Designing a book cover is lots of fun and a welcome change from word wrangling and beating your novel into shape. But it can also be a frustrating experience. I scheduled two days to work on the cover for The Shining Ones, but in the end, it took a week – and it still needs a few tweaks…
They say you should never design your own book covers and there are many good reasons for this. A well-designed cover looks simple and obvious, but – as with so many things in life – that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The professionals make it look simple, but that’s because they know what they’re doing.
So you should always pay a professional to design your book cover – if you can. But if you’re like me – on a zero budget and counting pennies to see if you can afford to buy tea this week – you’ll have to do it yourself.
Thankfully, there’s lots of advice online and loads of free tools you can use to knock up a decent looking book cover. Check out my Blagger’s Guide to Book Cover Design. In this post, we’ll see what we can learn from my many hideous mistakes…
First you need to decide what image or images you want on your cover – or even whether you want an image at all. Many books these days just use typography or minimal artwork. This is because most of us are buying our books online so the covers have to be eye-catching at thumbnail size, and the key to that is to be simple and bold.
Whatever image you choose, it should reflect the feel of your book and intrigue potential readers enough so they want to find out more. But it shouldn’t be too obvious either. It’s a good idea to think about potential cover images while you’re writing the book. I’ve got a folder full of images that relate to the theme, locations, and characters, but not all of them would make good cover material.
For example, The Shining Ones includes characters who are angels. But they aren’t typical angels and don’t have wings – that’s a cliché and way too obvious. So many of the images I’ve been using to illustrate posts about the book on this blog, would never work as cover art.
Here’s a cover I mocked up (in PowerPoint) using an image of an angel statue that’s wrong on so many levels (see below). It’s not a bad image (found on Flickr here) – just not right for the book. Too on the nose. Oh look, an angel! It looks amateurish, especially with the word sculpting on the title – a big no, no.
I tried to improve on this with another image of angel wings (I hadn’t learnt my lesson). This one works a little better (see above). It’s a bold, colourful image that draws the eye, and with the right font, you could make this work as a cover. But again, it’s not right for the book.
So I moved on from depicting angels and shifted my attention to another important feature in the book: Birds – specifically, pigeons. Some of the angels in The Shining Ones disguise themselves as pigeons to do reconnaissance on humans. I found a beautiful image of a white dove which felt appropriate, and tried a few things:
Again, these covers are truly awful. They scream amateur. The title is too small and I’ve used bad fonts: Papyrus and Herculanum – both frowned upon because they’re overused. And what the hell are those stars doing there?
My thinking was that the story features mythology based on the ancient belief in returning to the stars via the Milky Way (also the path angels take to enter this world). The 5-pointed stars vaguely resemble the Egyptian star, or seba – which features in the book and relates to the akhu, or ancestors. But it’s just wrong, wrong, wrong!
Also, the ‘I’s in Shining are larger than the rest of the text in the second example. It looks ridiculous, but it was deliberate. I was trying (and failing) to indicate the idea of two standing stones (also a feature in the book) – a bad idea, doomed before I’d even finished thinking it.
Next I tried an image that will look familiar to readers of this blog – I call it Moody Blue, but it shows a woman facing either a sunrise or sunset, with a dramatic sky and some rainbow reflections in the clouds. The original is a free stock image I found here and then tweaked by running it through the filters on the Canva design site.
It’s a good strong image and works better as a cover because it’s more symbolic. It reflects the mood of the book and could even be a representation of one of the protagonists.
To make it work with the text, I created a blurred version of the image and inverted it. This meant I could place the text in a central position over the dark part of the image, creating a good contrast and making the title easier to read.
I tried various fonts and finally weaned myself off Papyrus. (To be fair, ancient Egyptian mythology is a feature of the book, so I could have made an argument for using that font – but it’s still too hard to read in thumbnail. So.) The image above uses a basic sans font – bold and simple, and it stands out in thumbnail, but it’s not quite right for the story.
A lot of thrillers use large sans fonts in their titles. They’re modern and clear, and work well online. The Shining Ones fits the thriller category, but it’s a fantasy thriller – actually Visionary Fiction packaged up in a fantasy thriller story – so I wasn’t convinced a bold sans font was right for the book.
I’ll have to write a separate post about typography and genre considerations because this post is already too long. But in a nutshell, whatever font you choose, it must reflect the story and match the genre of your book. The best way to find the right font is to research similar books in your genre and take inspiration from the best.
So I experimented with fonts for fantasy novels and eventually settled on the Immortal font – mainly because the letter ‘i’ includes little stars as dots – perfect for The Shining Ones.
Here’s the Moody Blue image with the Immortal font on the title. I’ve used a basic sans font for the author name and tagline (Avenir Book, in case you’re wondering). It’s a good idea to limit the number of fonts you use to just two – one sans and one serif, as long as they work together.
You’ll also have spotted a star in the ‘O’ on Ones. That’s not part of the font – I added it using PowerPoint. An akhu star is an important symbol in the book and I wanted to include a representation of it on the cover. I tried replacing the dots on the ‘i’s, but it was too much with two of them – I only needed one. Putting it in the centre of the ‘O’ was the perfect solution, and even better because that creates the symbol for the Duat – the Underworld – where the Akhu, or Shining Ones, reside…
So I finally had the right font, but I still needed to find the right image. There’s nothing really wrong with the Moody Blue image, but it felt a little basic. I wasn’t convinced it was distinctive enough, so I continued my search.
This is where it got complicated because I found two potential images and I couldn’t choose between them. They both had their strengths and weaknesses, and I kept flipping back and forth, trying different things and unable to decide.
The first is a fantastic image of a man standing on some rocks looking up at the Milky Way with a light coming from his headlamp. It’s a free stock image that I found on Pexels here.
As soon as you see this image, it just cries out to be a book cover! It has excellent composition and balance, and when I mocked up a cover, it worked so well that I got quite attached to it. I even did a paperback version to make sure it would work.
But the downside of an image featuring the night sky with lots of stars is that they’re hard get right when it comes to printing. There’s a lot of noise in an image like that and unless you know what you’re doing, you can really mess it up. I didn’t feel confident enough that I could provide a good enough image for printing.
Plus, the difficulty of publishing through CreateSpace is that you don’t have that much control over the printing process – beyond providing them with the best image you can. Quality control in Print On Demand can be patchy and I didn’t want the cover to be ruined by factors outside of my control. (It’s fine if I ruin my own cover!)
There was one more black mark against this image – the content. It’s a pretty on the nose depiction of the prologue in the book: a man standing on a mountain and gazing up at the Milky Way. He’s not a major character and it didn’t feel right to have him on the cover. (Sorry, Will. Maybe next time!)
The second image is similar to Moody Blue but it includes more colour and feels more distinctive. It shows a woman gazing into the sky where birds circle overhead, and the original also shows a crescent moon. It’s another free image found on Pexels, by Brazilian photographer Luiz Claudio.
This image is perfect for The Shining Ones. It features a woman who could easily be one of the main protagonists, and there are birds – who knows, perhaps one of them is an angel in disguise…
To make the cover I did the same trick as before: inverted and blurred it to create more light and movement. I also lightened the image a touch by increasing the exposure to make the figure ‘pop’ a little more. You’ll have noticed the moon has disappeared too – I did some fiddling and altered the top of the image to make more space for the tagline.
I’ll probably do some more tweaking before publication and I’m still working on the blurb so the tagline will definitely change. The one I’ve included here isn’t right because it’s the kind of thing you’d expect on a straightforward thriller – and there’s nothing straightforward about The Shining Ones.
So the next mountain to climb is the blurb for the book description – another learning curve beckons… If you’re curious, you can read the working synopsis for the book here. Or read the post on blurb writing: How to Blurb