Why Traditional Publishers (Usually) Design Great Book Covers
Generally speaking, traditional publishers will handle the design of its authors’ books. A few of the larger houses still have in-house designers but the majority now outsource to agencies or to one or more trusted designers. In either event, the design team will follow direction provided by editors – and, in some cases, by literary agents and/or by marketing folk, too – to create covers that align with the book’s target audience, genre, content, retailer/wholesaler requirements, and current design or consumer buying trends in the territory or territories where it will be sold. In the main, authors are included in this creative process and will be asked if they have any specific ideas or things they would like to avoid.
The process is a straightforward – if not always a quick – one. The designer will normally present a variety of concepts and, following a series of adjustments and additions, a final cover will be approved for various formats.
From the author’s perspective, this step-by-step, objective design process is ideal. She will get a considered, unique and consumer-friendly design. And because the publisher will likely have the final say (though not always – many bestselling authors demand this veto), she also avoids the responsibility that comes with selecting the best design.
This isn’t to say that every book cover produced by a traditional agency is always perfect, because that quite clearly isn’t the case. There are numerous examples where major publishing houses have inadvertently missed the mark. Traditional publishers may not always make the best covers but their designs are consistently good (or good enough). Ultimately, the chances of a traditional publisher creating a terrible cover is minimised because of the number of objective professionals invested in the best possible outcome.
Every designer will work differently but most will create a series of concepts/visuals first.
– A good graphic designer is worth her weight in gold.
So How Can Self-Published Authors Design Great Book Covers?
Designing a great book cover isn’t easy even for seasoned professionals. As we’ve seen above, mistakes can and are made. As a self-published author the trick, therefore, is to follow the same design process tried and tested by traditional publishers. Let’s look at the three most important steps in order:
Step One: Understanding Your Target Audience(s): Authors will usually have a good idea about their target market – the broader group of consumers encompassing all ages and demographics who could be interested in their book. The target market for a sci-fi book called “10 Best Sci-Fi Short Stories”, for example, will include people who read science fiction books.
But knowing (or having a good idea about) your target market(s) isn’t enough – you’ll need to identify target audiences, too. Target audiences differ from target markets in that they are a more specific, narrowed-down set of consumers. This distinction helps publishers (and savvy self-published authors) to design covers that engage the right people.
We’re often assured that a book we’re asked to promote will “appeal to everyone”. If that advice were true (which of course it is not and can never be), a sales and marketing campaign would target every person on earth. So try to be as specific as you can. Try to consider your reader’s age range and likely media consumption platform; gender; income (important if you plan to sell your book for ££££££); education; marital status; geographical location; ethnicity and race; language; marital status; lifestyle; values and beliefs; personality traits and attitudes; life stage and career stage.
Whatever you do, don’t take your own word for it – and don’t ask friends and family for their feedback, either. If you’re able, pass the manuscript to an objective third party – a friend of a friend of a friend should do it – and ask the same questions: “What age range(s) do you think this book will appeal to and how does that age range typically consume literature?”; “Is this book more appealing to men than to women, or visa versa, or both?” and so on.
If you’re serious about market research (and have the cash to splash), then you can go one further by commissioning a poll and/or panel discussion to determine whether the target audiences you identified are accurate.
Once you’re confident that your perceived target audience(s) are accurate, move on to…
Step 2: Hire a Designer: If you’re a seasoned graphic designer yourself then OK, but otherwise I would strongly recommend hiring someone with demonstrable experience (and a portfolio to match) to help. Professional fees will vary but expect to pay around £400-500 and be wary about anyone offering their services for much less. Be selective, take your time, and ensure your contract doesn’t exclude multiple revisions. More importantly, check and double-check that you’ll own the rights to the artwork outright and that the finished design will not contain content (such as imagery or fonts) that infringes copyright law.
If you really don’t want to hire a book cover designer and plan to do it yourself, be sure to have your own work scrutinised by as many objective bystanders as possible.
Once you’ve engaged the designer that’s right for you, send her your manuscript, the target audience(s), and any media endorsements you’ve secured, and move on to…
Step 3: Concepts/Visuals: Every designer will work differently but most will create a series of concepts/visuals first. These are rough mock-ups made with stock imagery and/or illustrations that are used to convey the overall look and feel of a book. They may include various colour schemes and layouts, and different text/typography ideas.
The idea isn’t to pick one but to select the best/most promising elements from each and to start the process again until such a time that every element – from imagery to typography – is perfect and cannot be improved.
Remember to get someone objective to help you reach that decision.
Once you’ve finalised the design, front and back, ask the designer to supply the design files, ensuring that these meet the technical specifications of your chosen publishing formats.
Whether you choose to design your own book jacket or engage a professional to help, the key to creating a great book cover lies in solid research and trustworthy, objective feedback. If you’re able to do both, then there’s no good reason why your cover won’t do the one thing that it’s designed to do: sell your book.