What’s Wrong (or Right) With This Book Cover?

It’s tough being an indie author–and one of the toughest things we have to tackle is cover art for our books.

It’s a dilemma–pay a graphics designer somewhere between $100 – $500 for a cover image that looks professional?

Go with a cheap designer and hope for the best?

Or…(gulp)…make the cover ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong:  this isn’t going to be a rant about how expensive covers are. Covers are incredibly important for attracting readers. A skilled graphic designer is worth the hefty fee.

But if you’re just starting out and you don’t have the money to invest in your writing career, hiring a pro might not be an option.

It’s a catch 22:  you need a fantastic cover to sell books so you have enough money to pay for a fantastic cover.

In the meantime, the best option is to keep your covers simple, whether you’re doing them yourself or hiring a less-experienced artist.

Let’s take a look at some great and not-so-great covers, and see what we can learn from them.

(And before I continue, I just want to say that I’m not in any way commenting on the actual content of the books–some of these books with not-so-great covers could tell amazing stories!  We’re not judging a book by it’s cover, just looking at how the cover could have done a better job of selling the book.)

Since most authors don’t have extensive Photoshop skills (me neither!), I’m focusing on the simplest kind of cover you can make:  one with a single stock photo with words added.  No special effects required.

maid for the billionaire good romance

This one’s really simple, but striking:  because the image is a closeup, and the man is nuzzling the woman’s neck, it feels intimate, which suggests we’re going to get a sexy romance.

The text is large enough that it’s easy to read, even in a thumbnail, and the girliness of the title font fits with a romance. The colors of the title font are also feminine, and they contrast with the image strongly enough to jump out.

The text is positioned such that even though it covers the lower part of the woman’s face, we still have a very clear, immediate understanding of what’s going on in the picture. Nothing crucial is obscured.

tangled beauty bad romanceCompare with this one–the way the couple is positioned, the image is also intimate, but not in a graceful way.

The colors on the cover are vivid, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they fight with the even more vivid title text, which glows like a neon sign, giving it an adult store vibe. The title font doesn’t match the raw sexuality that the cover artists seems to be going for either–the swirly, feminine font would look better on the cover of a Disney DVD.

The author’s name is in a font that clashes with the title font, and the whitish text is hard to see against the paleness of the girl’s forearm, which means at a first glance, I come away with the impression that the author’s name is “K.L. dleton.”
Both of these covers are simple text over a stock photo, but which one do you think readers will choose?

murder tightly knit romance goodHere’s another excellent cover made from adding text to a stock photo.

It’s a very simple design, but it looks very dynamic — the cover artist tilted the title slightly, so it looks like it’s taking off, and it balances out the contrasting slant of the knitting needles that the Amish girl is holding.

Part of the title is done with the same color as the girl’s ball of yarn, while the rest of the cover text is a lighter shade of that color. Not only do the two shades of blue tie the cover together, they also stand out against the girl’s gray dress and the white-painted boards she’s facing.

The title font is old-fashioned looking, which fits with the book’s topic, but it’s also easy to read.

Under the author’s name is a generic flourish, but the cover would still work without it.

not over you bad romanceCompare this one–the artist did sometime similar in terms of matching colors, using a paler shade of the model’s orange swimsuit for the author name and the heart in “you.”

But…the heavy black bars framing the image at the top and bottom scream “self-published”, and the title font is super-feminine–it doesn’t go with the hypermasculine, heavily-muscled man we’re looking at.

Also, as a side note, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that the model was wearing a swimsuit–the white stripe on the side is mostly obscured by his arm, and that orange is the same color that prison jumpsuits are made of. Exacerbating that impression is that the man is hunched forward aggressively, like he’s ready to pounce on something.

ryker good romanceHere’s another excellent (but also very simple) book cover — the black and white picture of the man has excellent contrast, and the look on the cover model’s face is intense (it fits with the series title “A Cold Fury Hockey Novel”).

The only splash of color is the title, which seems to be the hero’s name; even though the title is somewhat transparent, it still stands out, due the b&w background and the fact that the letters are outlined in white.

The author’s name, in white, is clearly visible against the dark waistband of the model’s shorts.

Super-simple design, with all the text in the lower quarter of the image, but striking. when you see it at thumbnail size in an Amazon search, this one jumps out at you.

dead soprano bad mysteryThe summary for the mystery “Dead Soprano” looked interesting, but the cover was extremely off-putting.

The photo is a blurry black-and-white image with poor contrast, and it actually looks a little bit fuzzy, like it might have been very low resolution or a poor-quality scan of a photo.

The title is in a difficult to read font–with some parts of the letters oddly thick and other parts so thin that they almost disappear–and the blue text doesn’t really stand out well from the grays in the cover model’s hat and suit. It’s work to figure out what the title of the book is, and the author’s name is almost illegible.

classmate murders bad mysteryHere’s another mystery that might be amazing, but whose cover scared me off.  The color scheme is garish, more appropriate for a teen romance that’s actually targeting girls who want to be cheerleaders. It doesn’t scream “murder mystery”, it screams “pep rally.”

Also, why does the cheerleader have an off-center “no” sign on her chest?

The placement of the title and author name is actually fine, but there are three different fonts used, and none of them go together.

Finally, the series title, “A Jim Richards Murder Novel” is sufficient–or the wording at the top that explains that Jim Richards is a senior citizen/sleuth is sufficient–but put together, one of them is redundant.

dead wood - good mysteryNot a romance cover, but a mystery, and it’s just about perfect.The stark, leafless tree in black-and-white suggests death and the dark tone that goes with murder mysteries.

Like the artist of “Not Over You” (above), this cover artist added a black shape to the image for the sake of making the author’s name stand out. But instead of identical black bars at the top and bottom, this artist chose a more organic, rounded shape at the bottom that feels much gentler.

The title font is also stark, and seems to be overlaid with the texture of weathered wood with peeling paint, which not only ties in with the book’s title nicely.

There’s a quote at the top that’s small enough that it’s hard to read at thumbnail size, but that’s okay–if the artist had put it much lower on the cover, it would have felt like clutter instead of a helpful blurb that’s visible when you click on the book.

Are you starting to see that the good covers all have something in common?

  1. Simple, striking image that communicates either the content or the tone of the book.
  2. Not a lot of text (so the cover doesn’t look cluttered).
  3. Fonts work together if there’s more than one, and they’re chosen for how they fit with the image.
  4. A simple color scheme, with only one or maybe two bright colors used to highlight something important (like the ball of yarn and the word “murder” on the “Murder Tightly Knit” cover).
  5. The words are integrated into the design in some way–the design doesn’t feel like a stock photo with words tacked onto the edges.


Who Are You Writing For?

It’s an often-debated question:  should you write for the market, or write for yourself?

In other words, should you write an Amish romance because they’re hot right now?

Or should you write that first contact story where the alien visitor has to prove he didn’t murder the head of the United Nations as a prelude to invasion while also wooing the Earthling of his dreams?

It’s tempting to try to write to the market. From the unpublished perspective, it seems like it would be easier to write a bestseller if you’re writing in a category that’s already selling well.

But not only is it harder to write something you don’t care about, it’s also inevitably too late–by the time a trend has crested and it’s clear that vampires or medical romances or zombie epidemics are the big thing, you’re a few months to a year behind the trend. By the time your Harry Potter-ish story is ready to submit to an agent or editor, readers are looking for the next big thing.  Not to mention the fact that you’ll be submitting to an agent or editor who’s already been inundated with copycat stories for months.

Writing to the market is a little easier if you’re self-publishing and you write fast.  If you can write a novella that rides the coattails of someone else’s success and get it out there just after the trend has crested, you have a chance of getting in front of readers who are looking for the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games. Then they’ll be primed for more work for you in that subgenre.

But that’s a big risk. And it supposes that you can produce high-quality fiction on a deadline that’s enough like the trendsetter you’re following to satisfy fans without feeling derivative.  Unless you’re very good, you can spend your whole career chasing the market without ever catching a spot on the bestseller list.

Writing for yourself is a big risk too.  It’s easy to end up making the story so specific to your own personal interests that it’s difficult for others to get into the story. Who else wants to read a story about a chocolate-chomping, bellydancing, needle-pointing detective who tracks down abducted children while falling in love with the CEO of an ecofriendly publishing company?

Um. I think the answer to that one is obvious.

A lot of experienced writers recommend that you write for a particular person–someone you know who represents your target readers.  If you don’t know someone personally who would be your target reader, imagine someone who fits the bill based on what you know about your intended audience.

That’s better. It makes it easier to identify who you’re trying to make happy.

But even writing for your target reader, you run the risk of toning yourself down to meet that person’s expectations–which can limit you from breaking new ground and creating a story that blows readers’ minds.

In other words, you may find yourself writing what that person is going to expect to read rather than being true to your creative vision and creating something really new and different.

So are you screwed?  Do you have to choose between writing stories that very few people want to read or writing stories that everyone wanted to read last year?

No. Not if you write to human nature.

What great authors do is they create strange new worlds for readers to explore–but they make those worlds accessible to the reader by writing to human nature.

Before Harry Potter, “kids at wizard school” was a small subgenre read by a few hardcore fantasy fans. J.K. Rowling not only wrote a fantastic story in this subgenre, she made Harry’s world so accessible that millions of readers–many of whom were NOT fantasy fans–found their way into that world.

How did she do it?

She made the main characters accessible by:

  • Using techniques that caused readers to have both sympathy and empathy for them
  • Giving them backstories and personality traits that explained their actions in the present
  • Showing their emotional reactions to events clearly, so that the reader knew how to interpret those events
  • Depicting familiar relationships and emotional dynamics embedded in her fantasy world, making even the mysterious characters comprehensible to the reader at an emotional level

She made the world accessible by:

  • Piquing the reader’s curiosity, then giving the characters a reason to explore what the reader was curious about
  • Showing the reader how things worked in this world instead of telling us
  • Including familiar elements along with the strange and magical elements, so that those familiar elements served as a gateway to the unfamiliar
  • Feeding one new thing to the reader at a time, so that the reader didn’t get overwhelmed with strangeness

In other words, she skillfully utilized techniques for writing immersive fiction to make it possible for people who’d never read a fantasy book in their lives to understand Harry Potter’s world.

Rowling understood that you can’t just plunk readers down into a completely foreign environment and expect them to connect to this new world. She gave her readers a myriad of familiar elements that helped explain the unfamiliar, and she gave the reader likable, interesting, sympathetic characters–characters that the reader was willing to follow deep into the world.

She understood that we are intrigued by the new, the strange, the mysterious–but that we also need a starting point for exploring it. Harry Potter’s world has plenty of windows for us to peek in…and doors to walk through.

You can do this with your own fiction.

Don’t ask yourself, “What does the market want me to write?”

Don’t ask yourself, “What does my target reader want me to write?”

Write what you really want to write, and ask yourself, “How can I make this accessible to my target reader?”