Every book cover out there evokes some feeling in the reader. Suspense novels are designed to put you on the edge of your seat before you ever crack open the cover. Westerns make you want to fill your lungs with fresh air and the faint scent of horse manure in the distance (because only in a novel is it faint and distant, right?). Chick lit makes you feel light and airy, and mysteries have you looking for a butler the second you glance at that cover.
So, you shouldn’t be surprised that my first suggestion in choosing the feel for your book is to determine its genre. Not all books are easy to define. I primarily write Christian fiction. My definition of Christian fiction is: Fiction in which faith is an integral part of the story. Well, that’s just dandy, but it doesn’t tell a reader what to expect in the pages aside from the possibility of a Bible verse or two. The book needs a more specific genre. Is it romance? Well, most of my books have romantic elements. Compared to Harlequin, Nora Roberts, or even the “Love Inspired” series by Steeple Hill, my books aren’t very romantic. However, I have to consider if the reader most likely drawn to that particular story is going to perceive it as a romance or not. Some of my books have definitely been romances. Others weren’t. I learned the hard way that determining a solid genre for your novel (even if you give it several other options in listings) is the best way to start the cover design process.
Let’s say you’ve determined your book is a mystery. The next question is, “What kind of mystery?” There are “cozy” mysteries, detective stories, literary mysteries, and “classics” such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers. It is essential that you ensure you do not have a sub-genre to consider. If you do, choose wisely and work from there. In nearly every genre, you can find a sub-genre that more specifically defines your novel. Use it to your advantage. If you can’t decide which to choose, think about who writes closest to what you’ve written. If you don’t know, ask. Go to every single person who has read any of your manuscript and ask them who your work most resembles in their mind. Take that to Amazon and look. See what Amazon has to say about it. My guess is you’ll find just what you need. Oh, and if absolutely no one else has read your book, stop the design process now. You need input before you do anything else. Trust me. Everyone needs input.
Learn the difference between a cliched cover and a solid element that has stood the test of time. If your book involves someone being chased, you don’t necessarily need a car whizzing down a highway or a man running through a dark alley. However, just because those have been used time and again doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good choice. The fact is, Solomon is right: There is nothing new under the sun. Your book has been done before by someone. It may have been set in a different time, with or without the technology you used, but it’s been done. Your job is to convince a reader that you’ve done it better and with a new twist that keeps your double suicide romantic tragedy from being a cheap hack job of Romeo and Juliet.
The next thing you need is to determine your book’s tone. Is it fast-paced action or a slow ramble through a girl’s life in a village in the Cotswolds? Is it dark and keep-you-on-the-edge-0f-your-seat, or light and humorous? The last thing you want to do is set the wrong tone for your book with a cover that doesn’t reveal the story within. A cover is a promise to your reader about what’s inside. If you’re writing about an art thief running from Interpol, you do not want the cover of your book to show the one lazy moment on the beach. That absolutely will turn a reader off when he realizes that he’s not in for a relaxing ride. People feel lied to when their book cover doesn’t match the content. Sure, exaggerated covers are one thing, but if the book is about the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer and you only show the small crazy portion, people expecting a zany story of college kids on school break are going to be miserably disappointed when they realize most of the book is a quiet, thoughtful introspection. It’ll hurt your sales for this book as well as future ones. You’ll get Amazon reviews bashing your book, and the readers won’t be back for the next one.
Don’t limit yourself to a single scene for the cover of your book unless it really is so pivotal that it is the only possible cover. Tie scenes together if it works without being over-busy. Find that pivotal scene. Use no image at all and create graphic art in Photoshop. Whatever you do, make sure it fits all of your book. I can’t stress it enough. You have about three seconds before your potential reader turns his gaze to the next book. Make sure you hold that gaze long enough to make her want to reach for it to learn more.
You must hook ‘em, but make sure you use the right bait for the right fish.
A cover has two aspects to the “hook ‘em” process. By this analogy, the front–the artwork– is the bait, but the back is the actual hook. Don’t neglect to carry the proper tone and genre appeal of the front cover onto the back. The back shouldn’t be cluttered, but neither should it look as if it is an afterthought. The back is everything to a book. People pick up a book from the shelf because the cover or spine (TITLE) caught their eye, but they immediately turn to the back. Keep it flowing with the front with simple but good design and a powerful synopsis. Grab your favorite books from your shelf and turn them over. Read the synopsis. What about that synopsis grabbed you? Make sure yours has those elements. You need enough information about the book to make an educated decision about purchasing it and enough intrigue to keep them wanting more. Too much information gives away the plot, too little gives you no reason to want to read it at all.
As much as I hate to admit it, a photo of you on the back of your book will help sell copies. It connects you to the reader. One look at a photo and they feel like there’s a real person behind that cover — someone with a story aching to be told. It helps hook them into wanting to read your story. For people like me who despise their picture being taken, we get to suck it up and deal with it. Make sure it’s a good picture. It doesn’t have to be from a portrait studio, but it does need to be clutter free. Have someone take a picture of you sitting with a cup of coffee on your deck, in your favorite recliner with a book, or just a good head and shoulders shot by a nice green bush. If you don’t know how to tweak things in Photoshop, ask a friend to do it. Get the string off the back of the chair, the hose out of the grass, or whatever. I have another suggestion. Dress for your genre. If you write crime novels, wear something crisp and tailored. Don’t don a bohemian peasant top and fluttery skirt with Birkenstocks. Even though your shoes won’t show, you’ll assume the tone of your clothing. You want to appear confident, bold. If, however, you’re writing about a carefree high school teacher who inspires her kids by appealing to their inner flower child, wear the boho outfit and stick a daisy behind your ear! (ok, maybe not the daisy…) I think my point is clear. You need to fit your genre just as much as your cover does. I chose a bright but dark orange (persimmon technically) blouse for my cover photo. It is casual, cheerful, and yet the pose was a bit intriguing– just enough so that if I need it for my mysteries, it’ll still work. I like the photo even though it’s not the best one of me.
Now, when you’re assembling those elements, is there some way that you can arrange them on the back to keep the reader wanting to look at it? Is it a crime novel? Is your protagonist a slick NY detective? Maybe you need a police file or computer screen shot of the perp. Is your book a fictional family history of immigrants from Hungary from the early nineteen hundreds to now? Perhaps the back should reflect a photo album or scrapbook. Don’t go too cutesy. Don’t clutter it up. But if your book has the potential for an intriguing back, use it! Definitely use it.
So, let’s make a checklist:
- Pick a genre.
- Pick a sub-genre.
- Watch out for clichés.
- Don’t ignore standard elements (but don’t be afraid to step out into something unique if it really works).
- Determine the tone of your book.
- Write (or hire someone to write) a solid synopsis.
- Don’t forget a good author photo that fits the tone.
- Design the back — don’t just “place elements” there.