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On Cover Design for Fiction Novels, Part 1

This is a two-part post written primarily for other independent authors on cover design for fiction novels, with personal opinions and experience galore. There's a lot to cover (heh!), so let's dive right in.

Great Cover Design Sells Books

Photo of stacked booksFiction covers, experts will tell you, will make or break a sale before the reader even reads one word (not even the title) of an author's deathless prose. I believe it. We humans are visual animals, and we're attracted to color and images that intrigue us. There are several authors whose work I'll read despite the covers, because I know the quality of the work inside. If I don't know the series or the author, or have no recommendations from friends, it's the cover that will first draw my eye. 
Covers should tell the reader what's being offered (post-apocalypse road trip? light-hearted snarky comedy? suspense? epic fantasy? science fiction romance? horror mystery?). The title and author names should be legible. The words and art should balance and complement each another, with the goal of drawing the reader in. “Nice cover… catchy title… intriguing blurb… I'll buy it.”
As part of my grand project to publish Overload Flux, the first of a planned series, I started researching covers to see what I liked and what I didn't, and what other independent authors did. It took a lot longer than I thought.

Qualifications, Disclaimer, and Disclosure

First, before we go any further, a bit about me. I'm not an artist, and there are certainly people who know more than me on this subject, but I know something about graphic design and execution from my business and theatrical life. Please check out the opinions and experience of others, too. Now, my biases: I'm a curmudgeon and don't like the real-people-in-costumes covers for fiction these days. When I read fiction, I'm entering a world of make-believe, and I want the cover to give me the artistic representation of the story and/or characters, not real, vacuously pretty people. I grew up reading genre fiction — science fiction, mysteries, action thrillers, romances, etc. — and loved the covers done for them. That's probably why I have a strong preference for illustrated covers, as opposed to photo manipulation. 

Terminology, and Some Advice

Second, some terminology, as I use it here: “Illustrated” means the content looks like it was created from the artist's imagination. “Photo-manipulation” means photos of real people, objects, and scenery are stacked or arranged to create the whole. There are hybrids, e.g., photo of a real compass is superimposed on an illustrated map, and images generated by 3-D software. Ebook covers are generally of a ratio of 1:1.5 (width to height), where as full-wrap covers are much wider than high, as they are intended to wrap around a printed book (the width varies by the final number of printed pages). Prices, as of writing this post, range from $50 for a premade cover with vague or abstract elements, to $400-$900 for an up-and-coming illustrator, to $1,500+ for a professional illustrator who makes a good living, to $3,000-$5,000 for a premier, big-name artist. Depending on the artist and what you pay for, you may need additional help from someone else for the font, placement, etc. 
Not that anyone has ever asked, but my advice to authors who want to make their own covers to save money: Don't do it. Unless you happen to be a graphic designer or illustrator, it'll take you hours (when you could be writing!) and you'll settle for a mediocre result because you'll get frustrated. Find other ways to save money, but not on the cover, because a bad cover will cost you book sales. By analogy, if the guy down the street is an excellent plumber, should he be doing his own electrical wiring? If so, remind me to be careful touching the light switches in his house. 

What Makes a Great Cover?

I think young adult and steampunk covers are the most interesting these days, an urban fantasy and high fantasy are routinely good. Mysteries have good and bad. Comic-style or graphic novel-style art or cartoons can help or hurt, depending on the book. Some wretchedly bad covers can be found on paranormal romances, wherein random half-naked individuals, animals, bloody fangs, and maybe a moon, are slapped on the cover in random order along with the title and author name (and those are often in illegible fonts).  I don't want to embarrass the authors by posting examples, so I'll pick on the pre-made covers instead. The problem with real people is the models are hired for more than one gig, and I've seen the same woman on more than one cover of very different books. Still, I bet all the above sell better than the abstract, amorphous covers that you can't even tell if it's fiction or some sort of spiritual self-help book, even after you read the title.

Image from SelfPubBookCovers.com  Image from SelfPubBookCovers.com Image from SelfPubBookCovers.com Image from SelfPubBookCovers.com
This woman looks
an awful lot like… 
…this woman (gotta love Photoshop) Moon? Check. Animal?
Check. Naked man?
Oil painting?
Interior decoration?

 I haven't made as extensive a study of other genres, so maybe there are some worse offenders. 

I understand why Harlequin, which publishes a hundreds of books per year, went to photos of real people with a bit of photoshop wizardry to dress them (or undress them) for their covers — it's fast and cheap. Harlequin has a formula and it works well for them, but the covers tell me they think of their books as almost interchangeable commodities. I know some excellent authors write for Harlequin, so I'm kind of sad that Harlequin doesn't think better of them.

My Quest for a Great Cover

I'm really please with the cover for Overload Flux. In part two of this post, I'll tell you how I got it.