Tips for Creating Good Ebook Covers
When discussing ebooks and self-publishing, the topic of how important a good book cover is always come up eventually. “You need a good cover to sell”, “it needs to look professional” and “the cover has to tell the reader what your book is about” are a few common comments. Advice on what exactly is a good cover and how to make one is harder to find. Many authors suggest finding a designer and paying for a cover, or even using a pre-made one for less money.
And that’s perfectly good advice. As a designer by day (and writer by night), I can attest that working with design isn’t easy. There are many barriers to surpass to not only be technically able to do it (Learning Photoshop, Illustrator and such can be daunting), but also you need an “eye” for good design. The eye is almost a mythical thing in my profession. Some people think it’s something you’re born with it. I don’t believe in that, but I’m pretty sure being interested in design and art as early as possible will probably help a lot. Design, like most skills, is something we can learn and improve with experience. Years of experience.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good judge of what works and what doesn’t after doing some research. You don’t need to be able to do something, to actually understand and analyze how it works. Even for authors that plan to pay for a custom or a pre-made cover, it’s important to have the knowledge to judge if the product you are going associate your book with is any good. So I decided to write this post to give a few tips and introduce simple design concepts for authors struggling with their covers. (This isn’t by any means a definitive guide. I’m not a teacher, and even half what I know I learned by my own. That, and the fact that I’m not a professional cover designer. I work mainly with food and drink brands).
1. Context and collecting the right references.
Before even thinking about a cover, you need to know your product and your market.
Products don’t exist without consumers. A product that has no consumer appeal or purpose won’t sell. The good news is that books have a market established. People already read books and want to buy them. The problem is: there is a lot of books out there and even more readers, so in order to be found is vital to have a clear and established vision for your product. If you don’t understand your own book, nobody else will.
a. Determine your genre and your audience.
The first thing you have to do is determine what is your major genre and in what sub-genres it fits (For example Romance/Historical Romance/Regency). Research what others are doing (especially traditional publishers) in terms of both story beats (how much romance can a sci-fi book have before it turns into an outright romance novel? Etc) and look for covers in those genres. Readers are used to certain genres and have expectations about them, and that includes the cover design.
Why this matters to your cover: by knowing what your book is about, what readers expect from your genre and what other authors are doing you will accumulate references. The true secret to design (the whole “eye” thing I mentioned earlier) is references, lots of it. To train your eye, you need be exposed to design. Truthfully, we are exposed to it every day already because we are a very visual society, but that doesn’t mean you are being exposed to the right kind of design. What works to sell chocolate, doesn’t work for medicine, for example. You are not going to see a chocolate bar that looks like a bottle of aspirin. You can’t expect a sweet YA romance to sell when it has a black cover with a picture of handcuffs. Context is key. Design, unlike art, is not about expressing whatever the artist wants, but about appealing to and communicating with a specific audience.
So while you browse your chosen genres notice the colors, pictures and fonts used in the covers. Save the ones that appeal to you in a folder for future reference, and try to understand why they appeal to you. What’s so visually pleasing about them? How do they make you feel and does that feeling fit with the genre? With horror cover, does it give you an unpleasant sensation? With steamy romance is there a magnetism to it? (More on that later).
b. Where do you plan to sell your book? How anyone will find your book?
Selling your books on Amazon is not the same thing as selling it in your local bookstore. Even digital stores are very different from each other. Maybe they don’t categorize books the same way, maybe they promote free books differently or just the overall layout of their website can be a factor in determining how consumers interact with it. Some have bigger thumbnails, others focus on price or title. Searching in one can lead only to titles, instead of covers, etc.
Why does this matter in terms of design? Well, size and proportion of a thumbnail compared to the regular cover is incredibly important for the overall composition. It determines how much room you have for the elements of your cover (title, subtitle, author name, series name and etc). If the first impression of your book is going to be a small thumbnail, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your huge cover is if the title isn’t readable in the thumbnail. Also knowing what size others are using will help you fit in and look more professional if you follow the most common proportions.
c. Look at covers of successful books in your category to build a gallery of references
This is very important. Now that you know where your book fits in the context of the book market, you need to know what good, successful authors are doing. Of course, a cover by itself doesn’t guarantee bestseller rankings, and it might be that these authors are doing other things (promotions, book tours, etc), but still, at the very least, their covers aren’t stopping people from buying it. So there’s something to learn from them. They might not fit with your taste, but remember: design isn’t about you, but your audience. Of course, you should be proud of your cover, but not necessarily because of how beautiful it is, but maybe because how great it works selling your book to others.
2. Analyzing and understanding your references
You built a gallery of covers you like and of bestselling books, what’s next? Well, now is the time to pick apart these covers and find out why they work. What’s so great about them? First we need to find common visual elements. Like photos, font styles, colors and the way they are all related and composed. Let’s say you wrote a Historical Romance during the Regency Era and will sell it as an eBook on Amazon, if you followed my tips, you’ll probably have a bunch of covers in a folder that look like these:
Of course, Amazon is a complex and dynamic store and you might not get the same results that I had while searching for “regency romance”, but just to give you an idea.
Okay, so what these have in common? At first glance, you must’ve noticed they are all about the same size, with the exception of the boxed set. 1:6 usually is the proportion. What else? In terms of images: Long dresses, couples embracing and looking at each other, simple backgrounds and some with sexy appeal (bare backs from the ladies, bare chests from the lords and a ripped bodice here and there). Now colors: we have a lot of different colors here, some darker than others, why is that? Well, clearly my search wasn’t specific enough: sweet romances got mixed with the more sexy ones. But that’s okay, because you probably did the same thing and ended up with a mix of covers that might not be related to your book, and that gives us an opportunity to develop our designer eye and spot what they have in common, how they are different and why.
For example, can you see why these:
are not the same as these:
that are different from these:
Let’s take a closer look at each row.
Right away, Susan Mallery’s covers caught my eye simply because they didn’t belong with the others. Why don’t they belong? Mostly because of the colors: bright blue, yellow and purple mixed with pure white. The pictures are also obviously not historical since the couples are wearing modern clothing. Then we have the name of the author in a thin, plain and sans serif font (More about san serif vs serif here). So these books are romance, but they are not historical or during the Regency Era. What they do signal to me is every-day romance with a sweet touch, and they all seem to be part of a series/belong to the same brand/author. Here’s a breakdown of each element and how they work together to build the idea of romance:
1. Colors. Bright colors usually mean happiness, energy and the brighter, the more it pops compared to dull/dark ones. We also associate them with freshness and newer things, which moves away from the more historical/old-fashioned romance.
2. Images. By placing couples embracing/touching, the cover implies a novel that’s mainly about romantic relationships. Add to the fact that they are smiling, it implies a happy ending or a feel-good story. The touching is also almost innocent, without the sexy-charged touching from a few other covers in our gallery. This helps maintain the image that we are going to read a book without much sex or, at least, focused on other aspects of relationships.
3. The choice of font. The curvy font used to write part of the titles (“The secret wife” and etc) is more “melodic”, implying sweetness. The fact that it is used on only one or two words of the whole title gives these words more weight, draw our eyes more to them. “Mysterious”, “Girl/Dreams” and “Secret” are compelling terms that elaborate on the subject of the novel (A mysterious romance, a perfect girl, and a special secret). Finally, by choosing to use a san serif, plain and modern type for the author name, it clearly signals this is a writer that specializes in this type of story (modern-era romance).
4. The disposition of elements is consistent in all three covers, which establishes the idea of a series or the same brand. (Name of the author on top and bigger than anything, the title and photo sharing the same space, plus the block of color on top then dissolving into white below).
If we were looking for covers for modern-day romance instead of historical romance, this one would be a good example of what to do, especially if you plan to make your author name into a brand. Remember: is not about taste. You might not like the choice of photo or font, but it works.
A quick analysis of the covers.
Now these covers fall more into the historical romance, but the steamy type. Notice that not all of them are from the same author, but they still share a few things:
1. Choice of font. They all used calligraphic fonts with that old-fashioned style that implies “historical”, and when not hand-written, they have serif with still gives them some delicacy/older feel (Used to be all fonts had serif, so we associate with printed media).
2. Subject of the photos. Unlikely Susan Mallery covers, these don’t shy away from showing skin and provocative touching. Clearly these people aren’t going to hold hands on the beach all book. Dresses are long, but almost falling off, shirts are old-fashioned but barely there. The couples are all looking at each other which is another way to imply intimacy.
3. Duller and darker tones for the most part. Black and red are prominent, with shades of pink and purple. Darker tones have more weight and seriousness in them, while the red and pink suggest love/romance/passion. No bright yellows or purples here: we are talking about desire and maybe even secret love affairs with dangerous results.
They do have differences, mostly because of their approaches to branding. Vivienne Lorret’s covers use more soft colors (baby blue and yellow, both a bit washed out to suggest a historical feel) and smaller titles, which give me the impression her steamy romances are sweeter. Grace Burrowes clearly has a lot of books in the same genre and feels confident to show her name in the middle of the cover. Is it a good choice? Well, if it works. Personally, I think it just messes up the composition, but if it works, it works. Sometimes your author name carries weight and is an advantage over others, so of course you should feature prominently. Mary Balogh seems to be following in Grace’s footsteps (or maybe it’s the other way around), yet giving it a different touch by bringing the couple closer to the viewer, making it feel more intimate.
Moving on to the last row, where we have some variety, especially in terms of subject.
By now, I hope Courtney Milan’s style can be easily identified by you: girls in long dresses looking directly at the camera, the same hand-written font and brown background mixed with one single bright tone of color (pink and blue in this case). Notice how there’s no couple here, but these stories are romance anyway. What does that tell you? Personally, it implies to me that the heroines will be the main focus, their personalities and conflicts arising from it. (Checking the synopsis it seems I’m right).
Later we’ll talk about contrast, but for now see how the title and author name in white pops out compared to “A Good Debutantes Guide to Ruin”. While both use the same style of illustration, Sophie Jordan’s cover compared to Milan’s is weaker. Why? It doesn’t work as a thumbnail. You can’t see the title or the name of the author that easily and when placed side-by-side, it just fades next to the bright white title of Milan’s. The illustration is lovely, better than Milan’s, but when the composition doesn’t work, it weakens the whole cover.
“Loving Rose” has a great picture of a period-appropriate couple. It’s different from the previous covers because the nature of the touching is far more tame, while at the same time suggesting tenderness/passion (the faces slightly touching, but not enough, implying earning for something not yet achieved). A hard thing to do. The background also helps the whole cover appear more professional. The pink of her dress draws the eye in (again: contrast) and the blue/purple sky suggest sweetness and romance. If I was into Regency Romance (and I am), I might even buy this book if the blurb works for me too. Of course, that’s because this particular cover, above all, fits my personal taste. Taste is an important variable in design, one that’s out of our control as designers. But as long as your cover fits your genre and it isn’t technically horrible (which I plan to explain later), you’ll be fine.
After analyzing similarities and differences of the covers in your genre, you’ll now have a picture of what exactly a good historical romance cover needs to have. Reproducing the choices of the majority of your peers will guarantee that your work will be quickly recognized as the appropriate genre. While the differences will, instead, help you rise above the “competition”. So yes, while I’m advocating for you to follow what others are doing, there’s very good reason to shake things up (just be careful of doing too much and losing the genre feel).
Okay, now what?
3. Planning your cover – Thumbnails, Composition and Semiotics.
Now that we accumulated and analyzed our references the next step is to create a simple mockup of the cover. Even if you are planning to pay a cover designer this step is vital. The designer won’t know your book or your marketing strategy as well as you. While they might have more experience in terms of what works in certain genres, they’ll rely on you to inform them of your plans and goals for the cover. They might suggest things (and I strongly advise you to listen to them), but in the end the one who needs to feel confident with the final result is you.
To plan your cover you’re going to combine the references we gathered with the premise/overall goal of your novel. Let’s say we have a focus on a heroine who is confident, witty and that the novel is really about her, more than her love life. Let’s say it has witty comebacks and romantic banter between the two leads and maybe even some kissing. So it’s a light, fun romance about a leading lady with a strong personality. Historical, but joyful. Like similar to Emma from Jane Austen maybe. The title of our fake book is going to be “Kiss and Tell” and will be a debut novel of an unknown author. And won’t be part of a series, at least for now (who knows, if our fake novel turns out to be popular, why not expand into a series later! haha).
Next we’ll grab paper and pencil and start to sketch. (Don’t worry if you can’t draw, we aren’t going to create the Sistine Chapel here, just some geometrical forms). This step is all about discovering ideas and experimenting with composition. This is not going to be the final cover, it may not even be remotely similar to it, but is still important in order to realize what works and what doesn’t.
So, go ahead: make various small thumbnails with a similar proportion of the final cover, then fill them with a few concepts. This isn’t the time to worry about looking pretty, keeping straight lines or any of that. Just draw whatever you feel like it. Use the references if you are unsure on what to do. The purpose of this exercise is to let our design juices flowing, trying things and tossing what isn’t working. Use stick figures, stock pictures or scribbles, it doesn’t matter. For our example, I made 4 quick ones. This didn’t take more than 10 minutes. Also, I made only 4, but the ideal is to do at least 20. The less experience you have with design, the more you need to do. (On the left my sketches. You can see how bare they are. The proportions are not exactly right, everything is very rudimentary, but the essence of the covers are there anyway.)
Done with your 20 layouts? Great. Time to choose them to advance to the next step.
Not all thumbnails will work out in the long run. Most of them will have some major flaw or too many minor ones. To spot their problems, I’m going to start talking about the boring design stuff now, sorry! But that’s what you are here for right? So let’s do this.
You need to look out for three things while deciding which thumbnail to pick: composition, semiotics and complexity of execution.
The last one, complexity of execution, is easy enough to explain: okay, so I have this layout, but can I turn it into reality? Do I have the technical know-how to do it? Can you afford to buy quality stock photos?
If you are designing the cover yourself, this is pretty important. No matter how great your cover concept is if you can’t do it, then it’ll turn out shitty. There’s beauty in simplicity, you don’t need to have a lot of elements floating around, illustrations or photoshop-manipulated photos. If you are just preparing the sketch to show it to a cover designer, then go to town! The artist will have the skills and the access to good stock photos. If not, then let’s talk about the boring parts.
Composition is a difficult beast to tame. It’s all about the placement of visual elements in order to guide the eye in a purposeful way. Wikipedia has more details on it, but for the purposes of our little article here, I’ll just say that there are techniques that compel us to look toward something in a certain way, in a certain order, and they do this by the use of lines, geometrical forms and contrast. There are few basic composition rules that are guaranteed to please the eye, they are:
There are few basic composition rules that are guaranteed to please the eye, they are:
Rule of Thirds
This one is simple enough. You divide your cover into nine equal parts, two horizontal lines and two vertical ones — all equally spaced. These lines will determine the position of the elements on the layout. It’s recommended to place elements under the lines or where they meet to give the whole picture dynamism and tension. Here’s an example:
Of my layouts, cover C uses the rule of thirds. Notice how the couple touching (well, they will, if I decide on this one) is on the intersecting lines in the top right. The title will be bellow the bottom horizontal line while the bottom of her dress will go under it. Also, by placing the majority of the elements slightly to the right, I create weight on that side and the dynamism the rule of thirds provide. Just like in the above example, the mountain hill was aligned slightly to the left, I did the same to the opposite side. There’s always room for adjustments, of course, but this is a start.
Symmetry and Balance
Another easy concept: maintaining the balance of the layout. This requires elements of equal or similar “weight” to be positioned in a symmetrical way. So if you have a tree on your left, you need one on your right as well. The human eye is attracted to symmetry (we find it aesthetically pleasing) so it’s a composition that will be beautiful with little effort. Balance can also be achieved by placing something in the center of the space. Cover A was made with this composition in mind. We have the girl on own side and the title on the other, occupying the same space, thus providing balance in the composition.
Golden ratio is a design principle based on a number considered to be the “perfect number”, this ratio is said to appear in nature and was used by artists and painters throughout Art History. It’s similar to the rule of thirds, but provides more leeway to the positioning of elements, and depending on the subject in the image, can work better. There are two ways of applying the Golden Ratio: the Fibonacci spiral and the Phi grid. The grid is applied just like the rule of thirds, except the horizontal lines are closer together. The spiral marks the exact point the eye will be drawn to. Cover D uses the spiral and the grid: notice how I divided the title space with the image using the ratio’s top line and the girl’s face is located between the two horizontal lines of the grid. By placing the title near the focal point (instead of the girl), I hope to draw attention to it. Usually our human eyes are attracted to human faces, that’s just instinct, so since this layout has already a human face featuring prominently, I tried to balance it out with the spiral.
To finish off this quick guide to composition, let’s talk about leading lines. It goes like this: our eyes are attracted to and follow lines. You can see this a lot in animation and comics, where artists use “action lines” to imply movement when there’s none. Of course, in comics, they are literally lines, which helps illustrate them better, but they don’t always have to be limited by their simplest geometrical form. They can also be fences, lines of trees, roads, petals of a flower or any shape that leads to a clear focal point. They can be curved or straight. They are also used to construct perspective in drawings.
Cover B uses the leading lines of her dress and figure to lead the eye to her waist where the title will be. It might not work depending on the photo we find, but it’s a very dynamic layout, so I’m willing to try it out.
So, what’s the deal with semiotics? Well, it’s the study of signs and/or meanings of basically everything, but in the context of cover design, is about understanding that visual elements have meaning. These meanings vary, of course, from culture to culture, time to time. For a time, pink meant manliness / power so boys wore pink clothes. Things changed since then. But since we already looked at our references, we have the right context for our cover, now it’s time to analyze our own work. What does it mean to have a couple looking at each other? What does it mean when they look at the viewer instead? What if you used an object in the cover instead of a human? What does that mean?
If you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure what means what, just search images on stock photo sites with the theme/meaning you want to express in your cover. Search for “Fun romance” or “happiness” or any feeling you want and look what kind of pictures appear.
Application of semiotics on my sketches:
1. I wanted to show the main character’s personality, which is connected with the overall feel of the novel. Since she has such a strong personality, I decided to have her take a lot of cover space (more space equals to importance). But she has an attitude, banter and sassy personality, so I tried to hide parts of her body in all sketches, that creates a mystery/distance from the viewer. You don’t really know her fully, she doesn’t let you. She has secrets, she’s inviting you to wonder what’s her deal.
2. You might notice I didn’t add the author name and only vaguely suggested where the title will be. The reason for this is that without an established audience or brand, the author name doesn’t really matter, and since we are also dealing with a fake standalone novel, what’s really going to sell this novel is the personality of the character, not the title.
3. Cover A has the main character looking behind her with a smile at something/someone outside the frame. This hints at a playful mystery. Cover B you can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her dress will be the focus and the way she’s close to the “camera” hints she’s walking towards us and is confident with herself. Cover D has a more romantic appeal with its couple sitting and holding hands. Their faces are close together, denoting intimacy, but the main character occupies more space, especially with her dress, and this suggests she has control of the situation. She’s the one with her body turned toward the viewer and away from her romantic partner, so she’s in control, aloof, playful. He, on the other hand, is facing towards her, longingly, under her spell. And, lastly, cover D has her looking directly at the camera with a smirk, under a window and thus inviting you into her world while still being somewhat distant.
By now you must’ve chosen at least 4 or 5 sketches that use proven composition technics as well transmit the right signals to the viewer (happiness, playfulness, sadness etc). Time to clean up and place them in the right proportion. This will help transmit your ideas more clearly, be it to yourself or to the artist you hired. In this step, I also play a little with values of grayness, organizing what will be in the foreground as opposed to the background (again, I’ll explain this a bit further down). Already I can see that cover C and D will be very busy while A and B are more clean and modern. Here’s the result:
Using the 3 items we elaborated earlier (Composition, Semiotics and Complexity), I decided that cover C and D were just too complex without doing a custom photoshoot or commissioning an illustrator. Odds of finding stock photos of girls of the appropriate age and clothing posing by a window like that are very small, as well finding a couple in a swing. So I’m going to focus my efforts on cover A and B.
4. Evoking the right feelings with colors
This part is for those who plan to make their own covers and I’m going to talk about color. We already talked a little about this while covering our references, but now I’ll go into details. Just like specific images and layouts evoke certain emotions and ideas, so do colors. Bright colors, dark colors — they are our tools of the trade.
There are a whole lot of colors to be used, I’m sure you have noticed. How do we know which one fits our cover best?
Bellow there’s an example of a color study. Notice that for cover A, I went for the lighter tones; while on the right I used darker ones. Why is that? Well, since cover A featured the main character more prominently, as well her eyes and face, I thought it should be a lighter one to show proximity and likeability. We don’t want her to look arrogant or too dismissive (further down, you’ll see a version of this cover that does this). Lighter tones are usually associated with sweetness and innocence (They are, after all, called baby tones or baby colors).
For B, I wanted to be a little more secrecy and playfulness to it. Her dress is the true focus of the cover, this creates two things: distance and the suggestion of the historical era the book belongs to. Darker colors are more serious fitting with a more adult view of the character: someone who is not above a little teasing and might be hiding something.
There’s also the decision between monochromatic colors over the high contrast. When there’s little contrast, the image usually feels flat and aged (especially when there’s low saturation as well). It also is more calming and easier on the eyes (Again, depending on the saturation), which is exactly what I want for cover A, so I went with the light brown and white for it.
Now, for cover B I wanted the opposite. Contrast gives it depth and richness to a picture, it draws the eye in like a good Micheal Bay explosion, I guess. It works really well in thumbnail form because of this effect. Of course, go too far and you end up with Transformers 20X: Moar explosions. It hurts your eyes and feels like a cheap ploy to get your money. Too much of a good thing and all that. Bright red (very saturated) + blue isn’t going to work (you’ll see in a minute), but caramel (low saturation) and purple (darker) might.
5. Building the final cover
Now for the actual covers. We’ll combine everything we decided on so far into the final product. IMPORTANT: The photos used here are not stock or royalty free, I’m just using them as placeholders since I’m not planning on using them commercially.
As you can see, the wrong colors and fonts really can ruin a good idea. Can you spot what’s wrong with these?
The first one is just too simple: there’s no interaction between the 3 elements (background, photo and title), the font is too modern for Historical Romance and while the photo is nice and the color on the background might fit, it lacks flair. Adding details enriches the cover and looks more professional.
The second one has an elaborated background, but combined with an elaborated font (that is barely legible) ends up being too confusing and bloated. The blue on the background is too purple-heavy and thus gives no contrast and even fights for attention from the pinks from the photo and title. Here, it would be also impossible to read properly the title.
Finally the third one uses high contrast in a way that’s not visually appealing for a cute historical romance, it lacks depth because it has no background except for the gradient blue, and finally the font might’ve worked for YA novels, but using this tone of blue over bright red simply hurts our eyes (again, careful with contrasting colors). In a smaller thumbnail, it would be impossible to read the title.
So how we fix them?
First, I picked one single font for all them but varied their colors and positioning. This font is easy to read, but still looks like Mr. Darcy’s handwriting. I also tried harder to give all of them a more “sleek” look by editing the brightness/contrast of the original photos and adding additional shadows.
I did two versions of cover A to illustrate how the same idea can be expressed differently by colors and photos. The first one is sweet, with a model dressed in light colors and simple dress, her face is round and the smile genuine. In the background, I placed a flowery wallpaper in light brown, this is to create depth and suggest “historical romance”. Notice the shadow I put behind her so she doesn’t give the impression of a copy and paste photo in Windows Paint (careful not to overdo it). The skewed position of the title, on the other hand, suggests dynamism (our book has witty banter and fun dialogue remember!).
The second version is darker, and I used the model’s dress as a starting point for the colors, going for a monochromatic combination but still with enough contrast to make the title and the photo pop up on thumbnail form. The darker background also fits better with the smirk and style of the model: less sweet, more mature (darker tones).
For C, I went with another combination of colors: less vibrant, darker in the background and lighter in the front, giving a velvet mixed with sweetness feeling. The font is simpler but still have a certain old-handwriting quality to it. The white color on it gives enough contrast, so the cover works better as a thumbnail. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does its job.
And that’s about it! I hope this tutorial was useful to anyone and I’m always open to questions.