Can YOU Create the Perfect Ebook Cover?

Since here of late I’ve been playing “art department” for several of my clients, I’ve been thinking a lot about ebook covers. What works, what doesn’t, and more importantly, Why? I do a lot of browsing for books on Amazon. Why do some ebook covers catch my eye and cause me to click on the listings, while others are merely clutter on the page? What is the real difference between a “good” ebook cover and a “bad” one? Is there a way to ensure an ebook gets the perfect cover?

Perfection? Probably not.

A cover that does exactly what it is supposed to do? That’s doable, each time, every time.

I read an article the other day about one writer’s quest for the perfect covers. She did market analysis using surveys (read it here). I found it fascinating and admirable. I also spotted right off the mistake she is making. It’s a mistake I see over and over again with indie publishers. The writer is designing a cover for herself.

Now, you are probably saying, “Jaye, what’s the point of being an indie if you can’t do things your own way?”

You can do things any way you want to. It’s your book.

Here’s the problem with designing an ebook cover for yourself. You have lived with your story for weeks or months or years. You know the plot, the characters, the emotional arcs. You know your own vision. What excites you. What you want the world to know. You want a cover that captures all that nuance. All the wonder and beauty and drama that is your story.

Potential book buyers don’t know any of that. Until they actually start reading the book, they have no context, no point of reference, and thusly, they don’t really care. All that love and knowledge the writer holds in her heart is wasted. In many cases, it can so miss the point that it fails to catch attention of potential buyers or, worst case, turns them off completely.

An ebook cover has one job: Induce potential buyers to click on a listing. That’s it. Once the ebook is purchased, it’s done its job and, like the packaging for a new gadget, it can be discarded. It won’t be displayed on a shelf or coffee table. It won’t be taken out to be studied and admired for its art. In fact, once it’s loaded on Kindle or Nook or smartphone or tablet, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s already served its major purpose and no longer matters–except for one very important aspect: the cover can serve as a trigger that leads readers to other books.

What I see are ebook covers that miss the major Sell Points.

  • Genre
  • Mood/Tone
  • Title
  • Author

Sell Points are simple. Maybe it’s their obvious simplicity that make them so easy to miss. To figure out the sell points, you have to ask: What are readers looking for? To answer that, you have to know who your readers are and/or who you want your readers to be. (If you say, “My book is for every reader from 8 to 80!” you are doomed. Sorry. It’s true.)

GENRE: If you’re writing genre fiction, your task is fairly straightforward: Make the cover look like it belongs in the genre. It truly astonishes me how many covers miss this mark so completely. Genre book browsers are scanning quickly, not necessarily reading titles, looking for visual clues that something is worth clicking on and exploring further. Your pastel colored cover with blooming flowers might be stunning, a real piece of art and perfectly depicts the theme of “winter always ends and the cycle begins anew” but it’s a crime thriller and it doesn’t look thrilling at all, so potential buyers will pass. Spend a few hours browsing online retailers for your genre. Make lists of common elements. Even, or especially, those that seem cheesy or cliched. Cheesy cliches work because they shout, “This is a thriller! This is a romance! This is horror! This is what you’re looking for!”

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Example of a cover that not only hits all the sell points, but perfectly targets the humorous horror sub-genre market. The title and color work together to set the tone/mood. The design looks simple (it’s not–this is carefully thought out and crafted). It’s legible and eye-catching. (and no, I didn’t do this one, but I wish I had)

MOOD/TONE: Reading fiction is an emotional experience. Readers are always on the lookout for something to either fit a current mood or create a new one. The tone and mood of your cover MUST match the description. The cover and description MUST match the story. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the description, no sale. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and description and the story itself, you’ll have disappointed and possibly disgruntled readers. Never, ever forget your readers’ emotional experiences AND expectations. If you set them up for a light and amusing read but then hand them Hamlet, your cover–and the book–has failed.

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Example of a cover that fails. Found under a search for “political thrillers” it doesn’t look like a political thriller. It’s dull. Bad enough to tack on a photo, but it’s not even an interesting photo. The image is static and out of context. The typography is illegible in thumbnail. It looks amateurish.

TITLE: In my rarely humble opinion, publishers should spend more brain time on titles than on artwork. A truly great title can sell books all on its own. (Personally, I am total shit with titles, so I have nothing but admiration for people who come up with great titles.) What makes a great title? It’s snappy, it’s memorable, it tells a story in just a few words. This isn’t the place to be cute or esoteric or lofty. In the article I linked to earlier, one of the problems I noted was the author’s title. THE SCARLET ALBATROSS. Interesting visual, but taken all by itself, what can it possibly mean? Who is looking for a book about a big seabird painted red? (And the author must sense there is something off about it because the cover is bogged down with extraneous tag lines and explanations.) Contrast that to Larry Correria’s MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL.Says it all.  Anyone looking for a story about monsters is going to at least click on the listing. When it comes to titles, subtlety is not your friend. Nor are lofty literary allusions (unless you are targeting the really tiny market of literary snobs). Wordplay is only going to work if your intended audience is in on the joke. If you’re going to invest time and/or money in market testing, forget the artwork and test your title. Once you have a title, make sure it’s readable on the cover. Yes, I know, the book title is right there in plain text on the browsing screen. But browsers are looking at the pictures first, then when something catches the eye, the text off to the side. If your title is illegible on the listing then it doesn’t exist.

AUTHOR: I am always appalled by writers with audiences whose names are not prominent on the cover. It’s a HUGE sell point. The majority of readers are fairly risk aversive. They might say they want something new and different, but if given a choice they’ll usually go with a sure thing. A writer who’s made them happy in the past might very well make them happy in the future. The more prominent your name is on the cover, the more important it looks. Even new writers should make their name stand out.

A word about artwork. I’m not going to say “pearls before swine” but… Fabulous artwork is NOT a sell point. (Fabulous artwork can sell print editions because sometimes those books aren’t even opened, they are displayed, and in brick-and-mortar stores customers actually pick up books and study them front and back before opening the pages–an entirely different way to shop for books.) Crappy, amateurish artwork can hurt your sales because readers will assume the interior is also crappy and amateurish. But when you’re making decisions about artwork and illustrations for an ebook cover, look at it in context of the sell points. It’s far more important that the illustration imparts information than that it looks pretty.

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Gorgeous artwork that is utterly wasted on an ebook. The image turns to a muddy splotch in thumbnail. If not for the author’s name, this cover would be a total fail.

Another word, this time about typography. Choose your typefaces wisely and don’t junk them up with too many effects. Make sure your title and name are as legible as possible in thumbnail. Make sure the style of the typeface matches the design.

My number one suggestion for indies designing their ebook cover is to HONESTLY assess whether they can objectively wear the “art department” hat or not. If your mind keeps turning to themes and symbolism and all the many (many!) wonderful elements you want on the cover, and if you keep forgetting to consider what your potential readers are looking for, then it’s probable that you need to turn the job over to someone else. And then let them do their job.

 

 

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DIY Book Covers: Recycling Old Covers

Caveat: I’m NOT a cover designer. I’m more of a determined monkey turned art department through the process of being too dumb to know better. What helps is having great tools: Adobe Creative Cloud, a Mac computer with a huge screen, and unlimited access to YouTube where you can learn everything about anything when it comes to Photoshop.)

Anyhoo…

Blog-old covers6When LB handed me the project of restoring his extensive mid-century pulp paperback novels for digital and print we had a minor problem. Covers. Now, while I am in love with the gorgeous retro covers Hard Case Crime is putting on some of LB’s books, I don’t have the ability to create that type of art. So with time and budget concerns (we had a LOT of books to do) we had to get creative. For the Classic Crime Library (most originally published in the 1960s) we came up with what I believe is an elegant solution. I made them look like old-school classics with leather covers and gold leaf. This was surprisingly easy to do–and inexpensive. The only out-of-pocket expense was font licensing. For the rest: I scanned the back of a leather-bound book from my personal library; used a clipart border I had on hand (copyright-free from Dover books); and used my iPhone to take a picture of “gold” leaf from my arts and crafts supplies. Ta da!

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When it came time to do the Classic Erotica collection, I’m not sure which of us came up with the idea of recycling the original covers. Might have been me. (When I was a wee child, my mother had a fondness for cheesy potboilers and science fiction novels. I knew all her hiding places. I loved the covers as much as the stories — I wanted to be Frank Frazetta when I grew up.)

First step is cleaning up the images.

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Remember, these covers are over 50 years old, and the original cover stock wasn’t the best paper in the world to begin with (which, by the way, scanning in these old books was…interesting. Some of the paper was so brittle it disintegrated if I looked at it too hard. By the time I finished scanning my desk looked as if I’d held a ticker-tape parade.). I used Photoshop to restore the covers as close to the original as I could. I used clipping layers to work on one portion at a time. The repair tool and the clone stamp helped me get rid of the crackling and scuffs.

After cleaning up the image, I made a template. For the background I went with suede. I took a photo of a piece of suede (from my ridiculously eclectic arts and crafts supply). I colored it in Photoshop. Then I tipped in the image and gave it a gold border. Because it’s the ebook cover, we decided to get rid of all text except for the title.

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For the print cover, we went with the full cover, as close to the original as I could get it. I know there are people out there who love those old pulp fiction covers as much as I do. I think they’ll enjoy having a classy (classier, anyway) rendition on their bookshelves.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

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On a side note, there was one cover we couldn’t bring ourselves to use. It’s the “I’m ready for my enema now,” cover. (You can see it here if you’re so inclined.) Besides, LB wanted to use another title. So… LB found a suitably sinister looking image on Shutterstock and I “retro-d” it. The result isn’t anywhere close to the glory of a Hard Case Crime cover, but I’m happy with it and it fits nicely in the series. And it was budget friendly.

A few tips for recycling old covers:

#1: Make sure you CAN use the images. Find out if you’re legally allowed. You might need to get permission or purchase a license.

#2: Use a scanner instead of photographing the cover. You’ll get a clearer image with better color resolution.

#3: Be patient. The cover might be torn, foxed, scuffed, bent or otherwise damaged. 100% restoration might not be possible (unless you’re a pro or willing to take it to a pro). Work in layers, one small area at a time.

#4: Be creative in “displaying” the image. Picture frames, color blocks, borders, backgrounds. In the collaborative books LB did with Hal Dresner and Don Westlake, I used color blocks to make them stand out.

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So for nostalgia’s sake, budgetary concerns or just for fun, don’t be afraid to recycle those wonderful old book covers if you can.

Buh-Bye, 2013–Howdy to the New Year

2013 was a helluva year. Lots of personal drama. Evacuated because of a fire, followed by months of malaise from the smoke because the entire state of Colorado was on fire. Massive rains and subsequent flooding that destroyed my basement. Far too many days spent at the hospital with my children and grandbaby. One thing after another and wondering, oh god, what’s next?

QuinnSeatBut 2013 was an amazing year, too. The Amazing Poop Machine is happy, healthy and growing fast. Everyone is healthy now. I got a promotion–Larry Block has dubbed me The Production Goddess. (I’m practicing how to work that into casual conversation.) I worked with some incredible writers this year: Thomas Pluck, Randall Wood, Jerrold Mundis, Julia R. Barrett, Robert Silverberg, Katherine O’Neal, William Arnold, Sharon Reamer, Carole Nomarhas, Chuck Dixon, Steven Ramirez, Penny Watson, Marina Bridges, and far too many others to list. (Heh. I always wanted a job where I am paid to read, and now I have it and it’s the best job ever!)

Burglar_Limited-XmasI took part in a project that tops my Best Of list for all time. Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, which he decided to self publish. From the first read of the manuscript to receiving the gorgeous hardcover limited edition in the mail, it was The Dream Job. I ended up producing four editions, including a print-on-demand Large Print edition. (You can find the ebook and trade paperback here and the special limited edition here.)

The best part of the year was learning new skills. I’ve learned tons and tons about ebook covers. (And bless you brave folks who have allowed me to do my on-the-job-training with your books!)

Cover montageI’ve learned to format fiction for CreateSpace print-on-demand editions. It’s way different than ebooks and a lot trickier, but it’s well worth the effort. (Pay no heed to the bald spots where I ripped out my hair in frustration. Heh.) At the risk of annoying the Hubris Gods, my book designs are pretty darned good.

pod montageIn the coming year, I’ll be stretching way beyond ebooks. I want to do concierge publishing for writers who’ve reclaimed their back lists and need to bring them back to life. I’d like to offer troubleshooting and production consulting for do-it-yourselfers. I can even do graphics for ebooks–wouldn’t your ebook look delicious with something fun like this for your chapter heads and title page?

titleSo buh-bye and sweet dreams to you, 2013. 2014 is here and it’s going to be a good one. I can feel it! And as a very special treat for all you writers out there, here it is, hot off the production line, available at CreateSpace, and soon available at Amazon and LB’s Book Store, the brand new print edition of Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.

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Cover Fun: A Series/Brand Look

I just finished up a fun little project. The ever irrepressible Larry Block decided to put up eight more of his short stories as singles on Amazon. Cool. Doing the interiors was a snap. The real fun came from doing the ebook covers.

blockmontageI don’t know about the rest of you, but I love how they turned out. My intent from the beginning was to make a distinctive series look, for the author name to be prominent, and for the tone to say ‘retro but fresh.’

Mondrian_CompRYBMy inspiration came from Mondrian, a Dutch painter. Not only is his style distinctive and appealing, Mondrian is also featured in a Block novel, The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, which I real several years ago and loved, and is also mentioned in LB’s latest, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. So Mondrian was on my mind and when it came time to come up with a concept for the covers, off to Google I did go and spent about an hour pondering why lines and blocks of primary colors are so compelling.

Now, I’m not an artist and I’m not trained in the graphic arts. But I do love playing with my favorite graphics program–Paint.net–and I have learned over time to:

  • Keep it simple
  • Find a focus and stick to it
  • Identity

By identity I mean that the most effective ebook covers identify either the author or the genre, and sometimes both. LB is well known, so his name has clout, which basically means that his name is going to have far more effect on a shopper’s decision making than would any image. If he were not so well known, I would have put the emphasis on genre. Seriously, that is the biggest flaw I see in ebook covers–there is no clue as to what kind of book it is. Or the clues are too subtle or misleading. Online shoppers are swift beasties. You have only seconds to convince them you’re selling what they are looking for.

For really good advice on designing ebook covers, hop over to Joel Friedlander’s blog–the bookdesigner.com–and especially pay attention to the monthly cover awards. Merely looking at the cover awards will imbue you with tons of information.

The best advice of all, though, came not from a cover designer or a graphic artist, but from one of my favorite TV shows, What Not To Wear. It’s on Netflix if you want to catch it. Stacy and Clinton tell this to people who are baffled by style and putting outfits together. They say, find one element you absolutely love and build around it. Can’t go wrong with that.