How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Cover Design

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

self-publishing, authors, indie publishing, writingThis is part two of a six-part series.

Good cover design is the single most obvious way of making sure your book stands out on the shelf and looks professional.

Do Your Research

Look at your competition, both in hard copy and online. What looks professional and what looks bad? Why? Make your own list of some pitfalls to avoid and features that you like.

Think About the Ebook Version

It's important to remember that something that works well in hard copy might not look so good as a thumbnail. A great design, though, should work in both formats.

A detailed background and delicate colors can get swallowed up at thumbnail size. That doesn't mean you can't use them at all, but you need to make sure that the overall design still works on a small scale.

What Type of Book Is It?

One piece of advice that I've heard over and over again is to make sure your cover design correctly conveys the genre of your book. You might not want your work to be pigeonholed, and you probably want it to look different from the competition, but you need to put those feelings to one side. Readers use some basic visual cues to decide whether they think they'll enjoy your book or not. Embrace a healthy dash of cliché. If you've written a romance, the cover needs to say "Romance" loud and clear so that your intended readership will pick it up and have a look at the blurb.

This aspect of cover design has a big impact on completion rates. If people think they're getting a cozy mystery and it turns out to be gory dystopian sci-fi, they'll put the book down without reaching the end. They might only read the first chapter. If you're publishing an ebook, this kind of thing can be tracked, and makes your book look poor when it might be a fantastic dystopian sci-fi novel! You might even get bad reviews if the content doesn't match readers' expectations.

Choose Fonts Wisely

It sounds obvious, but make sure your fonts are legible in thumbnail size. Test out various sizes and designs to see what works. Avoid typography that blends into the background or is over-complicated. Remember that your subtitle, if you have one, will probably be illegible on a thumbnail.

Don't Overlook Your Branding

Is this book a one-off or are you thinking about a sequel or even series? Even if another book is only a twinkle in your eye, it's still worth thinking about branding. Keep your "brand" in mind, because there's no publisher to do it for you. Are there any visual elements of the cover design that can stay consistent from one book to the next? If so, they will help readers to recognize your books—and hopefully buy them if they liked the first one they read!

Use a Professional

Now is probably the right time to put in a good word for professional graphic designers. If you can possibly afford it, use one. Your aunt or your friend's son might be a whiz with Illustrator and Photoshop, and you might even be good at design yourself. It's not my place to tell you that your skills or those of your friends or relatives don't cut the mustard. Maybe they do—stranger things have happened! I'm just warning you to be wary, as it's easy to get into a position where you can't see the design objectively anymore.

A good designer should work in partnership with you, so you can be involved with the creative process, and she shouldn't insist on a cover you dislike. Work by a paid professional can make a huge amount of difference to the quality and "polish" of your cover.

Whatever you do, don't just grab a stock image—especially a free one—and slap some text over it. Even if the image itself is visually striking, the chances of it looking good are vanishingly small. And if you use a free image, there's a high chance that someone else has used it before.

Don't Fall at the Final Hurdle!

Don't forget that the spine and back cover need to be designed as well. It might not seem like much, but a professional touch here can make the difference between your book looking amateurish and looking professional. If you look at the back of any book on your shelves, you'll see that there's quite a lot going on, and it needs to look clear and harmonious.

Make sure you get the front and back of your book edited, as well as the content. Have your editor give it all a once-over. This includes the title, your name, the spine, the blurb on the back and anything inside the covers, such as an author biography. Yes, it is possible to have a typo on the spine—and imagine how you'd feel.

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