Your book cover can make or break book sales. I recently recommended a book to a student in my book writing class and she said later, “I never would have bought that book without your recommendation. There were so many visually appealing books and this book had neither title or cover to entice me. ”
I was struck by that statement, which reinforced the importance of a book cover. People often ask me what goes into a bestselling book cover and to recommend a cover designer. I’ve seen some mixed results with covers. When Sandra Zimmer recently recommended book cover designer Mark Gelotte, I checked out his websites and covers. Nice. Consistently on.
I asked Mark if I could interview him for Lisa Tener’s Writing Blog. Here’s our interview.
Me: What would you say about how you go about designing a cover? What are the most important questions to ask yourself?
Mark: When it comes to designing a cover, my first steps have nothing to do with visualizing or creating the concept. Rather, I need to know the author and their personality. Who they are is important in the look of their book. 15 years ago, a client told me, “if I don’t feel 100% about my cover, how can I sell it?”I’ve never forgotten that. An author that feels complete about all the aspects of their book, including the cover, will be highly motivated to put it out in the world and market it successfully.
Once I’ve talked with the author,I look at the content of the book to know it’s style and I’ll ask for sample chapters to read. This will give me an idea of the type of readership and thus the style a cover will take to attract that potential buyer. Today, buying books at a bookstore competes with buying books online so the cover must be as compelling on a computer screen as it is on the bookshelf. Plus, I have to consider any design I do in comparison with other similar books. With non-fiction especially, I will research other books in the genre and decide what needs to be done to make it unique and separate from the competition. With fiction, the design is about attracting attention and it tends to be more liberal in style. I find it’s based on the mood of the buyer rather than on specific criteria that non-fiction is.
Having said this, the questions I ask are:
• How is the author’s personality reflected in the design?
• What is the readership for this book?
• What design style is the best solution for this book? (graphic, freeform, illustrative, typographic, photo of author, or a combination)
• What will separate this book’s cover from it’s competition?
Me: What are the three (or 5) biggest mistakes you see in covers?
Mark: 1) Poor text placement. When title wording is spread too far apart, it’s usually an attempt to fill up the cover. The title must be treated as single graphic element, not a string of words. Also, individual letters in a title that are spaced unevenly (kerning) or widely apart are a similar mistake in poor cover design.
2) Overuse of a single font for all text. Using the same font style is a warning sign of a bad cover. A subtle mix of type styles are needed to keep a cover interesting. The most amateurish covers I’ve seen use some form of Arial/Helvetica in every part of the cover text. At the very least, using bold and italic combinations will help the look.
[Editor’s note: This totally surprised me. I thought you shouldn’t vary fonts, but apparently, you should–just subtly]
3) Poorly prepared photos. Since authors will often have a bio photo on their book, a noticeable mistake is using a snapshot instead of a professional portrait. A snapshot photo tends to be grainy, low resolution, or poorly composed. If there is no other alternative, getting the snapshot retouched is necessary. This also applies to using a snapshot photo for the cover design.
4) Overuse of single color or poor color choice. A cover that has a single color background rarely works effectively unless the designer is skilled with the rest of the cover’s elements. Some authors will want to use their favorite color for the background to their own detriment.That favorite color may not look good on a printed cover. It can defeat the sales of the book because it’s not perceived well by the audience or it overshadows the meaning of the book.
5) The cover design is disconnected from the chapter formatting. A professionally done design will have a continuity throughout the entire book. To achieve this, a ‘bridge’ of fonts and layout needs to be made to connect the cover with the inside of the book. It’s a simple step to match a chapters font styles to the cover font and yet many self-published books miss this step.
Me: What are the most important things to make it look professional? What do you need to know about Fonts? Placement of title, author, etc.
Mark: Paying attention to the 5 biggest mistakes and avoiding them will help a book look more professional. For the author that wishes to do their own design, I highly recommend researching established books and noticing how they are designed. Look at colors, use of fonts, balance of the layout, and how all parts of a cover are simply elements that have been placed in relation to each other. For example, a title can be as effective at the top, middle or bottom of the page with the author and subtitle strategically placed around it.
The cover design is not limited to the front either. All printers consider cover artwork as a single piece of art that contains the Cover, Spine, and Back Cover. Whatever is created for the cover extends to these other parts. Use the same style and fonts for the spine and back.
As for typefaces, readability of long text passages is best with serif fonts (Times, Palatino, Garamond, etc.) Short text passages can be either serif or sanserif (Arial/Helvetica, Futura, etc.) Titles can be any font that is readable from a distance. Be aware that the colors used on type must have enough contrast with its background to stand out. Stand away from the design as if you are in a bookstore and make sure the title is readable or catches your attention.
Going beyond looking professional, carefully consider the wording used on the back cover. This is where you will sell the book and yourself to the audience. Good book design goes hand-in-hand with an effective marketing description of your book and this is especially true of non-fiction. While design plays the part of grabbing the buyer, what is said on the cover/back cover will actually sell it.
Me: What are the three biggest selling secrets for a good cover or what are 3 things you can do that makes a cover say, “Pick me up.”
Mark: 1) Use a dynamic font and a placement that matches the tone of your book. Balance this text placement in a way that the eye follows a natural progression rather than skipping all over the page. Treat the type as a design element.
2) Create an intriguing graphic, photo or illustration to attract the buyer to pick up the book. If there is no image, let the title be arranged in a way that it becomes the source of interest. Highlight key words in the title by color, size, or position.
3) Consider very carefully what you are saying with your title and subhead and emphasize this in your design. Bring this message to the back cover and embellish it. Remember that a good book cover not only sets the ‘tone’ of the book, it ‘markets’ the book much like an advertisement.
Me: What was the worst cover you’ve ever seen (you don’t need to name the book but maybe the errors)?
Mark: The worst cover I’ve seen was about 10 years ago. The author either designed the book themselves or had a relative who had some minor art experience; I don’t recall which it was. But having an art background didn’t translate well to cover design. The cover failed with the type choice and had the crudest of illustrations. It was a combination of being extremely amateurish and flat looking with a solid color background. I can say that the 5 biggest mistakes mentioned earlier were all present in this book. The truly sad part was this author had several boxes of his book sitting in his garage because they didn’t sell.
Me: What are some of your favorite covers you designed and why?
Mark: My favorite books are the ones that combine all my skills as a designer, illustrator, and typesetter. I’ve made the books a complete continuity of design and text. Naturally, the latest books I’ve finished tend to be my favorites:
For a historical and deeply researched biography, the cover for Enlightened Charity was suggested by the author to show its subject, Sister Matilda Coskery. She lived in the early 19th century; thus, no photographs exist of her so I had to compile other images from that period and construct a montage of her persona. I applied a lithograph effect to give it a feel of the printing from that period. The fonts were suggestive of the times yet modern enough to attract the reader. I also typeset/formatted it’s 500+ pages with added photos and charts.
The Creator Speaks
This new age book is an esoteric journey into the creation of the Universe and evolution of humanity. Because of the subject, the cover had to fully express the complexity of what was written without becoming trite or confusing. The potential readership of this genre was heavily considered as well as the author’s suggestions. Since I am also a painter, I decided to illustrate the cover as a painting and then add the title and type arrangement afterwards. Colors were chosen to appeal to a new age readership.
It’s Your Time to Shine
This cover had to express a confidence in public speaking for those who have stage fright. Note how the title pyramids downward to the byline beneath it, ending with the illustration of speaker and audience. The eye follows a natural flow. Because the illustration is made up of silhouettes, it became more of a design pattern to emphasize the mood. The color choices of the book are lively and meant to keep the subject matter in a light vein. I also added a number of illustrations to the inside showing various breathing techniques.
I’ve asked Mark to check back here over the next week or so to respond to your book cover questions. This is your opportunity to hear from a book cover design expert. Ask away! And share your favorite book covers.
Author’s Note: Bloggers are now required to let readers know if they are receiving compensation for mentions in their blog. Neither Mark nor Sandra are compensating me for these mentions–I have interviewed Mark to illuminate subjects that will inform and be of value to you.