Book Cover Basics Part II by Shevi Arnold

Author, Journalist & Artist Shevi Arnold
Author, Journalist & Artist Shevi Arnold
Author, Journalist & Artist Shevi Arnold

Last week, we featured an article which received a lot of attention: Book Cover Basics. This week, author, journalist and artist Shevi Arnold has picked up the baton and is going to smack you with it. Without further ado…Shevi Arnold.

So you’ve written a book, and you’ve decided to indie publish. Great. I’m sure you already know that your book will need a cover.

I was a journalist for 12 years, and for seven of those years I was a newspaper and magazine illustrator and editorial cartoonist. My editors paid me hundreds of dollars to design covers, and I’ve professionally designed close to 100 of them.

What’s that you say? You’d rather do it yourself? Right… Because what would a trained and experienced cover designer know that you don’t?

It’s okay. I’m not insulted. The truth is if you want to ruin…I mean, design your own cover, you should.

After all, you’re indie publishing because you want to boost your ego, not because you want complete strangers to actually buy your book. A professional designer won’t act like your mother and tell you that you can do anything, including a job you’re not the least bit trained for. I’m sure your real mother will love your cover no matter how it looks. She might even stick it up on her refrigerator. “Look at what my darling made! Now how about some milk and cookies?”

Yeah. Professional cover designers don’t do that.

So please don’t show me the cover you made yourself and then ask me, “What do you think?”

I know you don’t really want to know what I think. If you did, you would have hired a professional, like me, to tell you. Besides, I’m way too nice to be truly honest. My answer will probably be little more than a nod and a smile, and I’ll say something like, “Best of luck with your book!” I won’t add, “Because with that cover, you’re going to need it.”

Here are some of the things I have said, or would say, to indie authors about their book covers (along with the things I actually think in parentheses, just in case you really want to know).

I’m sure none of this applies to your book’s cover. You look smart, so I bet if you’re not a professional designer, you hired one. Kudos to you.

So many indie authors, however, are clueless:

  • A black-and-white cover of a wooded landscape? Black-and-white is classy (for a tuxedo. They do say the outside of a book should match the inside, but I think they’re referring to content and mood, not color scheme. She does realize a color cover doesn’t cost more for an e-book, doesn’t she? What’s with the vertical lines of the trees? Is she trying to make the book look slimmer? Or maybe it’s meant to confuse a barcode scanner. And why do so many authors think panoramas of natural scenes make good covers? Just because drug companies use forests and beaches in commercials, doesn’t mean they’re good for selling stuff).
  • And you used a really fancy font in white on a black and white background. I’m having a hard time reading it.… (Oh, good grief, is it too much to ask that people use legible fonts? And it’s so thin, it must completely disappear when shrunk down to Amazon and sizes. What does that say? Sordid…? Sardonic…? Sardonic Farts? I give up.) So what’s the title? Forbidden Earth. I see… (Pity, I’d rather read Sardonic Farts.)
  • So I’m guessing with a title like Forbidden Earth, it must be science fiction, possibly dystopian? A contemporary YA romantic paranormal with werewolves, you say? Uh, huh. (Because the last thing you want is a title or a cover graphic that might give readers an inkling as to what your book is about.)
  • Well, you know, there’s one thing I really like about your cover, and it’s that it stands out. Far too many novels in your genre have obvious things, like wolves or a sexy mouth with fangs on the cover. Or they have pretty girls or shirtless guys in seductive poses. It’s just so overdone. I mean, if all they have to sell are guys and girls in sexy poses, why buy it? Anyone can get it from the Internet for free, right? I’m really glad you didn’t go in that direction. Oh, sorry, I had no idea this was the third book in the series, and I’ve just described the covers of the other two. (Sigh.)
  • What do I think of the cover of your children’s book? It’s, um really colorful, isn’t it? (Yikes, there may be 64 crayons in the box, but that doesn’t mean you have to use them all.) Yes, kids do like rainbows. (You know what else kids like? Simplicity and clarity. Even the title is complicated. The words are long, in a variety of text types, and broken up in a way that makes it hard to figure out which word should be read first. There’s a reason why it’s The Cat in the Hat and not The Feline in the Fedora. Clarity and simplicity, why is that too much to ask?)
  • So, um, where exactly do you want the reader to look first? (There are just way too many shapes and colors on this cover.) Oh, is that…? (Give me a hint here.) Oh, so this is your dog. I’m sorry, your daughter holding your dog. No, don’t get me wrong, I love children and dogs. (I just don’t love your child and your dog as much as you do.) I’m sure you’ll sell a ton of copies (provided you have a lot of relatives).
  • So did you take this picture? (Because it certainly doesn’t look professional.) Oh, your friend did. What are friends for? (Well, there’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.)
  • You have a sexy, skinny, blonde on the cover. Isn’t she pretty? (You know, there’s a reason why people say, “The book was better.” It’s because they can imagine what everything—and everyone—in the story looks like. Readers can’t do that if you put your characters on the cover, and they certainly can’t imagine themselves into the story if that character looks nothing like them. Not every reader is a skinny, beautiful blonde. Take a look at the Twilight saga, the Hunger Games, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Do you see any characters on the covers? No, and that’s because you can sell more books if characters aren’t pictured on the cover. Yes, I know that Diary of a Wimpy Kid shows the main character on the cover, but that’s an illustrated book–and it’s a stick figure, for goodness sakes!)
  • That’s an interesting cover in a 1950s pulp-fiction style. (Oh, look, it says “blood” in the title and it shows a splatter of blood across the cover. That should appeal to the few readers who would need an illustrated dictionary to look up the word “blood.” I wonder if he would need a dictionary to look up the word “redundant”?) Did you choose Comic Sans as the font because it’s a comic book? Oh, a collection of short detective stories. But they must be ironic, right, a kind of parody of the genre? No, not ironic. You just like this outdated style…. (Hope you don’t like the style of money, because the only way you’re going to sell this is if you have a time machine. On the bright side, your book could be used as a prop on Mad Men.)
  • Black and white with a pop of red? I agree, it worked really well for the Twilight series. (Not so well for the hundreds of books that have copied that exact style since.)
  • Wow, your cover is really dark. I guess the mood of your novel must be dark. I’m right. You see, I could tell that right off from your cover (which is great, because it’s so dark, that’s the only thing I can tell from your cover).

Thanks for asking my opinion, and best of luck with your book! (Now just smile and nod.)

*     *     *     *     *

Shevi Arnold is many things–a writer, cartoonist, humor expert, and geek goddess–but above all, she is a storyteller. She has indie published two books: Dan Quixote Boy of  Nuevo Jersey is a humorous middle-grade novel about individuality and friendship overcoming bullying; and Toren the Teller’s Tale is a YA fantasy about the magic of storytelling, and one young woman’s struggle to accept that magic in herself. You can find Shevi on, Facebook and Twitter, and you can follow her blog at[subscribe2]

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8 thoughts on “Book Cover Basics Part II by Shevi Arnold”

  1. Yes, but readers are a funny lot. Incredibly, one of my bestselling titles has a "black-and-white with a splash of red" cover I put together in like three minutes, and yes, the photo was one I took (BTW Kat takes a mean picture, too.)

    My all-time best selling title has a Cait Myers designed cover which on first sight looks bland and beige (because it is) but it says "mystery" all over it, so it works.

    My most recent over is a Tony Szmuk design and EVERYONE loves it and yes, it's a kind of black one with a splash of blood red, but it IS a thriller.

    When you see all my covers at once, you might guess which ones are "mine own" designs, but I doubt you'll guess which ones sell best.

    My favourite? The pig… and no, it's not a hot seller. My least favourite? Counting Churches, which is built with the Createspace cover machine, and boy, does that one sell, both online and by hand. My local store orders it in batches of 15, and we're not even in a church area… perhaps that's why?!

    I loved this article, mostly because I have the same opinions about covers. I agreed with most of what you say here, Shevi – well done.

  2. Thanks, Rosanne. I guess I should have clarified that it's black and white with a pop of red that's overdone when it comes to vampire novels. It just shouts "Twilight copycat!"

  3. I used that same chess piece graphic on a black and white cover (no red splashes) for The Board Game Murders which is a head-nod to Poirot and the 1930s murder mystery genre. It seemed to fit when I selected it and I wasn't even thinking about (brrrrrr) vampires. It's only a 75-page mystery with a rather specific audience and getting good reviews, so I'm happy. At least I won't get sued by Parker Brothers for putting their game pieces on the cover (yeah, I admit I thought about it).

  4. I think I was lucky. I found a professional who was very happy to use my initial ideas and turn them into covers that I think work well. It's a trilogy, so the background stayed the same (different colour) with the central image changing to hint at what's inside. Some would say the colours are wrong but I have had many great positive comments on them. However I never could have done the same thing myself. Some things are worth paying for.

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