The Art of the Book Cover with Laura Duffy, Designer

by Joel Friedlander on June 26, 2013 · 25 comments

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Today I’m very pleased to introduce you to cover designer Laura Duffy. Laura and I have been working on a book together, and I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her own career; how a professional goes about designing book covers; and how self-publishers can use the amazing talents of cover designers like Laura to help them reach their own publishing goals.

Laura, tell us a little bit about how you came to be a book cover designer, was it something you grew up dreaming of doing since you were young?

I’d become an artist at a very early age, and set out to find a profession in which I could earn a living and be in a creative environment as well. The first job that I landed after graduating from school, where I studied Art & Advertising, was in the art department at Simon & Schuster.

At that point, I’d realized my goal of being around artists—I was working with talented art directors, designers, illustrators, and photographers—and was pretty happy. Many of them were well known and it was exciting. I started taking over work that the AD’s didn’t want to handle, like mechanicals and gradually moved on to designing covers.

Most authors are mystified about how designers work. What goes into your process when you sit down to design a book cover?

My process varies depending on the type of book I’m working on.

For novels I read as much of the book as I can and keep notes as I go along. I look for moments in the story that lend themselves to being tableaus that will be beautiful, colorful, and intriguing. I think about the style of the type as well—modern, old fashioned, bold, sweet?  It needs to be decided who the market is, and what needs to be conveyed. Do we want to give the prospective reader an idea of the story inside, or do something bold and exciting to grab their attention? Or both?

cover designFor non-fiction, the decision needs to be made by the editor and author as to whether or not there’s going to be imagery. If so, I search for the perfect image, trying to find something that’s unique and eye-catching. Again, color is very important. If it’s a situation where there’s really no imagery that will work, I do an all type design, which can be straightforward, or hopefully interesting and I can have fun with it.

In both cases a lot depends on what kind of feel the book is supposed to have. This is part of the early discussion I have with authors and editors. For non-fiction a book can look authoritative, or fun and approachable or perhaps a combination. Will there be descriptive copy? A photo of the author?

Sometimes authors have a good idea of how they want their cover to look. I give them what they’re asking for, and then give them other directions that they might not have considered, based on my experience with what works and gets attention.

cover designThe balancing act is to have a happy author—this is their ‘baby’ after all—and to give them a selling cover that stands out from the crowd—that’s why they’ve hired me.

Have you always designed covers for indie authors, or did you previously only work for traditional publishers?

Although I’ve spent most of my publishing career working on staff, or freelance for the larger houses, I sporadically worked with indie authors over the years. The past few years has really picked up in terms of working with indie clients. It feels like the place to be these days!

Are there specific rewards for you that come from working directly with authors? Or specific difficulties in the process?

I’d say there are more rewards than difficulties. After working for so long in a large house, where there are many people (editorial, marketing etc.) between you and the authors, it’s been a wonderful experience to work directly with authors. I feel that I’m part of helping someone fulfill a life long dream, and I take that very seriously. I truly believe that a selling cover is crucial to a book’s success and that’s my responsibility.

cover designThe experience I’ve had over the years working with editors, publicists, and marketers now lends itself to the conversations I have with my clients regarding publicity and marketing. I love this brainstorming process as well as the design process.

In some cases an author has been working so hard on a book, in isolation, and I have to encourage them to “get out there” and publicize the book, whether it’s additional marketing material that I put together, finding an actual publicist, or navigating social media. It’s exciting for me to be part of this process, especially now, when it’s still very new for many people.

What do authors need to know to have the best outcome when working with a professional cover designer?

They need to know that when they hire me, they’re in good hands, and that they should trust me. The most successful experiences are when an author lets me do my ‘thing’: meaning an author might have an idea of what they want on the cover, but if I tell you that that won’t lend itself to a selling cover, you have to trust that I’m right. I don’t totally disregard what a client is asking for, but I’m not doing them any favors if I completely cave to their ideas. And, I don’t work in a vacuum, welcoming the input of other industry professionals.

cover designIt’s important for authors to realize when they’re too close to something they’ve been engrossed in for a long time, and to let go a little. This arises with indie authors as well as those who’ve chosen the larger houses.  The goal of a book cover is to sell the book first and foremost, which means having a cover that stands out and gets someone’s attention.

What’s your take on typographic covers versus the illustration or photo-centered cover?

It depends on the project. I love them all, as long as they’re unique and eye-catching.

All type covers can be easier and quicker since there’s no photo researching to be done. But it’s important to make sure that the copy is good, says what it needs to and the cover isn’t too cluttered. I love it when I can do a creative all type cover and get to really play with type.

There are lots of stock illustrations to choose from, but hiring an illustrator is also an option. Before commissioning a piece of art you have to have a solid idea of what you want and be able to communicate it to the artist. Over the years I’ve gotten to art direct some wonderful artists who are easy to work with due to their ability to adjust their paintings as needed which takes a lot of stress out of the process.

cover designRegarding photography, I’m always on the lookout for images that are bright, colorful and tell a story in a unique way. Since most of my clients have budget considerations, we use a lot of stock photography. Photoshop is an incredible tool for pumping up, and combining imagery to create something far more interesting than the original image.

It’s important to be able to see the potential in a photo and know what you can do to get the best out of it and make it work. But, there are times when I hire photographers to do a specific kind of photo, perhaps a still life, landscape or spec shot of an object.

Laura, for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to get cover designers to “think different” about eBook covers, and not just shrink their book covers down to a barely distinguishable blob. What’s your take on eBook covers, and do you think cover designers like yourself will start to see them as distinct but different expressions of the print book covers?

Occasionally I have to make adjustments on a cover so that it will read at a smaller size—like changing a script, or making important copy bolder. I think it’s important to have a cover consistent with the other formats you’re doing so as not to confuse customers. I’d like to hear your ideas on it though.

cover designDo you have any tips for authors who are self-publishing when it comes time for them to start thinking about their book covers, hiring designers, or any other part of the process?

I realize that there are many sources for book cover design, but I’d like people to know that when they hire an experienced cover designer they’re getting a lot more for their money—not just three cover ideas. The cover design process can be a long one, and you need a designer who can offer patience as well as creativity. There’s a lot of back and forth that goes on until a cover is perfected. And many times my role goes well beyond just the cover design.

Here are some things for authors to think about and plan before they begin the cover design process:

  • Have the tightest possible cover copy ready; include any quotes that will go on front cover. I’m big on getting descriptive quotes from people who have gotten to read an early draft. I think quotes are a great selling tool, whether used on the front cover or on the back.
  • Do research on other books in the genre you’re working in and find covers that appeal to you so you can share them with your designer.
  • cover design

  • To save time and money, gather any photos or illustrations that you have whether it’s family photos, or photos you’ve taken. If you decide to gather imagery on your own from the internet or any other published source it’s crucial that you know origins and can get permissions for usage.
  • Early on in the process think about back cover copy, an author photo, and author bio. Also, think about the book description that will go next to the cover on Amazon or any other online situation where the copy will be doing as much work as the cover.
  • In addition to the cover design, will you need your cover designer to work on printed marketing material, web design and a logo?
  • Do you have publicity lined up? This will affect deadlines for the cover.
  • Get the interior going as soon as you can. The page count of the FINAL book affects the spine size, and waiting on the interior can hold up printing the entire cover. Many times the interior designer will want to use elements of the cover design. It’s a good idea to put them both in contact with each other.

“The goal of a book cover is to sell the book … which means having a cover that stands out and gets someone’s attention.”—Click to Tweet

cover designLaura Duffy has spent the last 19 years working in the publishing world and has had the opportunity to work with many exciting authors including Barack Obama, Jillian Michaels, Tim Ferris, Suzanne Somers, Deepak Chopra, Jean Auel, and Mindy Kaling. She now enjoys devoting her time to working primarily with individuals around the country who are publishing their own books. In addition to the design and art direction of the cover material, she also assists with marketing and publicity material. You can see more of Laura’s work at her site LauraDuffyDesign.com.

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    { 21 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jean Lawrance July 1, 2013 at 12:30 am

    First of all i want to say a truth about books in this digital era and this truth is that the importance and demand of book has been reduce and it is rapidly reducing day by day. However there are billions of book lovers in this world and when we talk about book definitely it create an image of the cover of book. So importance of the cover in book writing and publishing is very important that’s why a perfect and meaningful cover can attract readers easily. In this scenario your shared points are very important to learn about the technicalities of book cover designs.

    Reply

    Eden Mabee June 27, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    I love that you mention you prefer to read the books you’re designing covers for, Laura. There was a time that I think a lot of people wondered, but I do think the newer covers are better in recent years.

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply

    Linda Austin June 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Laura’s answers demonstrate some of the intricacies of what goes into a good book cover and why untrained authors or even regular graphic designers are not good enough. I’ve tried that route, big mistake. Get someone who understands book covers, not just corporate flyers. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, and there’s a world of difference.

    Reply

    Maggie Dana June 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Laura, the designs you’re shown us are fabulous. Color, typography, balance. They all work for the genre.

    I write fiction for horse-crazy girls (tween/mid-grade). It’s a small, focused market and sadly, many of the books’ covers in this group are less than desirable. It’s as if the cover designer had never met a horse before, and when they did, the horse (in the photo) looked drugged so the models could get close enough without falling apart if the horse so much as snorted. Even the cover photos of horses with riders on them produce major winces from horse people who know better.

    Given all this, I have designed my own covers. I know horses and I know design. I’m a book designer/typesetter and have learned enough about Photoshop to be dangerous!)

    How would you handle a cover for the specialized market of horse sports?

    Reply

    Laura Duffy June 26, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Maggie,
    The first thing that pops into my head is “cropping”. I love to take images and show interesting angles or parts of them. Images then become interesting, provocative (not too provocative in this case), but eye catching. A hoof, the mane, etc. And I would think that there would be experienced tweens who would love to model for a book cover. l would also track down a better photographer. I know there are beautiful artists in Saratoga for instance. I’m always hunting artists down for covers. They loved being called for covers.
    I hope that helps.

    Reply

    Mary DeEditor June 26, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Joel and Laura,

    Thanks for another informative post. Joel, you are high on my “recommended resource” list! I have two questions, please:

    Are there professional organizations of book cover designers where the self-publishing author may “shop” for a designer? By comparison, for editors, one may visit the member listings of Bay Area Editors Forum (http://www.editorsforum.org) or the CELery bunch (http://www.copyediting-l.info), and such to find hundreds of editing pros to compare and contact. I’ve looked for similar organizations for book cover designers, as a resource to my editing clients, but haven’t found one to recommend. (Guru.com doesn’t count, in my book — that’s looking for needles in a global haystack.)

    Second, how would you handle cover art that’s originally a fine art painting? One of my clients has a series of four books coming out. We’ve both fallen in love with a local artist whose work beautifully embodies the themes of the books. We have permission and reproduction rights. But the paintings are so colorful and busy that they’re actually a bit hard to use as book covers. Putting type over them feels like a violation; boxing them in frames makes them rather small. Any thoughts?

    Reply

    Laura Duffy June 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Hi Mary,
    This is where photoshop comes in (with the artist’s permission). Many a time I’ve created extra space for type so that art wasn’t covered up. Ideally an illustrator and designer work together beforehand so that there’s room for type. In the end a panel might be the only way to go.
    Laura

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Mary,

    I’ve run into this situation many times. Of course, I haven’t seen the artwork, so it’s a bit abstract, but the plain fact is that when authors get absolutely captivated by some artwork that has nothing to do with their book, it’s usually a formula for a cover that will end up being a compromise of some kind.

    Your best bet is to hire a good cover designer, show them the images, and ask them to create a cover using them while they ALSO create a couple of designs completely on their own. Give the designer the latitude to either use them or not use them, and try to be guided by what will work for your readers in your market, not your affection for the artwork.

    Reply

    Mary DeEditor June 26, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for input on art, both of you.

    Any thoughts on the first question: a searchable listing of professional book cover designers?

    Reply

    Laura Duffy June 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    I might suggest that you browse books in actual stores, and when you see a cover you like try to track down the designer. Most designers, even if on staff somewhere, will do freelance work. You could try looking on DesignRelated.com and AIGA.

    Reply

    Frances Caballo June 26, 2013 at 11:57 am

    I went to Laura Duffy’s website and the covers that she has designed are wonderful. I think it’s great that Laura reads novels before designing a cover. I wonder how many cover designers do that? Do you know, Joel?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Frances, I haven’t polled designers on that question, but I don’t see how you can design the cover for a novel if you haven’t read at least part of the book. For nonfiction, I don’t find it necessary to read every book because it’s much easier to get a feel for the scope of the book without reading it.

    Reply

    Frances Caballo June 26, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks, Joel. That absolutely does make sense with respect to creating covers for novels. I just had never thought about it before. This was a great post!

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    Dan Erickson June 26, 2013 at 6:45 am

    Great insights. As a self published author I’ve designed my own book covers. You can see them on my site, http://www.danerickson.net. If you get a chance, let me know what you think.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 26, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks, Dan. You’ve used some interesting images for your covers, but they clearly need a lot of help with the layout and typography. Good luck!

    Reply

    Dan Erickson June 26, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks Joel. I’m self publishing on a budget and used a Create Space cover template. After I publish the third book of the trilogy, I hope to redo the series in a slightly smaller size with stronger covers. Maybe I’ll be able to pay someone to help by that point.

    Reply

    Laura Duffy June 27, 2013 at 11:55 am

    That sounds like a good idea…I agree the imagery is good. I try to avoid panels unless I’m working with art that can’t be manipulated for any reason.

    Reply

    Dan Erickson June 27, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks, Laura. I chose panels because I thought the format resembled the style of some classic books I’ve read. Some Wallace Stegner covers come to mind. But when I do a second edition I’ll be rethinking the covers. I may or may not use the same images. The image on my first book “A Train Called Forgiveness,” is not mine, but a stock photo from Create Space, so I can’t use it if I publish somewhere else in the future. The image on the second book is my own photography, but I think it could be better. I’ve found a couple great photographers that work with trains and tracks and hope to be in a position to pay for higher quality pictures, too.

    Daniel Baylis June 26, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Helpful interview!

    I’m in the midst of selecting a designer to tackle the cover of my travel memoir. So many decisions to be made!

    Reply

    Laura Duffy June 26, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    You might look at other covers in the genre you’re working in. When you see something you like, you can certainly track down the designer and see if they’ll take on your project.

    Reply

    Nancy Beck June 26, 2013 at 5:35 am

    This is all very interesting. I like the checklist/tips Ms. Duffy has given; they all seem quite reasonable.

    I’m in the process of putting out an omnibus print edition of my first fantasy series (they’re all short novels or novellas), which comes out to about 400 print pages, give or take. My first thought was to try to use a jpeg the cover artist supplied to me, she said with the idea of using it on a print book.

    But a few changes would need to be made, and rather than taking the task on myself (and possibly making it look amateurish or worse), I’m going to go back and contract her again. I probably should have thought of her doing this in the first place, but, oh well, you can’t think of everything. :-) Lesson learned, though: do the ebook version first and the print version soon after.

    Thanks again for such an informative article.

    Reply

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