More on Designing Book Covers

In my introduction post, I talked briefly about how to create a do-it-yourself, professional-quality book cover. I broke the process down into five areas:

1. Composition

2. An “un-Powerpoint” look and feel

3. As large a font as possible for title and author name

4. Art that reflects the work at hand

5. Highest possible DPI

Now…I am not a professionally trained graphic artist. I have, however, done a LOT of graphic work for my company and for myself. So, take all this as a set of recommendations based on my experience only. In other words, take only the advice you like.

Over the last month or so, I’ve seen interest in this topic grow, and have been sent quite a few emails asking for more details. I figured I’d answer all those emails through my blog, so I can save myself the typing. In this post, I want to go into a little more detail on areas #1 and #2. These seem to be the areas most do-it-yourselfers are struggling with. The other areas, #3, #4, and #5 are really self-explanatory.

More on composition

I mentioned in my last cover post that a cover needs to have some kind of compositional structure. I put up a graphic, repeated below, that illustrates what I mean by composition. The eye of the viewer will take in a book cover in two respects (at least). In one respect, the viewer processes the information of the illustration and the text for what they are meant to represent. In other words, the viewer will examine the cover to figure out what the title says, who the author is, what the picture is representing, and then she’ll try to put all that information together to get an idea of what the book is about. This is a very detailed, analytical inspection of the cover. In another respect, a more ‘subconscious’ respect, the viewer will take in the cover as a complete composition. The viewer ‘sees’ the overall structure of the cover as an artistic or geometric rendering, similar to the graphic below.

A structure that is easy to see and understand will make for a more pleasing cover. This isn’t a mandatory aspect. There are plenty of covers out there that lack an overall composition, and still come across as professional. But, for the most part, having some kind of compositional structure to the cover will increase your odds of creating a professional cover.

So, how does one create a composition? In general, compositional elements come from the graphic, the textual elements, or both. It’s your job as a cover designer to find the compositional elements in both the graphic and the text, and design the cover so the resulting composition is pleasing to the eye. Let’s walk through a cover I did a few months ago for my short horror story Lot-17 to illustrate the compositional process.

Step 1: I found a graphic (royalty free!!) that met my needs for the story. Here’s the base graphic:

Step 2: I cropped the graphic and filtered it to get the ‘red’ appearance. This is aesthetic stuff. The point here is that when I was finished ‘artistically prepping’ the graphic, this was the result.

Notice how the graphic has little-to-no contrast. The trees, the background, they all are very similar in color. Nothing really stands out as a contrasted element in respect to composition except for maybe the shack. This means that, from a compositional perspective, the graphic is simply one big red block with a small black block (the shack) inside it. This also means that I had to use the text/title/author portions of the cover to create most of the composition.

Step 3: I added a title/author/blurb/ text and publisher’s logo. Here we can see more of what I was talking about previously.

Notice the overall composition of the cover. Subconsciously, the eye will try to take in the color and shapes of the general composition. A quick rerendering of the cover from a compositional perspective might look like this:

You can see in this case how the graphic is playing little role (except for the shack) in the overall composition. That won’t always be the case, and you will have to use the compositional elements of the graphic, along with those you add for the title, etc. in order to compose a complete composition of interest. In the case of this cover, the overall composition was created by the text of the title and author, and by the publishing logo, and by the added black “ripped out” areas (which I put in to create a more interesting composition overall).

Without getting into a serious graphic arts discussion, this is really all you need to know to create a book cover that has a professional-looking composition. It really doesn’t matter too much what the compositional structure looks like, as long as it’s something the viewer can latch on to easily. Finally, keep in mind the general composition, as depicted in this last graphic, is something that can be repeated across covers in a series. Try to see the composition in the covers of some of your favorite authors’ books. See how the artist put it together. Steal ideas. Combine ideas.

More on an “un-Powerpoint” look and feel

This one is a tad more difficult to deal with, as there are a lot of things that could cause your cover to have that “Powerpoint” feel. Don’t get me wrong: I love Powerpoint. But, as it and tools like it are the choice of amateur cover artists, anything that causes the viewer to think the cover was done in Powerpoint will make the viewer think the cover AND THE WRITING ITSELF is amateur. So, how do you avoid this?

The number one way to avoid the Powerpoint feel is to put some extra time in the layout of your title. Take a look at the Lot-17 title above. This was done using the same font in Microsoft Publisher (basically, Powerpoint on steroids). But, I did not simply type in the title. I created a separate text box for each letter in the title, and then resized and repositioned each letter, arranging them so that they looked as if someone had drawn or painted the title. I added some fancy glow stuff and a cross in the “O”, but that’s not necessary. It is the sizing and spacing that is critical for a professional-looking title. You don’t always have to resize the fonts, but repositioning is almost always necessary. Any text tool will space fonts for a perfect text-on-screen layout. The viewer will pick up on this spacing in a heartbeat and will automatically think “Powerpoint”. In other words, some letters or apostrophes or other marks will have too much spacing around them when viewed by the naked eye because the computer is using kerning values and other things to perfectly proportion the text. By creating a separate text box for those areas in the title that need to be repositioned, you can move the text around by hand until it looks more natural to the eye, and thus it won’t look “Powerpoint-ed”. A final word on text: Choose a separate font for the title than for the author name. Try to pick a title font that works aesthetically with the story at hand. Try to pick a more neutral font for any blurb you add. Don’t use more than three different fonts on the cover.

A few other ways covers can look “Powerpoint-y”: Don’t add Powerpoint objects like fancy borders or blocks or buttons or anything like that. Shapes for constructing compositional areas are okay, but make sure they are flat and crisp. Don’t use fancy fonts that are well-known as Powerpoint fonts, like Algerian or some of the script fonts. If you want a cool, unique font, search the web (and pay the fee or make sure it’s royalty-free!). Don’t use Powerpoint to add fancy features (shadowing, etc.) to the text. If you want to add that kind of stuff, use a graphics tool like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro, and manipulate the text by using layers. In other words, put a second copy of the text in another layer (below the first) and then increase the size, color, style, etc. of the bottom layer.

I’m sure there are more things I could cover here, but that’s it for now. If you found any of this useful, pass on the link to a friend. If you have some specific questions, drop me an email or post a comment here.

Till then…

Keep creating!

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