The Concept: Avoiding Cliche and Being Too Literal
When the cover artist provides initial mockups for a project, they are creating a concept for that particular book cover. As the artist has usually not read the book, this relies heavily on a very good synopsis and information from the author or editor on the “feel” of the book. A reader will make assumptions about the book based on the cover, so hopefully that image will be a good representation of the essence of the book. But a “good representation” does NOT mean a literal representation.
Joel Friedlander had an extremely good article on Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism, which is very much worth reading. The most difficult (and sometimes least successful) covers for an artist to do are those for a self-published author (this is a much rarer problem when working with an editor, as they have more experience in what works well) who has a very specific idea of what they would like on a cover. Usually it is an extremely literal representation of a scene from the book, with precisely-drawn characters.
As a reader, I don’t need to know what brand of shoes your main character wears, or the exact tilt of her sea-blue-not-sky-blue eyes. I want to know who she is. I want to know how your book will make me feel, and that is why a more abstract, or at least non-literal cover, will work.
In fantasy novels I think this goes back to the classic old painted covers which were generally exactly that – a painting of a scene from the book. I loved these books as a kid, of course – I loved the covers, too. But I don’t think they work today. A simpler image is a stronger image.
1. Stock Images
I usually use iStock Photo, even if some of the stock there has gotten unreasonably expensive in recent years. You can still find very nice images if you do enough looking, and they won’t cost you Getty prices. The cost of any stock needed, if I don’t already have it on hand, will be added to the invoice separately. Bigstock is also reasonable. I’ll create a lightbox for this project and save everything I think might work in this lightbox – there is nothing worse than a client deciding that an image is perfect, and then not being able to find the damned thing again. In case you’re wondering, yes I have done that.
Every cover artist needs to keep up with cover trends in the genres that you tend to work in. (And outside those genres – great ideas come from everywhere!) In YA fantasy novels, for instance, there have been some trends which have come and -mostly- gone: Girls in Pretty Dresses, Drowning Girls and Faces, BIG Faces.
Now, these covers can be done well (the first two images are from my Pinterest board of covers that I really like), but you should be aware that these trends have been done to death. That said, who doesn’t like a pretty girl in a pretty dress?
Most of the work that I get is for ebooks, and most of those books will be sold on Amazon. As a result, the cover image will be 600px by 800px. I work at print size, however, so I start with a 300 dpi 6″x8″ file. 6″x9″ is trade paperback size, but it’s easier to work at the smaller size and have the dimensions correct for the ebook cover – I’ll show you later how you can use layers to create artwork at all dimensions.
3. Title and Author Name
At this point, I’m not making any font choices, as that is done once we have agreed on a final mockup. What I will do, however, is do the mockups with various fonts which I think might work, or which will fit in with the feel of the cover art. And here we come to over-used fonts. Interesting font treatments make striking covers…just remember that it also has to be readable at a small (160px) size, so not too thin/distressed.
There are some fonts which have been over-used to the point of being embarrassing – how many times have you seen Bleeding Cowboys used? If you find that they fit the feel of your project better than anything else available, try to change them/rework them a bit. You can also mix and match fonts in the same title for an interesting look.
Unless the author can sell a book based on his/her name alone (i.e., Stephen King, etc.) the title should be larger and the author name smaller.
The cover for Seed by Rob Ziegler is one that I love. It’s not the type of work that I personally am good at doing, but I wish I could: simple, strong, high-concept.