A Primer on Covers – Part I

There are a lot of good book cover sites out there, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents, as I enjoy making my own covers, I’ve received compliments on them, and I have about 15 years of web (not print) design behind me.

Why Should You Bother?
If you don’t have a lick of design or illustration experience behind you, you may be asking why bother with knowing any of this? I won’t be making my covers, that’s for the artist to do.

If you’ve been writing for a while, this is a lot like the question that many modern writing guides warn against when it comes to submitting your work to agents. Why should I edit my work? That’s what editors at publishing houses get paid to do.

The answer is the same: if you don’t give a tinker’s cuss about every aspect of your work, you can be sure no one else will. No, scratch that. They’ll give less than a tinker’s cuss. And that’s not much.

Care about your cover because:

  • It’s the first thing your future readers will see and it will influence them greatly.
  • It’s part of the total environment of your book and you should be mindful of it as much as the writing, proofing, editing, and production of your product.
  • Your professionalism will show through the thought you put into your cover.
  • As you publish more, the cover will become part of your future oeuvre. Start off with (or continue to have) a solid foundation for your career.

If you don’t do your cover yourself, read the rest of the primer to educate yourself so you have at least have an opinion when it comes time to approve the artwork for your book. You probably paid a pretty penny for it, so be discerning.

Quick Guidelines
If you want to create a cover that has impact, start with this short checklist for success:

  • Striking, non-predictable typography
  • A single, clear professional photograph

There are many covers that ignore those two guidelines, but they’re often done by professionals who know what they’re doing…and they have very good reasons for adding more to the cover than is normally advisable.

Arial (yuck), Demon Sker, Impact, Impact with 200pt spacing, League Gothic with enhanced spacing and a tiny wingding for empahsis, Impact with a leading large capital.

Striking Typography
There are probably hundreds of millions of computers in the world. The overwhelming majority of them come pre-loaded with a core set of fonts that have become inextricably linked to the communication of content. Billions of people know exactly how Arial, Courier, Garamond, Georgia, Times New Roman, Trebuchet look. They see them dozens or hundreds of times per day and the art of those fonts is completely invisible because of the repeated exposure.

If the average reader sees these fonts two dozen times in a twenty-four hour period, what are the chances that your 14 point Times New Roman title is going to have any impact? Virtually none.

There are thousands of non-standard fonts out there that proclaim through their inherent design I’m different, I’m worth looking at, you don’t see my type every day. Make sure you or your designer explore at least a dozen different font types before settling on one. Have them printed out, side by side, and examine them for clarity and impact (especially at smaller thumbnail sizes).

Other tips:

  • Use one font for the title, a different font for your name
  • Use a leading capital for your title or even each word in your title
  • Try all caps for the entire title or name
  • Don’t settle for the default leading (space between lines) or kerning (space between letters) provided by the font. Spreading out an otherwise boring font can sometimes give impact and weight
  • Don’t mix serif and sans serif fonts in the same title
  • Mix fonts within the title only if both fonts are so unorthodox that it’s unlikely to be noticed (see the cover of my short story Seven Into the Bleak for an example. Those are two custom Celtic fonts.)
  • Small wingdings or artwork between letters or words can add an artistic flair with very little clutter or distraction

Typography Examples
Let’s take a quick look at two great uses of typography. One (Nemesis) is probably within even a dabbler’s ability to pull off. The other (Wake) takes some skill with an illustration program (but less than you might think). Click on the thumbnails to the right to get a larger version in a new window and reference it when you read the descriptions, below.

Click for larger version, new window.

See what I’m seeing?

Clear, striking typography in all caps for impact. Both title and author name are in the same, non-standard font with the title enlarged for emphasis. But it doesn’t end there. Take a look at the “M.” Anything jump out at you? That’s right, the middle spike of the M was pulled downward subtly to make it less of a letter and more a piece of art, not to mention it leads (points, actually) your eye to the author line.

And the “O” in Nesbo? It has a strike through it, which aside from the fact that this is how you spell his name correctly since Nesbo is Norwegian, it also has the look–for English speakers–of the threat of “zero.” The designer probably had a field day with this. The scratches over top the whole are an easy Photoshop filter effect, but add remarkably to the seedy, damaged aspect of the cover.

The overall effect of the typography: impact, strength, danger. It might not surprise you to learn that Nesbo writes thriller and suspense novels.

Click for larger version, new window.

A different animal than Nemesis is Wake by Amanda Hocking. The obvious initial difference in typography consists of the amazing frills in the title. While there are elegant serif fonts that approximate this look, be careful: many of the frillier ones are difficult to read.

In fact, take a close second look at the typography at play here: the base font is not really frilly at all, is it? It looks an awful lot like a modified version of a fairly standard font, Book Antiqua (see image, below right), with a capital K in the middle.

Why is that? Because the designer probably knew that full-on frilly would be difficult to read. Book Antiqua, though a serif font, is quite legible. Hmm…how to make it aquatic and ephemeral? Augment the base font with a couple of custom tweaks (notice the “feet” and “caps” of the letters dip inward) and throw in some great-looking swirls. I’m not an Adobe Illustrator genius, but even I could do this given time and I bet an accomplished digital artist could do it in less than thirty minutes.

Beyond that, the designer probably made Hocking’s name a sans serif font because, like eating too much candy, frills on top of frills can make you sick. But Hocking’s name is in all caps, stands out against the darker blue of the bottom of the cover, and is again in a non-standard font.

I hope that gives you a couple of ideas for your covers. Next time I’ll address the “single great picture” concept and throw in a couple of sites for more inspiration.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Tips for eAuthors
6 comments on “A Primer on Covers – Part I
  1. As a designer and “typophile,” I’ll have to take slight exception to your advice on typography. Whatever the typeface, plain or fancy, it has to fit the content and the rest of the design, which does not necessarily always mean unusual display fonts.

    My first three covers all used professional photos in wrap-around design with distinctive typefaces. Bashert used a pseudo-Hebrew font called Mitzvah–very appropriate and an obvious choice considering the content. The Dome used Albertus Extra Bold, distinctive but not “striking,” chosen for the way it complemented the background photo, with hand tweaked inter-letter spacing. Third in that “series” was Web Games, with Peignot (actually Exotic 350, a clone) title and author line. Some might call this striking, but again chosen for its feel in relation to the material and contrast with the digitally enhanced night aerial photo of Tokyo. Novel number four, a complete break from the previous ones, plays with layout to fit the subject (a discontinuity in the word “singularity”) but uses a a typeface that the average viewer would think quite ordinary, Blue Highway, unusual in quite subtle ways and chosen among hundreds of alternatives because it supported the very fussy spacing I wanted to make the graphic (heavily processed photo) dominate the visual experience. (These covers can all be seen by going through amazon.com/author/liorsamson.)

    The risk of advising unusual fonts is that tyros tend to go wild with exotc typefaces that are certainly striking but may also often compete with the design or content or both and be hard to read as well.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Larry – thanks for your comments. I think we’re both saying similar things, you advocating for restraint, me urging for more creativity.

      Success lies in the middle, with self-publishers neither using the same design and fonts found in business reports nor going crazy with ridiculous fonts that detract from the whole.

  2. char says:

    Great article and tips. I found it very informative and interesting.

  3. […] 9, 2012 by Matthew Iden While we’re on the subject of covers (see yesterday’s post), I thought I would take the opportunity to release the tentative cover for Blueblood, the second […]

  4. […] In the first part of this series, I talked about the importance of typography in setting both your title and author line apart from the fonts of workaday web pages, white papers, and emails that have desensitized many readers to the impact and beauty of the most popular fonts. […]

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