Playing with covers

I did some writing today, and am not going to talk about it. Instead, I’ll talk about a side track I took today.

I’ve been bouncing through several blogs that discuss self-publishing, and in particular the discussion of the selection of covers. There was a lot of commonality that I’ll share, and then I tried something that both confirmed the commonality and, well, enough with the teasing.

Here’s the common recommendations. BIG LETTERS, for both the author’s name and the title. CONTRAST for the words. Now the title is obvious. But why, especially if it’s your first book, should your name be prominent? Because you begin as you would continue. A number of sales for the second and subsequent books is going to come from people who said, “Hey, I liked the last book you wrote, this is by you too? OK, let me get my wallet out…” So your name and the title in prominent and contrasting font. And that’s it.

Well, no, there’s a lot of advice of picking pictures or images or fronts that encourage you to jump into the book. Images that reflect some of the excitement or events or characters waiting for eager readers to discover. That said, all the advice is vague. And worse…

I tried something. I went to Amazon and started looking at the various best seller lists. The Top 100 this, that, and the other thing, over the years where I could.

I found no common rule. Oh, I found a few exceptions to the common rules, but in almost every case I could see why the rule was violated. The copy of the Hobbit where you almost can’t see Tolkien’s name. The beautiful cover where the title is part of the artwork, and the author’s name is a jarring difference — or would be if it was made obvious instead of small and subtly in the background. But there seemed to be no overwhelming and obvious common rule for the artwork.

except.

Except after more looking, I think I picked up some things, and I’m going to share them. Now let me mention the obvious: I don’t do this for a living (yet, I hope). I could be completely wrong. Keep your salt-shaker handy, and let’s go on.

Observation one: color predominates. B&W and ‘shades of grey’ covers are rare. Where they occurred were when there were elements of noir, an intentional call to a black and white (or sepia-tone in a couple of case) era, or where the tones evoked shapes in a fog for supernatural plots. In every one of those cases the words STOOD OUT. Not overcame the rest of the book, but stood out.

Observation two: Sex sells. Yeah, I know, but a large chunk (not a majority, but large enough to notice) of the top selling fiction has a pretty girl, a handsome man, and/or a visual metaphor that says “for a good time, read me.” I’m going to take a wild swing here (and echo some experienced pros) to say that if your book doesn’t have sex, or at least sexy characters even if everyone is publicly chaste (and you never see them private), you shouldn’t use sex. Not unless you’re following Bill Hicks’s rules for advertising, anyway. But let’s face it, your book probably has characters and there’s a good chance part of the character tension is sexual whether anything happens or not, so…

Observation three: No abstracts. People. Animals. Handcuffs. Masks. Fruit. Spaceships. All of these work. Vague shapes are uncommon. (I can’t decide if a nebula is abstract or not, but I’m going to say here that if in doubt, don’t.)

Observation four: Metaphor works. If it’s a thriller, a chessboard or chess piece works. Especially if an extra element is brought in – a pool of blood, a bullet, an electronic timer, you get the idea.

One last thing. I’d say about a quarter of the books included a small bit of text; a blurb of sorts. Series identification was common. Less so was “author of XYZ”. And I’m going to call “A great book — famous person” blasts exceptions – save the reviews for the back cover. There are several self-publish pros who recommend the blurb. I’m going to say that if it’s not part of a series, don’t — unless your other book recently got picked up for another media (movie deal, for example) in which case yes saying “hey, I know it’s a movie but it’s me and this is more of my stuff” is a good idea. (Specific examples here: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games.)

So let’s see if I can’t make this a working guide now that all that is done. Let me start with my general guideline:

The cover is a holistic artwork mean to draw and guide the eye. Decide what you want passersby to notice first, then second. Make “first” the dominant of the cover and let it guide the eye to “second”. IN GENERAL, since we’re visually oriented, this means the picture is the focus and it should draw the eye to the title unless your name is the better selling point.

Some details:

1) Your name and title will use up close to 50% of the real estate of your cover. Unless you’ve got an audience your title should be in a font-size that takes up about 25%. Your name should be about two to four points smaller.

2) Pick a picture:
a) of an object that reflects or recalls a character or event in your book. Bonus for implying “the sexy”; and
b) that the viewer can see even though it takes up a bit less than half the cover OR that isn’t destroyed by having the title and name overlay it.

3) arrange the parts.
a) Put the picture on the cover. If it’s a half-cover it goes, by preference, in the middle, then on the bottom. At the top is an exception — break the rules when you know why you’re breaking them time. In general, the only reason to put the image on the bottom is if the focus of the picture is high. Yes, that means you have to actually look at the picture and think where the eye is being drawn.
b) Add the title. It goes next to the focus of the image. That means if the image is on the bottom and the focus is high the title goes in the middle. If the image is in the middle put the title on top if the focus is high and on the bottom if the focus is low. If you can’t tell make a version both ways, save, and see which one looks good when you look at them tomorrow.
c) it should be obvious but your name goes in the remaining space.
d) Finish. No, not complete it, Polish It. Move the picture up or down just a little to see if it helps the balance. You might want to increase or decrease the font size of the title, name, or both. You might decide it balances better if you shift the margin for one or the other.

And for goo’s sake don’t think you can knock out a cover in an hour when it took you (mumble) hours to sweat out the book – not just write it but edit it and polish it and get it ready. What we did above was similar to your writing. D (finish) was mostly the “go back through looking for obvious typos”. Show your cover to a ‘first reader’ or two. If you’ve got access to someone who can act as a visual editor use them — and pay them just as you would an editor for your words.

huh, for not doing it I seem to be quite opinionated on what to do. OK, apply salt, cut the slice you want to use, and have fun with it. It is, however, the basic guide I’ll be using.

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