How I Write: Step 10 – The Cover

Step 10: The Cover

Because people—for reasons that still elude me—consider me to be something of an authority in the world of indie authordom, I am frequently asked what the best bang for your buck in the book world is. Technically, the answer is “writing another book.” But if you’re looking to invest some money in your finished book, I can’t say enough about taking the time and money to get a decent cover.

The Hardware

If you are doing this yourself (DON’T DO THIS YOURSELF), you’ll need whatever art supplies you are most comfortable with. Even if you AREN’T doing this yourself, it might be worth having some pencils and paper around, along with your cell phone, so you can doodle a concept and snap a picture of it so the artist will know what’s what.

The Software

Just as Word is frequently the standard for exchanging manuscripts in an editable state, photoshop is the standard for exchanging covers in an editable state. It’s also pretty standard for actually making the covers. Now, I haven’t had access to photoshop since college, so I tend to rely upon The GIMP. It’s a free photo editing program that can be a little tricky and cranky. But if you’re willing to hammer on it, it gets the job done. Not a rousing endorsement, but it is what it is.

The Content

Behold. My original cover. It’s… wonderful.

Step one, find an artist. Please don’t make your own cover. PLEASE DON’T MAKE YOUR OWN COVER! Some people can do this, but even the people who can do this probably shouldn’t for the same reason that an editor is probably better off not being the only editor on their own manuscript.

There are loads of ways to buy a cover. The cheapest is to get a “premade” cover. Cover designers will often put together covers that fit a certain tone. These can be had for reasonable prices, and all you need to do is slap on your title and name. I’ve seen these go for <$50.

If you’re looking for something a little more made-to-order, those same book designers will usually make a custom cover for a bit more. They’ll use their magic to assemble stock imagery into something that looks like it belongs on a bookstore shelf. These are more in the $150 range. They can be absolutely perfect for something with very well-defined and relatively interchangeable cover elements, like romance. If you’ve written something in the sci-fi or fantasy realm, you might have some more difficulty, because there isn’t a ton of stock imagery in the dragon/spaceship realm. In those cases, you’ll need an illustrator.

My favored method for finding an artist is… well, to ask other artists. But I realize that others may not have been steadily building up a big list of artists of various styles, so you’d be better served going where I went. Deviant Art remains an excellent showcase site for artists portfolios. Do a search for the sort of stuff you want on your cover, then get in touch with the artist to see what their commission rates are. This can vary widely based on the artist and level of detail. I normally go with this method and budget an average of $750 per cover, but the sky is the limit. I once collaborated on a piece with a cover that cost $5000.

If you want to go a little more extravagant, people have been known to set up photoshoots, complete with the casting of actors/models and the renting of costumes. I’ve never done so (I like illustrations) but I can tell you that it isn’t cheap. That said, if you’re doing a long series with the same characters, you can often get the covers for the entire series out of a single photoshoot, so the cost can become quite reasonable over time.

Let’s assume you’ve found your artist. The next step is deciding what the cover will look like. I’d recommend looking at the top of the charts for your chosen genre. You’ll quickly find that there are a few staples of almost any genre. First, if there is any romance at all, you’re pretty likely to see some bare man chest. If we’re in the fantasy realm, dragons are common and effective. Space opera gets you a big, complex ship. If you’re just looking for something that’ll do the job, show your artist the books most like yours that are selling well and tell them to use those to set the parameters.

If you want to be a little more creative, here are some guidelines. Stay relatively simple. Most people are going to see your cover as a thumbnail on a store page. You need your cover to read at that size. This means having a clear artistic focus. One big, well defined element. Character face, space ship, covered bridge, man chest. Whatever. You’ll want your title readable at that size as well, and if you’re really going for the “Big Publisher” treatment, you’ll want your name as big as the title. (I don’t do this, but most of the people more successful than me do.)

The most important thing I can tell you is, listen to the artist. Particularly if they’ve done book covers before and specialize in them. An anecdote I’ve frequently told is, when I was purchasing new covers for my books—I made my own covers originally, hence my urging you not to do so—I had a very clear image in my mind of what the cover would be. It was a specific scene in the book. I described all of it in detail to the artist. He listened, and then walked me back. “How about we just focus on your main character.” “Let’s give more of a mood and temperature of your setting rather than a specific place.” “She should look the reader in the eyes, inviting them to learn her story.” The result was the current cover of the Book of Deacon, and it is easily the most iconic image associated with my stories.

Behold, my new cover (by Nick Deligaris). IT’S WONDERFUL!

Cover requirements vary, but a good rule of thumb is to shoot for something in the 6×9 aspect ratio (useful for paperbacks if you decide to do them), and about 300 dpi (again, useful for paperbacks.) That works out to 1800×2700. And again, if you’re looking to do paperbacks, consider getting what’s called a “wraparound.” That’s a cover with a background that extends off to the left for another 6 inches, plus an inch or so for the spine. Specific dimensions of that one are determined by the length of your book, but that’s covered in the paperback chapter.

And there you have it! A cover to be proud of, and one that will attract potential readers. When I re-covered The Book of Deacon trilogy, it tripled my sales overnight. I can’t guarantee you the same success, but starting off with an attractive, professional cover will at the very least give you a leg up on books with less thoughtful or savvy authors.

Leave a Reply