A Primer on Covers – Part II

This is the second part in a three part series about book cover design. The intended audience is the self-publishing writer with little design experience. The guidelines I set forth are from my experience working with my own self-published titles, with graphic designers, and about twelve years of web design experience (which is no substitute for experience in print design).

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.

In this stage, I’ll get away from typography for a second and talk about what I consider the second important attribute of a winning cover: a single, stunning professional picture.

A single, arresting image.

For the sake of brevity, I refer to the “single” picture, but in reality, we could be talking about covers that have a collage, or a photographic background that is suborned to a primary photo front-and-center, or an illustration. My point is that your cover should have an arresting image of high quality whenever possible and be the undisputed center of attention. The photo can be detailed or abstract (see below), but it should be clear and predominant.

Two exceptions to the rule that I can think of are:

  1. When the author or title can carry the book without any support from a graphic, and
  2. When the simplicity of an abstract or even bland cover becomes a brand associated with the author (examples below).

Graphic Quality
It’s important to understand the differences between print and digital graphic quality. Skip this section if you’re already familiar with these concepts.

Regarding creating covers for both print and digital: you have to be aware of the fact that these two mediums use different standards for resolution (usually expressed in dpi [dots per inch] or ppi [pixels per inch] in Western/English measurements).

Print is more demanding and requires upwards of 200dpi to have the standard of quality readers expect. 300dpi is more of a standard, actually, and the one I adhere to when crafting my own covers or buying stock photos (regarding the latter: if you’ve ever bought stock, you know that this is important because you pay for photos by the size/resolution. Higher dpi + larger physical size = much more $. If you buy a small dpi graphic and hope it will pass as your main cover picture, you’ll be very disappointed. It will be blurry and/or grainy.). There is no real need to go beyond 300dpi (glossy magazines and technical manuals require the heady 800dpi+, but not book covers).

Digital is different: the maximum resolution displayed on the overwhelming number of computer screens is 72/96 dpi. Obviously, you can get away with small dpi graphics (i.e., cheaper) if you only plan to publish your work digitally.

This photo for digital: about $10. For print: between $30-$40.

But here’s the final rub. There’s a maxim in graphic work that goes: you can always make a graphic worse, but you can’t make it better. In other words, you can’t add quality to a poor (i.e., low dpi) picture. But you can always dumb a good (i.e., high dpi) graphic down.

Why is that important? Because, if you plan to go both print AND digital–and you use your noodle–you buy/create your cover at the highest resolution possible for print then dumb it down later for digital. The advantages:

  • It should be cheaper in the long run because you only buy one copy of your stock photography.
  • It take a lot less work to create the digital version (because dumbing down a hi-res cover takes about 3 mouse clicks).
  • The covers will be exact copies of each other, which is important for continuity.

Regarding testing sizes: I generally make my Kindle covers 823×576 and they come out pretty well. To test their legibility, though, I resize my cover to 144×92 and see if I can read the title (this is the thumbnail size most Amazon readers see when they go through lists or searches). If I can’t make out the words, it’s back to Photoshop to find another way to express the title such as better coloring or simply larger font.

Judging a book by its cover
Why a single strong image? Because we are visual creatures and we rely on strong visual cues to influence our actions.

You are, in essence, using your cover as a proxy for the total value of your book: the plot, the characters, the outcome, the entertainment value, the resonance with the reader. You are asking your potential readers to make the rather amazing decision of whether they will plunk down cash, spend hours, days, or weeks reading your words, and tell everyone they know about your book based on a glance at your book’s cover.

Should they also read the blurb, browse the 5 star reviews, and Take a Look Inside? Of course. Will they? Some will; that’s why we do those things. But if you’re relying solely on the strength of your blurb to sell your book, I believe you’ll be disappointed.

If the messaging vis-à-vis your cover is garbled, confusing, contradictory, or misleading, you’re in trouble. Avoid that situation by putting an unambiguous primary image in front of your reader’s noses.

Sometimes, illustrations work.

Illustration or Photograph?
Unless your book is a throwback or homage to an earlier time (like a pulp adventure or early hard-boiled detective novels) or is of a genre where illustration is the norm (fantasy and science fiction), my basic advice would be to steer away from illustrations—especially clipart, which can be spotted a mile away—and stick to professional stock photography for your covers.

Illustrations are difficult to pull off and often have a sophomoric quality about them that’s tough to shake. You’re probably better off even taking a photo and modifying it in a photo manipulation program to look like an illustration (many horror novel covers seem to work this way) than you are to start with an illustration in the first place.

There are exceptions to this rule. All, or nearly all, of Michael Chabon’s covers are illustrations and work very well. Chabon’s cover art, however, is commissioned artwork made specifically for the content of his book. If you can afford to hire a talented artist to do the same for you, then you should give it a try. But if you’re leafing through your office’s clipart collection, I suggest you stick with photos.

The Lovely Bones/Lucky

The covers of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Lucky are, to me, particularly striking. Both designs take the idea of a “single, strong image” to extremes, but the effect—combined with thoughtful design and carefully chosen typography—is masterful.

I’m partial to both of these covers because there is an irony involved, a wink-and-nod to the reader in the know. I can’t say that this is something we can all get away with; by the time these covers were chosen, The Lovely Bones was almost a household name and the basis for both books was known by many people who hadn’t read either one.

(SPOILER: in The Lovely Bones, the narrator is a teenage girl who has been kidnapped and killed. The charm bracelet featured on the cover is the only clue to her murder and the story is told from her perspective in the afterlife, hence the angelic background. The memoir Lucky is intensely ironic: Sebold was herself raped as a young woman by a man who had sexually assaulted and killed another victim. A policeman later told Sebold that she was the “lucky” one. The inclusion of a rabbit’s foot is devastatingly ironic.)

Still, the images are intriguing in their simplicity and, particularly with the strength and curious incongruity of the title The Lovely Bones, would tempt nearly any reader to at least pick up the book and read the blurb.

Click for larger version.

Back with Amanda Hocking’s novel again (the typography was covered in Part I). The single arresting image of a beautiful woman (?) underwater–with no extraneous visual clutter to take away from the impact–is what grabs the reader’s attention and makes them ask questions. Her gaze is directly at the reader, somewhat different and new, while the supporting details of the lighthouse and craggy coast help bolster the oddity of the image without muddling the contents.

For fun, I’ve highlighted the vertical halfway point to give you a sense of how balanced the photo is (notice the line goes directly through the stem of the “K,” through model’s eye [not between her eyes, since the picture is not centered], and right down the stem of the “H” in Hocking). The cover is firmly anchored around the interplay between the single picture of the model and the typographic elements on the page.

I also drew a horizontal line to emphasize the amount of space devoted to the main picture. Supporting elements are still important (see a version of Wake without the lighthouse, for instance), but they don’t interefere with the main message: Hey reader! Look at this girl under the water and ask yourself, what she’s doing there, staring back at you with such a serene, controlled expression?

There are a host of exceptions to the “rule” I’ve developed here. Many genres–fantasy and science fiction spring to mind–in fact, have a “rule set” of their own. The Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta covers are illustrations, piece of true art, yet they’ve become iconic hallmarks of fantasy book covers. The cover of Moses Siregar’s epic fantasy The Black God’s War, while photorealistic (still not sure of the portrait of the woman), would’ve suffered if he’d insisted that it be a strict photographic cover.

Abstract to a fault?
A less impressive exception, to my mind, is the completely abstract photo cover, often used when the author’s name is more than enough to carry the book. Check out the following covers from Michael Connelly.

They’re attractive enough and quite professional-looking, but I don’t have a clue about the plots of any of these novels. On the other hand, the name “Michael Connelly” is enough to sell these books; as a result, his name takes up one-third of the height of each cover, while in some cases even the title is 50% smaller. Is it good cover design or bad when the author’s name carries the day?

Connelly is not alone in this. In fact, the majority of thriller, action, and suspense covers all treat the issue similarly:

I feel that this is intentional for a simple reason: the more precise an image is—particularly of a person or a face–often the less impact it has.

The psychology behind this is probably pretty straightforward. That is, the more details we’re provided as readers or viewers, the less is left to our imagination. And an early lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t begin to compete with your readers’ imagination; there’s nothing more powerful. As products of design, these covers seem to lack something; as promotional devices, they work.

Though Sokoloff’s Huntress Moon is a landscape, I think the same idea applies: abstract images and suggestions have more power than specific graphics with precise details. If we saw a portrait of her protagonist FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke in specific detail, what happens to our own mental image of the hero?

Lee Child takes this to extremes.  Here’s a picture of how he sees his best-selling hero Jack Reacher from his website:

Child knows better than to specify exactly what his protagonist looks like. Which is why there’s such a kerfuffle over picking Tom Cruise to play Reacher in the upcoming movie. It’s not so much that people don’t like the idea of Cruise playing Reacher (though there’s plenty of that); it’s that no one could fill the role we’ve painted in our minds after 14 novels.

Art is a subjective pursuit and book cover art is no exception. In writing this post, I realized quickly that for every “rule” I was developing there was an outstanding contrary example. Hopefully, discussing the issue and highlighting great covers–while digging into why they’re great–will help point us in the right direction. In the end, we might not be able to explain what a good book cover is, but we’ll know one when we see it.


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

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Posted in Tip Tuesday, Tips for eAuthors
11 comments on “A Primer on Covers – Part II
  1. jakeescholl says:

    Thanks Matt! 🙂 Just bookmarked this post.

  2. char says:

    Love these posts. I just finished A Reason to Live. It was great. I’ll have to work on a good review for you and post it when I can sit down for more than a minute.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Thanks, Char! I’m so glad you’re getting use out of them. And thanks for the kind words about ARTL. Any review would be very welcome!

      It pained me to do it, but Blueblood is going to be delayed by a few weeks. I sent it off today to copy editor Michael Mandarano (http://michaelmandarano.com/) which will be the last and final editing stage (consisting of dev, line, and ce). I’ll sit down in mid-September to write a long blog post about the process and the benefits of all 3 editing phases. Hope it will help more indies out there!

      • char says:

        I hear your pain on the delay. My 2nd one is delayed as well and I have one mad sister now. She thinks I should be able to snap it out easily and doesn’t understand how it can take so long. I told her a publisher would have it delayed a whole year. I look forward to your post in September about editing.

  3. Hey Matt! Thanks for the mention. On my cover, that is a an actual photo of a model with vines around her head, but obviously I played with both images a bit. 🙂

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Moses, no problem and thanks for swinging by. Black God’s War has been catching my eye since I started lurking around Kindleboards last October.

      You’ve really got a stunning and innovative cover, especially for epic fantasy, which I think tends to either illustrations of monumental imaginary landscapes or full body shots of the heroes in action. The somewhat “still” feeling of the beautiful woman and the stark violence of the helm hint that there’s something a little more philosophical about your book than most.

      It doesn’t hurt that the empty helm reminds me of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon chronicles and Arthur series, either. 🙂

      • Nice! And thank you. I’m glad that the cover says, “Something a little different.” Because the book is written that way too. And I think you’re right about the philosophical dimension, too.

        I don’t know if it’s smart to buck the conventions for epic fantasy covers or not, but a lot of people seem to like the cover, so I’m thrilled about that.

      • Matthew Iden says:

        You’re welcome. Congrats on the win, btw, at IEA and good luck with the sale with the other winners!

        Everyone else – Moses’s Black God’s War is part of a very cool sale announced at David Gaughran’s site: eight winners from this year’s Independent eBook Awards are reducing their books to $.99 for a limited time. Grab your copies…I did!

  4. Maggie Dana says:

    Hi Matt:

    I’m guilty of not visiting my Goodreads account nearly enough and I just saw your message about using my cover, RIDING FOR THE STARS, as an example for your blog. Thank you so much for this and for your kind words about it. When I saw that photo on the stock site, I knew it was absolutely perfect for the story. All I did was crop it (seriously) because the horse and rider were part of a much larger image. Of all my covers, it was by far the easiest to create.

    Again, my thanks … and my apologies for taking so long to thank you!

    Maggie Dana

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Maggie – No problem, sometimes I let Goodreads “mail” slip, too. I wish they had an option to forward it…

      What great luck on finding such a wonderful photo! That’s pretty much how I felt about the stock photo for A Reason to Live; it was so right that I couldn’t see any other picture in its place.

      Best of luck and please swing around again!

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