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.



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.

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.

Why I’m so expensive (how much should you pay for book cover design revisited)

When I started designing book covers a couple years ago, I remember looking at designers who were charging over $700 for a print cover and thinking they were charging way too much money. How could they possibly justify such high prices when there were cheaper options? I can make a full print cover in a few hours; why does anyone deserve to earn that much money?

Now I’m in a very different position.

I’ve kept raising my prices to keep up with the demand. Every time I raise my prices I’m surprised when I get my first few orders – surprised people are willing to spend so much on book cover design. And sometimes I think I’m not worth it – that authors could (and maybe should) buy a cheaper cover elsewhere.

But when I look around at other book cover designers charging less money… I can see why people keep coming back to me.

Though they have glossy and stylish websites, they only have a few dozen samples and most are boring, average or are heavy on stock photography (I also use stock, but I try not to use those photos I know other people are going to use… or I try to photoshop enough that it won’t be so obvious… still, stock happens).

The difference between a mediocre, not bad, pretty good book cover and an amazing piece of art that makes your soul dance, is potentially huge. It’s hard to measure two covers side by side and say why one is better than the other. It’s something you feel. The design just works. The art is moving. The text layout feels clean and well spaced. You can’t see it, but you feel it instinctively.

Here’s something I worked on recently – after reading “WormWood” I wanted to help the author by redesigning the cover. A lot of the story takes place in high places, and I had this painting by Friedrich (1818, “Traveler above a Sea of Clouds”) in mind as I worked on the art.

(Mine is the one with the crossbow).

book cover art

I love the art for this cover. I want to print a poster just to put it on my wall. But I made a few options, including this close up.

The close up (in the middle) is more powerful and immediate. It does a great job of enticing the right readers who like the genre (paranormal/angel romance), and is simple enough to let them know what the story is about. It would probably sell a ton of books. But the scene with the mountains is more distinctive, more memorable, more touching somehow – there’s so much emotion in that space, so much tension and conflict and longing.



Compared to the original (simple black cover, using William Blake’s renders of Paradise Lost) I expect either of the new covers to easily double or triple the author’s sales – we’ll have sales data in a few months.

High prices improve the quality

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the last few years.

1. When I charge lower prices, I have a ton of work. I’m stressed and busy. I can’t finish everything. I don’t remember things. I don’t enjoy it so much.

As of June 2014, I’m still getting enough work but maybe half of what I got a year ago. I feel more relaxed. I still have a lot to do, and I still have trouble getting everything done and staying organized, but all my clients are happy and the quality of my covers are improving. I have more time to reflect and improvise. If we don’t get things right the first time, I’ll come up with new ideas.

2. The second thing I’ve learned, is that entering a relationship with a client is personal, and long-lasting. I have some clients that took a full year to decide what they wanted. Sometimes, after rejecting all of my samples, they want me to try a lot of other stuff, and sometimes we end up with something better. Other times, in the end I convince them that my earlier samples were the best and will perform the best for their book, and we use what I had made originally.

Then they need help with their marketing plan, uploading files, preparing their ebooks and POD formatting, navigating distribution services, editing their sales copy. After the interior is finished we’ll rework the print cover – then there are problems, or the page count changes, or they want to start over and use a different picture. I’m not just describing a few needy clients – this is a pretty typical client/designer relationship for me.

Some people tell me I need to say no more often, or charge for revisions, or stop giving away so much free help and advice… but I’m not going to do that. I like helping and I love designing books. My high prices are kind of like a retainer; I become an always available publishing consultant.

(And damn, really when you compare my covers to Createspace or or the other “big” author services offering cover design, I’m still charging less! Maybe next year I’ll be charging double.)

When not to pay for a cover

A cover is really important, and can make a huge difference, but it won’t make a mediocre book successful. If you’ve written a book with no audience, in an unpopular genre, and the book isn’t amazing but just ho-hum, or the writing isn’t great… investing in a cover isn’t a good idea. Fix the writing. Hire and editor. Write another book. The story matters more than the cover, ultimately.

If you’re unsure, get a cheap cover, publish the ebook, and advertise enough that you get 100 buys or downloads… then watch the reviews. If you start getting glowing reviews from genuine readers, it’s time to double down and invest more.

If you need a cheap, DIY book cover solution, check out

Right now, there are MS Word templates, but I’m building the WORLD’S BEST online book cover designing software, it’s going to blow you away.

Another long (but satisfying) book cover design process

I’ve been working on Brian Smith’s thriller “Purified” for a couple of months. Like most challenging projects, we reached a few dead-ends before pushing through and finding something that really works.

There’s a sci-fi element – a new being of humans is being created, and they have wings and four arms and legs (kind of). I thought I could pull it off, but these are two literal and the author didn’t like them.


So we focused more on the subtitle (and changed the title name to fit)… “Imagine waking up Purified.”

We focused on a top secret bloody hospital bed….


Brian wanted to mix a couple covers and add this guy:


For awhile it was our final choice, but I thought it lacked action (he’s just sitting there) and was a little boring.

I tried a few more and really like the strong contrast in the first one below.

creep9 creep12 creepnew3

I told him if he wasn’t going to use it, I would – because I’m confident it would outsell the others. I probably still like my version, with the lighter text (stands out more) and the syringe replacing the “I”, but with compromise we ended with this – a little darker, a little more subtle:


More about the book:

I would call Purify a thriller.  There’s some sci-fi, crime, fantasy, love; but above all of that, it’s a thriller.  As far as target audience goes, it’s adult fiction, but I think it would mostly appeal to non-skilled, non-professional earners who aspire for something better.  Mason was a factory worker who only wants his old life back, but he arches into someone who is ready to deal with being better physically than anyone else.

Purify is the name of the drug–the protocol that is being developed in an unauthorized, underground experiment.  It takes a living body into a sub-coma state, then repairs it, totally purifying the immune system to create a body that will never become infected with any disease again.  That’s the theory behind the drug, but the story is really about a man’s struggle to deal with the effects of the drug after being forced into the program when he thought he died.  Purify also relates to the theme which is “forget the past; live for the future.”  All Mason really wants from being alive again is to get his old life back, but Purify is not about that.  It’s about a new start with a new, purified body that will change mankind.

Oh the difficulties in choosing a final book cover design!

A problem I often face with authors is paralysis of having too many options. 3 options to choose from is good. But I usually make at least 10 samples, in each round. So we are always selecting and dismissing different versions of the cover. And sometimes, what we end up with is unexpected.

Here’s an example from a rather challenging cover I did for Isabel Burt’s Toxics.

The book itself is a YA fantasy/adventure, with sapient plants and talking animals (sort of, I’m really not doing it justice). Mystical, fantasy, and romance. Based on a beautiful world – very raw and natural. Female teenage heroine. Lots mystical energy and light.

This was my first batch. Some are not great.

toxics4   toxics20  toxics15   toxics8      toxics13 toxics10

My favorite are the last two: in fact I’ll save one and write the book for it later, because I’m sure the cover would sell like crazy.

But Isabel didn’t like them, so I made some more:

toxicsnew9  toxicsnew11 toxicsnew12 toxicsnew2 toxicsnew3  toxicsnew5 toxicsnew6 toxicsnew7 toxicsnew8

It was hard to choose between these too. The solid yellow with the bold title is appealing. So is the pink forest. Isabel really loved the green forest path (with yellow text), but after checking with the artist, it wasn’t available to use, so we hired him to make something custom for us. First he made this one, with a dark river valley and sunrise; he hadn’t finished all the lighting yet, it would have been pretty cool, but Isabel didn’t like it (too manga/cartoon). He made another one that I quite like (still my wife’s favorite):


But neither were right for the author, who wanted to go back to an earlier version which had tested well in a group of children.

And so now we’re just playing with font and text choices for the title.

In the end it’ll be really hard to choose – the title text and color matters and will attract different kinds of readers, but it’s hard to guess which will sell better or which matches the book the best.

toxicsfinalB toxicsfinalC toxicsfinalA

I love these final covers. I think we made good choices and the evolution was continuously towards improvement (often authors will go the other way, and direct changes that lead away from good design and towards something less than ideal).

But some readers will have preferred the earlier illustrated version, or different layouts. Side by side, everybody will have different opinions about what’s the “best” cover. But between several very different but equally well-designed covers, choosing is very difficult. Get a ton of feedback. Run one for a couple weeks and then try another one to see if sales pick up. Little differences can impact sales, and cover art matters, so choosing can be difficult.

What you don’t want to do is obsess over little details and keep changing and changing based on your own preferences. Don’t trust your gut or mood. Get the best designer, let them do their best, then get a lot of feedback (from hundreds of people, not just your friends and family).



Felicity Penfold, a girl of 14, finds herself mysteriously deposited into an alternative world. In the misty opening scene she links up with Reuben, an ‘Orion’ embarking upon a quest in which it seems Felicity is prophetically implicated.

This ‘Old World’ is in a state of impending crisis. Its entire ethos was one of balance; this has been irrevocably altered by the illegal birth of a new species, called ‘Toxics’. Each plant or beast has an ‘enharmonic’ which is its counter-species balance. The Toxics had none. Their exclusion over the years has led to them becoming bitter and by the time of Felicity’s arrival, very dangerous. Their leader, Arrass, seeks the destruction of the traditions of the Old World which he feels has betrayed them. His final destination: the Sacred Caves.

These caves contain the roots of all knowledge, and they are guarded by the ‘Taureau’.

The story follows Reuben and Felicity as they are joined by other key troupe members who seek to save their precious world by joining Reuben’s quest to protect the Roots, and shift the Old Ways to include the Toxics; thereby restoring its balance. The salvation of the Old World and ultimately of the Toxics becomes a race between the gathering of the quest troupe and the gathering of the Toxics.