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What does it take to design an AWARD-winning book cover?

At the Festival of Writing in York last month, I shamelessly slid my book ‘Conditional Love’ onto the Blackwell’s sales table and then pretended I’d just spotted it. ‘OOH look at that LOVELY book jacket!’ I cried. I thrust it under the noses of agents like Piers Blofeld (not the Bond baddie, more on that later) and Broo Doherty. I waved it in the faces of established authors like Adele Parks, Allie Spencer, Debi Alper and I think, although I’m not sure, Julie Cohen.

And they all said nice things. Some said fantastic things that had me skipping along like my daughter does when she brings me great news. Adele Parks offered to retweet my launch to all 8000 of her followers, and what’s more, she did!

So who is the creative genius behind the cover of my book? I delighted to welcome to my blog, Andrew Brown from Design For Writers who was kind enough to take time out from his packed schedule to answer my questions on book cover design.

 
 
 
 

1. It seems that every self-published book that I come across has a cover designed by Design For Writers; how, when and why did you conquer the market in self-published book covers?

Just a second while I put down the cat I’m stroking and avert my evil world-dominating eyes…

That’s better. I’m delighted you’re seeing so many covers out there from Design for Writers, but we’re still very much a small operation (and we really like it that way). We’ve been around for a fair few years now, and we’ve seen some fantastic growth in that time. But what’s really pleasing is that our growth has been entirely through word of mouth. We’ve not done any advertising and still don’t have our own website – simply because we’ve been so tied up with work for awesome clients like yourself. We work for writers and publishers from all around the globe, and they are incredibly kind in telling their friends and associates about the positive experiences they’ve had with Design for Writers. 

And remember we don’t only work for self-publishers. We also provide design services to some of the major publishers so you probably see our designs in more places than you realise (I could tell you who they are, but then I’d have to kill you! *picks up cat and resumes stroking*). 

2. Is there any genre that you haven’t covered yet, but you would like to? And if you could design a cover for any author, who would it be?
I think we’ve covered most genres by now. Perhaps a good old-fashioned period bodice-ripper would be quite timely. It’s a long time since I had one of those on my screen, so that would be fun, and I’ve got some great ideas for it too. Seriously though, we work across all genres and that really keeps the work interesting.
 
If I could design a cover for any author, it would have to be JK Rowling of course (cue yawns at the back for the incredibly obvious answer). The cover for ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was a stroke of genius.
 
It wasn’t well received but the designer clearly knew that they were in the fortunate position of having an author with whom they could be brave in their design, and that’s exactly what they did. That cover would not have worked in the same way for any other author, but in making the break from the Potter series and pointing in a whole new direction, with a deliberately smaller canvas for the story telling, it was perfection. Hallelujah said I!
 

3. Can you give us a brief description about your design process, starting from when you first take a project on?
We’ve always set out to make the design process transparent and (I hope) enjoyable. We’ve honed it over the years and feedback from our clients suggests that we have things pretty well balanced at the moment – although we’re always looking at ways to make it better.

As soon as a client is booked in we open up a dedicated online project space for the job. This keeps everything (files, comments, links, notes, etc) about the project together in one space, and that space is accessible both to ourselves and the client at all times. 

This is also the place where clients complete their pre-design brief. We’ve developed a series of questions which help us to get at the very heart of a job – whether that’s a book cover or a website we’re building.
 
The questions include obvious things like details about protagonists and settings, but also helps to get at some of the harder to grasp aspects which really make a cover work, such as tone, themes and the like. Our authors often say these questions bring out aspects of their book that they’d not considered. I hope it’s useful for everyone involved. 

We use all of the information provided to brainstorm ideas. Often the answer is immediately obvious, and sometimes it takes a little teasing out. But the answer is always there…you just need to know where to look. Invariably the best covers emerge from the best briefs, where clients provide sufficient information and allow flexibility for the design to take place. We’ve worked on hundreds of covers over the years, and for the most part we know what makes a cover work. The collaboration between author and designer is central to that. 

When we present the design proof, more often than not the client falls in love with it right away. Sometimes it takes some tweaks to nail things down, but that’s okay too. So long as we remain open to that author input, and they are receptive to our advice, then it’s a perfect marriage which invariably leads to a really successful outcome. 

We’re always clear that clients pay for the experience and knowledge of professional design, and we’ll always advise on next steps. Ultimately, of course, it’s down to each client how much of that advice they want to take on board, and the final decision will always rest with the author.

4. Other than Conditional Love – out now in paperback and Kindle format -what has been your favourite cover to work on?

Wow, that’s a tough question to answer! Every cover (and every website) has its own challenges and rewards and I honestly couldn’t pick one above all others (apart from Conditional Love, available now in paperback and Kindle format, of course!)
A selection of recent covers by Design For Writers
 

What I can do is to say what makes a design great to work on, and that is when you work with authors who are really open to honest advice on their book cover. Most of the time authors have an idea in mind which we can really work with, or else they give us freedom to explore things even if there is no particular idea in their head. In those cases (which applies to almost all of our clients, I’m pleased to say) we can really add value to the book and their publishing process. When the author gets that wow moment and can’t wait to rush off to Twitter or Facebook and show off their new cover…that’s what it’s all about!

5. What advice would you give to an author who is thinking of designing their own book cover?

Well self-interest (and that whole world domination thing again) of course would have me say “don’t do it…hire Design for Writers instead!” But in reality I’m perfectly aware that hiring in professional services for the publishing process isn’t always an option, and I get that. But please, if you are going to work on your own cover, then for the love of humanity keep a few things in mind…such as this ten point plan:

1. Less is more. Always. If you think that’s simply a cliché and that your book is a special case, you’re already beyond help. 

2. Think about what is essential for your cover: the title, the author name and perhaps some teaser text. Put it on the page and then stop. Force yourself to the conclusion that nothing else added from this point will be as important as what you’ve already done. But don’t mistake this to mean that all of the text should be visible from space.

3. Open up your list of fonts and forget about 95% of them. The vast majority of fonts which come pre-installed on your computer are there because they are available to licence very inexpensively, and there’s a reason for that. The remaining 5% are perfect for your needs, and subtle use of fonts such as Helvetica, Times, Arial (yes, even Arial) or Gill Sans (if you’re particularly fortunate) will make your cover a million times better than it would look if you used Verdana, Zapfino or something equally awful. And keep the number of fonts to a minimum – I guarantee one font will be enough if you really, really try.

4. If you’re using an image (and don’t assume that you must) then choose one which doesn’t overpower the page. Keep it simple, and don’t get lost in trying to tell your story with an image – that’s not what your cover is for. Instead, make the image work for you by having it say something about the feeling or the tone of your book. People don’t care if your main character is wearing her hair up while walking along a particular street in a particular town wearing a particular dress. They do care if she is afraid or in love. Those things are interesting. 

5. Don’t use clip art. Never. Not ever. 

6. Limit your colour palette. If you are using an image then consider having your colour palette influenced by the colours in the image.

7. When you’re finished and you’ve kept everything as simple as possible, look at it fresh and then see all of the ways you can simplify it even further. 

8. Repeat step 7.

9. Repeat step 8.

10. Be proud of your creation and put it out there. 

The serious point is remembering to keep things simple. It will serve you better than trying to work with gradients and obscure font combinations. And do seek out prices for cover design, even if ultimately you choose not to pursue it. You get what you pay for but we offer a range of packages to suit most publishing budgets…with more to come soon ;)

6. What are the emerging trends in cover design? Is this an industry that experiences a lot of change?

I think one important thing to acknowledge is that ebook design in particular is coming of age. There was a tendency for a long time to over-simplify in all of the wrong ways when it came to ebook cover design. Not every word needs to be readable at thumbnail size. Contrast does not need to be so high that your dog will need to wear shades just to handle the glare. And you do not need a border. 

If you are having your cover professionally designed, then your designer will have techniques available to them which will help to make your cover work, and it’s important not to fence them in with arbitrary rules. If you’ve hired a designer (whoever that may be) then I hope you’ve done so because you trust them, so let them design and allow yourself to benefit from their expertise – It’s what you’re paying them for! 

All of which is to say that the trend for the wrong kind of simplification in ebook designs is thankfully one we are seeing the back of. In its place, as more people realise the important role that a professionally designed cover can play in their sales, is a more creative trend emerging. Less cookie-cutter, more bespoke design which is working hard for the author. 


Another positive trend is simplification in a positive way. As self-publishers in particular become more sophisticated we are seeing less clutter on book covers and more focus on what really matters – conveying the essential feeling of a book. It means clean typography (I said clean, and that doesn’t necessarily mean big), vivid messages and selective use of colour. 

But be careful with confusing short-term trends with timeless genre identifiers on your cover. Unless you want to redesign your cover every twelve months (you don’t!) then make sure your cover nails the genre and captures your target market. Design trends come and go, but a good book cover will sit comfortably within its genre for a long time to come. So yes, there is change, but you don’t need to be a slave to that.

7. If you feel you still have more to say that was unanswered by any of the above questions, feel free to write it here:

I need a lie down! Thanks for having us on your blog Cathy. We have a new website coming soon where people can see a lot more of what we do. Visit www.designforwriters.com and until our new site is ready, that link will take you direct to our Facebook page. 

Thank you Andrew, for taking being on my blog today. I can’t recommend Design For Writers enough, do pop over to their Facebook page and look at some of their work.

Cathy Bramley
By Cathy Bramley

Cathy is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby farm, Conditional Love, Wickham Hall and The Plumberry School of Comfort Food. She lives in a Nottinghamshire village with her family and Pearl, the Cockerpoo. Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has always been an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. Luckily her husband has now bought her a Kindle with a light, so that’s the end of all that palaver.

Comments (4)

  1. Design for Writers 9 October 2013 at 10:06 am

    Hi Cathy. Many thanks for featuring us on your website today…’tis an absolute pleasure to be here :)

  2. Cathy Bramley 9 October 2013 at 10:16 am

    You’re welcome, Andrew!

  3. Sandra Davies 9 October 2013 at 10:40 am

    As an avid self-publisher, to whom book cover design is part of the fun (and sometimes part of the novel-writing process), this was enormously interesting and, like the other features, to be returned to. I’ve already learnt a lot. Thanks Cathy and Andrew.

  4. Baz Baron 9 October 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Another great interview, Cathy. Andrew has a definite passion for his work which was easy to determine with the answers to the questions you put to him. Thank you both, for a most informative post.