5 Book Cover Rules for Non-Artists

I've spoken about book covers in my Indie Pub FAQ, but I think it's time I devote an entire post to them. It's something I've had on my mind to do for quite awhile now, but after taking a trip through one of the most amazing Tumblrs the internet has ever spawned, I'm feeling particularly motivated. Because...wow. There are a LOT of bad book covers out there, chiefly coming from self-published authors, however traditionally published books are not immune from this. Case in point:

This book is was riding on the New York Times bestseller list not long ago. I find this cover to be problematic for a number of reasons, but Mr. Saunders is a pretty well-known author, so the virtue of his name helps.

But as annoying as this design is, I couldn't really call it "ugly." It's a fully realized and conceptualized design I just happen to find fault with. No, "ugly" is reserved for the books you'll find at Lousy Book Covers. You'll just have to click through to see for yourself, because as tempting as it is for me to pick out some of the more egregious entries and display them here, I just don't want to ugly up my website with bad art. I also don't want pissed off authors coming after me.

Instead, I'll just tell you some of the things a book cover should and should not do, in the hopes that you will not wind up on Nathan Shumate's Tumblr page.

You don't have to be an artist to make a decent cover. You just have to know a few key points, and also it helps to have a basic working knowledge of a graphics design program (I use GIMP, which is free). I've done most of my short story covers, and I commission the art for my Colt Coltrane series, because what I need for those stories is far beyond my skill set. Justin Wasson is my #1 artist guy, and I recommend him highly.

For the most part, I think the covers I make are okay. Of course, I would love better ones, but I'm happy with what I have, mostly because I know my limits and I go out of my way to keep things simple and clean. Which brings me to my first rule.

1. Keep It Simple (aka The Twilight Approach)

I hired a professional for this.
Because I'm not an artist.
If you're not an excellent artist or illustrator, or if you're not writing a high fantasy or superhero story, you don't really need a highly detailed or illustrated cover. If you have written one of these stories and aren't an artist, it's best you find someone you can commission, because artwork is nothing to take lightly. The great stuff is labor intensive and expensive, but it's worth every penny.

But for the majority of story ideas, you can pick one image that represents your story in some thematic way and then set it off with some well-chosen fonts. This will give you a perfectly serviceable cover that probably will not make it onto Nate Shumate's page. I call it the "Twilight" approach, because those books popularized this concept, and I think it's still one best employed by indie authors who don't have the budget or the graphic design skills to go crazy.

As an example, I present the covers for my short stories "Tumble," "Vermin," "Consumption," and "Dust." Covers like these are all centered around one image on a clean background. They only take a few minutes to put together, and they make a striking statement about the bold and contemporary fiction I want to make myself known for. You can employ the same concept for a number of genres and in a limitless number of styles based on the graphics and fonts you choose. Just remember that the fewer things you try to throw into the mix, the lesser your chances of being accused of looking like you have no idea what you're doing.

2. Use Fonts Wisely

The font list on any graphic design program is exhaustive. And that doesn't even include the thousands of other fonts from the internet you can add to it. A font is, in itself, an artform, and like any art they can be amazing or horrific. So the first tip is, don't choose a horrific font. This all goes back to the first rule: KEEP IT SIMPLE. It should be legible at first glance. No one should ever have to look at your title twice to make sure they read it right. If one of your letters makes your word look like a totally different word, change the font. If you can read it okay when the cover is enlarged, but can't when it's a thumbnail, change the font.

That isn't to say you should use standard Courier/Times New Roman/Arial fonts. But those super scripty/gothy looking things that make every word look a cluster of sword-wielding midgets? No. Also a number of these. At least the big ones.

3. Watch Your Embellishments

Same with the font list, the filters and tools lists on most graphic design programs are also expansive. It can be tempting to gaussian blur, hue saturate, and drop shadow your way into oblivion, but restrain yourself. It's like the typical rule for women who wear makeup: less is more. These tools are more or less there to help you evoke the mood of your story. Again, unless you really know what you're doing, you're going to be making less an artistic statement and more a "I don't know what I'm doing" statement if you don't take it easy. Limit yourself to maybe two or three embellishments, tops. Enough to evoke the mood of your story and enhance the wording. For instance, use a small drop or an outline on your title and author fonts to make them pop. Adjust the kerning if necessary. Use the smudge tool to blur things out a little. Change the opacity of your background layer to give it a more ghostly appearance or tweak the color balance if necessary. DON'T break out that paintbrush unless you really are a skilled artist, otherwise, it's going to look like a preschooler wiped a paint booger all over your cover.

4. Layouts Are Important

Look at great book covers. There is a symmetry to them, and it's like that for a reason. The eye finds certain shapes to be appealing, and that's true in photography as well as design. Triangles in particular, and you'll find that a lot of the best pictures have that shape hidden all through them. Whether you want to make the title or the author name more prominent is up to you, but either way, it should be centered and/or balanced properly, otherwise it's just going to look sloppy. If you're worried it'll look "too neat," don't. If you're not experienced enough an artist to pull of "sloppy with meaning," then you shouldn't go there. A neat, readable, symmetrical cover will almost ALWAYS trump a shoddy attempt at "structurally avant garde."

5. Dimensions, Stock Photos, and Other Miscellany

After all my cautions against overdoing it, I'm also going to advise against just slapping words on a picture and calling it done. While you don't want to graphically vomit all over the thing, you also don't want to look like you just opened up a picture in Microsoft Paint and just added text. Make the graphics and words look like they belong together. Make it POP.

Those are the main points, but there are a few other ones I just want to throw into the mix:
  • Use good dimensions. Amazon and other e-publishing services specify minimum dimensions for cover images (usually 1000 pixels on the long side). I design my stuff on a 1600 x 2400 surface set to 300dpi. Even if you're not doing print, high resolution images tend to look better as thumbnails.
  • Don't know how to do a good bevel on your fonts using GIMP? Want to know how to make flames or smoke on Photoshop? Confused by how to properly use layers? The online community is a great help for learning technique. Check YouTube for some good tutorials specific to the program you're using. The more you practice and the more covers you make, the easier it becomes and the better your covers will get.
  • Using someone else's images without permission can land you into some hot water. Don't risk it. Free Images and Creative Commons are good ways to find royalty-free or decently priced stock photos. If you find something on Pinterest or Deviant Art, contact the artist and get permission. Whatever you do, just make sure you attribute properly in the front matter.
If all of this seems too overwhelming and you're not sure you have the chops or the patience to put together a decent cover, there are a ton of great artists out there who can do simple but elegant ones for a nominal fee (some offer their services for under $100, but check to make sure they're reputable and that they aren't recycling covers, which is a big no-no). Just know that if what you aspire to do exceeds your abilities, it's worth the money to have someone with more experience tackle it. Otherwise, the only thing you might get in return for your artistic efforts is ridicule, and no one wants to be someone's Tumblr bitch.