There are certain things that will take a so-so cover over the top to fantastic and, consequently, if you ignore these things will drop a so-so cover to terrible. Authors especially need to know what to look for when they are looking at a first, second or final draft of the cover that their designer has provided for them. Or what to notice about covers when you are researching a particular designer with the goal of hiring them.
Never, ever hire a designer sight unseen. Always look at samples of their work. Look for references or testimonials from clients they’ve had. A good, established designer should have an ample portfolio to show you and at least two or three people who are willing to give them glowing recommendations. If you are taking a chance on a new or not so well established designer then they should still have at least a small portfolio of work they can show you. It doesn’t always need to be book covers. Anything that will give you an accurate representation of their skill will do the trick. If they don’t even have samples of their work to show you then chances are they aren’t going to do your cover justice.
So what do you look for when you’re checking a designer’s portfolio? What kinds of questions do you need to ask them? Oftentimes you are going to know truly “bad” work when you see it. But if you check a designer’s portfolio and what you see is “ok”, or even if at first glance it makes you say “wow” there are still things you need to look for.
Choosing the right size
The first step in an amazing cover is choosing the right size. Resolution plays a major role in good covers, especially if your book is going to be in print (now or in the future). A good rule of thumb is to make sure the image you start with is bigger than you need. You can resize your photos down (proportionally please!) without any issues, problems arise when you attempt to resize your images to be larger than the original. JPG images have a level of compression to them that makes it impossible for you to size them up without losing quality. I don’t want to get into a long discussion of image formats and compression because that would be a whole other article, or five and for our purposes today it’s mostly unnecessary information.
Getting back to the subject at hand, one of the things you need to look for is quality of images used. Are they good sharp and clear where they need to be or are they pixelated and grainy with rough edges? If they are pixelated or blurry or grainy then the chances are the designer isn’t using large enough images and this is a problem. It shows a lack of professionalism, first of all. Second of all, if you ever want to use that image for more than an eBook viewed on a computer screen you are going to run into quality issues. And that means any printed material, not just books. To give you a frame of reference, screen resolution is 72 ppi (pixels per inch), print resolution is 300 ppi. That’s a very large difference in size and will show in the long run. One of the questions you should ask a prospective designer is what size they design at.
Choosing the right stock
Let’s assume for our purposes today that the designer has a good grasp of copyright and what constitutes a “legal” image for use on a cover. Choosing the right stock photos/images plays an important role on a cover. You can’t create a believable historical romance cover if you choose people in modern clothing. Finding the proper stock to fit the setting and mood of the book are instrumental in creating a cover that’s really going to set your book apart from the rest. Take a look at the photos the designer is using in their work. Do they match the mood of the book or the genre? If the cover features people are they appropriate for the setting or time period? Ask your prospective designer where they get their stock photos from. If you are looking for a period specific cover, be sure the designer knows this and can handle it.
Remember that most book covers are designed using stock photos that should be masterfully blended together with what is called compositing to look like one seamless image. Lighting plays an important role in making a composite look believable. Light source is the key factor in all this. If you composite together three photos, one where the light is coming from behind and two where the light is coming from the left, no matter how skilled you are with Photoshop, you are never going to get the lighting quite right. The designer needs to understand the basics of lighting in order to create that fabulous cover. Without it something is always going to be a little off. When you are looking at a prospective designer’s portfolios look for the light source in each of their samples. Are all parts of the cover lit consistently? Does this make sense? If the sun is on the left is everything brighter on the left ? If something about an image just doesn’t seem right but you can’t put your finger on what it is, odds are it’s the lighting.
Hand in hand with lighting come shadows. Even if the designer is a master of lighting and makes sure the whole cover is lit properly it doesn’t mean anything if shadows are positioned wrong or, worse yet, absent entirely. Shadows are funny things. Even on a bright sunny day at noon with no shade for miles you will still find shadows. There will be shadows between the fingers of your hand, shadows where your foot connects with the ground. There will be shadows where any two objects come together, no matter how bright the light is. This is a phenomenon called ambient occlusion and without it, and other cast shadows, your cover is going to look flat and unrealistic. Shadows are a key component in presenting an image that doesn’t look like you just cut and pasted elements into the scene.
When we talk about blending what we’re talking about is how seamless the different images used on the cover blend together. While the above lighting and shadows play a major part in this there are little details as well that help with blending. One of these small details are edges. If you were to take a look at a real photograph and pay close attention to the edges around objects or people you will notice that they are not really as crisp and clear as you might think. There is just a bit of fuzziness around them. Part of what makes a composite image look like it’s simply been slapped together with glue are perfectly crisp edges.
Another little detail to take into consideration is something called depth of field. In photography this is where the photographer sets their focal point and anything outside that, either in front of or behind is slightly blurry. The farther away from the focal point you get the blurrier it is. Faking depth of field in a composite is another step towards creating a believable image. If the mountains or tree line a mile away are in the same perfect focus as your model standing right in front of the camera your image is not going to be believable. Faking depth of field not only give your image more believability it will also help focus the eye where you want it, on the main focal point of the cover.
There are hundreds of thousands of fonts out there in the world. If your prospective designer is limiting themselves to system fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman or, heaven forbid, Comic Sans, then it’s a fair assumption that, while they may be a great artist, they don’t have a very good grasp of titling and layout. Titling is an art from in and of itself and knowing what font to use, how large or small to make it, where to place it for the best effect are all things that must be mastered or learned over time. A good designer will know how to do this to add value to your cover. Bad titling over good artwork will destroy your cover.
Font choice should convey genre or, at the very least, not mislead the reader into assuming a different genre. For example, you wouldn’t expect a cover with military style stencil font to be a gothic romance and, conversely, you wouldn’t expect a military thriller to have flowery script.
Does it draw the eye?
Focus: We talked a little above about how the right kind of focus will draw the reader’s attention where you want it. A good designer will use this to their advantage making sure the clearest point on the cover is the point you want the reader to pay attention to without overdoing it on the out of focus areas.
Color: Color is another great way to capture attention. There are certain color combinations that work well together and are pleasing to the eye. If the cover is designed with color pop in mind the designer will use one bright color while keeping the rest of the colors muted and subtle, thereby drawing the eye to the spot with the most vibrant color.
Contrast: High contrast areas in the cover will naturally pull the eye. Black and white covers using high contrast, when done well can be classy and stunning. Selective color, or the use of one single color used in an otherwise black and white image (think Sin City) is also a great way to combine color with contrast. The reader’s eye will naturally be drawn to the color on the cover and a great designer will know how to use this method to really get the cover to jump right off the screen.
Does it evoke an emotional response?
Ultimately you want your cover to have that “wow” factor. You want readers to see the cover and be so taken in by it they want to buy your book, or at the very least read your killer description. The cover is your first and only chance to really hook the reader, therefore it needs to evoke an emotional response. Symbolism on your cover is good if it’s done extremely well, symbolism is something you need to have read the book to understand something of deeper meaning. You want your reader to see the cover and want to read the book, not need to read the book to just simply understand the cover.
Triggering the right emotion means drawing the reader in, making them feel, making them wonder enough to read your description or blurb. It means pulling them into your world. For this purpose it’s always best to keep things simple. You might think the best scene in your book is what you want on your cover but do you really want to give away the plot or even the ending by putting it on the front of your book? Keeping it simple means choosing one character to display not five, keeping them a little vague. Set the time and location on your cover but avoid full scenes that make it cluttered and busy. You don’t want to overwhelm your potential readers or confuse them because if those are the emotions evoked by your cover just imagine what their impression of your book is going to be.
The right designer will be able to take a cover from the realm of “so-so” to stunning so make sure you choose the right one. Do your research and shop around making sure that you choose the right designer for you.