Monday, February 27, 2006

Cover Girl

No, not me. As most of you know, I think one of the biggest flaws, downsides and downers-in-general within the publishing arena are POD covers.

Well, today we have a great guest blog entry from Susan Wenger over at Wheatmark for improving your book covers. If you are considering POD--or self-publishing at all--you will find today's post highly useful, interesting and entertaining.

So, without further ado . . .

Bang for Buck: Getting the Best Cover out of Your POD Publisher (by Susan Wenger)

Print-on-demand publishers are at a disadvantage when it comes to covers: unlike our trade-publishing counterparts, we don’t have the budget to hire illustrators or photographers who will spend months fashioning an image for one book. That said, it is possible for us to create something beautiful and professional with the stock photography, clip art, and other materials at our disposal.

And there are things that you, the author, can do to help make this happen.

1. Come up with a cover-friendly title.

Conventional marketing wisdom dictates that a book title should be visible from six feet away. This means it needs to be reasonably large, and there should be a good bit of space around it so it’s not competing with the rest of the design. If your title is excessively long, there’s only so much a designer can do to make it stand out.

Think about how it will look in print. The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog: A History of Keyboard Interface from QWERTY to DVORAK may have sounded great in your head, but it’s not going to jump out at potential readers when crammed into a 6”x9” space. Especially if it’s accompanied by graphics.

Speaking of graphics …

2. If you are submitting your own image, proceed with caution.

Some POD publishers give authors a discount for providing their own cover image. The reasoning behind this is simple: author saves money, designer doesn’t have to root around for a suitable graphic, everyone is happy. Unfortunately, authors often shoot themselves in the foot by using images that are, shall we say, not ready for prime time.

A few things to avoid:

Bad photos

There’s only so much your designer can do with a photograph that’s out of focus, too dark, low-resolution, etc. With an arsenal of Photoshop tools she should be able to improve it, but it won’t look as though it could’ve graced the cover of a Simon & Schuster novel.

If you are not an experienced photographer, try to find someone more talented to take your photo for you. If your friends aren’t any better at this than you are, take a LOT of your own pictures. Get the hang of holding the camera steady. Shoot from different angles. Zoom in and out. Experiment. When you’re finished, sort through the fruits of your labor and pick out the best shots. With an array of options, your designer can choose the most suitable image, and you’ll get more professional-looking results.

Incidentally, if you’re using a digital camera, ask someone how to set it so the pictures are at a high enough resolution for print. Your designer will be much happier to talk to you about this before your shoot than after you’ve given him a heartbreakingly beautiful 3”x5” image at 72 dpi.

Bad illustrations, part I: Amateur hour

Some authors try to cut costs by drawing a picture themselves or having a friend or family member do it. This is probably a bad idea unless the person in question has a lot of artistic talent and spends huge chunks of her life honing her craft. Otherwise, that illustration sketched by your second cousin will look like it’s been sketched by your second cousin, if you know what I mean.

Should you want to go this route anyway, then for the love of all that is good and holy, please tell your would-be illustrator not to use crayon.

Bad illustrations, part II: Art for art’s sake

Hiring a professional artist doesn’t guarantee a professional cover. Before he takes your project on, find out whether he has any experience with cover design. An illustrator lacking this experience might not take context into account. Even with the loveliest image in the world, your cover will still look amateurish when the designer has to shrink it down to make the title fit, or slap an otherwise-inappropriate banner across it, or lay the text over it and hope that a drop shadow makes it stand out.

If your artist-for-hire has never worked on a book cover, give him the dimensions (if you know what they are) and tell him that you need room for the title and your name. A little communication here can go a long way.

Which brings us to our last section …

3. Keep the lines of communication open.

This involves more than telling your designer what you want everything to look like, though that’s obviously an important step. Here’s a checklist of things you’ll want to address:

Provide a summary

A good cover doesn’t simply contain a compelling design -- it should also convey a sense of what lies within. Unfortunately, the odds that your designer has read your entire book are slim to none. She doesn’t have time. The best she can do is look to your title for clues and skim through parts of the book to get an idea of its essence. Sometimes this yields good results, other times not.

To avoid mismatches (imagine a tranquil sunrise on the cover of The Sun Also Rises), give your designer a written summary of your book. This summary should include important plot points, themes, and general tone. Is your book hip and cynical? Hopeful and inspiring? Is there one passage you feel represents the work as a whole? It’s likely that depicting a specific scene won’t be possible unless you work with an illustrator -- and that may be out of your budget -- but telling your designer about it will at least give her a better sense of what the book’s about.

Share your ideas

Authors who have a clear vision of their book’s design are generally pretty good about sharing it. However, if you have no idea what you want and you’re planning to leave it up to your designer, take a moment to think about what you assume it will look like. In your mind’s eye, is the image a photo or a cartoon? Abstract, impressionistic, or realistic? Bright or subdued? You may truly have no preference, and that’s fine, but make sure that’s the case before saying, “You’re the expert; do whatever you want.”

Ask for feedback

Designers at POD publishing houses have two jobs: design and customer service. As designers, it’s our responsibility to create a cover that will help sell your book. As customer service types, it’s our responsibility to honor your requests to the best of our ability. Sometimes these tasks are mutually exclusive. A customer-is-always-right approach can lead to bad design if there are serious problems with the cover idea or image you’ve provided.

Will your designer be honest with you if he thinks your cover concept isn’t working? That depends on a number of factors, including:

1. Your goal for the book. Are you getting your work in print because you want to give copies to your family members as gifts, or do you want to find a wider, paying audience for it?
2. The focus of the publisher. Do they try to publish as many books as possible or make each book as marketable as possible?
3. Your timeline. Discussing cover options, then searching for a new image or waiting for you to send new materials can delay completion of a project. If you’re in a hurry, your designer will be more reluctant to do this.
4. Your receptiveness. Have you given the impression that you’ll be offended or hurt if your designer disagrees with you about something? He’ll take that into account before pointing out problems with your concept or image.

For best results, ask for feedback. Indicate that you’re open to criticism. Your designer will be more willing to give you an honest assessment when you do. Once he’s given you his recommendation, consider it seriously. Chances are he knows more about what works and what sells than you do.

That’s not to say you should simply lie down and accept suggestions you think are terrible. Designers are like doctors -- there are good and bad ones out there -- and if you suspect yours is steering you wrong, get a second opinion.

* * *

We POD designers do take pride in our work, and we want to make you happy. By collaborating with us throughout the process, you can help ensure that your cover represents the rest of your book in a professional and eye-catching way.

Happy publishing.


Susan Wenger is a book editor/designer at Wheatmark, Inc. ( and this entry is copyrighted by her, 2006 and assume all the legal stuff that goes with it.