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.



Why book cover design is the best job in the world

I get stressed and busy sometimes, but some nights (like tonight) my job rocks.

I’m working on one cover, the author wants a sketch of pre-1757 London in black and white, with a color photo of a girl, dressed as a boy, wearing a tricorn hat.

Another cover, I need an ancient Persian tent in the desert with beautiful stars (I was having trouble, but I just got in touch with a group that does desert tours in Dubai and they have the perfect image, which they said I could use).

I also need a fantasy dragon type of cover, which is tricky because there isn’t much good “dragon” art, and of course there aren’t any stock photos, but I’ve got it mapped out pretty well in my mind: ancient castle door, sweeping view of mountaintops, a stream of fire burning down from the sky… mostly it’s just searching the internet until I find enough material to start putting things together.

How book cover design works

I think most authors think that book cover design is just like art: you just tell the artist what you want and they can make it, like magic, from the end of their pencil. But that’s not how it works.

Unless you’re illustrating everything – which I don’t recommend unless you are doing children or very young adult books – nice photomanipulated covers work better.

But we have to have the raw materials to work with.

I can blend and change colors, I can crop and paste, I can move and rearrange – and after it’s all done I can get things to look pretty awesome together by applying some filters over the whole piece.

But for example, if we use a model with strong shadows and the light is coming from one direction, everything we add to the picture that doesn’t have the same lighting will look funny (especially if there are several models put together). We can fake it, but changing shadows isn’t something you can do easily (this isn’t 3D graphics, just 2D images).

We never really know how things will work out until I’ve found a bunch of images and tried them out. Often they come together and look brilliant. (Of course they do, I’m awesome). But they weren’t exactly what we “had in mind” when we started.

Anyway, I usually blog over on my main site,, but I haven’t posted for awhile here and thought I would.

How to make your book cover text stand out on the thumbnail version?

Today I got an email asking a common indie author question: how to I make the thumbnail book cover ‘pop’ but still make the cover look good at full size? Here’s the email:

We have published a book at Amazon’s Kindle eBooks and like the cover image in all respects except one: the main title (Awakening’s Treasure) is not very visible in the first thumbnail one sees when browsing the Kindle catalog page (perhaps author’s name also).

The consideration is how to make it more visible in a way that also works in the larger blowups (when clicking the initial image, and the Look Inside image). This might mean a different color, larger font, different font, etc.

Self-publishing gurus and indie experts keep saying that the thumbnail text needs to be legible, which means the cover has to be really big. First of all, I’m not sure I agree. The thumbnail’s job is to catch the eye and get an emotional response. So it can be quirky, interesting, beautiful, tragic – as long as viewers have some reaction to it. The is not really about the text – it’s about the images and colors; the book cover design (unless your main selling feature is your brilliantly creative title, but that’s rarely the case). They can read your book’s title and info right under the thumbnail anyway, so why does it need to be big enough to read?

If there’s a compromise to be made, I would always shoot for a good looking full size, rather than a good looking thumbnail. The email came from John Enzo, about his book “awakening’s treasure”. Here’s the thumbnail.

He’s right, the text is hard to read – but that’s not really the problem. I could make the text huge and clear, but the title doesn’t generate any interest. What’s really important in this cover is the maze, and the rose, which is actually pretty well done (here’s the full cover).

In the full cover, we can see that this is actually a very polished and clean design. I like it. I might fix up the font/text a little, but the main thing about the cover has to be the images; the text just needs to be built INTO the picture in a subtle or complimentary manner. So, while I would pull the text down from the top a bit, and make it wider and bolder, what I’d really want to do is zoom in on that rose and maze, maybe make it take up most of or all of the cover (then I could put bands of orange yellow across for the text).

I would probably also change the title font to something a little more dreamy/romantic… to go along with the feeling I get from the images.

If the cover looks great and has a good ‘feel’, you don’t need to be able to read the text on the thumbnail, so don’t stress it too much (the majority of professionally published books actually have very small text, only thrillers have huge cover text).

Book Cover Makeover

I went ahead and redid the text. I tried some script fonts but this is what we ended up liking the best.

The author writes:

When I compare your work with the original image, such a difference…..the original is so subdued but your work revitalizes it. One of our small Blue Mesa team wanted me to convey that it looks exquisite.

What a difference a few changes can make. 🙂


How to design your own amazing, cheap and easy book cover

Do you absolutely need a book cover designer? No. You can probably do it by yourself, if you follow these simple steps:

1) Resist the urge to put everything INSIDE your book on the OUTSIDE. The book cover is about getting interest and creating an emotional response. Sometimes, human figures/faces can do this very well. But so can a beautiful landscape. The trick is to find one amazing photograph that can represent a scene, object or person in your book, and stick with it. DON’T try to put all of the important things on the cover (ie the jobs of each character, all of the main scenes and places, and everything that happens.)

2) Get an awesome, royalty free image. There are lots of great sites to find excellent stock photography. Keep in mind that the most interesting/unique photographs will probably be used by other Indie Authors and will be easily recognized. So go for something more subtle (maybe cut out the model’s face, stick with her side/arms). Get a photo that matches the mood of your book – light, dark, funny, mysterious, etc. You can find photos on flickr under the creative commons, or get a friend to take something.

3) Use a simple, clean font. It can be a free font, but the more unique and bizarre it is, the more likely it will stand out (in a bad way). Find something subtle and crisp. Avoid basic free fonts. Do a search for fonts that fit your genre (mystery fonts, country fonts, action fonts, etc) and download a few. Avoid all text effects, like drop shadow, gradient, stroke… place the text in parts of the picture that make it stand out naturally (put white text in dark areas, dark text in light areas). It doesn’t even really matter if it doesn’t stand out that well. (Check out all of the books being published these days, that use small, minimal contrast text, like white text on light backgrounds.

4) Forget about the thumbnail!
Authors always tell me that the text or certain little details can’t be seen from a thumbnail and that this is a problem. If you’ve chosen a beautiful photograph, that photograph will still be beautiful as a thumbnail. If the cover is too detailed and complicated, and it ONLY looks OK when you can see the whole thing closely, it’s probably too busy. Yes, your thumbnail is important – it should be nice enough to make them want to click and see what it is. Readers don’t have to actually have to see/understand your thumbnail clearly though, there should just be some nice bold colors or intriguing picture to make them spend that extra second to see it up close. Again, the best way to have an excellent thumbnail is to start off with a beautiful royalty free picture.

To sum up. ONE amazing picture, with a little bit of text on it in the right places, equals a beautiful cover.

What makes a great book cover? book cover review and critique

I’ve had several submissions recently and unfortunately no time to review or critique them, so I’m going to post them all at once – hopefully by comparing/contrasting these covers someone trying to create their own book cover might learn something useful.

Good Race Vibes by Linda C Thomas

This is a clean and colorful color. I like the strong red and yellow, the messy “handpainted” look against the very clean type. I like the green and white text against the yellow and red, which makes it look fresh. The white overlay and subitle is not perfect, but not bad (mostly I don’t like how the image is broken up first by this bar, then the red author bar below – I’d probably rather just have the painting cover everything – but that’s a style choice).

I also like how – although the subject is about race, they didn’t use a photo of black or white or mixed raced people laughing and having a good time together – which could have been a strong temptation.

Confessions of a Werewolf Princess by Kimberly Clark

There’s too much going on in this cover – it needs to be simplified. First, we have two themes – there’s the princess theme (the crown, the gold dividers on top and bottom, the script font), and then the red/blood theme… those two alone would have been hard to blend together well. The title text is too spread out, it’s hard to read the whole title as one group and make sense of it. “of a” can be made much smaller to focus on the meaningful words.

The picture could be interesting but I don’t see why the girl has a sword, rather than something to do with werewolves (I’m sure this is explained in the book, but on the cover you want the images to match the expectations set by the title). Also color pictures work better, especially something with vivid yellow eyes or something…

Back to the font – this is a basic script font, and there are so many beautiful new script fonts to choose from – however, I would probably use at least 2 different fonts to break things up, maybe “confessions/princess” in script and “WEREWOLF” in big, bold, messy, blood red text.

The word “werewolf” has been cropped so it’s missing the top and bottom of its double stroke… that needs fixing; and the top “of a” is right on the line with no stroke or drop shadow, so it doesn’t stand out from the also light hair.

Finally, the author name is too small. Every author wants to take up as little space as possible with their name, stemming from the innate lack of confidence writers invariably have – but having a tiny name on the cover is usually a sign of an unknown, amateur writer, so make it big and clear.

Aw, shucks. I went ahead and remade this cover anyway just to see if I could fix some of the issues I mentioned. Not my best work, but an example of what I might try to do with this cover.

Knowing the Struggle is Over! by KM Johnson

Not bad at all; I like the clean title text, and the red/yellow banners for the subtitles and author name are well done. I might have tried to stylize the photo a bit to enhance the colors, make it look ‘cooler’ or retro or something… and the title is a bit too close to her head, I would have tried to get more space by adding some sky. But still, a very nice cover.


An unproductive woman by KM Ali

Actually I like the simplicity of this cover (although I’d like to see it at a better resolution). There seems to be a fabric pattern and some wood texture(?) – I think this could really work. The border is nice, but I might make it more fancy. The main problem is the text – this simple cover needs to have a lovely, creative font – and it doesn’t.

A similar simple cover that really works, is Lindsay Buroker’s “Dark Elements” (and other books in the series)…. a little bit of texture, but better resolution, and very nice fonts.






Free book cover critique: “Marked”, a paranormal werewolf book cover

Suzanne Cox sent me her book cover design for “Marked”. Nice idea, done in Gimp. I tried to recreate it in photoshop.

What I changed: I like the pale/whiteness, as it makes the red stand out, but the background pictures of trees is unclear and uncompelling (emotionless). I didn’t see a reason to fade around the top of the head so I just left it all wolf on the top half, then blended in some other tree pics that I thought were more mysterious.

The original cover had a border (stroke) around it – this is fine but I prefer covers that are all photo, so I left it off. Suzanne liked the title font (“Seans Other Hand”) so I left it. The original had some kind of bevel+shadow. I’m almost always anti-bevel, but I changed it to an inner shadow plus a red gradient for the text. Not a huge difference but I like it. I also made the text a lot bigger. Text can be small if it fits into the design, but with this much white space, there was no reason to keep the text so small.

It is entirely possible that the author will still prefer the original, which has more of a mysterious, sad and lonely vibe – I haven’t read the book yet so there may be elements in the original that I didn’t capture in these updates; however, since the book cover has to grab attention and sell the book, the cover matters more than the story. These new versions are bolder, with stronger contrast between light and dark, clearer images, more emotion and bigger text that’s easier to read… so while it may not as adequately capture the mood of the story, it will probably at least get more people to buy the book and begin reading.







Death of a Serpent: Historical Mystery book cover design

I’m remaking the book cover for Susan Russo Anderson’s “Death of a Serpent: A Serafina Florio Mystery”. The first cover is a little boring, with simple text and flat colors. I didn’t even notice the top half is a girl’s head until much later, and the division is a little awkward.


Keeping the same basic  style, I started with these:


Not bad, but Susan suggested a blue-green background and thick, bold text. I’m loving the blue, some of these work pretty well, although the placement and balance isn’t ideal yet…


The last one looks most like a standard published book to me… what do you think?


Book cover review and makeover: Bleedover by Curtis Hox

I got an email from Rose Andrade of Epub World about Curtix Hox’s novel “Bleedover”:

We have a novel out, Bleedover. Bleedover is a dark fantasy novel, with lots of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and thriller elements. We had a professionally designed cover that we liked, but it is very sci-fi, and steer away a lot of customers. Then, we tried a new home-made design. We found a image that we loved and just went for it. It did slightly better than the first one, although is not yet where we want to be for sure. So I am attaching the two covers for your evaluation. Perhaps we just need a facelift? Your expert opinion is greatly appreciated.

Here’s the first cover design:

Pretty awesome. Love the font and colors. Very sci-fi tech… but, no emotion, not plot. What’s this book about? No idea. In that sense, it fails as a cover. Which brings us to.,..

Ebook cover design 2:

This one has more emotion, but looks like a YA paranormal fantasy cover design. Still don’t know what it’s about… plus the top text is too high and flat – the title is stretch long so it makes the author’s name look short. Both are too close to the margins. The title “Bleedover” is hard to read, has an awful bevel+transparency+outerglow…

My fixes: I darkened out the original text, and wrote over it with a new, bolder font and a nice subtle gradient. I like the blue-green text on the red. I also overlayed part of the original cover to get that sci-fi text look in, at least hinting to the plot (I hope).

Altogether, much stronger… but it still needs more: A tagline to let readers know what it’s about, something like “Things started so simply; Jane never would have expected that her new powers would change everything around her… even herself” or “Jane Doe was the FBI’s youngest ever recruit, she had no idea that her first case would unveil sensitive information, putting her life in danger, as well as the man she loved…” (I totally made those parts up, I haven’t read this book yet so I’m not sure the character’s name.) The point is you need some lead in that hints to the plot and builds intrigue…

An awesome blurb from a good source would also help this book sell.


Debt Guide: Get out of Debt Fast free book cover review and makeover

Fiona asked me to critique this book cover for “Kick-ass debt guide: an irreverent and revolutionary new guide to debt and how to get rid of it FAST!”

Book cover design critique: the bold text and red and black layout is not bad, but there’s NO REASON for the title text to be that small, within all that empty white space. So this cover needs two fixes: At least some kind of picture – any picture, and bigger text.

I put together these two; a clever, interesting picture is always better (even if the meaning is not totally obvious), so I like this mousetrap/money pic – which can mean that debt is like a trap… or that you need to set a trap to make more money, or whatever.

I redid the text in Rockwell (which I think was used on the original) with bigger black/red banners.

If that cover is a little too strange, I made a simple one with jars of coins, which can mean just about anything to do with saving, spending, debt or money.

What do you think?




Free book cover critique and feedback: 23 days

Ty Gray submitted this book cover for a review and critique. The memoir, “23 Days,” is a book with the theme of persistence, hope, and redemption. It’s about a police career. “How I transformed. The redemption of my resigning.”

First impressions: Too bold and busy. The text is too blocky/square for my tastes. The USA flag-behind-text could work, but with the bevel AND the background image, I think it’s got too much going on. The darkened out picture makes my eyes hurt, trying to focus in on it behind the bright text. If I were doing it, I’d probably center on the uniform, probably closer, maybe just the middle with the head/lower arms cut off, then put the “23 Days” directly over his chest. Still pretty big. Maybe still with the flag (if so, I’d desaturate the background image, change it to black/white or very simple colors). I’d probably also make the red white and blue more dirty/faded, softer.

I don’t mind the subtitle – it’s nice to have a subtitle to let readers know what the book is about (although this one could be edited a bit).

One of the main changes I’d make is the Author Name – it should be a lot bigger. Doesn’t matter if you aren’t a famous writer – putting your name small signals lack of confidence. If you want people to read your book, you need to be bold and at least appear to be a very confident author – this can easily be done with a big fat Author name.

Quick Fixes:

I contacted the author and got the background image. First I tried to recreate the original, but the plain guy/close up cop uniform was too boring for me, so I decided to use more of the picture. I think having this faded snapshot of a group of policemen is more interesting. I tried to get the 23-flag background to work but it doesn’t. The dark blue vs. white means it’s not going to look very good on either a light or black background. This can be fixed a little bit by a stroke, drop shadow or outer glow, but only so much. Ihis blue-green makes it pop out a bit more, but still not great.

So I got rid of the flag, changed to another font (Mangal) for some bold white typography. Overall much better, cleaner, easier to read. I used some gradient overlays to change the colors, get a darker effect with deeper blues. I like it – simple but nice enough to catch attention, let the reader know a little bit of what to expect. I like the contrast between the happy scene, but the dark and vivid colors….

I got rid