Among my favorite internet acronyms is AFLE. Translated loosely, the letters stand for another freaking learning experience. (Indies Unlimited is a safe-for-work site, okay?) I don’t know about you, but for me, that acronym perfectly sums up this whole indie author thing. No matter what your background, there’s going to be some component of this jack-of-all-trades business in which you’re going to need a crash course. Or professional help.
Art is one of those things for me. In school, I was an A or B student in everything but art. (Well, and physical education. But so far, nobody’s expected me to do pushups for my books, thank goodness.) So imagine my dismay when I realized I was going to have to design covers for my books. Luckily, I have a couple of friends who are much better in graphic arts than I am, as well as two daughters who know their way around Photoshop. I treasure their advice to this day.
Still, I had no business participating in a cover art contest – much less being a judge. And yet, there I was, in a secret Facebook group, looking over contest entries and discussing what made each a contender or – gulp – a failure.
And yet, I’m glad I had the opportunity, because I learned a lot about what makes a book cover great.
One thing that surprised me was that we weren’t just judging indie book covers. Some professional cover artists entered our contest, too, and that set the bar higher than perhaps some entrants expected. But on the other hand, it was probably a good thing, as it simulates what actually happens on the shelves of your favorite virtual bookstore. After all, your eBook is going to be sitting right next to books with pro covers in readers’ search results. So you might as well assume you’ll be competing against professional work from the get-go.
That’s the first thing I learned: Your cover needs to look professional. I hate to tell you this, but we rejected obviously homemade covers immediately. Here are the kinds of the things that got an instant thumbs-down:
- A blurry photo, or a photo blown up to the point where it was grainy.
- Badly-composed photos – often a landscape shot with no foreground focal point.
- Nearly all hand-drawn artwork. We gave a little leeway here for children’s books, or if the artist was going for a cartoony feel (but the book’s category and blurb had better support that sort of lighthearted mood). Otherwise, anything hand-drawn had to be pretty close to perfect.
- Photoshop collages – the sort of thing where the author wanted to get every important element of the plot onto the cover, so they took a bunch of photos, trimmed them badly so that looked like they were cut out of magazines, and plopped them all into some sort of background. The result is a cover that’s too busy and too difficult for a reader to parse at first glance. Plus the details will get lost in the thumbnail.
Which brings me to the second thing I learned: Your cover needs to be legible in thumbnail size. “How does it look in thumbnail?” was the single most-asked question by the judges. By “thumbnail,” I mean a picture that’s about an inch wide by about 1.5 inches tall. The most important elements of your cover – title, author’s name, and photos or graphic elements – all have to be legible at that size, because that’s how readers are going to see your cover first.
Here’s how to check: Open a new document in Word. Insert, or copy-and-paste, your cover image on the blank page. If you don’t see a frame around the image with little squares at the corners and a handle at the top, click on the image. Then click-and-hold one of the little squares at one corner – it doesn’t matter which one – and move it diagonally toward the opposite corner. Your image will start to shrink. Stop when it’s about an inch wide. Now, look at your cover again. Can you see what’s going on? Can you read the title? Can you read your name? If you can’t – even when you know what it says – imagine a reader coming to it cold.
(Don’t forget, we have a BUNCH of FREE book cover advice and resources on our… that’s right… Book Cover Resource page.)