Why I’m jealous of other book cover designers (but shouldn’t be)

I’ve been designing covers for a couple years – and in that time I’ve done a few hundred. I love the work. And I’m getting better all the time. But I still feel insecure when looking at other book designer’s portfolios. I see a lot of amazing work that I like. I’m hoping to improve my skills until I’m up there with the very best. But I still get a little jealous of other people’s awesome work.

Here are the things I tell myself when that happens:

1. Everybody has a different style

I’m a messy person. I tend to be careless about the details, so my covers can seem more visceral, raw, and rough. Usually what I like about other cover designer’s work is how clean and polished and pretty it is. And I can work on being neat and tidy. But… I also need to embrace my own personal design style. I make a ton of rough samples (usually more than ten – sometimes pushing fifty!) until the final idea is hammered out. Other designers spend a lot of time making things pretty but may not give as many options (which is not necessarily a bad thing: I often feel I give authors too many choices and they get paralyzed, or choose poorly).

2. I build scenes

The covers I like are also usually just using one big picture. That means very little Photoshop work. If they’re using one stock photo, all they did was add some text and maybe some design elements. So even if it looks awesome, it was pretty easy. Oh how I wish I had more projects like that (and I probably would, if I made fewer samples and didn’t listen to my authors).

My authors are usually very descriptive about what they want, and I try to do it. I know that other designers say “That’s a bad idea, it won’t make a good cover, let’s do this instead.” I know that those designers are probably helping the authors more than I am – because really busy, complex covers don’t usually sell as well as simple, powerful covers.

I make some simple strong ones as well, but most authors push on towards their vision, and we get into scene-building – which means, constructing an entire 3D reality with all the objects, locations and characters and magical powers and what-not. It can take dozens and dozens of hours to get everything right, and make the authors happy. Why are my finished covers not as neat and pretty as other designers’? Because I’m still listening to my authors. Maybe I need to stop, but it’s fun and they’re happy with the work, so…

PS) I just noticed an author I worked on a brilliant cover for, and we spent a long time on, has gotten a redesign and gone with something very bold and simple. One large image rather than a scene. The new cover looks great. Bold and simple is almost always best. My portfolio is full of ‘scenes’ because that’s what the authors chose, rather than what I favored.

3. Lots of variety, and they appeal to different folks

People have different tastes. I look at my portfolio and there are some I like and some I’m not fond of. I feel the same about other people’s portfolios. I’m tempted to clean out my portfolio and just focus on what I consider my strongest work, but every time I get a new client I’m surprised by what they say they liked in my portfolio. Everybody likes different stuff. There’s no accounting for taste.

So at least I’ve got a ton of variety.

4. It’s not all about pricing

I’m especially jealous of cover designers that charge about the same as I do. We all package our services differently. They may throw in free bookmarks, Facebook banners or posters and other stuff. It’s hard to comparison shop for book cover design because – regardless of the extras in the package – what matters most is having the best cover for your book: the one that’s going to appeal to your target readers and suck them in enough to read the description. It’s got to be beautiful and bold and fit the genre well. I was about to say something like “how well you work with the designer” is also important, as in you should feel comfortable with each other… but I’ll admit I’m not as positive and supportive as some other cover designers. I want you to sell books. I want your investment in me to pay off. I want you to earn a return.

So I’ll give you straight up opinions and advice, and push you in a direction I think will be most successful, but I’m brief with my words and pragmatic in my direction. I’m not a hand-holder. I’m not cheery and garrulous. I know it can come off as rudeness sometimes; chit-chat is not a skill I find useful, as I’d rather be making things that will help you achieve your goals.

Do you have feedback for me?

Like I said, these are the things I tell myself. I like to be aware of my shortcomings so that I can improve, and I’m constantly seeking to be more helpful to authors. I’m open to any critiques or suggestions on how I can make this site, my services or my covers better.

When book covers copy: the ugly truth about plagiarism in book cover design

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

Right? But it may not seem like that when, after all your hard work, you find another book cover that looks too much just like yours. About a year ago I made a cover for a book called “Lust Boat.” I was contacted because my cover designs looked like somebody else’s earlier covers. The other book was also called “Lust Boat” and (as you would expect) also had a big boat in it, as well as some lovers. Sure they were similar.

TheLustBoat-179x300

 lustboat4-205x300

I posted a rebuttal, after researching no less than 6 other books also called “Lust Boat” going back to 1978, and suggested that the authors – who’d written similar books that would appeal to similar readers – should work together in promoting… but due to the inflammatory comments I removed the post.

Here’s what you need to know about plagiarism in book cover design.

1) It’s probably accidental.

It’s your job as the author (not the book cover designer’s) to research your title and make sure nobody else is using the same title. Google it or search for it on Amazon. Notice similar titles and make sure they aren’t directly in your genre.

Usually – don’t use a title that has been used. Except, if it’s an older book that wasn’t very popular, or if it’s way outside your genre, and it’s really the perfect title… Go ahead with it. Search for anything on Amazon and you’ll find 5 books with the same title. It happens.

2) We’re all using stock photography.

Extremely few authors or publishers are staging their own photoshoots anymore. Everybody buys stock.

If you see another cover that used the same image, they didn’t “copy” you – they just bought the same pretty picture.

Be careful about using stock photography of people’s faces, they are more easily recognizable.

Don’t just take a nice picture and add text: the nicer the photograph, the more authors are going to use it. Get creative. Make some changes. Just use half of the picture. Pay someone on fiverr.com to make it amazing in Photoshop (yes, for $5, it’s incredible what they can do).

I routinely see photos I’ve used in book covers show up on magazine advertisements and billboards around the world, as well as on other covers. Focus on being the best and having a great book, the rest won’t matter.

3) Very few authors would deliberately copy.

You think another author wants to copy your design? Doubt ful. They, just like you, want their book cover to be unique. They may be inspired by it; they may want to use the same fonts (fonts are fair game – that’s why you see the same genres using a handful of fonts over and over).

4) What to do if it happens anyway?

41p7CkqCeJL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

good2great

 

Take a look at these two books, with the same title. One is business, one is Christian. It’s hard to believe the closeness in design is accidental. I’m still not convinced that they aren’t written by the same author using a pen name. Taking a second look – all they really have in common is an orange background, and white and black text. If it weren’t for the fact that they have identical titles, I could pretty easily pass this off as just my brain seeing similarity where there is none.

If Chip’s book, which came later, is a copy, it’s not really a big deal: how do you copyright a style? How do you copyright the color orange? Readers in one genre probably won’t find the other book in the other genre (although searching for either one will show up the other).

Under free trade laws, technically designs should be different enough that no casual observer can see the resemblance. Law Suits are uncommon, but they do happen, especially if you’re using a photo you haven’t bought the rights for. In this case, there’s little grounds for a case. Jim Collins could make a big fuss, but he probably doesn’t care, since this book isn’t a competitor – and it actually may mean that more people are searching for the name of his book, which can only increase sales.

Jim’s book cover design matches the genre (business) while chip’s (inspirational/religious) is probably too plain and dry for his target readers.

 

How to design your own book covers in MS Word

I’m finally getting started on my 100 DIY book covers in MS Word project. The idea is to design book cover templates that indie authors can easily edit and change to make their own.

I was pretty sure I could make great covers in Word, but I’m only really beginning to figure things out.

Here’s one I made this afternoon. I took a picture of the whole workspace.

designcoversword

 

Here’s another one I made tonight, in about 30 minutes.

witchnight

Is it just me, or are these pretty freaking amazing for book covers made in MS word? And they aren’t even finished yet. It’s crazy that these covers are taking me much less time than ones made in photoshop, because with Word I can really easily strip out the background, change colors and contrast, make cool wavy text like the one above.

It’s both incredible and humbling, exciting and depressing. Maybe I’ll just stick with Word for book cover design. 🙂

My new plan is to come out with 100 templates a year, and sell those as a big package alongside client work.

 

UPDATE – you can now get a bunch of free book design templates at www.diybookcovers.com and make your own awesome book covers in Microsoft Word!

 

Cover design secrets that sell books

If you need help, make sure to download my free guide!

I’ve helped design over 1000 book covers, including hundreds of bestsellers – download my free book to learn all the insider secrets I use to sell more books. Click here to get it now. I’ll also share some of the advanced book marketing tactics I’ve used to make a full-time income with my writing.

New thriller book cover design for Joanna Penn

Man I love designing book covers. Here are some samples for an upcoming thriller by Joanna Penn. Like all my projects, designing a book cover is a process of experimentation and elimination. The final result can’t be predicted.

 ROUND ONE

budapest6budapest2budapest1budapest8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROUND TWO

budapestnew3 budapestnew4 budapestnew7 budapestNEW2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FINAL COVER

budapestfinal2

 

What should I put on my book cover design? Characters, scenes, etc?

For the past year I’ve been super busy working on book covers. During that time I’ve struggled, often, with competing visions for the book cover design. I want something that looks awesome and sells like hotcakes. The authors usually want their main characters and a specific scene. The requests I’ve gotten have verged on the ridiculous, but I always try to make it work. It’s frustrating for me to know I’m making complex but subpar covers when I could be making stuff that blows people’s minds. It’s frustrating to see a very happy author who loves the cover and know another cover would have moved more books off the shelf.

So I felt some solidarity and happiness when I read this post over on Damonza Covers, “Write a Great Book but Leave the Cover to a Professional.” Damonza’s work is beautiful and you should definitely consider him as well for your book cover design. And his work flow is a lot different from mine. He’ll make 2 sample covers and if authors don’t like it, keep going. This lets him present the two strongest options first.

In contrast, I present about 10 very rough samples, including several stabs at the scene the author described, and we work up from there. My process gives the author more control and involvement, but that’s probably not a good thing. I tell the authors which ones are the best, and they routinely ignore my advice.

I love my job and hope to see my author’s succeed, so I’m not complaining about them, just a challenging situation – and a situation perhaps that is critical to the success and failure of indie published books that nobody else is talking about.

As a side note, and this is kind of depressing, I’m noticing I get a ton of work, even though personally I find Damonza’s work equally awesome. Is this because many of my covers have the scenes and characters that he urges against using? Do indie authors see in my work what they want, because I try to listen to and use their ideas, even if they aren’t the best from a sales and marketing perspective?

(I don’t mean to denigrate my covers, most of them I’m very happy with and they’re all selling quite well.)

Anyway, I know this is a complex and uncomfortable subject, but deep down I want you to succeed, and for that you need to be informed and aware of all of these elements.

Some tips before you get started on your book cover design:

1) Characters rarely work; especially because everybody is using the same stock photography, so your model will end up on dozens of other books. On the other hand… they are usually more engaging and emotionally than a cover without.

2) Bold, beautiful and simple is best.

3) Specific scenes from the story are nearly impossible to recreate with accuracy using stock photography. Try to boil a scene down to one, specific element or item, a symbolic representation of what’s going on in that scene.

4) Sincerely listen to your book cover designer’s advice. His/her opinion should be given preference to what your family and neighbors like. They have more experience than you do, and they are trying to help. They also want to see their best work out there.

5) Don’t hire a cover designer who will just give you what you want and listen to your ideas. Your book deserves more than that. Hire a designer that pushes back, tells you what will sell better, and advises you towards greater publishing success. As an indie-published author, the team you put together to publish your book is as close to a professional marketing team as you’re going to get, and their advice may be invaluable.

Should I start making my book cover design before I finish writing my book?

writingI used to tell people that you can never start your book cover too early. On the one hand, having a great cover can motivate you to write a quality story that lives up to the picture. On the other hand, you need to get your story out there and create demand for it, even if you haven’t finished. So hiring a book cover designer or making your own book cover early can work really well for indie authors.

However recently I’ve been noticing something less advantageous: some of my clients hire me to make a book cover for their book when they’ve just gotten started writing their book. Maybe they’re 30% done. So they think they know some things about the characters and the plot… but as every writer knows, books have a life of their own. Characters change and evolve. New directions and plot twists spring up.

I’ve had clients start with a main character in a certain costume, change ethnicity, age, costume, hair style and location as weeks (or months) progressed. Rather than one book cover design, I’m doing the work of four or five different ones, waiting for the story to take final shape.

So my new advice is this: start as early as possible on your book cover design, but not until you know for sure what your book is about. At least have a solid first draft.

You can hire a cover designer about the same time as you hire a book editor. That way, the cover will be ready by the time you start formatting for publishing.

More Things to Consider
Before you hire a designer or start the book cover design process, here are some things you should have ready:

1) The Perfect Title. Although this is easy to change later, knowing your title will really help direct the style of your book cover. Have variations. Use Google Adwords to test what gets clicked. Get tons of feedback. Innovate.

2) The Perfect Tagline. Summarize your book in one sentence. Note the key conflict, the key setting/location, the transformation journey or challenge, the main character(s). Write down all of the keywords that readers might use to discover your book. (The genre and sub-genre, the setting/location, the topics, vocations, and issues that are dealt with directly or indirectly). Once you have those checklists, try to put them all together (as many as possible, choose the strongest) in one or two sentences that tell readers what the book is about while also hooking their attention.

These same lists can be given to your book cover designer.

3) Examples of 5 book covers that you like, and why. Your book cover doesn’t have to copy, but knowing what appeals to you will make it much easier for your designer to make something you like, and save some time. A good designer will probably make a few samples of what you think you want, and a few samples of what he thinks would look good – the final result will hopefully be a collaboration between both.

4) Help search for your own art/photo.

Your designer will search through thousands of photos on stock photography sites. You can save a lot of time by looking for things you like as well – you may find something you love, or at least help him narrow down what you’re looking for.

WARNING to indie and self-published authors: A book cover design is not your soapbox!

This is a rant I wrote a while ago, which I didn’t publish, but I’ve decided to now. I love my authors. I want the best for them. So it’s frustrating when I know they’re going away with less than my best work. I feel like I’ve failed them. There is no remedy.

Being a book cover designer can be frustrating.

I don’t believe a cover design should make the author happy. I think it should sell books.

My typical process goes something like this:

1. The client tells me they are “not visually creative” or have no idea what to do with the cover – they are word people, not picture people.

2. The client tells me what they want. I get as close to possible. I show them a dozen great ideas, and a few mediocre ones. If they have a vision in mind, I try to match it, but also show them some alternatives that are visually more pleasing. I tell the client which ones I like best.

3. If I’m lucky, the client agrees with me, we finish the cover, and we’re done. But about half the time, this happens: The client picks a mediocre design – actually they will probably pick four mediocre designs and then go through several rounds of revision on each cover, continuing to change what they want as their whims change. We are braving brand new territory. I dutifully carry out all of their suggestions so they can see how it looks (not being visual people, they can’t just imagine how it would look, they have to see it).

This is absolutely fine – it’s all part of the process. Hopefully I’ll convince the client at this point to post some of the designs on their platform to get some feedback, to see what people respond to. Unfortunately, sometimes the final-final-final cover we come up with is much less appealing and powerful than my original design ideas from the first batch.

Think of it like this: the typical author’s graphic design skills are probably “C-“. A great designer’s are “A+”. So when they collaborate, and the designer does what the author wants, the final cover will be a strong “B”.

Your book cover is not your soapbox

The main problem, invariably, is that authors want to fit their whole message in the book cover – they want to COMMUNICATE their ideas, their vision, their plot, the characters’ personalities, everything, into the cover. Getting “The Message” right is the most important thing.

However, your book cover is not your soapbox. Your BOOK is your soapbox. The cover is the packaging. The cover is the “ooh, shiny” pretty/colorful thing that makes people want to impulse-buy your book and read your content.

That’s not to say that the cover shouldn’t reflect your book, of course it should. You don’t want people to enter your book with false assumptions and be disappointed. But you can’t fit everything on your cover, and in the end, LOOKING GOOD and having clear, easy to read text is more important than everything else. Aesthetics is king, and that should translate to, “listen to your cover designer.”

Why did you hire a cover designer?

A lot of authors hire a cover designer to make them a beautiful cover, but then take over the process and tell their designer exactly what they want them to do. A “bad” designer is someone with amazing graphic design skills who will give the author EXACTLY what they want.

The author will love it – they will be ecstatic. At least until a year later when they can’t sell any books, and begin to realize that nobody else likes their cover design. A “good” designer is somebody who says “I could do that, but I’m not going to, because it would be ugly and nobody would buy it.” That’s the designer who has your best interests at heart.

Of course the tricky part is that while professional book cover designers work for publishing companies, and can design selling covers without even getting the author’s input (who cares if the author likes it, if it sells more books?), independent cover designers like myself are paid directly by the authors, and “the customer is always right.”

This creates a moral dilemma. For my part I always let the authors know which cover designs I like, and which ones I think will sell better. I hate to complain (because my job is awesome), but how can I not feel bad about knowingly delivering sub-par covers to my authors?

This is not to say that I am always right and that my clients are design-challenged; sometimes my authors spur me on and on to make changes, and what we finally come up with is really awesome. Sometimes what I think is “good design” may really not be attractive to the authors’ target readers, in which case what I think is pretty shouldn’t matter much. So what’s an author to do?

First, always err on the side of simplicity – don’t make the mistake of having a way-too-busy cover with everything going on.

Then, when you have some cover samples (hopefully your book cover designer will give you at least several options to choose from) get some feedback. Post them on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. Offer free books for cover critique. Getting feedback on your cover is also a great way to start generating interest for your book.

If it’s a YA book – offer to talk about publishing at your local middle school and show the class your samples, see which they like best.

Finally, realize that your designer’s opinion doesn’t have equal weight against your brother’s, mother’s and neighbor’s. If you choose a design that is different than what your designer recommends, slow down and think very carefully about what you want your book to do: Make you happy, or be read by lots of people.

 

The most important thing about your book cover thumbnail (it’s not what you think!)

Authors tell me over and over again how important it is to have the title and text of their book cover big enough to be read as a thumbnail. I don’t know who first came up with this myth.

Here’s a snapshot of how thumbnails actually look on amazon.com (I picked out the following covers randomly; I haven’t read these books, but they’re probably very good – go buy one).

Are any of the titles clear and easy to read? Wouldn’t it be easier to just read the title from the text written right below the cover, which is always there? Isn’t this what you do naturally? So does everyone else! 

Sure, “THE FALL” catches our eye because of the bold text, but that doesn’t make it a winner. Some people may prefer the more elegant font in “What Kills Me” or “The Warrior’s Soul”.

“Raven’s Shadow” up above, on the other hand, is in dark red on black. Too bad – it could have easily been made the bright red of the bottom fire to stand out.

The thumbnail is a good place to use style to indicate the book genre. The title should be there, but it doesn’t need to be huge, and it isn’t important for the subtitle to be readable.

What IS important?

The thumbnail should look clean and professionally designed. It should be balanced with complimentary colors and nice spacing between elements. And if possible (difficult as a thumbnail) it should be eye-catching and evoke an emotional response (surprise, lust, interest, humor…)

Sure the title should be visible, but people aren’t going to squint to read it.

It also depends on the genre – for a thriller, it’s OK to have HUGE BOLD TEXT that covers the entire cover, with the background visible behind it. But for a whole bunch of other novels, like a PARANORMAL ROMANCE or a WESTERN or a BIOGRAPHY, having that kind of huge text yelling at people doesn’t really work.

The thumbnail should look good and appear professional. Even as a thumbnail I can usually tell if a book is self-published or mainstream published, or at least if the indie author hired a good designer . This is a trust issue. If your cover looks like you designed it, people might skip by on principle.

It’s not a matter of whether they can read the text, it’s only a matter of whether they think your book looks at least good enough to warrant clicking on the thumbnail to take a closer look.

And then of course, when they do, the cover can shine its entire brilliance on them. The subtle details and effects, the sparkle, the emotion… having huge text in a plain font may not be as stylish as something a little more fancy. So if you have to choose between aesthetic beauty and “readable-as-thumbnail”, go with beauty.

Of course – the title should always actually be clear and easy to read when they look at the cover at a normal size. Even with a pretty swirling font, this needs to be true. (One trick for this is to use a pretty font for the first letter of each word, but something more simple for the rest of the letters).

And one final thing that really matters

Of the above 4 covers, the one on the right could be fine with a brighter title. The one on the left looks good except I’m getting tired of seeing that font (I think I’ve used it on a couple covers as well…) and the colors are a little drab.

(I’m not judging the whole cover, just the tiny thumbnail version I can barely see).

The middle two are pretty good, except that both are using text effects to bring out the text. “The Warrior’s Soul” looks like it has a 3D bevel, and “The Fall” looks like it has a heavy drop shadow behind the author name.

My guess is, these authors (or their designers) tried to make the smaller text more visible by adding these text effects. Maybe it looked great already, but then they thought “but it disappears on the thumbnail” so they added a heavy text effect to bring it out more.

Drop shadows and bevels are signs of self-published books. Yes they help text stand out. But don’t use them. Most mainstream published books these days have zero text effect – and the text DOES blend in with the cover and it’s a little hard to see sometimes. But our brains are clever, and we can pick out the text anyway.

Instead, focus on lightning or darkening the background to help the text stand out more with natural contrast.

Native American-Dream Catcher Book Cover Design

Some fun book cover designs for “Laughing Hawk” by Linda Katmarian.

We started with this rough sketch:

 

And got this: red truck, woods, handsome hunk – this could have been a strong cover.

 

But then we wanted to expore some road trip + dreamcatcher images….

 

 

 

 

 

Still brainstorming but getting closer.

Here’s the summary:

In 1964 Elizabeth Leigh is looking forward to college, escape from her unhappy home, and the fulfillment of her dreams. Adventure. Love. Her place in life. On a restless afternoon, she leaves school early and discovers her mother is packing to run off with a lover, abandoning Elizabeth and her stepfather. Worse, she learns her mother has squandered the college money her grandfather left her. 

A fortuitous invitation from her cousin Melina to come to Los Angeles rescues her from an uncertain future. In Los Angeles, Elizabeth finds security in the embrace of her aunt’s family and is introduced to the man who soon becomes her fiancé, Collin Greenslade, an ambitious, up-and-coming real estate developer. Life could not be more perfect.

But Elizabeth looks at life through the eyes of an artist anad a dreamer. When her cousin’s boy friend, a civil rights activist, has his Thunderbird vandalized in Mississippi, he enlists his roommate, Mark Laughing Hawk, to tow his car back home. To Melina, this is an opportunity for a fun romp across the country and she insists that she and Elizabeth should come along for the ride. For Elizabeth, what starts as an adventure, becomes a journey of the soul. Dreaming of Laughing Hawk explores the universal human desire for love, power, and sense of purpose and the lengths we will go to attain them.

You can find out more about the book here: http://www.lindakatmarian.com

 

How to cite your designer on your book cover, and why you should

I’m still a little self-conscious when it comes to adding “cover design by Derek Murphy” on the back of my book cover designs. It feels like I’m installing secret spyware. I rarely recommend it, as it seems so self-serving, and yet it’s my responsibility to help authors get their book covers as professional as possible. Pick up almost any traditionally published book and it will have the cover designer’s name on the back, somewhere on the bottom in small text.

It’s almost always a name rather than a company; probably because it sounds more personal, like an artist, rather than faceless, like a cookie-cutter corporate grind out. So I would write “Cover Design by Derek Murphy” rather than “Cover Design by Creativindie”. No website or url is necessary – urls are overrated these days; it’s much faster to just go google my name than type in the link.

What if I designed my own book cover?

There’s two ways to go about indie publishing. One is to hide it: so then you’d want to ‘fake’ your publisher imprint, book cover designer, etc by either A) not listing it at all or B) making up fake names and companies to make you look big. This can work well, as most people won’t notice and it does help overcome the self-publishing stigma. But it can also back fire, when someone does some digging and it looks like you’re dishonest.

The 2nd way is to embrace it. You wrote your own book AND designed the cover? Wow, cool. Go ahead and say so. As an indie author, you can do whatever you want. Although, if you take this route, you better make sure your cover is awesome. Otherwise they’ll say “it’s a shame they didn’t spring for a better cover…”