Monday, February 25, 2013

How Do I Cover Thee?

Creating covers for my books makes me crazy.


1. mentally deranged
2. totally unsound
3. passionately excited
4. very enamored or infatuated
5. intensely anxious

Yes, all of those.

As an indie author, I love having the freedom to decide my own cover, don't get me wrong. A great cover, or even dreaming of a great cover, can juice my excitement about releasing a new book. And having had a publisher pick a cover I don't like and can't change... that is much worse than any anxiety that goes into making my own covers.  But the anxiety that goes with deciding on a cover artist/approach, the endless looking through stock photos, and struggling with the right concept for the cover can drive me to distraction. This is partly because a cover is tremendously important for book sales, but also partly because being indie means I have to pay for it too.

The balance is tough.

But here are my lessons learned about covers, for what it's worth:

Covers almost always pay for themselves.
A novel NEEDS a good cover to sell. $300-$400 may seem like a lot, but you'll make that back if you sell even 200 ebooks... and if you're not planning on selling that much, you are aiming too low. You don't have control over sales, but if you've got a good product, you're going to sell more than that. And having a good cover is part of having a good product. Where I struggle is with short stories, but my experience (so far) has been that even my short stories will sell enough to justify spending $50-$100 on cover art. Even on a 99cent short, you only have to sell 300 of those to cover art.

My take away: spend the money on art! Stop agonizing over it! (I mostly listen to this.)

Covers must convey genre and concept, not story.
Authors fall down when they try to design a cover that tells the story of their book. That's what the blurb is for! Covers convey genre, set tone, and sell the concept of the story on an emotional level. Reader's responses to covers are almost entirely emotional/instinctual. You have to heed that response, no matter how "accurate" you may think your cover represents what's inside.
This says: Contemporary Romance
This is my friend Leigh's book. It's awesome. Go buy it.

This says: Cool Science Fiction
This is my friend Lee's book. It is also awesome Go buy it.

This is some gorgeous art, and I almost spent a bunch on acquiring it for the cover for my east-indian, steampunk fantasy romance novel. Why didn't I? East-indian? Check! Steampunk? Check! Fantasy Romance... not so much. I was missing a key genre in the cover, so no matter how beautiful (it is! look at it!), I decided I had to pass. 

My take away: Spend time thinking about the concept/genre you're trying to convey with your cover as much as how you would like to portray the story or what stock art/artist/artwork you would like to use for it.

Get A Professional to Help
I try to get my ideas together first for a cover. I look at top 100 bestsellers. I think about concept/genre. I troll stock art sites and download scads of images to peruse. But in the end, I go to my cover designer and ask for help. Creatively collaborating with an artist to bring your vision of a cover to life? That's the part I like! And the cover designer will have fantastic ideas about how to draw the audience into the image itself, how to make it shine, and how to make it look professional.

My take away: having a professional in your corner is also worth the cost.

Trolling stock art sites still gives me a headache. Just sayin...

Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack Series, which includes three novels, three novellas, and a trailer. She's currently writing a steampunk fantasy romance, just for kicks, but she keeps getting distracted by a future-noir series of novellas that want to be written. Finding covers for an entire series of novellas has pushed her over the edge in the stock-art-looking-department. At which point, she usually goes and plays on Facebook until she feels better.


  1. Great post, Sue. Book covers fascinate me. One of the most important things a cover can say is, "I am a real book!I've got quality! The marketing department believes in me!" People who think they can create their own fabulous cover with no training or experience are probably like those people who think they can just sit down and write a novel.

    I've heard rumors, but can't tell if this is some kind of paranoia, that publishing companies will purposely submarine their mid-list authors with bad covers so that the front-list book won't have competition from their own house. Of course I think this is less of an on-purpose thing as a natural consequence of unequal distribution of resources. Mid-list books don't get the same budget for the cover as the front runners.

    1. I imagine it's lack of time-money-effort put into the cover, rather than deep-sixing a book on purpose. After all, they could just not acquire it, if they wanted to do that.

      I think you can make fantastic covers for not a lot of money - it's as much an art as anything else. But it requires actually CARING about the cover, KNOWING the book, UNDERSTANDING the market, and having top notch graphics artists available. I see a lot of indie covers that are better than trad-pub ones, simply because they have all those components, whereas a trad-pub author is at the mercy of the publisher being willing to bring those to bear on their book.

    2. I agree that it's very unlikely a publisher would deep six any book when they could instead not acquire it. I much more readily believe that midlist authors make this claim when their sales disappoint! It always helps to blame someone for doing it on purpose.

      Great post, Susan! It's cool how many awesome indie cover designers there are, too, who, like you say, do a better job than the in-house trad designers.

  2. Excellent advice, as always. I don't think my cover is something I'd trust in the hands of just anyone.

  3. Fantastic post. I love the idea about having a concept for the series.

  4. Great post!!! Your covers are fantastic, and I think that next time (there will be a next time), I'll be putting my money into a professional cover. My niece did a great job, but it was a learning process for both of us.

    1. As tempting as using family for covers (especially when they're talented) is that it's really hard to say "no, this isn't what I was looking for." The first cover designer I contracted with for Open Minds didn't work out. AT ALL. (He was a great guy, just the cover wasn't coming together the way I wanted.) We parted amicably (I paid him for his time) - that would have been much more traumatic if we were friends/family. Then I lucked into having Dale to my cover and my high bar was significantly raised!

      This is all a learning process. Live and learn. :)

  5. Excellent points, Susan. Some covers I love, and I don't really know why. But I think you've summed it up perfectly.

    1. It really is an emotional reaction, which is hard to parse sometimes. But I've found that looking for that "wow" factor or emotional response from lots of people helps to gauge if it's getting across or not.

  6. One thing I learned at a workshop last year was that your book cover needs to look good as a thumbnail image. People used to go to bookstores and scan a row of spines. Now they get on line and scroll down through thumbnail images of book covers.

    1. Very true - which means several things. Fonts have to be bigger. Contrast has to be higher between image/background/title/authorname. With the (fabulous) artist I'm working with for my fantasy steampunk cover, he does AMAZINGLY detailed work. Gorgeous! And it would be totally lost in thumbnail. So we're working on a simpler design - something that will still be beautiful and awesome, but not have as many details/elements, so that it works well for ebook.

    2. And there's one more trick. Make sure your cover designer (or do this yourself if you have Photoshop) does the ebook cover in 72dpi and runs the "unsharp mask" filter at 50% on it. That makes the image and title clearer when it's little.

      Or I can do this for anyone, if you just ask and email the file.

    3. This is why I have a cover designer, EM! I have no idea what you just said. :)

    4. Forward what I said onto them, because not everyone does it, I gather!

  7. Great post, Sue! I've been on three sides of this one. As a reader, I can't help picking up a book with an awesome cover. It does raise the appeal. Tremendously. I know it's just art and the book might disappoint, but the tantalizing promise is worth it. As a writer, it's a serious worry to not have a cover that makes people want to read your book. And then, as an artist, I've done three covers. It IS daunting, because so much goes into it, and you want to make the cover spectacular on every level - and that's a high order for an artist - all while keeping it affordable. I've decided I'm much happier writing books. By the way, you did an excellent job describing the factors!

    1. Thanks Jonene! I'm in constant awe of artists and the work they do. :)

  8. Awesome as always, and hey! Thanks for the shout out! In my experience, a great cover is #2 in line next to a great story... sometimes it can even sell a not so great story. Not that I've ever bought a book just for the cover... ;o) <3

  9. All good tips, Susan, and timely, as I am about to figure out a cover design.


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