While it hasn’t always been this way, authors these days should be involved in the process of creating their books. It’s important to understand the process, and to know what goes into making a book, because that’s also part of making it successful. I feel that an unprofessional cover is one of the quickest ways to tank your story, so it’s something an author has to be thinking about. There’s a lot to know about graphic design, so it’s not surprising that most authors aren’t experts on how to create an affective cover. And, from personal experience, it’s even harder designing for your own book than it is to design for someone else’s. We’re deeply involved with our own work, so it harder to get to the core of the matter. So, here’s a quick rundown of some mistakes in cover art that I’ve seen most often.
Typography is the design of the text on a book cover. From the title to the tagline, it’s an important element that a lot of people don’t understand. It’s not just about font (although, that’s certainly important), but about placement, color, contrast, etc. Bad typography will make a book look unprofessional quicker than anything else. These days some authors opt for plain, unadorned fonts in boring solid colors, placed without thought to the cover composition, and that is a mistake. It’s often done in the interest of making sure the text is readable at a small size, but—as with so many other things—you have to strike a balance of those two elements.
While I get that people want a title to be clearly visible in a thumbnail, you don’t have to go with plain, boring, or badly done typography to achieve that. Moreover, a professional cover will catch people’s eyes even before they know what the title is. Then, once you’ve got them clicking on your book, the title is often displayed right next to it. There’s no reason to sacrifice good design for clarity at tiny sizes.
Illustrating a Scene from the Book
Sometimes, you’ve got a scene in your head that’s so clear you can taste it, so vivid that you think of it whenever you think of the story. And, 9 times out of 10, that scene should not be the cover of your book. A cover shouldn’t be an illustration from the book. A cover needs to capture a wider perspective. Cover art must speak to the reader’s emotions, to what they expect to get from your story when they start reading. Remember that cover art is much like product packaging in that it has to convince the reader that your books has what they’re looking for, that it will meet their needs. And people read books to experience them, to feel the emotional highs and lows of a well told love story, or the excitement of a gripping spy novel, or the wonder of a dragon rising up through a misty morning. Readers are looking for emotional satisfaction, and your cover needs to show them what kind they’ll get if they pick up your book.
While I’m not saying that the scene from your book won’t do that, you have to understand all the buildup that goes into those really emotional scenes. Most of the time, the reader can’t possibly understand the emotion you’re conveying because they don’t know everything that’s gone before. They don’t know why that scene is emotionally satisfying, and concentrating on a single scene means that some of the best elements of a story can get left out because... they’re not in the scene. Perhaps they’re not in any specific scene at all. Often times, it’s the overall experience of the book that is most loved by the reader, and that’s what cover art should communicate.
Too Much Going On
However, continuing from that point, sometimes authors want to pack too much on the cover. They want to get every possible element in there and these covers sometimes become a load of smaller images that don’t fit together in a cohesive way. They’re cluttered and confused and the reader isn’t really sure what they should take away from having seen them. They’re harder to parse and they confuse the story.
Cover art is all about boiling a story down to its basic emotional content in a way that’s visually appealing. Sometimes that can be done with a busy cover, but it’s not easy. There’s a balance to be struck between each element and the overall design has to be really well executed or it just reads as muddled and unfocused.
Too Focused On the Details
I’m the last person who would tell you that details don’t matter. It’s important for the images on a cover to be representative of the book, of the characters and the geography. However, there’s a balance to be struck. Too many details can be just like too many images, they all start vying for attention, and distracting the viewer. Too much focus on getting all the tiny details just right can mean that the overall design receives less attention. Particularly the composition, which is a huge element of design.
Painters often use fewer details on background or unimportant elements in order to emphasize the clarity of particular, important elements, and this is a comment tactic in design over all. So, the high level of detail in a single part of an image draws the viewer’s eyes to those elements, it helps to create focus on particular elements and to give a rough sense of the rest. The less detailed portions are more about color and shape than accurate representation.
Not Talking To the Right Audience
Some of the authors that come to me aren’t entirely sure which elements to focus on for the cover. What bits will communicate the story they’re telling? Which bits are right for the cover and will speak to the people who will most want to read the story? Cover art relies on visual language, the translation of concepts and emotional cues into a single cohesive image. Just as it takes practice and experience to get good at stringing words together, it takes the same to learn how to communicate visually and to speak to specific audiences when doing so.
So, hopefully, this highlights the troubles some authors have with their cover art, and explains the reasons behind those mistakes, which, I think, is the most important part.