Research tells us we have less than five seconds to capture our reader’s attention, and that usually happens when they pick up our book based upon the cover. Which means that designing a great cover that fits readers’ expectations of your genre is key.
If you already have a contract with a traditional publisher, they will design the cover based on a Cover Questionnaire which you will complete, containing details on audience, genre, and story line. The designer will not read the book, so you must make certain to include any physical characteristics of your hero and heroine to be sure the designer gets the build, and the eye and hair color correct.
If you don’t have a contract yet, don’t waste your time designing a cover. A traditional publisher is unlikely to use it. However, continue reading, since this section will give you insight into how a designer will come up with the cover.
If you plan to self-publish, read on. Whether you plan to design your cover yourself or hire someone to do it for you, knowing the process will help.
First, here are some basics:
Our eye tends to scan in a Z pattern, beginning with the top left of the cover, to the top right, down the center to the lower left, then across to the lower right. Put important information in those key areas.
Choose fonts that are easy to read. It’s fine to mix and match fonts so that the keywords of the title are in one larger font, with the filler words in the same but a smaller font; the subtitle or title series in a smaller font; and the author name in a different font. Try not to use more than two fonts.
Imagine your perfect reader and design the cover to please them. You should already know this reader intimately, since you wrote the book for them and them alone.
Now, on to cover design specifics:
Pick the best picture you can find. Don’t worry right now that it isn’t perfect. You can fix that later. Keep the genre in mind. I’ll talk more below about genre expectations.
If you’re designing your own cover, buy the best software you can afford, or use a free online service, such as BookBrush or Canva. If you’re using a designer, or are publishing with a traditional publisher, they will handle most of the design process.
Research books in your genre to see what the covers are like, the layout, the number of actors (usually no more than two unless the book is about a larger group such as a family). Study the fonts, the placement of title and author name, and the colors.
Romance: choose a script font, reminiscent of a love letter; choose colors that evoke romance, including blue, purple, red if passion is involved, turquoise and pink. Red and black are preferably used in erotica; for the image, typically the two lead love interests in either a close-contact pose (if the story is about a happily-ever) or in an oppositional pose; include elements from the story, for example, a wedding gown, cowboy boots, big city background or country setting background.
Cozy mystery: choose a font that emulates hand-penned font; choose coordinating colors that emulate paintings, or illustrations are popular right now; no dead bodies, blood, or half-clad characters for this genre; a scene from the book, the setting (town, rural areas); if there is a theme, such as cooking club, knitting or other craft, occupational, include an image related to that; blurred or frosted images; actor walking away from the camera or posed in the distance.
Thriller, Suspense, Mainstream Mystery: use a font that is bold and clean; choose colors that emulate the tone of the book such as black, red, green; often the images are dark, blurred; often the actor is in the top half and a background scene in the bottom; a cataclysmic scene from the book.
Fantasy: Choose an antique or gothic font; choose a vivid color palette; illustrations can focus on the main character’s special power, supernatural ability, or personal quirk; if magic is included, visualize it on the cover.
Mixed genre: incorporate colors and elements of both genres, with more from the primary genre. For example, if the genre is fantasy romance, choose an antique or gothic font for the title with script font for author name; include the lead characters but they could be separated by a fantasy element, such as a cauldron, if that’s in the story.
Should I Self-Publish?
Your book is written, polished, and edited, and you want to see your book on store bookshelves, but you don’t have a publisher. Do you spend time looking for one now? Or do you want to get this book out to the masses so you can move on with the next project?
Here are some questions you can ask—and answer:
Do you want to see your book in brick-and-mortar bookstores across the county? Most self-published books sell online as print or eBook, although it is possible to work through a book distributor.
Do you want to be on bestseller lists? You will need a traditional publisher’s media clout behind you, most likely. Not impossible with self-published, but it will take more work.
Is your reader niche large and general (but not too general) or is it specific and smaller? Traditional publishers are less likely to publish niche books that reach smaller audiences, so self-publishing is often the best route, particularly if you plan to reach your audience through in-person events, such as speaking.
How much work do you want to do? If you think writing the book and getting it ready for publication is difficult, marketing and promotion is about ten times worse for most authors. While the marketing budgets of many traditional publishers is relegated to their top-selling authors, they usually set aside a few dollars to promote your book. In self-publishing, you are your book’s best marketer.
How soon do you want to release your book? Traditional publishing generally takes 12 to 24 months from signing the contract to publication. If you have written a time-sensitive book, such as a political, medical, or social event, or perhaps one about the anniversary of a particular historical event, self-publishing is your best route. If you’ve written a book in a hot current genre, you might want to self-publish now to catch the wave of sales in that genre.
How much control do you want over your book? Cover design and distribution in a traditionally-published book rests almost entirely with the publisher. You retain more control when you self-publish, but you will do all the work.
The good news is that self-publishing doesn’t mean that’s the end of your traditional publishing opportunities. In fact, several decently selling self-published books tells a traditional publisher that you can complete a project and that you understand book marketing and promotion. Being a hybrid author—one who self-publishes and traditionally publishes—doesn’t mean you’re compromising. As you can see from the above questions, WHY we write a book is as important as WHAT we write.
Whichever path you choose, determine to follow it to its end. Keep working on the next project—always! And don’t try to cram your book into a publishing process because you need the validation of a traditional publisher or you don’t want to write the best book you can—readers need what you write. The myth that self-published books weren’t good enough for a traditional publisher simply isn’t true any longer—in most cases. So make your book the best it can be, then honestly consider your audience, your motivation, and your ability and resources.
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com