Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Cover Design

In my continuing journey to learn about self-publishing, this week I'm going to discuss cover design.

First, the technical.  Here are the basic facts about book covers for the Kindle: Kindle publishing

Next, I found a really good talk on book covers by a librarian, looking at how readers judge covers: You CAN Tell a Book by its Cover.

I found this article fascinating, because she noticed things like how the font on the cover lets the reader know what kind of story will be inside.  She looks at fonts, colors, images, and puts together a way to quickly find a particular kind of book on the shelf in the library.  This got me thinking about what a cover is trying to convey.  It's easy to get caught up in pretty pictures and forget that what you're creating is an ad for your book.  (After reading this talk, I immediately scrapped a bunch of really pretty but impractical art designs I had found on stock photo sites.)

Next is a really good article on cover images, full of useful information about design and formatting.  This blog post talks about the difference between the tiny thumbprint images used in search results versus the large images that are used for the actual cover seen when reading the book on the Kindle:  Kindle Cover Size

I hadn't thought about the idea that book covers online are not usually seen in all their full-size, carefully designed glory.  They are usually seen as tiny images readers glance at among a sea of other, similar images.  This was a new concept for me to consider, and again, made me reconsider my approach to designing my covers.

The next useful article I found was by a long-time cover designer who compares designing for print versus designing for ebooks.  He is another who emphasizes the need to consider what your cover looks like as a small thumbnail image: Ebook Covers.

"A page of search results will show very small thumbnails—60 x 90 pixels—that are extremely challenging to carry off as any kind of good design."

"A beautiful illustration that would be a powerful eye-grabber under the spotlight in a bookstore may become a tiny incomprehensible blob when displayed on a website." --said Michael N. Marcus, commenting on this post.

The designer's advice: use one, dominant object of focus, something still recognizable at a small size.

Next article, again discussing print versus digital design and the demands of each, from the NYT.

"We often get requests to make the type bigger," said Mario J. Pulice, creative director for the adult trade division of Little, Brown & Company. "Because when it’s on Amazon, you can’t read the author’s name."

Starting to see a theme here?

Another article on covers from CBS News.

"A good cover tells you what kind of book it is - without giving too much away. . . . Which is why a romance novel often has the clinch.  Books aimed at women (Chick Lit) may feature some article of clothing, a shoe, a dress . . . while jackets on crime novels are usually dark, with a shadowy character or weapon as part of the design. "

So, what did I learn from all this research?

•Remember that the first thing readers will see is a TINY (60x90 pixels) image of your cover.

•Think of your bookselling as a "campaign," not an isolated cover image.  This was an idea repeated by many experts.  How does the cover relate to the title, description, the excerpt, the design of your website, the author page on Amazon?  Think of it as a package and make sure all parts tie together into a coherent whole.

I decided my own design goals were:

•Something simple, something not beyond my limited design skills, because I don't want to pay someone to make me a cover at this point.

•Something with a theme or idea I can carry over from book to book, because I'm writing a whole series.

•Something giving a hint of the flavor of the story, but not too much detail.

•Something not strictly screaming romance, because I realized if I put a nekkid guy on the cover it would really annoy people when they find no nekkid guy inside the book.  (If you have nekkid guys in your book, DO put them on the cover.  Sexy sells like hot buns!)

•Something that has a resemblance to the most successful books in my subgenre, but is distinctive enough to stand out.

So, how to go about all this?

Try this exercise.  Go to the current top Kindle romance bestsellers.

Look at the SMALL images on the page in front of you (don't click on them and look at them full size). Which ones catch your eye?  Which ones look interesting to you at that small size? Now, look through the books and pick out a half-dozen bestsellers that are in the same subgenre as your book.  For me, these bestselling Kindle books are closest in voice/style/plot to mine:
Keep in mind your choices will look completely different than mine.  Don't choose the covers you think are the "prettiest," but the books closest to the style and flavor of your work.

I had been mistakenly designing a "suspensy" cover, with sharp graphic designs and a block font that conveyed DANGER in capital letters.  Big mistake.  I write suspense, but it's small-town, a-woman's-journey-to-find-herself with a hint of suspense, not nail-biting thrillers. Looking at these covers sent me in a completely different direction.  

I noticed most of the books like mine had author names in a serif font and titles in a script font (the big-name authors naturally had their names big; because I'm not a known author, my title should more prominent on the cover).  I also noticed that it's hard to keep a script font readable at such a small size.  I tried many fonts before finding one I felt was fairly readable when small, and said romance without screaming it. You think fonts aren't important?  You can spend hours on this alone.  Try these on for size:

I also saw that most of these covers do not emphasize suspense elements, even though some of them have those elements in the story.  Neither do any of them have a "clinch," or even a couple or a bride on them (as many of the bestselling romances do--again, if your book is all about those things, put that on your cover to let people know).  But most of these covers are scenic, emphasizing the location and atmosphere of the story.  The bestsellers have lovely artwork that I'm sure was custom-painted for them by talented artists.  Clearly that's beyond my budget. What could I do that would have a similar effect without breaking the bank?

This is what I came up with:

•The design ties in to my new website design for Pajaro Bay, creating a coherent image for the series.

•Text is fairly readable even at small sizes, and it's a script font that conveys that it's a "woman's" book.  

•The images are simple enough to be recognizable at a small size. They are really nice photographs that do look great when blown up to a large size. Most e-readers don't have color yet, and the images look clear when in grayscale, too.

•Location/setting is emphasized.

•There's some hint of danger in the ambiguity of the cover, but it's not red and black with shadows lurking in the corners.

In the full size, the covers emphasize that this is a series ("A Pajaro Bay Romance") and tout my credentials ("Golden Heart Winning Author"), but neither of these things is readable at the small size.
The full title that will be visible in the listing will show that these are romances ("The Honeymoon Cottage: A Pajaro Bay Romance"), and the description and excerpt will give more of the flavor of the book.

Are they perfect?  Not by a long shot.  But it's a start on developing a theme and image that can carry through to the rest of the marketing.

And lest we get too serious about all this, here is a completely different (and hysterical) take on romance novel covers.

So, what current books do you think are closest to your own writing style?  How would you (or do you, for our published authors) convey the flavor of your stories to a reader using only a 60x90 pixel image?

Next time I'll talk about blurbs, excerpts and author pages. Until then, happy writing (and marketing!).



Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Wow, Barb! What an incredible amount of research you did! And it shows in your sample covers. They are simply beautiful. They will carry your message at the small online size or enlarged for posters or other promotion needs.

I've gone through this process with a number of authors who want to cram every nuance of the story on the cover, and end up with a undistinguishable blob of "stuff" at small sizes. But sometimes we have to go through that stage to get to a cover that works.

I especially enjoyed the link you gave to the librarian's article. She offers kind of a "Graphics 101" without realizing it.

And, yes, paying attention to the specifications for Kindle (or whoever) is basic good business sense. Why make more work for them when you can make them happy and they will look forward to more covers and books from you?

Designing my own book covers has pros and cons. I love having the creative control, but really crave honest, "fresh eyes" feedback. My adult sons are actually pretty good at this. I ask them to take a look at covers and give me their impressions of what kind of book it is. If they don't get the visual message, I know I need to make some changes.

I also like your strategy that the book cover is PART of a campaign, and that a Web site, blog, etc. all support the total campaign.

You are so thorough and thoughtful in your self-publishing journey! I'm looking forward to more of your posts, as well as reading your books!

Deborah Wright said...

Barb, I'm astonished at how much you've researched and thrilled that you're sharing your experiences with everyone!

While some of the changes happening in publishing are scary for writers, I think the self-pub/epub changes are among the most exciting and, ultimately, positive.

Meggan McQuaid said...

Barb, you make many good points.

Having been a designer/design student for 20+ years I already knew about the impact of color, image and font, but I hadn't yet thought much about pixels, greyscale, and tiny image size. Your post is comprehensive on all these points and so informative. Thanks.

I like your test covers. The consistency of visual "voice" says series by itself, your foreground images are clear, the background images, especially the first one, are attention-getting because of the light, and the whole set does have a (very) subtle tone of mystery. I think you have done a great job of putting your info into practice.

Great blog, thanks!