Book Covers: More Important Than I Realized

Never judge a book by its cover? Baloney! Tommyrot! Poppycock! Book covers are important — more important than I realized.

Book buyers buy books for four reasons: they know the author (Stephen King sells on his name alone), they are following a series (Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files), they read a glowing review and are interested, and finally, the cover grabs their attention.* The latter is especially true for freshmen authors like me. Our names aren’t known, our series are just beginning, and no one has reviewed our books yet.

A Path of Stones is selling quite well on the Apple iBookstore. So far, I’ve sold more than 50 copies, and average at least one sale per day. I’ve finally been able to access the Apple iBookstore, via iTunes, to see what the listing looks like.

Because the title begins with the letter A, my book is smack in the middle of the second row of Popular Fantasy. Nice placement. But the cover struck me. It stood out among the other three rows. For openers, it’s the only cover that features two characters, not just one. Secondly, it’s one of only two in which the characters are actually doing something, not just standing there. All the other covers feature portraits or objects. They aren’t boring, but my one scene of action shines in a sea of portraiture.

This is the cover:


I followed Frank Frazetta’s concept that the cover depicts action and drama, even if it does not convey the actual plot of the story. If you look at his marvelous paintings, all of them depict action. Even the classic painting of Conan standing on a pile of corpses conveys action. The action has just passed, and we have a good idea of the skull-cleaving that transpired. We want to read the story to see it for ourselves.

Remember, the the book cover is marketing. Given that the average online book shopper spends about three seconds scanning rows of potential purchases, it is important to grab the buyer’s attention fast. I’d say the cover to A Path of Stones is doing just that. I’ve made enough from the Apple store to buy two tanks of gas and a cheeseburger.

Apparently, Frazetta’s concept isn’t followed much these days. Also, apparently, it still works.

*  Non-fiction book buyers have reason to buy a book that outweighs the four I listed. They’re researching a subject. That’s rarely the case for the reader of fantasy fiction.

Book Cover Sizes and Specs

In my first essay on book covers, I described why it may be necessary to design your own, and how to follow Frank Frazetta’s concepts. In the second, I discussed how the transfer from digital to print results in a darker cover. It occurred to me that I never mentioned the physical aspects of book covers, whether you design your own or hire a professional artist.

Let’s change that, shall we?

If you hire a professional artist from Fiverr, or elsewhere, he or she ought to know all this already. If you’re the artist’s first customer, possibly not. If you design your own, it’s important, as I found out.

Whether we design a cover for a print book or an ebook, we work with digital images. In my case, those images are 3D art renders. If you take a photograph of a painting, a landscape, or people, it’s still a digital image. Even if you use film, and scan the image, the final product is digital. So, the theories are the same across the spectrum.

Digital images are variable in size. My renders are almost always either 1800 x 904 or 1500 x 904, measured in pixels. Depending on the usage, the site, and the device, they can appear to be small photos or full screen wallpapers.

Print doesn’t work that way. It’s fixed! The most common sizes are 6 x 9 and 8.5 x 11, measured in inches. There are other sizes, usually reserved for gift books, art albums, and cookbooks. Those lie outside the scope of my experience. That geehonking big 1800 x 904 render is puny on a 6 x 9 page, measuring about half the available space. That’s fine for the back cover, but not the front.

Therefore, the cover image needs to be at least twice the size of what is normal for a digital art image. The final render for my 6 x 9 cover measured 3600 x 1800. The 8.5 x 11 cover required a gigantic 4800 x 3600.

It is always better to shrink a digital image than to blow it up. Shrinking tightens the pixels, while blowing it up distorts the pixels. A blown up image is fuzzy at best, full of odd and ugly geometric shapes at worst. Hence, the term “pixilated.” That is another reason for using an image that borders on the insane size.

As if that isn’t enough, you will also need to add in trim area. This is the part of the image that spills over into the paper that will be cut off. Make sure the image extends to the very edge of the paper. In other words, for a 6 x 9 cover, you need 6.5 x 9.5. This ensures a nice image all the way to the edge of the book, without any black or white border showing up.

For a cover to an ebook, you have a different size dimension to consider. Covers for ebooks are much more square in shape. I’m trying to memorize the dimensions, but they’re closer to 610 x 950, measured in pixels. Too tall or too narrow, and you end up with wide margins at the sides. Worse, Lulu and Amazon may stretch the image to fit the space. That results in a terrible looking thumbnail. A customer seeing it may think the contents are equally terrible, and not buy your book. Trimming your image requires quite a bit of trial and error, but you’ll get it. Amazon and Lulu both give you the exact dimensions, so that is a major help. They differ, so if you publish both Kindle and Nook editions, you will need two separate covers.

Whether for print or ebook, the cover image must be set to a DPI of 300. I’m not sure how Photoshop operates, but GIMP defaults to 72 DPI. That is not nearly sharp enough for print. When an image is scaled in GIMP to 300 DPI, the program shrinks the image. Keep that in mind and scale both DPI and physical dimensions (width and height) at the same time. Lulu and Amazon both reject images that aren’t 300 DPI, so if yours isn’t, you’ll find out.

Also, remember to leave room for the title and author’s name. Text should not obscure the main part of the image. This image is marketing your book, and you want it to look as good as possible. Again, a professional knows this. If you design your own, keep textual requirements in mind.

Lulu and Amazon hate PNG files. Oh, they don’t tell you that, and accept them. At least, Lulu does. The problem with PNG files is that they contain transparent layers. These will be flattened in conversion. The result is a darkened cover. We’re already fighting dark covers as it is, so why make it worse? Use a JPEG file instead. Amazon wants only PDF files for covers, but even a PNG within a PDF will be flattened. Again, use a JPEG and save yourself a headache.

All right. Until next time, happy writing.


Color and Brightness in Designing Your Own Book Covers

When designing your own book cover, or hiring a professional cover artist from Fiverr, it is critical to remember how Amazon and Lulu print. Otherwise, your cover will be too dark.

Yep. That happened to me. This is another excellent reason to order at least one proof of your book before clicking that Publish button.

The images we work with are digital. That’s true whether we design our own in a 3D art program, hire a professional to make one using photomanipulation, or take our own photographs. Even if we use a film camera, the final photograph will be scanned. Covers for Lulu are either jpeg or png format files, while Amazon wants a PDF of a jpeg or png. In other words, digital.

Color in digital is read as RGB, or Red-Green-Blue. So is your computer. It’s what we computer users are familiar with. Print, however, is CMYK, or Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black. It’s called the Four Color Process. Amazon throws a monkey wrench into the system by printing in RGB.

Transferring from digital to print darkens it by up to 40%. It can also throw off the colors. If you notice, one system uses green, while the other uses yellow. Cyan and magenta are also not as saturated as blue and red. It doesn’t seem to matter if a RGB image is printed in RGB format. Printing to paper is what throws off the colors and brightness, because paper wants CMYK. To understand what I mean, print a photograph from your computer on an ink jet printer. The colors won’t match, and the image will be darker.

Here is what happened with mine.

This is the original cover, as it appears in digital format.


Now, here is the cover to the paperback proof.


It’s much darker in life than in this photo, too.

That is simply the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately, there is no one method for correcting this problem. The rule of thumb is to make the cover image much lighter and brighter than you think looks good. It will translate into the final cover. For some, merely increasing brightness and contrast is sufficient. Professionals on Fiverr probably know this, and take it into account from the start. For me, I’m rerunning the render, at garish light levels. I also lightened the skins, clothes, and set. It looks horrid for an art piece, but ought to suffice as a cover, given how dark it prints.

But, hey. It’s my cover, on my book, with my story. It says what I want it to say. That much freedom is worth that much extra work.

Book Covers; Namely Mine

Those of us who self-publish need to provide our own book covers. The cover artist is just one of the things we lose by choosing Self Publishing over Traditional Publishing. On the other hand, we have tremendous freedom to decide what that cover should look like. There are plenty of people ready and willing to help us. In fact, they make their livings designing covers the way we make ours writing what goes inside them.

Conventional wisdom says do not design your own book cover. The results can be less than stellar. In fact, there is a whole website devoted to such train wrecks, called Lousy Book Covers. Take a look at it. Not only will it provide hours of hilarity (or stomach aches), but it will also guide you to know what to avoid.

If you can, hire a cover artist. You know what goes into a book. They know what goes on a book. This needn’t be expensive. The website Fiverr has plenty of professionals who will produce an outstanding cover for $ 50, sometimes less. They have as many stock photos as you have ideas, and know how to blend them together to make an original piece for you. This is a boon for the writer of romance or mystery. Browse romances on Amazon some time and see what they look like. For fans of brawny men, you will have a field day. For fans of erotica, I must quote George Takei and say, “Oh, myy!”

Fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers don’t fare as well. No matter how deep an inventory the cover artist has, few have stock photographs of women in Medieval garb hefting a sword, a spaceship hovering over the surface of Rigel X, or a werewolf about to devour a child. So, what are we supposed to do?

Well, the first choice is to hire an illustrator to paint the cover. Most fantasy and science fiction covers are paintings. You’ve seen them. We grew up with them. I could spend the rest of this post listing all the names of the great cover artists, but I’ll stick to Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Ken Kelly, Ralph McQuarrie, and the Hildebrandt Brothers. They set the tone for the genres. Another choice is to hire a photographer to put models in costume, take them to an appropriate setting, and tell them to have fun. Both of those are the optimal choices. They are also the expensive choices. A good illustrator can charge $ 500 or more, and photographers and models charge by the hour.

As someone who writes in a genre with few stock photograph options, and as someone who had to wage a Kickstarter campaign to afford the ISBNs for his books, that left me with only one option: design my own cover.

Here, I have an advantage. I’m also a 3D artist. Oh, I’m far from the best. My work lacks the photorealism craved by so many (including myself). But in nine years, I’ve learned much, especially how to pose the characters, thanks to studying Frazetta. In no way do I recommend that you follow suit. What I learned about designing my own cover, however, may help you tell a professional artist what you want for yours.

Here is my original cover design.


I designed it to reflect what lies inside. It is symbolic of Aura’s journey to discover herself. Yet, it just didn’t feel right. Mostly, I didn’t like Aura’s dress. No matter what I did to it, that dress looked plastic. The cover also looked pedestrian to me, literally, as Aura is simply walking.

So, I set out to redesign the cover. For that, I turned to Susan K. Quinn’s book Indie Author Survival Guide. She devotes an entire chapter to covers, what they do, and what they don’t do.

Ms. Quinn says that the cover is marketing. It is designed to capture the reader’s attention and arouse his or her interest. It should convey the genre in one image. It does not tell the story. That is what the blurb does. The cover does not have to match the story. It just has to convey the idea. Whether the writer uses people, landscape, items, or symbols is personal choice and dependent on genre. Symbols work well for science fiction, people work best for fantasy and romance, items such as guns and maps are standard for mystery, and close ups of faces are the trademark of young adult. Ms. Quinn specified that the two genres that fare the best from an illustration, as opposed to a photograph, are children’s books and fantasy. She used the cover to Indie Author Survival Guide as an example. The cover shows a mountain climber facing a mountain. The book has nothing to do with mountain climbing. On the other hand, it does have to do with surviving what can be the figuratively rough landscape of self-publishing.

Armed with that knowledge, I returned to DAZ Studio. 3D art is an illustration. In fact, my less-than-photorealistic images work better with Ms. Quinn’s guidelines.

Before I started, I asked myself, “What would Frank Frazetta do?” He was a professional cover artist, knew a cover was designed to grab the reader’s attention, and nothing is more riveting than drama. He wouldn’t focus on the landscape. He would focus on the character. That meant Aura had to be front and center, dominating the cover. I kept the steps, symbolic of the story, but now they are just there, not the focal point. Frazetta would also pose the character in action. Again, that sense of drama. Aura did not have to do anything she does inside the book, just look interesting enough to convince the reader to buy it.

Putting Aura in an action pose forced me to discard the dress. No 3D dress works well in an action pose. Now, at this point in the series, Aura wears a dress. She does not acquire the red corseted bikini that some of you are familiar with until the third book. If I can’t use the dress, and won’t use the bikini yet, that left only a blouse and pants. However, she doesn’t wear them in the book. Is that permissible? I’m sure you’ve seen a cover to one of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels. On every cover, Harry Dresden wears a hat. In the stories, however, he never does. The hat is an inside joke between Butcher and his artist. So, yes, it is permissible. Remember, the cover does not have to match the story, and that includes the character’s clothing.

To convey the idea that this book is fantasy, I gave Aura two of the traditional emblems of a magician; a staff and a cloak. I also posed her with one hand raised, as if she is about to cast a spell. That emphasized that A Path of Stones is a sword-and-sorcery story, heavy on the sorcery. Finally, I wanted to convey some idea of who Aura is and what the story is about. Her motto is “defend the defenseless, help the helpless, and give hope to the hopeless.” Few are more defenseless or helpless than a child, so I had her defending a child from an unseen threat.

Setting up a cover is not the same as setting up a scene to post on DeviantArt. A cover has a title and an author’s name that go somewhere. Space has to be allowed for those. The colors of the illustration cannot conflict with them, either. I spent an entire day tweaking the colors of the set to permit the title to show, and moving the camera around to avoid overlapping the figures.

Here is the result.


I like this much better. Certainly, it doesn’t match the story. It doesn’t have to. On the other hand, it actually does. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have 3D art skills.

A 3D artist may be the cost-effective route, should you not have the funds for an illustrator or photographer, and Fiverr artists don’t have the needed resources. Many will take commissions, and be happy to collaborate on a commercial project. Their commission rates are affordable. Browse through DeviantArt, find a few 3D artists whose work you like, and contact them.