Book Cover Design and the Problem of Symbolism

by | Jan 17, 2012

A couple of days ago the latest edition of e-Book Cover Design Awards went live, and I once again had the pleasure—and the frustration—of judging a whole slew of covers.

The problems come at the extremes. Commenting on the covers is fun, and selecting out the best ones is never difficult. But when it’s time to narrow it down to the final few and then, at the end, the winners, it can be excruciatingly hard, because saying “yes” to one means saying “no” to so many others.

At the other end of the spectrum, the same errors happen repeatedly every month, which isn’t all that surprising.

Cover Design is Challenging for Authors

One of the most challenging tasks for a new independent author is dealing with the design for the cover of his or her book. There’s no place I know of that’s the subject of more anxiety, scrutiny, second-guessing, crowdsourcing, opinion-mongering, and general unease than the small space of your book cover.

There are good reasons for this. We’ve been buying and reading books most of our lives. Almost all of those books were produced by traditional publishers who hired professional designers and artists to create them. So we expect book covers to look a certain way, and whatever way they look, they need to look professional. There’s just no getting around it.

An amateur book cover announces itself from across the room, there’s no mistaking it. A few of the tell-tale signs of amateur book covers include:

  • bad font choices
  • confused graphics
  • colors that don’t work
  • meaningless or overused stock photography
  • too much copy

Why does this happen? You might ask yourself why some book covers appear amateur since there are so many examples of really good book covers all around us.

Do You Know Your Own Book Too Well?

One common cover design error you may not have thought of is particularly difficult for many authors to overcome: they know their own books too well.

What I mean is that when you wrote the book, you invested it with lots of meaning, and perhaps you wove in symbols throughout the story to make it that much more enticing. But when it comes to the book cover, professional designers know that usually, “less is more.”

The problem is that authors are so attached to their own symbolism or to an image they have lodged in their mind that would be “perfect” for the book cover, they lose sight of the role their book cover is intended to play. One of the quickest ways to kill any good effect of your book cover is to include too many elements. In fact, this is one of the most common failures of amateur designers.

Let’s say a book has scenes that take place near the pyramids in Egypt, in Trafalgar Square in London, and atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The protagonist is an expert at martial arts and a vial of some secret compound plays a central role in the book.

Okay, here’s my message: you don’t have to assemble a picture of the pyramids, the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, the Eiffel tower, two men in a fight, and a glass vial and put them all on the cover.

I’ve seen book covers with as many as 12 separate elements crowding into the space. What’s the result? Confusion. And when people are confused by what they’re looking at, they just move on. With all that stuff on the cover, there’s no one element that stands out or is emblematic of the book and its central themes.

Of course, the author may be quite unwilling to let go of all these pieces, and will fight to keep them. After all, there’s great symbolism perhaps, in the red roses the heroine stops to admire in the book, or the bridge the lovers met on and where the story reaches its denouement.

It really doesn’t matter. When you tie yourself—or your designer—into the presentation of your symbolism on the book cover, you’re tying your hands at the same time.

In Book Covers, Simplicity Works!

Book covers work best when they combine simple yet powerful elements together in a unified whole that tells, at a glance, what the reader can expect from the book. If you try to tell the whole story on the cover, it will fail. If you try to load up all the symbolism that’s in the book, the cover will fail.

What readers are looking for is an indication of what kind of book it is, what genre, and a sense of the tone.

Is it dynamic, fast-paced and exciting? Is it a contemplation on our own mortality? Is it a romance? This information can be delivered to the potential book buyer quite easily.

One of the best ways to find out how book cover designers achieve this is to go to a bookstore and look at the book covers in your genre. Stay within your genre and look at lots of books.

You will see exactly what I’ve talked about in this article. Simple graphics with a clear message about the type of book it is, and a very limited amount of type. Although nonfiction books have a lot more copy on the covers than fiction, it’s still precious real estate and every word needs to earn its place on the cover.

The only exception you might find is in historical romance, where the convention sometimes includes sweeping panoramas with details from the story on the cover. So if you write historical romance, go ahead and give it a try, but remember those beautiful illustrations are done by professional illustrators who are paid quite well by the publisher.

Take this advice and keep your cover simple. Pick one element that gives a good idea of what’s in the book and use an appropriate typeface, and you’ll be much closer to avoiding that dreaded “amateur” look.

Parts of this article originally appeared on CreateSpace in November, 2011 as Book Covers: Why Simple Works Better and is reprinted with permission.

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35 Comments

  1. TheDailyLearning

    So now is it mean “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is not a valid argument as we totally look different from this belief. Sorry. Just kidding

    Reply
  2. MF

    Joel,

    Thank you for the great advice and the resource that is your blog. In your experience, would cover designers be open to having an author supply an image (from a professional photographer) that has already been manipulated with Photoshop to give the “tone” of the book, or would that be a faux pas?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      MF, most designers will be happy to have your input, and I suggest presenting it as “one alternative” they should consider in doing the design.

      Reply
  3. Leslie

    As a book designer the biggest mistake I see self-publishers and commercial publishers making is putting the inside of the book on the outside. The cover should be an appetizer, not the whole meal.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Leslie, that’s so well said I’m afraid I’m going to have to borrow it, thanks.

      Reply
  4. Larry

    I just discovered this blog, you, and this thread. Great! Timely advice for me, because I will be looking for a designer for my YA e-book soon (and developing a marketing plan, etc.) for a launch in the fall. A friend of a friend just found me on facebook – he’s a designer – and said he would like to design my book. I haven’t told anyone I’m going to self-publish, yet. Funny, must have been my thoughts in the ether.

    Reply
    • John McClarren

      Hi Joel,
      It’s great to have found your site. I can already see that you have tons of information here. I actually have two mss to turn into ebooks, and I have just recently decided to go epub, as opposed to traditional, after several years of seeking an agent or publisher. One of my books is on the military (I am a retired US Army infantry officer, Vietnam vet, retired high school teacher, etc.), and I have tentatively decided upon a picture of myself (Vietnam, 1968), holding an RPG launcher on my shoulder. Does that seem to you to be a reasonable idea for a cover? It is a book primarily to lead young people into the military, as well as giving old soldiers like myself a chance to reminisce a bit. Any ideas, positive or negative will be appreciated. Thanks. John

      Reply
      • Joel Friedlander

        Hi John, I think you’ll be glad you’ve “gone indie” in the end. There’s no reason your idea wouldn’t work, but it will really come down to the execution, not the specific image. I suggest you talk to some cover designers and show them the photo that you want to use. They will find a way to make it work to your advantage.

        Reply
  5. Susan Nadathur

    Thanks, Joel,

    I see now that there’s an answer for virtually any and all of my questions on your blog. You’re amazing! Sorry to have bothered you with my questions, and thanks for being so accessible.

    Reply
  6. Susan Nadathur

    Hi Joel,

    Your blog is fantastic. I’m sure I’ll spend hours here, there’s so much valuable information. I had a question for you. I got the point about design simplicity, and restricting the number of elements in a cover. You can an example of a cover that had 12 elements, which is obviously too much. But, how many elements are too much? Two? Three? Four?

    And, you mentioned the amateur look often caused by inappropriate typeface. What are standard, recommended type faces for a book cover?

    Also, what is your opinion on people (or half people) on the cover?

    Sorry for all the questions, which you may have already covered in another article, but I’m new to your blog and like a kid in a candy shop.

    Thanks for being such a great resource.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks. Rather than try to address all your questions, let me point you to some of the resources here. In the right sidebar, check out the monthly eBook Cover Design Awards. These posts have lots of tips on cover design. The Articles tab on the menu bar will take you to a page where it’s easier to research some of these topics. Have fun!

      Reply
  7. Emeka NOBIS

    Dear Joel,

    I am a writer based in Nigeria and I must say your articles has revamped my thinking. I look at my first book which I did with non professionals and I gush.
    My 2nd book is receiving experienced touch for every phase of it’s production. I must say your writing has really blessed me.

    Thanks a lot sir

    Reply
  8. cathy

    Thanks for all of the great advice!!

    The Networking Workshop is holding a contest for the cover design of our new ebook series. The winning designer will receive credit for the design, a free copy of each book in the eBook series – and will be mentioned in the book promotions.

    If you know a designer who is interested, please forward the link to our Blog: thenetworkingworkshop.blogspot.com. The contest is open to everyone.

    We will be posting contest details in the next few days and hope to have the first book ready for publishing by 1 March 2012!

    Reply
  9. Jaye

    Great article, as usual, Joel. I’m working with an artist to design my book cover. I know just enough to be blindingly stupid and he’s never done cover illustration before. So I keep telling him, go to Joel’s blog. Don’t listen to me, listen to Joel.

    I think every self-publisher should have a hand in designing at least one cover. If for no other reasons than to recognize their own limitations and realize there is a lot more to it than just a pretty picture and a few words.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Jaye. I like your suggestion because covers often appear very simple yet it’s not so easy to get to that appearance of simplicity. The monthly ebook cover design award posts are becoming a sort of living tutorial in tiny book cover design, too.

      Reply
      • MM Justus

        They are. I peruse them with great interest every month. (and envy those who can afford a Real Cover Artist).

        Reply
  10. Gigi Galt

    Yes. Loved everything you said here. Couldn’t agree more. Hugs.

    Reply
  11. Kit Foster

    Hi Joel, wonderful advice as ever – thanks for all the great pointers. I eagerly anticipate the results of your contest each month, as I love seeing the variety of skills and concepts, and reading your comments, of course!

    Kit

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Kit, much appreciated. And I hope you’ll continue to submit to the monthly contest because your covers are always some of the absolute best.

      Reply
  12. June

    Timely advice as I am now formatting and agonising over my cover, really love your blog and am currently sitting on my edited ebook and about to finalise just the kind of stuff you are talking about.

    Reply
    • Carisa

      Congrats! What is your book about? If it’s up my alley, I’d be happy to read it and give you a review. We found that having a (positive) review on your cover really helps sales. Getting an early review can also help pinpoint issues you may not have been aware of so that you can correct them before thousands of readers see it. Good luck and keep on truckin’!

      Carisa

      Reply
      • chinneo

        Hi,
        I have a book with a small publisher, and seeing how you offered to review the book, I wonder if you’ll have time to look at mine and do a review?

        Reply
  13. Marla Markman

    Joel,
    Excellent points, and I completely agree! I find this same issue facing authors who want to design their book interiors. Have you found this as well?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Not as much, Marla, but that may be because most of the authors I talk to about interiors are hiring a professional to do it. But yes, it’s the exact same problem. I had an author who wanted a graphic of some kind on every page because, as he said, they looked “boring.”

      Reply
      • Carisa

        :-)

        The smile happened because I completely understand both your perspective and that of the Author Who Bores Easily.

        Being creative types, my co-author and I were oh-so tempted to “fancy up” all kinds of things on the cover and the interior of our novel. Fortunately, we were enlightened enough to take branding into consideration and keep things clean and simple.

        What we need help with now is getting our images and concepts to translate clearly and accurately from digital format to print format. Are these common problems?

        Reply
        • Joel Friedlander

          The transition from digital to print can be quite challenging for authors who don’t have experience with printing processes and technologies. Printing books is much more of a technical challenge than creating an ebook, so you’ll need a designer who is experienced at preparing files for press.

          Reply
          • Carisa

            We are beginning to realize that, thanks for your help!

      • Marla Markman

        That sounds familiar!

        Reply
    • MM Justus

      I took an online class on how to do book interiors using InDesign, and the first thing (and the middle and the last) that the teacher drove into our heads was transparency. That what you want the reader to do is read, not get distracted by fancy stuff. Which makes sense to me!

      Reply
      • Joel Friedlander

        Excellent advice, MM, book design is a “quiet art.” I’m curious where you took the online class, can you let me know? Thanks.

        Reply
        • MM Justus

          Through Dean Wesley Smith’s website. I also took a cover design class from him (actually, from his graphic designer), which was very good technically, but not so good on teaching what makes a book cover genre-specific, especially how to choose and manipulate the right art. I would give my eyeteeth for lessons (as opposed to examples, which I can look at all day without being able to figure it out) on how to make a cover genre specific.

          Reply
  14. Sharon

    Thanks for the useful guidance. We will certainly be applying it as we design our books. The same observation about authors being too familiar with their work also applies to the title and subtitle, as well. An author we are working with is somewhat attached to a subtitle that is meaningful to a small niche while we see the book as having larger market appeal.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Oh, yeah, I’ve had some real fights with authors about titles and subtitles, good luck!

      Reply
  15. Russell

    Excellent essay, Joel. I’ve learned a lot from your blogs on cover design. I entered December’s contest and respect what you had to say about CHILL RUN. I believe that I’ve learned a lot more since the release of my first novel. But I plan to redesign that cover very soon.

    Russ

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Russell, you did an excellent job on the cover of Chill Run, it’s quite effective. Simplifying some of the visuals will just make it better.

      Reply

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