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.