you hated. It’s a hard call.
It’s like food or anything else. Some people love spicy food, and some people hate it. You just never know what’s going to go. I know what I’m drawn to, but there’s no magic formula.
Thomas: I think it goes back to the research being a key part of the design.
The bait has to fit the fish.
Those glistening abs on the cover will attract a certain kind of reader. Whereas the knight in armor holding a sword will attract a different kind of reader. While some readers may be attracted to both covers, many readers won’t be.
Genre research is important because when you design a cover, you are chosing which readers will be turned on or off by your design choices.
Thomas: Book cover design is different from traditional art. I’ve heard that art is about beauty and getting people to ask questions.
Design is about getting people to take action. In many ways, a book cover is more like a box of Captain Crunch than the Mona Lisa.
I don’t mean to offend you as an artist by saying that. The box of Captain Crunch is placed on the shelf at the parent’s knee level. The whole design is targeted at the kids who want sugary cereal.
As a cover designer, you have a foot in each camp. You’re a traditionally trained artist. You went to school and trained in art, but you’ve been working as a designer.
How do you navigate that tension between art and design?
Kirk: In art school, I was an illustration major. There was this chasm between the fine artists and the illustrators. The illustrators were there because we loved art and wanted to make a living at it. The fine artists were there because they loved art, and it’s none of your business what they do. They just wanted to please themselves.
Ultimately a book cover is not for me, and it’s not about making me or the author or the publisher happy. It’s about getting the prospective buyer to pick it up and read the back cover or read the synopsis online.
Sometimes I present my cover designs to a committee, and they choose the cover I don’t like. I just have to remember it’s not my book. It’s not for me. They’re paying me, and hopefully the cover will do its job and get the prospective reader to buy it.
Thomas: I’ve been in those meetings, and usually the cover isn’t even for the people in the meeting room. The cover might be for teenage boys or some demographic that’s not well-represented in the room.
I encourage the committee to do a split test on Facebook, where they buy Facebook ads targeting the same audience and run ads to all the covers and track the click-through rate.
After the ads have run, you can show the committee that the target audience liked one cover more than another because one cover got twice as many clicks in the noisy, chaotic environment of Facebook.
Then the decision is made by the target audience rather than the highest-paid person in the room. Just because the VP of marketing likes the cover doesn’t mean the target reader will like the cover.
Give your target audience a voice by doing a split test with Facebook ads. It will cost $50-$100, and you’ll be able to test the cover on tens of thousands of potential readers.
How do you make a cover that communicates the correct genre?
Kirk: A weaponized mech immediately tells you the book is military sci-fi. If you put a guy with a cape on there, you’ll get a different feel for it. Those could be considered cliché, but cliché isn’t a bad thing because it allows a potential reader to immediately know they will get starship troopers or something like it.
Thomas: Readers don’t go to the section of the bookstore they’ve never heard of. They want books that are similar to books they already like. Your cover must be like the books they already like.
Sometimes authors hesitate on a cover design because they think it’s too similar to starship troopers, but that’s what you want. You want the fans of Starship troopers to pick up the book. They already love a political dialogue wrapped in military science fiction, so they’ll be interested in a book that looks like that.
How can an author give a designer useful feedback?
I worked in web design for a long time, and one of the big challenges was unclear feedback from the client.
They would say, “I want this to be simpler and more elegant.” But those are opposite things.
As the designer, you want the same thing your client does. You both want a good, effective cover. But there are emotions to navigate.
How do you know when to listen to the author or not? You’re the trained designer.
How can an author give you useful feedback on a book cover design?
Kirk: If the author has a good reason for not wanting something, I need to be humble enough to listen and find out exactly what they don’t like. By the same token, the author may need to demonstrate some humility and realize they don’t do design for a living.
There must be trust on both sides. It requires humility and communication.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little bit thin-skinned. I can get uptight with clients fairly easily. It’s important for me not to reply to an email right away. I’ve made that mistake so many times. I need to sit on it and think about what they don’t like.
Then I have to ask myself whether they’re right. My first response is usually, “No. That’s going to suck. I don’t want to do that.” In the past, especially with big publishers, I have had to do it anyway. Sometimes it turns out they were right. In any case, it requires humility on both ends.
Thomas: When I was doing website design, we wouldn’t send the designs to the client right away. We presented the initial design in a live video so we could explain the reasons why we made the decisions.
That would often cause the clients to give reasons for why they didn’t like those decisions or why they did like them.
“I don’t like it” is the least helpful feedback. You have to dig into the reasons why until you get to that core reason behind the reason.
I find that clients respect your design decisions more when they hear the rationale that went into it.
Kirk: As you said, the Facebook ads put it in front of a bunch of eyes, and you’ll get honest feedback. That’s a great way to do it.
The other problem is when people tell you what they think you want to hear. But that split test gives you objective data from your customers.
Thomas: And it’s way better than asking for advice.
When you send a cover design to a friend, they stare at it for 30 seconds and surrender to it like it’s a piece of art. You end up getting distorted feedback from your friend.
Customers have a completely different experience when they see it for one second online.
You want to capture the person scrolling past 500 books on Amazon until one cover jumps out. The chaotic environment of Facebook is a better simulation of the customer’s experience on Amazon.
What mistakes do you see authors make on book covers?
Kirk: The design becomes too personal. It’s too important to them, and they won’t listen to my advice. It’s very common when working with first-time and indie authors. They don’t let go of their ideas, and they don’t trust the designer.
The biggest problem for indies is when they design their own covers. It’s not a good choice.
I wouldn’t write a book because I’m not a writer, and I wouldn’t try to edit someone’s book. If you’re not an artist, you don’t have those sensibilities, so don’t design your own cover.
Book cover design is marketing art. It’s not fine art. It can be, but ultimately, it’s a piece of marketing. Even if you’re a great painter, don’t assume you will be a good book cover designer.
Thomas: That’s one of the most important things we’ve said today. I’ve been in this business for 15 years, and I’ve seen more authors win the lottery than design a good cover that works.
Many people can make a pretty cover with a cover builder tool, but it’s another thing to have a cover that gets clicks and piques the customer’s curiosity. You cannot skimp on book covers.
I’ve seen the fallout of a bad cover. If you want to run Amazon or Facebook ads for your book, a bad cover will make your ad clicks very expensive. And suddenly, that cheap cover got way more expensive because you had to buy the expensive clicks for your cheap cover.
When we were doing web design, a client came to me and said, “We just spent $1,500 on a website from this other company, and it’s terrible. We’re wondering if you could give us a discount on a website from you.”
I said, “No.” We still had to do all the work to build a website. Nothing transferred.
It’s better to do it right than to do it twice.
What book cover myths do you want to debunk?
Kirk: First, as you mentioned, a pretty cover can be beautiful, but you need one that will sell in the market.
Secondly, you need to hit those genre buttons, even if it means being a little bit cliché.
Third, don’t tell the story on the cover. It’s not my responsibility as a designer to tell your story. The design should set the atmosphere and communicate the genre.
Thomas: For most authors, 50%-80% of their readers never see the full-size cover until after they’ve made the purchase decision. For some authors, it’s 100%. If readers buy your book on a black-and-white Kindle, they never see the full-size cover.
Your cover has to work as a thumbnail.
I used to consult with authors, and they often came with a book that wasn’t selling. We’d rework the cover with a designer, and I’d act as an intermediary.
In every instance, it was about reducing the complexity of the cover by removing symbols. We had to decide which symbol was the most resonant, and we’d cut everything else. That allowed the best symbol to be bigger, which then allowed the symbol to work.
When does it make sense to add or incorporate a trust symbol into the design?
There’s also a time to add a trust symbol to the cover, like a bestseller badge, an award, or a third-party validation. These are usually added on a second edition or a reprint. You don’t know if a book will be a New York Times bestseller when you first print it.
Those trust symbols are often added as a sticker in the factory where some poor intern stickers the books.
When do you work that trust symbol into the cover design itself?
Kirk: You want to add anything that will give the book credibility because the cover is marketing. You want customers to know it’s a good book and not just a piece of art.
I work with one publisher who has their in-house production person add the trust symbol, and when I see it on the bookshelf in the store, I groan. At that point, the book means something to me, and I’d like to place the symbol myself so that the design still works.
Thomas: Book covers are somewhat malleable. While the book’s text may not change much, the cover may change quite a bit.
Every publisher with a New York Times bestseller will edit that cover and put the trust badge somewhere on it.
It might be a sticker or a piece of text, but it makes a difference. Many readers put a lot of stock in the prizes and awards a book has won.
Kirk: The Christie award has a beautiful emblem. I’m happy to put that on a cover and work it in. Sometimes it’s difficult because I didn’t design the cover with that in mind, but I would hope they would come to me and ask me to add it.
I actually added some text for an indie author recently. The cover didn’t say enough, so I added a subtitle, and he liked it. I have no problem adding text to a cover if it will help it sell. Again, it’s not a piece of art. It’s marketing.
What advice do you have for the back cover?
Thomas: When you design a cover, you’re designing the front and the back. The front gets more attention, but the back tends to have more text.
Sometimes designers have to use placeholder text when they’re designing. When they receive the final back cover copy from the author, it often doesn’t fit the allotted space. Authors think the designer can just decrease the font size, but that often ruins the design.
If the text on the back of the book is too small and too low contrast, you’ll know it’s probably an indie-published book.
Do you like it when an author has back cover copy ready so you can work it into the design?
Kirk: I brought that up in a presentation I gave at Realm Makers a couple of years ago. Back covers are important, and for some reason, many indies don’t think they are. They might put the energy into the front cover, which is the most important, but when you look at the back cover, suddenly all credibility is lost. The whole cover needs to look professional.
Thomas: The back cover also needs a barcode. If it doesn’t have a barcode, it’s indie-published for sure.
Kirk: Sometimes authors have their own logo for their publishing house, and it looks horrible. I recommend not using the logo at all. You don’t necessarily need it, but if you’re going to use one, make sure that your publishing house logo looks professional.
My goal for a physical book is for the reader to look at the front cover and then turn it over. You don’t want to lose them there. The author must write good back cover copy.
I’ve worked with publishers who overdo it and put too much text on the back cover. Some authors want their bio on the back cover, and some don’t. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other.
For fiction, I’d recommend only a paragraph or two with a good headline.
If you get an endorsement that lends credibility, you should include that.
Thomas: You also don’t have to put the entire endorsement on the back of the book.
Kirk: Less is more. If you have a one-sentence endorsement, you can simply use a few words from that endorser like “stunning” or “wonderful.” You don’t put a long endorsement on the back.
What’s the difference between designing fiction and nonfiction covers?
Thomas: Your primary focus is fiction book covers, but how are fiction and nonfiction covers different?
Kirk: When I first started, I only did nonfiction, and I was known as a nonfiction guy, but I wanted to be the fiction guy.
So, on my website, I slowly got rid of the nonfiction stuff and only posted fiction projects so that I’d be known as the fiction guy.
I don’t dislike nonfiction. I just did so much of it.
The difference between fiction and nonfiction cover design is usually in being clever. Nonfiction is generally a lot easier.
One time, I only used one little graphic of a stoplight where all three lights were red. It was so easy to do, but that was what it needed because the book did really well.
I put many more hours into fiction, but I also enjoy it more.
Kirk: The font on a nonfiction book cover is super important. You use the font to communicate the feel of what the book is about.
I would not recommend going to just any designer to do a nonfiction cover. Your designer needs to demonstrate that they have a marketing mind. Look at their portfolio and see if it fits your book. No matter how genius someone is at fiction, they may not have that marketing mind for nonfiction.
Thomas: The real trick to nonfiction is finding a metaphor from the book that will make a good cover.
If you’ve written a book about leadership, don’t use an image of two people shaking hands in front of a conference room. That’s the wrong image. You need a better metaphor.
You can’t be too tired or too cliché, and it requires a marketing mind to find that metaphor.
If you’re writing nonfiction, go through your book and think about the strongest metaphors you used in various chapters and put those on a silver platter for your designer to choose from.
You also want to find a designer who knows how to look for those metaphors. There may be another metaphor from your book that’s not explicit, but your designer might be able to see and use it.
Kirk: Nonfiction is even more about simplicity. The cover has to communicate what the book will help you with.
Thomas: One of my favorite nonfiction books is Made to Stick. It’s about persuasion and communication, and the cover is just a piece of duct tape on a simple background. The duct tape is a metaphor for the concept of being sticky.
For nonfiction, the text on the cover does a little more work to make the sales.
For fiction, the cover is more like a movie poster where you’re selling an aesthetic in the genre.
Where can we see your design portfolio and learn more about you?
Kirk: My DogearedDesign.com site is geared towards the design side of my work.
You can also find my illustration work at Fiction-Artist.com. Publishers often hire illustrators and then design the book in-house. They don’t usually hire someone to do the design and the illustration. Fiction-Artist.com is for publishers looking specifically for an illustrator instead of the whole package.
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