Sunday, April 10, 2011

Judging an ebook by its cover

A few months ago, I was on a plane finishing up Cormac McCarthy's relentless and terrifying post-apocalyptic novel, The Road . I noticed that the guy next to me kept glancing at the cover of the book, twitching a little as I turned the pages. When I finally closed the book, the guy burst out, "Well? What did you think?" We talked about the book for the rest of the flight.

A good book cover operates as a billboard, an ad, an enticement, even a piece of art. There are book covers so iconic that we don't need to read the titles to know what we're looking at:

But I've been wondering whether the switch to electronic reading devices will lessen the importance of cover art. (If I had been using a Kindle, the guy sitting next to me on that plane would never have known what I was reading). Do covers matter in epublishing? And if you're self-publishing an OP title or even a new piece of work, why not make your cover yourself? A nice photo or illustration, a little Photoshopping, and voila, book cover!

Or not .

Janie Bynum , illustrator, designer (and author), has some thoughts about the importance of book covers in epublishing, as well as some hints about good design, which is why I wanted to work with her when I decided to turn my OP book Lily's Ghosts into an ebook. I asked her to explain the function of covers in an electronic world, and the cover design process in general.

LR: First, Janie are covers going to be as important as we make a shift toward epublishing?

JB: Regardless of format (print or e-book), covers remain as important as ever to the browse-and-buy process. In fact, they may carry even more weight in the digital realm since people tend to move at higher browsing speeds when using digital devices (i.e.: laptops, iPads, Kindles, smartphones) than when browsing at a brick-n-mortar bookstore.

LR: So, what do you think are the keys to good cover design?

JB: While “good” cover design is highly subjective, the best covers usually contain the following:

• An enticing image (photo, illustration, or graphic) that will inform or at least tease the reader and give some indication as to the tone/mood and the audience/age level for whom the book is intended

• Composition/color that is interesting/pleasing/and sometimes disturbing —but intentionally so

• Legible typography that enhances the overall design

LR: How do you choose the right image?

JB: There are so many factors to consider in choosing imagery for a novel cover. The image has to appeal to the appropriate audience (age, possibly gender); it has to reflect the mood/tone of the book. You want to entice the reader, but not give up too much. Do you use illustration or photography or photo-illustration? Is the style of illustration representative, abstract, graphic? Is your graphic very simple or very ornate? The considerations are many (and why it’s probably a good idea to involve a professional designer in your book cover design).

LR: We went through a few different photos when we were trying to come up with a concept for Lily's Ghosts. The old illustrated cover always felt a hair too young for the middle-schoolers I had in mind when I wrote it, so we were trying to come up with an image that had a little more edge to it.

JB: Yes, like this doll photo. (Laura had indicated that a doll figured into the plot.)

LR: I sent the doll photo to a friend and she said it was one of the most terrifying pictures she'd ever seen. Maybe too scary?

JB: Yes, creepy, creepy. Baby doll heads creep me out more than clowns. Lily's Ghosts is middle grade, not YA or adult. Nix the doll. So, we considered this dark, mysterious door photo.

LR: Still sort of scary. And it didn't say enough about the story, which is occasionally spooky, but mostly odd and funny.

JB: So, we moved on to the spooky house image.

LR: Which I liked a lot.
JB: Once we agreed on the central image, I used it as the basis of the new cover.

LR: You reversed the image, and changed the color of the original photograph quite a bit.

JB: And there's a lot more Photoshopping in this than meets the eye. I added a third story to make the house look a bit more ominous, transplanted some trees, etc.

A good cover is composed and balanced. Or if it’s “off-balance” it should be intentional (a device sometimes used to create tension). There are many theories about which colors attract, which repel, which colors help a book to sell better. But I’ll always choose the color that feels right for the tone I’m trying to convey.

LR: And then there's the typeface, which I think is a problem for many self-published authors. There are certain typefaces that just scream "amateur." Papyrus, anyone?

JB: Or Brush Script? Type can be simple or it can be more ornate, but it has to integrate and enhance the design. And it should be legible at small sizes (for print catalogs and online thumbnail images.) Some book cover designs require an understated type treatment to showcase the imagery. For others, much emphasis is on ornate typography or highly conceptual typography. Good typography is an art; letter-spacing and kerning can make or break a successful type treatment.

LR: Can you describe the design process? What type of information do you need before you can begin designing a cover?

JB: Ideally, I like to read the book. But given time and budget constraints for self-publishers, this usually isn’t possible. So I ask the author for the following information:

• Audience. Generally, by age-range and specifically by actual perceived audience. For instance, tween girls who want to read Twilight but aren’t quite ready for the content. This tells me that the design needs to be somewhat sophisticated, but not so much that we lose the innocent fun.

• A one- or two-page synopsis

• The first chapter

• Any thoughts about tone and mood, about imagery (even examples of that evoke the mood/style author is imagining*)

• Any additional info about main characters, setting, time period

• ANY additional thoughts and odd bits that mean something to YOU, but you think I may not be interested in (those details are probably some of the most telling)

Part of the reason I ask for so much information up front is because this enables the author to step away and allow me to create some concepts/ideas based on my interpretations of the information she has provided. While no one knows her work like the author, the visual artist can bring a different perspective to the interpretation, hopefully creating a richer visual than even the author envisioned.

Mediating this process has traditionally been the role of editors and art directors at publishing houses. But if the author is mindful not to “dictate” what he thinks the visual outcome should be, is open to a creative, organic process, the author and visual artist can make one helluva creative team!

LR: What can you tell us about designing covers for print books vs. covers for ebooks? What special considerations does a designer have to make?

JB: In reviewing many printed book cover examples for this interview, I wondered how many will have to be adapted for e-book implementation. While some of the intriguing, well-designed covers work in print, they may not translate to digital-only. For example, some covers included foil-stamping and embossing—neither of which will “read” in digital form. Also, some beautiful titles were so integrated into the cover imagery that they may not read well in a smaller format.

LR: Amanda Hocking -- the 26-year-old ebook millionaire – created most of her own book covers for her various ebooks, but the covers didn't scream "home made" to me; I like them a lot. What do you think of her book covers?

JB: I love those images. I think the titles are a little small, so they get lost a bit, but I still really like the covers overall.

LR: I wonder if that's one of the keys to her success. The covers looked more professional and polished than some of the other self-published books at the same price point.

JB: I’m sure some authors have an innate sense of visual composition and may even know their way around an Adobe product or two. And, many online print-on-demand sites and e-book creators provide templates and “build-a-cover” options where the user can design their own cover there at the site.

LR: Does that mean authors should try to design their own covers first?

JB: Like writing, design is a discipline. Many of us spend years in school studying the art of design, then many more years practicing and studying the craft. We make deliberate decisions based on theory and practice, sometimes based on “gut” — instinct we’ve developed over the years. So, if you want your book to look professional, it’s probably best to hire a professional to design it.

LR: What are some of your favorite covers?

JB: I have many favorites. But I’ll include some here to illustrate my idea of a few “good covers.” You'll see that sometimes the typography becomes the main graphic on the cover; sometimes it simply supports the overall design. I’m a big fan of creative/custom typography. But I also like image-driven covers—both photographic and graphic/illustrative—where a simple typographic treatment enhances the image, it doesn’t compete with it.

Picture books:

Chapter books to young middle grade:

Tween to YA:

LR: Some great ones in there. I love Olivia, Dani Noir, and Wicked Lovely in particular. Some of those YA covers can get -- to quote my stepkid -- "epic." Like this one:

JB: Epic is right.

LR: I think it would be hard for a DIY-er to achieve these kinds of effects (unless the DIY-er was also a whiz with Photoshop).

JB: One of the problems I see with do-it-yourself publishing (POD or e-book) is lack of quality (cover AND content). But assuming we are offering high-quality content (writing), the cover needs to announce that quality. A poorly designed cover doesn’t project an image of “quality," while a visually appealing cover projects the promise of a good read. While that’s not always the case, a poorly designed book probably won’t even get picked up—or clicked on.

The point is, when it comes to book covers, we consumers may have a more sophisticated visual acuity than we realize. Not everyone can design a cover, but we know a good one (or a bad one) when we see it.

LR: Thanks, Janie!

So, what do you guys think? Are covers still important in epublishing? More important? Have you designed your own cover(s)? What are some of your favorites?

— Janie Bynum & Laura Ruby


A CBS news item about book covers that discusses covers as works of art (very print focused, though they talk about ebook covers at 3:21)

The digital design of a book cover.


  1. I think Janie's comments are spot on and eloquently stated. I whole-heartedly agree! e

  2. Great post! Anyone who loves to read has looked at many book covers and can spot an amateurish one instantly. Crummy covers usually reflect the content so many people won't bother to look inside.

  3. I think there are a lot of upsides about self-publishing, like the ability to control every aspect of the process, including the cover. And then there are the downsides of self-publishing, like the ability to control every aspect of the process, including the cover.

    It has to be said, however, that traditional publishers have been known to put out some nonsensical, misleading, or just plain crappy covers on books. If you've ever had a battle with a traditional publisher over a cover you didn't think was appropriate for your book, and you know your way around Photoshop, the temptation to try and design a cover for a self-published book is strong. Some people, like Art Slade -- who did at least one of his own covers -- and Amanda Hocking do just fine. Others don't fare so well.

    At least with epublishing, a bad cover can be easily swapped out for a better, more professional one.

  4. I think with self publishing it's about building a team, and getting a good designer is part of that. Excellent post. Thanks.

  5. I agree, Tracey. I think it's hard to wrap your head around being a publisher as well as a writer (with all the responsibilities and headaches that entails).

    On another topic, I wanted to mention that I wasn't dissing the "epic" Carrier of the Mark cover; I love that cover. Just saying.

  6. Thanks for saying the cover I designed is just fine. Even though I like how it looks, I still find myself leery to do too much on my own. And I know that I won't be able to design or paint a cover as attractive as the ones the artists I've worked with have done. Covers are absolutely important and there's a balance between what money I expect to make and how much I'm willing to spend on the cover. With Shades, my short story collection, I knew it wouldn't sell as much because it was short stories so that's why I chose to do my own cover. I spent the most on Dust because I felt it had the potential to sell the most copies.

  7. Art, I think that Dust cover totally rocks -- love it! But I think the Shades cover works very well, too.

    I agree that you that you have invest your money wisely, allocating more for projects with the potential to earn more. I do think, however, that if you don't have any design skills -- like, um, me -- that you should expect to spend a little bit on a cover.

  8. I am SO late to catch up, but I have to testify to Janie Bynum's brilliance. I've hired her many times for design work and have never been disappointed - not even close, more like astonished at what she comes up with! I love this post, and Laura, I love the cover for Lily!