Book design basics 101

Today, I’m going to share some basic book design secrets that I’m fairly certain other artists and designers will never tell you about. But reading my suggestions and my guidelines may help you improve on your own book covers if you design them or happen to be a self-publisher. Let’s go.

– Before you begin designing your cover, be sure to pick an image or images that are either Copyright free or the artist has freely given them to you. There are many places to find royalty-free images and a quick Google will turn up dozens. These usually require a subscription or have a “buy as you go” system. But there are other places you can get high-quality free images, like Deviantart.com.

– If you choose to use an image from DeviantArt, be aware that you MUST get permission from the artist, even if the image is listed under the stock image category. Sometimes an artist will have a special request regarding your use of the image. Please respect the artist. After all, they brought the image to you—and they don’t have to let you use it.

– Study book covers, both online as well as in bookstores and supermarkets to get an idea of what good composition is. Composition is a fancy word that simply means “all the elements in the cover and how they work together”. Composition will generally make or break your book cover. The image below has a specific composition. It was not randomly put together.

I designed the dinosaur to fill the center part of the cover, where your eyes are most likely to go. Note the font work is situated above and below the image, not obscuring it. The image is kept fairly simple, not busy. If I had included a whole landscape of mountains and dinosaurs in the background, not only would most of that be lost at the smallish size of the online thumbnail image, it would look crowded. The fonts compliment the cover, instead of working against it. You feel at ease, perhaps interested and maybe even a little excited by the cover. But the cover doesn’t bully you, scream at you, or promise something it doesn’t deliver. It doesn’t look overdone, underdone, missing something, or just plain fugly. The overall composition hints at something that just might be mainstream, even though the book is not. The cover was designed with a specific composition in mind. Every element was placed there to work together.

– Choose images that recall mainstream covers. The more professional the cover, the more likely a browsing reader will stop and explore your book. This is basically a psychological game you’re playing with a potential buyer. If the book looks “small press” or even, gods help you, self-published, you will have to work even harder to sell it. You want customers to feel confident that the book they are thinking about buying will deliver a quality experience. Since most customers associate quality with mainstream or large publishing houses, you’ll want to aim for that.

– Don’t choose “beautiful art” for beautiful art’s sake. It’s usually unmarketable. It might look good in a gallery, but will it sell the book you’ve written? Would you buy a book that has the Mona Lisa on the front cover? Well, maybe, if the book is about the Old Masters of Europe. But at best, a fictional book will look a little out of place. At worst, it’ll come off as painfully—and embarrassingly—pretentious.

– Choose an appropriate cover image that reflects the work and genre. Try not to be deliberately misleading by putting a horror cover on a romance novel, an erotica cover on a horror novel, or a YA-style cover on an erotic romance. You may fool some readers not in your market niche into buying your book, but ultimately, their expectations for your story will not be met. They you’ll have an angry reader who may swear off other books written by you.

– Don’t put controversial images on a cover because you think it’ll sell extra copies because it’s just so cutting edge. Gratuitous violence or nudity makes online retailers reluctant to carry it. No exposure = fewer sales. It also makes you look under-confident about the material you just published. “It’s not a very good romance, but there’s a naked dude in it!” Um…OK.

– Covers featuring sexy body parts = overdone and tacky. Can we move on?

– Covers featuring an underfed, sexy chick with a tramp stamp (lower back tattoo) – see above.

– Choose an image that expresses some element of the work, but don’t obsess over every detail being correct. A cover is an interpretation of the book. It is an ambassador of your book. It does not have to be an exact replica of a character or scene—and anyway, that’s a bit boring, don’t you think? I promise, a reader won’t hate you if your heroine’s eyes are a slightly different shade of blue than the model you use. Really. No, really. Let it go…choose cover models that feel right and express the emotions and overall ambiance of the book.

When I began design on the cover for A Clockwork Vampire, I did not even have a clear idea of what Mr. and Mrs. McGillicuddy looked like. I chose models that embodied how I wanted to present the book to the world, not as a reflection of what the characters actually looked like. By the way, the models used above are Brazilian. And neither of the characters in the book are in any way Brazilian.

I know…you really don’t want to let this go. You’ve drawn pictures of your characters. You’ve had others draw pictures of them. You even have an RPG character that looks like your protagonist. But…really, it’s OK if the front cover model looks different than the character in your head. Repeat after me…it’s OK.

– Don’t design the cover of your novel with computer-generated or anime-style characters. They don’t sell. Trust me on this one. And they make you look twelve years old.

– Use a good paint program to work your image. Most default programs will not do the wide range of things you’ll need to do. Try to use programs like Photoshop. If you cannot afford them, be aware you’ll be limited and may need to be clever while working on your image. There are online image engines that do certain tricks, so again Google is your friend.

– Be aware of your pallet. A pallet is another fancy word for all the colors in your cover. You can get the hexidecimal (the code of letters and numbers) of each color by clicking on different parts of your cover in most any paint program and then opening up your paint pot or program pallet. The hexidecimal is proceeded by a ‘#’. It’s important that you know how to access it for later use.

– Remember that simplicity is usually best. I prefer creating covers with one central image, as opposed to a montage. There is nothing inherently evil about montages, but they can look crowded and sometimes multiple images don’t overlap well, producing an unattractive “ghosting” effect. Blending is cool. Ghosting sucks. I’d rather have a simple, elegant image rather than an overcrowded mess of double exposures.

– Be aware of space limitations. The cover you’re working with is likely only going to be 6″ x 9″ tops. That’s not a whole lot of space, when you stop to think about it. Your every idea may not even fit on the cover. Don’t push to fill every space. It’s distracting and confusing. And the more images you add, the smaller they have to be. Since most writers are publishing in ebook format these days, be aware of how people perceive covers online—usually very small or from a certain long distance.

– Don’t choose images that suffer from pixellation. Use clean images with a high DPI (dots per inch)—otherwise known as resolution. I usually begin my cover-building with an image that’s 600 DPI. I will then reduce it once finished to the standard/printable 300 DPI. Never work with an image that’s lower than 300 DPI.

– Work your image as a PNG rather than a JPG. PNG’s have a naturally higher resolution that JPG. Try to publish all images to the web as PNG’s as well, unless your site, or the site you’re publishing the image to, has special requirements and can only accept a JPG. NEVER work an image or publish it as a GIF. EVER. Simply put, GIF’s are shit, and are to be used only for silly online website embellishments.

– Avoid primary red colors. They bleed. No, really. Even a beautiful image that you published as a PNG may bleed with certain red hues. Red #FF0000 is the biggest offender of this. And by bleed, I mean that certain red hues simply will not remain contained inside pixels or lines and will flow outside of them a little ways, creating an unprofessional, lipstick-like smear. Images in PNG’s and JPG’s and those with high DPI seem to suffer from this in particular. You are better going with darker or lighter reds, or those reds from a purple spectrum.

– Be aware of the difference between “warm” and “cold” colors. Warm colors are anything in the yellow, orange and red range. Cold colors are anything within the blue, green and purple range. These colors generate different emotions in people. For instance, warm colors are generally associated with excitement, anger, passion, etc. Cold colors are associated with sedation, tranquility, logic, etc. Be aware of this when you begin picking colors, and try not to mix them too much. For instance, if you want your book to generate a sedate, dangerous, sad feel, opt for colors in the blue and purple spectrum.

Fiery, passionate books should get the opposite treatment.

– Avoid borders and arches around your image. It can look nice, especially for a high fantasy book, but it’s also somewhat outdated. Most modern covers run to the end, into the “bleed space,” the edges that would be trimmed if the cover were a paperback. Remember too that covers experience trends the same way that books themselves do. Look at some popular paperbacks from the 1960’s and ’70’s, then look at modern books. Note the radical changes in design.

– Choose a pleasant, readable font. Please, for the love of the children, and to save kittens everywhere, do NOT use horror fonts. They are juvenile and unreadable and they make you look like 1998. I will even give you one of my favorite fonts to use: http://www.dafont.com/edition.font. There you go. Please learn to use it. Be aware it’s a very thin font, which means you WILL need to work it. You will need to layer it, a light layer over a dark layer. It does need to be bolded and you may need to layer the light parts a few times to produce title work that is easy to see sitting far back from the computer. But it is professional, and free. Next time you are tempted to use Bloody font, don’t…reach for Edition.

As an addendum to the above, choose font colors that reflect your cover, not shocking hexidecimals not to be found anywhere in your pallet, or that clash with your art. Choose a hex color within your pallet at contrast with your image (lighter or darker) so it shows up well but does not look freakishly out of place.

So now you know why I told you about hexidecimals and color pallets. And these all make up good composition. The title work below is made up entirely of hexidecimals from the image’s own color pallet.

Please let me know if any of this has helped you. If it has, I’ll post more soon.

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