As the saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Yet many people do. They decide whether to buy a book or leave it on the shelf mostly by the merits of the front cover. Just before Thanksgiving I blogged about the creation of a book cover and tackled the many options out there for book cover design. While it’s true that, with our current state of technology, anyone can design a book cover, from an amateur to a professional, the end result varies greatly.
For various reasons, I chose to put the design of my book cover in the hands of an expert, George Foster, founder of Foster Covers. And when I say book cover I don’t just mean choosing the picture and font on the front of the book. Book cover design includes the front, back, spine, inserts and much more.
When I asked George what it takes to design a book cover, I realized that this is a whole new world for most authors, totally separate from but equally as important as the manuscript. Here is what George said.
How important is a book cover to a first time author? Whether an author is publishing their first, second or twentieth book, the cover design always plays a huge part in bringing positive attention to it. The front cover’s most important job is to convey a strong sense of value. Put simply, it should make someone want to have the book. When an author is unknown, this job is even more important. Design itself can sell a product. It opens doors at all stages of marketing. Valerie Gangas asked me to design the cover for her first book, Enlightenment is Sexy. She will tell you the cover design blew the doors off. She became an instant #1 bestseller in Amazon’s “new thought” list.
What are the three most important elements to any book cover design? Essentially, a book cover really combines only two things, form and content. They must work together to create a first impression that this is a great book worth owning. Fiction and non-fiction have different angles on this. A novel’s cover looks entertaining. A non-fiction book cover promises benefits.
To pick the three most important elements, I think the first is the title. It should be memorable and evocative. Choosing a title is so important. Take your time with it.
Next are two graphic design principles. Dominance and balance pull the design together. When done right, the cover feels alive. Other principles such as contrast, color, shape and placement all serve under those first two.
Endorsements are an element that can add more value to a front cover. In 2008, I designed the cover for first-time author, Esther Gokhale. Her book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, had the exclusive endorsement of the Mayo Clinic so we used it boldly at the top of the front cover. The book became a strong bestseller and, seven years later, it remains at or very near the top in three of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Her book is unique and she wanted a unique cover. At the time, most books about back pain showed muscles and torsos. Mary (my wife) and I came up with the feather as a metaphor.
Steven Druker had me design the cover for his first book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth. Jane Goodall gave him her endorsement and wrote the foreword. With her help, it has been a #1 bestseller since its release last year. Seeking good endorsements is worth the effort. An endorser can write your foreword as well. They’ll be more invested in the book and perhaps promote it for you.
The Before & After section on your site makes quite an impact. How many people come to you with a book cover that hasn’t done anything for the book, and ask you to change it? Do they experience better sales after changing the cover? Sometimes a book looks dated so it’s good to make it current, or maybe the cover was never right so a redesign can help. I have done many of these but can’t comment directly about sales increasing because frankly I don’t know. Publishers don’t normally tell me such things. Hopefully, the before-and-after section of my website speaks for itself because you can compare covers side-by-side and see how better design increases the perceived quality of any book. You can ask yourself, which one looks like a better book? We do judge it by the cover, don’t we? It must be a law of nature. The lesson is to use that to your benefit.
Should authors focus in on their own ideas for a cover, or allow a cover designer, like you, to run with his own ideas? How set should authors be on the design before they meet with a professional designer? There is no obligation to have any ideas but if you do, it is best to express them before work begins. Raymond Benson, a New York Times bestselling author mostly known for his James Bond 007 novels, created an action character named The Black Stiletto for a new book series. He had a concept for the cover and told me I was the first designer to really fulfill his vision, which made us both feel great. Together, we created the covers for the five-book series which became a huge success (Mila Kunis is producing a TV series based on it).
However, some clients do not bring ideas for the cover so their task is simply to respond to what I do and the process goes very well.
Where does the creativity come from when designing a book cover? That’s easy. My wife, Mary, is both my muse and critic. She gives lots of great input and guidance. Normally I have plenty of ideas, sometimes too many, but after designing so many different things for 33 years I’ve learned to identify what works. Together, Mary and I reduce ideas down to the best of the best.
Do you read the entire manuscript prior to designing the cover? A novel’s soul is revealed only by reading and deserves to be found, so I ask for the manuscript. A synopsis will suffice for non-fiction books and subsequent books in a series. Even so, I ask for the manuscript anyway so I can go as deep inside as needed.
How long does it normally take to complete a book cover design—from start to finish? From zero to publish, the fastest I’ve done is a week and that was only once. Could I do that again? It depends on the book but generally, allow a month or more. Wise publishers use the front cover ahead of publication to help gather endorsements and advance reviews. It can be used in book trailers, emails, websites and social media to promote the book ahead of publication.
You can find books on Amazon taking pre-orders. I designed the cover for Pope Francis’ Open Mind, Faithful Heart, his first book in English. It was placed on Amazon and during the two months before its release, it was continually a #1 bestseller. A year later, the softcover edition was an instant bestseller long before its release. Posting your book on Amazon before publication can be a good idea even if you are not the pope. Of course, promotion is key.
For what reason(s) would you turn away a book cover design project? Have you ever turned one down? Only once, years ago. The topic was not for polite company. Mary and I had a laugh imagining cover concepts but I couldn’t take the project. The publisher understood and was very gracious. Thanks for the reminder. I had a nice chuckle recalling that.
Are there differences between cover designs for a paperback or hardcover compared with an ebook on Amazon? Audio books are typically square which can be a challenge to make the adjustment but it always works out. The cover design of the ebook, hardcover and softcover are interchangeable. Same design, different file.
In regards to the Pinnacle trilogy: do you already have something in mind for the next two books? Have you already received the manuscript for the next book? Because of the statue’s attractive and evocative power, I plan to continue the statue motif for each book. Each book’s statue will convey its own meaning. The color schemes will change, or maybe not. See “where does creativity come from”. The manuscript has not arrived yet. You can’t rush quality.
How do you feel about authors designing their own book cover, giving the task to a cheap online service, or worse, having their nieces do it? It’s understandable that an author believes their manuscript is all that matters and the cover is an afterthought, a decoration. Experienced book marketers disagree. To sell a book, the cover is the first priority. I’ve met many self-publishers who learned this lesson the hard way. Cutting corners and regretting it later can be avoided by working with a professional. Experts bring more to the table than you might imagine and your book gets its best chance to succeed.
How do you see the future of the book industry? Thriving in every way. We gain so much from books and they’re so affordable. The Kindle expanded our choices by adding a new medium, but it did not replace print. When television was invented, people thought it would replace radio. Radio grew instead. More books can be published than ever before. What digital and print choices will we have in the future? It is an exciting time.
How interesting. There is always something new to learn.
A big thanks to George Foster for his insights.
Let’s give George a big XOXO.