Making a professional cover for your book

A good cover goes an awful long way towards selling your book. That’s true in e-publishing as much as it was in the print world. The issue, as always, is getting that professional edge.

In some ways it’s easy. The ‘wheelbarrow full of money’ method always works:

1. Find a professional designer and artist.
2. Give them your specification. Accept their advice – they are professionals.
3. Receive the artwork.
4. Receive their account. Try not to faint.
5. Pay the account. Eat potato-and-leek soup for the next six months.

I actually did this, many years ago, for my history of the Royal New Zealand Air Force – the RNZN’s official artist did the painting for me, and I sent it to the publishers – Reed New Zealand – whose designer used it as part of the cover. I have the original oil. The aircraft is an A4K ‘Kahu’ Skyhawk; the mountain behind is Aoraki/Mount Cook, which also featured in Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings movies.

That was done as a favour to me; publishing contracts always give the publisher full rights to select the cover art, in entirety, but they agreed I could organise professional art for the purpose.

Self-publishers have to do that by default. Which is a bit scary, particularly given the costs of it in an age where print book sales are dropping and e-books often don’t individually generate huge incomes.Some authors are artists as well – which is a huge advantage. For most though, including myself, art is a mysterious skill that others happen to have. To that’s added design – a related but slightly different skill set from hands-on art. It’s also a fast-moving field – compare that Kiwi Air Power cover from 1997 with the one produced this year by Penguin’s designer to front my book on New Zealand’s shadier past (you can buy Convicts here). So – how to get ahead at least cost? The general criteria are:

1. Lettering. The biggest lettering goes to the words that are going to sell the book. Until you’re as well known as J K Rowling or Hammond Innes, it’s more likely to be your title.
2. Colour. Anyone remember that series of Victor Gollancz SF hardbacks which came out in flat bright yellow? CAUTION – don’t get trapped by colour matching to your monitor. Everybody else’s will be different.
3. ‘Busy-ness’? Don’t be too crowded. Too busy and you’ll have a jumble. Not busy enough and it will look bland.
4. Distinctive style. Do you have a specific artistic style? Will this set the book apart?
5. Thematic repetition. What look do you want? This can help marketing later.

Much can be done for free with GIMP, a public-license graphics programme which, by my reckoning, has about 70-80 percent the capability of Photoshop.  Including colour-matching by typing in hex values, which is how you get around variations between monitors. It does one or two things Photoshop doesn’t. Not bad for free. There’s a learning curve, but it will do the job – and export in useful formats.

A closing thought. Even if you start with a zero budget, why not plough the profits from your first book into a professional cover and promotion for your second? What, you say? Second?

Well, you’re not going to write just one book…are you?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


4 thoughts on “Making a professional cover for your book

  1. As an Indie author, sometimes you don’t know if what you’re writing is the first in a series or a stand-alone. It’s a lot easier on designers if you can tell them up front that a particular title needs to share a similar look with a couple other covers (for books as yet unwritten.) And designing a series cover, it seems to me, is trickier than a stand-alone because it has to have more flexibility or “legs.”

    1. It’s often difficult – I wrote a series in the early 2000s which, theoretically, had a linked theme. The cover design evolved throughout, and the first one was quite different. That was fixed a year or two later when the first was reprinted, with new cover design to bring it into line. There are also issues of connecting a general ‘look’ with an author or genre. Difficult judgement calls.

  2. Great tips, Matthew! I’m certainly going to keep all of those in mind. Heard from one of my beta readers today and she is getting close. She has a Masters, so I can imagine her attention to detail is considerable!

    1. Thank you – glad it was a useful post. And yes, those beta readers are invaluable; authors get too close to their own stuff – as an inevitable part of writing – to be able to see everything.

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