Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

DIY book cover design—Part 4: Designing for the market, not for yourself

Welcome back to another entry in the "Hell, I'll just do it myself" guide to book cover design! The last entry was intensely dry—well, maybe not dry, but certainly full of steps, and I can only tolerate so much of that before I just want to break something. Today's entry will be a nice change of pace, because we're going to talk about how you choose what you're going to actually design. 

I'm both excited and reluctant to talk about this. Excited because it's fun to talk about why designers make the choices they make, and what the real reason for a design decision is. (It usually isn't that we're lazy or bored; usually we're trying to communicate something, no matter how subtly.) But reluctant because I tend to fly by the seat of my pants when I design a book cover. That is, the first concept is usually a really obvious take on the material, one that I have to get out of my system so that the good ideas will start to flow. 

But in your case, as an author who wants to make his or her own cover, you may not want to fiddle around with the process of multiple concepts. So where do you begin? How do you determine what a worthy concept is versus a throwaway concept? You just want to make a good cover. You don't want to become a book cover designer. 

Who is a book cover for?
Why don't we start with the inverse question? Who isn't a book cover for? You probably already know the answer, but I'll say it anyway: A book cover isn't for the author. That isn't to say that the author shouldn't have a cover they're proud of, or even one that they desperately love; rather, the author doesn't need to be sold on his or her own book. You already know how good this book is, right? You were fulfilled by the act of writing it, and presumably will be further fulfilled by knowing strangers are reading it. The cover means much less to you than it does to those strangers, who need to be emboldened to pick up your book in the first place. 

Which is where the cover comes in. 

The glance test
The cover tells your prospective reader, ideally in a quick, two-second glance, what they can expect from your book. Squared-off typeface and a rocket trail in the sky? This is a science fiction book. Modern calligraphic font and the sun setting over a quaint white house? This is a small-town love story. Et cetera. You'll have several design goals as a DIY designer, but one of them is absolutely communicating the essence or mood of your story in a glance. 

Let's glance at a few. Take a look at these covers and tell me if you can, in just a couple of seconds with each one, tell what they're trying to say to you:

Done? Did you come up with something like this?


If you did, then the cover passes the glance test. Remember, in a glance you don't have to communicate subtleties about your story. You just want to help the reader quickly assess if it's the kind of book that might interest them. If you were to present your book as a vampire thriller, for example, but it turns out to be a story about a grieving woman whose child died of a blood transfusion gone wrong, then readers would probably feel like you'd taken advantage of them, packaging your book one way when it really should have been presented another. 

In some cases, the glance might be all a reader needs to make a purchase. Other times, it's enough to invite them to pick your book up—or, if they're shopping online, to click through to your book's product page, where they might read more about it. (That's where your book description takes over from the cover, along with reader reviews. But we're not going to get into those here.) 

How can a reader possibly know in a glance that a book is right for them? Well...

Genre expectations
Have you ever noticed that bestselling legal thrillers often look like other bestselling legal thrillers? Or perhaps how a military space adventure looks an awful lot like another military space adventure? Authors often want their book to stand out, to look exciting and new and fresh and different, and in some categories, like general or literary fiction, that's a winning strategy. But readers, on the other hand, aren't always looking for different. Different means the reader has to pause and think about something, and you're battling the real world and all of its distractions for their attention. Different presents a challenge. Are they up for different? What if it's too different? 

"But," you might protest, "I don't want my book to look the same as the others! That would be confusing!" 

Except it isn't. Sometimes familiarity is the goal. Designing a cover that feels comfortable to a reader can encourage them to pick it up. Let's say you write popular thrillers. Books in the thriller genre often follow a particular pattern. They can be predictable; I think we can all agree on that. Readers often enjoy predictability. Reading, for them, is pure leisure time, an escape from having to stare down bills or the clock or noisy children all day. If a reader can glance at your cover and tell in those two seconds that your book is a thriller that conjures the familiar feelings they get when they pick up a Lee Child or James Patterson or John Sandford book... well, you're closer to winning them over. That might be all it takes to win them over. 

Recognize the common elements? Books in this genre use bold colors, emphasize the author's name (sometimes even more than the book's title), use large and often aggressive fonts. The imagery on the cover is secondary to the words, and is never intended to convey a specific moment from the book's pages; instead it's there to establish the mood, to convey action or dread or urgency. 

Sometimes your goal isn't to stand out at all. 

Leaving a lot—or only a little—to the reader's imagination
Notice how the last examples we looked at don't give you a good look at the book's characters. That's intentional; the less you know about a character's appearance, the more you can invent them in your mind, the better you can relate to them. In most cases, a character's face can be limiting for a reader. But there are exceptions to every rule. What if you're writing a young adult novel? What sells? What does a young reader want to see? 

The YA market—often mistaken for a genre of its own, despite its wild diversity and infinite stories—responds to faces in a way that others don't. Knowing when to put a character on the cover is critical. Fantasy books often portray characters on the cover, as part of a long and storied tradition of original paintings commissioned for the covers. Science fiction novels, particularly adventure sci-fi, can get away with the same thing. It's more rare in the general fiction category, though not unheard of. 

How much do you leave up to the reader? How much do you take away from them? That's ultimately up to you. But if you're considering putting a character on the cover, ask yourself why. Will your genre readers be drawn to that? What does the character's face say to a reader? What about that character's appearance might turn someone off? Are you okay with that? 

Remove yourself from the equation
In the end, it's not easy to remove your own personal tastes from the equation. The right cover for your book might not be one you'll love... but one that will sell. As both author and designer, it's easy to think that the whole package—the story and the cover—represent you. That might be true of the novel; you might have put oodles of your personality and what's important to you into the pages of your book. But remember that the cover is there to sell your book, not you. (There are exceptions, of course! Sometimes it's the author you're selling, and the individual books are secondary; sometimes it's the author's expertise and charisma.) 

And remember, more than anything else, that you are not your book's target audience. What moves you is not the same as what will move them. And in the end, that's what you're after: a book cover that will move them to purchase your book. 

Searching for inspiration
Now that you're properly warned, where do you look for ideas? When a book cover designer sits down to begin working on a new project, what do they think about? In my case, whenever I took a new project, I invited the author to share certain things about the book with me. (Here's a sharp bit of truth: Not every designer will have time to read every book that they design a cover for. You're ahead of the game in this regard, because you wrote the book.) 

Aside from the mechanical details, like a book's page count or its title and series name and volume, I asked authors to share these things with me:

  • What are the dominant themes of your novel? A novel about grief feels different from one about love. A novel about the search for purpose is different from one that's about a quest for a magical sword. 
  • What's the mood of your novel? Is it triumphant? Full of adrenaline? Somber? Moods suggest ambient design elements such as color palettes, or the sharpness or softness of the visuals. 
  • What are the iconic objects or settings of your book? Does a wolf's-head pendant figure prominently into the story? Does the book take place in a cavern beneath the sea? Are characters leaping from moon to moon in tiny spaceships, or trudging through the cornfields of Iowa? 
  • What covers are you drawn to? This may seem contrary to the first half of the post; but as a designer, knowing what covers an author loves can tell me how adventurous or cautious they are, or tell me how they really see their book. 

Research, research, research
Long before you begin designing your book, spend time wandering through a library or a book shop, or poking through online book cover design galleries like The Book Cover Archive. Browse the portfolios of cover artists whose work you admire, like The Book Designers. Not only will this help you imagine different treatments for your own cover, but you'll develop an understanding of what trends are current and emerging, and what trends are on their way out. 

Above all else
Remember that a book cover design is inherently commercial. While many are amazing works of art, a book cover that does not sell the book is a failure, no matter how beautiful it is. Always think of your audience. The more specific that audience is, the more you understand their tolerances and interests, the more likely you'll invent a cover design that will send them racing for the cash register (or the "Buy" button). 

In the next entry, we'll talk about concepting, dreaming up an approach, and selecting the artwork that will get you well on your way towards creating your book's cover. 

Click here to see all entries in my DIY book cover design series.

Eleanor's disappearance is imminent

DIY book cover design—Part 3: Setting up your file