Book Cover Makeover Ideas

An author asked for some feedback on a cover and introduced me to, where some awesome designers are helping authors by giving cover design feedback.

This was the cover in question:


It’s bad, but the badness of the hand-drawn sketches almost makes it cool enough to pull off. But that would be risky… probably safer to start over. Nathan on CoverCritics says:

Have a T-Rex wearing a conservative tie and holding an iPad! Zombies around the water cooler! An amoeba with black-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector!

Those are all fun ideas, if this is a fun, zany business book that can back them up, however, for most professional non-fiction books on business, simple is better and custom art will rarely work.

These samples are great, you could definitely do something more clever or interesting… but they get the point across.

The main problem is that there are no benefits. This should be the title:

The New Darwinian Laws Every Business Must Know

But it needs a subtitle, like “How to dominate the competition on a micro budget and become the King of your field.”

darwin2 darwin1

Is your book cover trying to do too much?

Clients usually start out describing all their characters, a pivotal scene, a hundred details, the expressions on everybody’s faces and the way their bodies are posed.

That won’t work.

All your cover needs to do is:

1) Appeal to your target audience

2) Indicate time period and setting.

That’s IT.

If you need to choose between adding more detail, more scene, more “stuff” and having a simple, powerful, emotional cover (emotion is done by colors and contrast, not so much character’s faces), you MUST always choose the powerful cover and sacrifice the details.

This is very difficult for authors to accept. They say things like “But I want my book to be different. I don’t want it to be just like other books in the genre. I want to explain/communicate to readers all the background and relationships and story.”

I repeat: that’s not what book covers are for.

Almost all successful book covers have one simple scene, often with one (or two characters – male and female if it’s a romance). The character is usually just standing there looking at the reader. The background sets the time and place. The text sets the genre.

Action scenes don’t work well, unless it’s something cliche like a man running with a gun. There are many reasons: first of all, you need to understand that as brilliant as we designers are, we can’t move stock photography around like a 3D model and make them do whatever we want. We can’t pose them. We can’t change their clothes easily. We can’t cut their head off and add somebody else’s (well… we can, but it usually looks a little unnatural).

The more we do to match your vision, the worse it’s going to look, and even if we make you happy and get everything right, it won’t be nearly as strong as something totally different, without all the detail, which is simple awesome, powerful, gripping and beautiful.

It’s much more important to have an amazing cover than it is to have a cover that explains your story.

Let me repeat that:


At best, the book cover appeals to the right readers.

Full stop.

If you’ve done that, then you can also indicate setting and genre.

If you’ve done that, you can add any other necessary information in a teaser, tagline or the book title. But not too much.

The cover only needs to get them to read the description.

If your cover tries to explain too much, adds too many details, displays a whole scene where people are doing things and interacting and role playing with positions and poses and gestures, there’s a very, very good chance you’ll lose that immediacy, that intrigue, fail to incite curiosity, and readers will glance at it and never read your description.

Which means they won’t buy the book. Which means all the time and money and energy you spent on your book cover was a total waste.

That’s why I start discussions with clients by telling them, “No, that won’t work.” If they want to do it anyway, I refund them – I have no interest in making book covers that will fail to sell books. That’s bad for business.

Authors who have read my articles, and my books on book cover design or watched my speeches or presentations on book cover design, already know that I make covers that sell books, and I’m pretty clear about that on my website.

If you think your opinions and suggestions about the book cover matter more than book sales – you’re wrong. All that matters is book sales. Otherwise, why write books at all? If you are publishing as an experiment in self-expression so you can carve off a chunk of your ego and cast it into corporeal form, that’s fine. But I don’t want to work with you.

I’m interested in working with authors who have stories that readers are going to enjoy, and I make sure those readers pick the book up and give it a chance, and that’s ALL THAT MATTERS.

How to embed fonts with Photoshop (and do you really need to?)

If you’re like me, you use Photoshop for graphic design. It’s better for blending layers and images. However there is some limitation with text – one common and frustrating problem is trying to figure out how to embed fonts.

Photoshop doesn’t have any obvious option for this.

Printers will ask you to embed fonts for quality.


Take a look at this sample: If you zoom in 500%, the file with the embedded fonts has sharp and clear text – in the other, the text has been rasterized so you only have digital enlargement, which causes pixellation (click on the image to zoom in and see the difference).

However, I’m unconvinced that this difference really matters. When you print files, you’re not zooming in at all. 100% at 300DPI should be as sharp as the human eye can detect.



I’m going to do some tests this summer, printing out a copy of both and seeing if I can tell the difference.

But in case you have to work with a printer, or even if you’re sending PDF files to Lightning Source (which requires embedded fonts) or Createspace (which doesn’t), here’s how to do it in Photoshop.

Step One

The first step is just not flattening your file before saving as a PDF, which you might do to save space. Instead, flatten the images and graphics but leave all the text layers.

Step Two

Save as a PDF, but choose “Use Proof Setup: Working CMYK.”



Lightning Source and most printers require CMYK anyway (createspace doesn’t).

I prefer Createspace because it’s easier, and actually I don’t think the print quality is really enhanced by these extra options – and it makes dealing with Lightning Source a huge pain, especially for indie authors who don’t understand this stuff.

But if you’re a professional designer working with printers, you usually need to give them what they want. And it may look just a little bit better, clearer, sharper if you embed fonts in your PDF files this way – but as I said, I’m going to do some case studies to find out for sure.

How to get exactly the book cover you want (and ruin your writing career).

Several months ago I was helping an author try to make a book cover.

They had something very ugly, and I made something much better.

I was working mostly for free (something I’m trying to stop doing) because I felt bad for the author (I feel bad for authors with ugly covers). Even though I did lots of revisions and ALSO offered to do the formatting for free, ultimately the author became unhappy that I wasn’t doing it exactly as he wanted, and got fed up waiting for me to make changes.

Today, looking over another book cover designer’s website, I found that the same author had hired a new designer to make him a new cover. The cover design isn’t terrible, but makes basic amateur mistakes like too many colors, too much different and confusing stuff going on (too symbolic) and dropshadow on text – a rookie habit for sure.

Very telling, was the author’s raving testimonial: the designer is a genius. The author got exactly what he wanted. After having “disappointing” experiences with other designers (me), the author is thrilled to have found a designer at half the cost! Wahoo!

That book, with the new cover, has a sales rank of almost 2million. That’s not very good.

Price isn’t necessarily an indication of quality; I know for a fact there are better designers than me charging much less. But I also know there are a lot of designers who are just mediocre.

Finding a designer who will take your money and make what YOU want is a narcissistic exercise of a control freak and is destined to kill your book sales. Especially if you have a certain scene or symbolic representations in mind, or you choose the colors and fonts that appeal to you personally.

I don’t know why, but most authors are drawn to ugly designs (usually because they are thinking symbolically and conceptually, and ignore aesthetics). Their taste in style and design is completely out of whack. They love Comic Sans and red and blue and green and yellow.

If left to their own devices they will use and love really ugly book covers.

Getting exactly the cover you want is usually a great way to destroy your author career.

I try my best to make book covers that sell books; it’s a passion of mine, and I love the challenge.

But the biggest difficulty – the biggest barrier to creating an amazing book cover that sells books – is almost always the author. And that’s frustrating. And stupid.

It’s like having a customer walk into a high-end salon and saying, “I want you to die my hair blue, shave half my head and write my initials with a trimmer.”

And they’ll pay you, and they’re happy, but you still feel like you let them down.

If I were better at business, I would focus on giving clients what they want and making them happy. Except… I know it’s really better, for them and me, if I’m kind of a jerk, refuse to make what they want, and tell them they have to use this or that cover design instead because it will sell more books.

They may be unhappy in the beginning. Maybe they really loved the idea that I shot down and feel regretful about it.

That’s why I’m always happy to give refunds to authors so they can go find another designer to make them happy.

I’m not that guy.

I help you sell books.



Createspace spine width error message (and how to fix it)

If you’re designing a full print book cover for Createspace, the spine width needs to be calculated based on the final page count. Here’s the formula.
For a 6″x9″ book, the height will always be 9.25″ and the width will be 12.25″ plus the spine.

For black and white-interior books:
White paper: multiply page count by 0.002252
Cream paper: multiply page count by 0.0025

Example calculation at 6″ x 9″ cover with 60 B&W pages on white paper: 0.125″ + 6″ + 0.135″ + 6″ + .125″ = 12.385″
The problem with this is Createspace’s automatic checking system is overzealous. All the text on the spine has to have extra padding, or you’ll get this message:
“The spine content was too large for the page count so we reduced the size and centered it, ensuring that there is at least 0.0625″ of room on either side to prevent the content from wrapping onto the front or back cover when printed.”
And in January of 2014, suddenly all my clients were getting this message, even though I used Createspace’s formula and did everything right. I already knew that for very thick books, over 500 pages, the spine is often going to be off because of slight variances in the paper.
But for smaller books, there’s not reason for Createspace to automatically be resizing my spine without permission.
For a few projects, we got in touch with customer support to figure out what was happening (and to ask them not to mess with our cover design) and the service rep said that actually, the “fixed” file was the same as our original file.
Which sounds like a Createspace autovetter problem, such as they immediately flag every project as “wrong” and then “fix it” even if the difference is infinitesimal.
The problem can be avoided, a little, if you use wraparound art so there isn’t a clear break on each side of the spine, and by making all the spine text extra small.
This isn’t a great solution, however, because “normal” or traditionally published books often have large spine text that extends to the very edge of the spine (or even wraps around the spine a little).
Createspace’s system is a pain in the ass if you have lovely, large, script fonts with long loops or tails – you have to squish them together or cut the ends of the fonts off so they don’t go out of bonds.
I understand Createspace is trying to protect non-designers from screwing up their books on accident, but their design constraints make it difficult for cover designers to make beautiful covers – and then they send out arbitrarily error messages that needlessly worry clients (I almost always have to tell them, contact customer support, or just order a copy and check the real version).
This isn’t to say I’m flawless; I make mistakes sometimes, and it’s nice of Createspace to warn us if something has gone wrong. But I don’t think I’m so entirely off my game this month that I’m repeatedly screwing everybody’s spine width up, over and over, through multiple corrections.
Something has gone haywire with Createspace’s spine-checking system.


Bestselling Book Cover Design Secrets

I’ve spoken about book cover design at half a dozen writing conferences around the world; but I’ve also attended lectures from established traditionally published designers – and we all agree on the basics, of what book cover design is and what it needs to do.

I suggest taking an hour to watch this video, to make sure you avoid some common publishing mistakes or pay too much for a bad cover. Even if you don’t DIY, having a deeper understanding of book cover design will be beneficial to your author goals and writing career.

PS I have a bunch of other videos on book cover design, but you can also grab all the fast tips in my free guide to book design (cover design secrets). Or check out this post on how publishers use cover design to manipulate readers. It’s not as nefarious as it sounds: just that professionals know how to use colors, images and fonts to attract the right readers to your story.

I’ll send some book cover templates and a quick email course on cover design, self-publishing and book marketing. You can leave when you’re bored.

how to make a book cover (design tips)

What does a bestselling book cover look like? (And would you know it if you saw it?)

Today I deleted some images out of my portfolio.

I had over 300 cover samples, which make my site run slowly, so I wanted to get it down to around 200. Choosing which images not to display was very difficult.

I have my own favorite covers, but I can’t account for what authors are going to like.

Consistently, I have people tell me that their favorite covers in my portfolio are the quick samples I made 3 years ago when I started this business. I think they’re shoddy and amateurish. But if they are the samples that convince people to hire me, I don’t want to delete them.

On the other hand, as a respected and well-known book cover designer, I see it as part of my job to educate authors about what a “good” book cover should look like. Because it’s very possible that the covers they like won’t sell well.

The covers that they appreciate may be poorly designed. And I shouldn’t have any poorly designed covers in my portfolio. And of course I’m always getting better – so the covers I made 2 years ago aren’t as good as the ones I’m making now; but they may still be much better than many other book cover designers.

I left some of them in anyway, but I’ll probably cave and take them out sometime soon.

I need to be the one broadcasting which cover designs I like and recommend, rather than showing covers I think authors will like. Because my job as a designers isn’t to make authors happy.

My job is to help authors get their books read.

My job is to make their books stick to the top of the bestseller lists.

I can do that, by making choices, and being firm about using the kind of design that works, and avoiding designs that people like. There is a big difference.

PS) if you cover was removed, it doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t like the design, I also aimed to balance things out by only keeping so many books per genre/color/style.