But that's not what we're here to talk about. (Man, I just missed a great opportunity for a "I suppose you're all wondering why I've gathered you here tonight" moment. Oh well.)
No, we're here because I'm currently in the middle of one of my favourite parts of book production: cover design. Now, I don't know about you, but I always have plenty of ideas when it comes to cover design for my books. Some of them are good, most of them are terrible, and others are... interesting. Yes, ideas I have aplenty. What I do not have is the technical skill to make them (or a better version of them) a reality. (As you can see from some of my previous, template-based covers!)
So, I've been working with a wonderful designer who has been putting up with all my pedantic nit-pickiness (shout out to Hey You Media), who also designed the cover for my last book.
In any case, what I've been playing with lately is the struggle of how to encapsulate the mood, tone, characters, and hints of plot of a 100,000 word novel into a single 5x8 image. What image do you chose? What one image can say everything you want to say to a potential reader? Well, I thought I'd take you through some of the steps I'm in the middle of stumbling through right now.
This is not a How-To. I'm not going to give you a step-by-step process, at the end of which you'll have an award-winning cover. As previously stated, design is not my thing. These are just my opinions on how to find your way to getting the type of design you want. To be clear, I'm not going to tell you which pictures to choose. I'm going to offer an idea of how to start searching for them. Make sense? It will as we go on, I promise. First things first...
1) Judge a Book By It's Cover
I'm not saying it's the right thing to do. I'm saying that people do it anyway. And quite frankly, so do I. And why not? The world is full of books. Paperback, hardcover, ebook... there simply isn't enough time to look at each one, let alone read them all. Even within the boundaries of your favourite genre, literature is currently suffering from a population explosion so huge that Malthus is spinning in his grave like a roll of toilet paper in a kitten's paws. It's not all good fiction, but it's all there. And Average Joe and Regular Susan don't have time to click "Look Inside" on every link on the Amazon Top 100 List. You know, as an author, that a potential reader's eyes will skim past your cover faster than George R.R. Martin killed off your favourite character. So here's the scoop. You gotta play the devil's advocate. You have to anticipate the need for an eye-catching cover that gives a split-second summary of everything you tell your friends when they ask what you're writing now. Only do it without words. But how?
2) Do Your Research
This is not arduous homework. You don't need to go to the library and get shushed by a little old lady while poring over ancient textbooks. You aren't Indiana Jones and there's no rat-infested tunnel to a knight's grave under your feet. What I'm suggesting is, go to your bookshelf and see what you like. Pull out your box of heirloom DVD's and do the same thing. What do you like? Why do you like it? What grabs your attention and what does it tell you about the contents of that story?
Here's the secret of the day. You can't design something everyone will gravitate towards, just like you can't write something everyone will love. So start by designing the same way you write. Design something you'd like to see. Design a cover that you'd pick up off the shelf. To do that, first you have to know what it is that draws you in.
3) Answer the Unspoken Questions
Why do books still need covers? To protect the copyright page from dust bunnies? That doesn't make any sense at all, especially considering the percentage of ebook sales. Ain't no dust bunnies in cyberspace. No, there ain't.
I like to think of a cover as a still image trailer for your book. And just like with a trailer, some people like to see what the story's going to be, and some people like just a taste, with no spoilers. As I said in the last point, my advice is to follow your heart. But there is something to be aware of: a cover does have to answer some important questions, questions that the reader is asking without realising it. Here are some of the questions I think a cover has to... ahem... cover.
What is the genre of this book?
What is the tone of this book?
Who is the targeted audience of this book?
What makes this book different from the one next to it?
What do I want to reader to know about me as an author?
Yes, you're right. Title will help with a number of those. If I see that a book is called Mr. Flopsey's Magical Chocolate Bully Buster, I'll have a pretty good idea of who that book is aimed at and what the tone of it is going to be. But the visual factor cannot be overstated. Think of your book cover like a Superbowl Commercial. You only have a few seconds to catch an eye and pass on an idea, and you're fighting the target audience's desire to make a quick run to the toilet and grab some more nachos on the way back. You have to know what you want to say and say it.
Are there more Unspoken Questions? Yes. Am I going to go into them all now? No. Feel free to comment them below. This is called delegation.
4) Follow the Path You're Clearing
All the other bits and bobs of cover design, to me, can be dealt with by answering those questions. Font choice, colour schemes, the size of your name, etc. will all fall into place if you know what it is you're trying to say. Writing a fantasy epic? Stay away from balloon-shaped fonts. Is this your first book? No need for your name to take up half of the cover then; no one knows who you are. You have to earn that. (I'm talking to you, Agatha Christie!) But keep answering those questions and you'll find that lots of the other details will fall into place.
5) Themes in Hindsight
One of the above questions I didn't include was: Does your book have a theme? I think it deserves it's own point and here's why. New writers (and I'm guilty of this) tend to hammer a theme into a readers skull. Listen you! THUD. This is what this book is about! THUD. See what I've done? THUD. But if you've taken the correct and subtle route, allowing the theme to express itself so that the reader closes the book with a soft smile, a sigh, and then sits in their easy-chair for the next hour, contemplating the mysteries of life, then you've done something right. In this case, you can play with the subtleties of theme on your cover. The fun part of this is, if you've done it cleverly, the reader won't even notice it until the book is done, and then every time they pull it off the shelf to lend it to a friend (which they will, since it's a great book and you're a wonderful writer), they'll chuckle to themselves with a little nod and when their friend asks them what's so funny, they'll just tilt their head and say, "You'll see." That's a design win.
But subtlety is the name of the game. I've no interest in a book that screams, "I'M A LOVE STORY! SEE? THERE'S A BIG, RED HEART! THAT'S HOW YOU KNOW! LOVE ME!" Just like in the text, theme only works in design if you aren't hurting your reader with its ferocity.
To a lesser extent, plot-points, important items, and other minutia that are introduced halfway through a book can also be fun to have on a cover, as little rewards for a reader as they traverse your story-line. However, you should be warned: if the book is finished and the reader doesn't know what you're trying to say with the cover, then you've failed. Your book cover can have secrets to discover, but it isn't the back of the Declaration of Independence. You shouldn't need Nicolas Cage to decipher it. It's a balancing act. Don't forget - in your desire to be clever - that the front cover is still on the front of the book. It's the intro, not the conclusion.
6) Trust Your Designer
My final bit of advise is simple. If you've got yourself a good designer, trust them. Yes, I know, it's your baby, and you know it best, and you want to make sure that every detail of how good this book is gets onto that front cover. And they didn't even read it before they came up with the design. I mean, how dare they presume...!
Here's the deal. Remember this: your prospective readers haven't read the book yet either. They're seeing the cover with eyes you don't have: eyes that don't know the story, the plot, the characters, any of it. All they're seeing is the design. So the next time you curse your designer for not being intimately engaged with the world of your stories, remember that they're designing for people who aren't intimately engaged with the world of your stories. Yet.
So that's it for now. I know, this wasn't your normal "How To" post, full of examples and images. I'm not doing your homework for you. Like I said, I'm not a designer. That's the whole point. Hopefully, if you're still reading this, you'll walk away not with an idea to copy or a finished product in mind, but with the knowledge that you can get started on your very own, picture-perfect book cover now that you know which questions to ask.
And if not, there's plenty of room for terrible covers out there too, I can attest to that personally!
Interesting Exercise of the Day: Go onto Amazon or Goodreads or Google and search a single book. Find as many covers of that book as you can (new editions, republished, international editions, etc). Look at the changes and see if you can answer the Unspoken Questions. Why did they change it? Who is each edition targeting? Which one do you like, or dislike, and why?