Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How I design my ebook covers

In my opinion, an ebook cover is the first bit of advertising you have. Your ebook cover is a billboard to advertise your story. It’s also like a movie trailer, except it’s a static image. Would a movie studio run a trailer of one scene from the movie? Not usually. Trailers usually give you a smattering of what to expect in the movie. Can we do that in our ebook covers? I have tried to do so.

In the rest of this post I’m going to explain my cover strategy and how I designed my covers for Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance and The Elemental Odyssey.

As a disclaimer, I’m providing this advice for non-famous authors. If you’re famous, your name should be the most prominent item on the cover. But, for those of us who are unknown, I think my strategy might work.

The biggest advice I have is about the actual artwork, so I’m going to save that for last. First, I’ll talk about the title and author text.

The Title

Actually choosing a title is beyond the scope of this post. Of course, you should pick something catchy and appropriate for the story, if possible.

For title layout, here’s what I attempt to accomplish:

1.    Title is legible in thumbnail size.

2.    Title color contrasts the artwork behind it.

3.    Title is in a font appropriate for the story.

Here are some examples of good and bad use of titles. Click on the pic to see them in thumbnail size. Notice how the title is illegible in many of them. I’ll let you decide which are good and which are less so.

Be sure to experiment with a LOT of fonts. I have hundreds of fonts and I’m constantly collecting more. When I choose one for a book I usually mock up at least a dozen on the cover (from a candidate pool of dozens).

Sometimes a font won’t work in standard format, but it will in bold. Always check the bold version.

To make your book seem even more professional, use texture, shading, and other tricks on your title. I haven’t done this yet because I don’t know how. I’d like to improve The Elemental  Odyssey title to be something more than just black text. Maybe someday.

Author name

Your author name does not need to be legible in thumbnail size. It would be nice if it was, but there is no way a customer is going to see the thumbnail size of your ebook cover without also seeing your name in text directly beneath it. So, unless you’re famous, keep your name small so people can see more of the cover art.

Most of the same rules apply to author name as applied to title:

1.    Author name doesn’t need to be legible in thumbnail size. It can be, but not required.

2.    Author name text color contrasts the artwork behind it.

3.    Author name is in a font appropriate for the story.

The Artwork

The cover is a billboard for your story. You’re paying good money for an artist to do the cover. Be involved in the creation. You know the story better than anyone, you should decide the content of the cover art. The artist should follow your guidelines and be willing to iterate with you.

1.    Find an artist that you love.

2.    Don’t have a lot of empty space on the cover. The top of the book should have room for the title. Don’t put anything important up there. Ditto for a smaller space at the bottom for your name.

3.    Don’t clutter the artwork.

4.    Make the cover interesting. Make it something someone would want to look at for more than two seconds. This means detail. You don’t need a lot, but a bit is nice. Customers who pause to examine a cool cover will also check out the rest of the book page.

5.    At least one object on the cover must be recognizable in thumbnail size.

6.    Unless you have an awesome idea for a one-concept cover, make the cover a montage of 3-4 concepts.

7.    Use the foreground, midground, and background to full effect.

8.    The cover must be cool. If you look at your cover and don’t think “that’s cool” then don’t use that cover.

Those are the basic rules I use when designing my covers. Here is a more precise strategy for the actual art content and how I implemented them for my current novels:

1.    Foreground depicts the protagonist or other important character. This foreground character is recognizable in thumbnail size and has evocative detail. This can be equipment, expression, body language, or more.

2.    Midground depicts other character(s) with some action suggested. Not necessarily recognizable in thumbnail size.

3.    Background depicts the setting. Not necessarily recognizable in thumbnail size.

Here’s how I came up with the design for my two novels with Igor Kieryluk, the artist:

Foreground: The main character, Noose, is large and in the foreground. Even in thumbnail size you can get a good idea of what he is and what he’s doing. He has some good detail, such as futuristic guns that suggest science fiction and attire that suggests a hard-boiled detective atmosphere.

Midground: The name of the dance club, Stiltzkins, in bright neon. which ties in nicely with the title. Three other characters from the book are in front of the club, shooting at Noose. This reinforces the action implied by Noose’s pistols.

Background: A flying police car, implying criminal activity. A skyscraper with dirigibles flying around it. Both of these imply a futuristic setting.

Title: Thick, gritty font easily legible in thumbnail.

Author name: Same but smaller font. Doesn’t block any important art.

Foreground: One of the primary aliens, a raccoon-man named Bozabrozy. Since the story is about a group of aliens coming to Earth, I decided to use one of them as the focal point instead of the protagonist children. He’s got some detail, such as his magical blue potion and pouches.

Midground: The four children in the story. American Kyle Morgan, German Jurgen Schmidt, Indian Veekhsa Das, and Native American Susie Five Eagles. The detail here is their attire, body language and expressions.

Background: Mt. Rushmore is the setting for the first several chapters of the book. The flying ship is also very important in the story, and its odd design (four sails) is something that I wanted to depict.

Title: The font is kind of fanciful and implies swashbuckling, of which there is plenty in the story. Igor also left me a bunch of open sky up there, enough to put the title and the series information.

Author name: Thanks to the fog and blowing leaves/twigs, Igor has given me more room to put my name.

So, as you can see, I put a lot of thought into the composition of the covers. I don’t see a bunch of other covers similar to mine. Maybe because my strategy isn’t good? I guess I’ll find that out. 
What do you think of my covers?


  1. Honestly, your covers strike me as a bit busy. I'm not quite sure what everything is on it—like the flying police car on Dead Dwarves Don't Dance? I think I know which part of the image you're referring to, but I still can't tell that's what it is.

    But then, I'm generally a fan of simpler covers.

    I do agree on the font notes, though—and bear in mind that you must make sure that you have commercial licenses for the fonts. Even if you find a freeware font, it might only be freeware for non-commercial use, and some font licenses state that you must alert the artist on your use of it. There's one font creator I like whose e-mails I can find are all bad, so I found different fonts to use. I always keep a copy of the font licenses on my computer. :)

    If you use Gimp, you can add shadows and such by selecting the text layer and playing in the "Filters" menu.

  2. This is a great post - I like the logic of your breakdown, and I have to say the artwork is great. It's good to see how covers have to adapt to the online world, and I like how you look at the author name as a minor feature - plenty of authors would be mortified to leave aside their precious, precious name. :-)

  3. I think you've always had good covers. Elemental Odyssey is the best. I agree with most of your advice- if I have a quibble it's that midground or background characters aren't always necessary.

  4. Thank you for the great post. I like DDDD best, but think the cover for EO is good too. I think they work great for the genres you're working in. I have to say, I personally don't pay that much attention to covers when I buy a book, either on Amazon or in my local bookstores - I pay more attention to titles, and a good title will grab me.

  5. Hi Derek,
    I'm DG and I found your blog about the cover very interesting. Being also an artist I do all my art work for the cover. I start all my artwork as a post stamp outline. If it looks good in miniature it will look good in full size. Since on Amazon the book covers appear in post stamp sizes it is essential to grab the readers’ attention with an appealing design. By the way my YA Fantasy book “Arboregal” is scheduled for publishing with CreateSpace this fall.

  6. Great post about your process for your covers, Derek. I enjoyed reading your rationale. The Dead Dwarves Don't Dance cover is particularly effective, I think -- though the smaller features really only show up well in DTB size.

  7. I think your comment about playing down the author's name for non-famous authors is extremely logical. I particularly like the Elemental Odyssey artwork.

    Thanks for the advice!

  8. (Eric – Still can’t post using my Google ID)

    Thanks for the post. Really good information and should help people who are just starting out and thinking about their covers.

    I would also suggest people to check out the Cover Art Review blog where people can submit their covers for feedback. It’s also a great way to see other people covers and read the feedback to what works and doesn’t work.

    http:// coverartreview. blogspot. com/

  9. Derek, who does the titling? It sounds like you get the cover art and do the titling yourself. I'm curious what program you use.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

  10. I know that my covers aren’t for everyone. Obviously, many folks like very simple covers where the title and author are the only discernable items. But, I’ve always found such covers boring. I prefer to reveal a few things about my book with my covers. For example, I considered just having the closeup of the raccoon man’s face with the hat on the cover. But, that would have only attracted people who like raccoons. By including the raccoon-man, magical potion, kids, Mt. Rushmore, and the flying ship, I attract a bunch more people.

    Tara, you are correct. I do the titling myself. I use Visio for the ebooks and Photoshop for the paperback covers.

  11. Hello!.. I am creating an eBook in Indesign CS5. It has an option to add a thumbnail image. So my question is what size should I create the thumbnail? ~ Emma

  12. Anon, Amazon/B&N/etc. automatically create their own thumbnail sizes after you submit your book to them with the normal size cover. You do not need to submit a thumbnail size to them.

    For myself, I usually create thumbnails that are 100-125 pixels wide to use on my sites.

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