Book Cover Design Basics, Part One

A great cover is essential to selling any book. I admit that I make a large part of my decision to purchase a book based on the cover art, unless it is one of my must-read authors. Actually, even then. There is an author that I have loved for years who just came out with a new book; I was extremely excited until I saw the cover, which looked cheap and amateurish. (Not going to say who it is because I really respect this guy.) Even knowing that he is a lovely, lyrical writer, it still affected my desire to get the book. Yes, covers are that important.

I’ve been thinking about doing a post on book cover design for some time. I hesitated because I’ve just recently (in the last year) launched a freelance art career and it seems a bit presumptuous to write an article as an expert on the subject. That said, I’ve seen other articles about how to design bestselling ebook covers and said to myself “Those are, well…pretty crap.” So here we go. This is a very basic look at how one artist goes about doing a book cover commission.

1. It’s All About Communication

Like any relationship, the partnership between an author and their cover artist relies on communication. Your artist will probably not read your book, but they should have a pretty good idea of what it is about, and who your main characters and themes are. These are some of the initial questions that I ask:

  • What text will go on the cover (title, author name, tagline, etc.)?
  • What genre is your book (fantasy, paranormal, suspense/thriller, etc.) and who is your target market (YA, adult)?
  • Is this book part of a series? If so, I will work on a concept that can be carried across a series of books to tie them together visually.
  • Please give me a short synopsis of the book, and any major themes that you feel are important.
  • If you are interested in having a main character on the cover, give me a short description of them including age, sex, race, colouring, hairstyle, general style of dress, and personality. I can do two characters, but more than that gets messy – the simpler, the better.
  • Do you have any initial ideas for your cover? (I will provide other concepts as well.)
  • Are there any covers that your particularly admire, or hate? This isn’t to copy other’s work, but it is easier for most people (even writers!) to convey what they like via images rather than words, which are very subjective.
  • What “feel” are you going for? Gritty? Fantasy/fairytale? Yearning? Dark, light?


2. Mockups. And More Mockups.

After I have a basic idea of what the author is looking for (or thinks they are looking for), I will start browsing for stock images and begin to throw basic ideas together. If the author has a very strict idea of what they want and if I agree that that would make a good cover (yes, I have turned away jobs at times because it was obvious that no one was ever going to be happy with the result), then I’ll probably only do a couple of mockups. Sometimes I’ll just do one, which we’ll keep changing until we get it perfect. If they are more open to variations on a theme, I’ll throw together a lot of different looks and send a .zip file of mockups for them to consider. These mockups are done with rough watermarked stock, just to provide a rough version of the cover.

Looking at stock takes a very long time. For most of the covers that I have done, I’ve spent a day or more looking for the perfect stock to use as a basis for a cover. At the end of one of those sessions, your head hurts, your eyes have shrivelled into raisins, and you have had it up to here with white toothy advertising smiles, with pouty male models, with all of the stock that is wrong, wrong, wrong! So many big white smiles on stock photo sites.

After the author or editor looks through the mockups, we start to get a bit closer to the final version. Or we start all over again, which does indeed happen. I think the most mockups that I have ever done for a cover is eighteen…but you do them until it is right. Feedback is essential, and so we’re back to communication. Authors, do your cover artist a solid and give them detail about what works and what doesn’t! Words are your business, after all, right? No “Well, I can’t really put my finger on it, but it needs to be more…dark? I don’t know. More grungy. And the model isn’t right for the character.” This makes artists cry.

The concepts below are mockups that I did for the steampunk/fairytale book that I am currently working on. During that process, I discovered that it is actually harder to create a cover for your own book than it is to create one for someone else.

The Clockwork Bluebird by Ravven

Part Two: Avoiding Cliche, and Being Too Literal

I’m going to continue this with Part Two, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with some images from my Stunning Book Cover Art Pinterest board. These are covers that caught my eye for various reasons: strong imagery, excellent type treatments, etc. They’re covers that I think work for me personally, both as an artist and as a reader. I would buy these books, and I would have been very proud to have created them.

See Part Two >>

4 thoughts on “Book Cover Design Basics, Part One”

  1. Pingback: Book Cover Design Basics, Part Two | Ravven's Glass

  2. Hi, I like your style and methods for the cover of my self-published second novel, titled: “The Pendant from Mars.” The manuscript is almost ready to publish, in the E-book version with Book Baby, and Create Space as well as Lightning Source for print. The one item I need to know about is what the licensing or copyright arrangement would be.
    Thanks, Pat

  3. Hi Pat,

    Covers are work for hire, and once the image is completed and handed over to you, you own all rights to it – use it as you need, as you’ll have .psd files as well as ebook files. :)

  4. Pingback: Your Cover Is the Bridge to Your Readers by Stephanie Stamm | Writing Wranglers and Warriors

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