This is the sixth entry in a series in which I detail the entire experience of self publishing my book. The goal is to offer tips and strategies so you can learn from my successes and mistakes. This week: cover design and interior formatting.
Authors spend so much time writing/rewriting/editing their books, but at the end of the day, that is the third most important element in determining if someone will buy it. After all, if you’ve done a poor job of crafting your metadata, readers will never find your book. And if your cover design sucks, no one will click on it. It’s that simple.
Viewed through that lens, cover design is just as important as — if not more important than — the contents of your book.
“A cover only has seconds to make an impact,” says Becky Rodriguez-Smith, Design Services Manager at BookBaby. “Our purpose is to create visuals that will grab a potential reader’s attention so that they click on the book to read more about it. To that end, the bolder the better.”
Of the three elements I mentioned above that determine your book’s ability to sell, two of them are things you can do on your own. Cover design, unless you are a professional designer, is not. You may have a great idea for a cover, but you won’t be able to execute it adeptly. So just get that idea right out of your head.
I used BookBaby’s design team to design my cover. You can hire anyone you like, even if you want to ultimately publish through BookBaby. You get what you pay for, of course. BookBaby has what they call basic and deluxe design. You can choose either level for your eBook cover design or printed book cover design (which also includes eBook design). For the record, BookBaby’s prices landed right in the middle of what I found online. You can go to fiverr.com and find people who will do it for frighteningly low prices, and you can also find designers who are more expensive than BookBaby, like bookdesigners.com.
Cover design at BookBaby
When ordering cover design from BookBaby, you are asked several questions. Here they are, so you can get a sense of how to think about approaching design.
- Please give a brief description of the mood of your book.
- Describe the audience for your book.
- Do you have a cover design concept? If so, describe below.
- Do you have any color preferences?
- Please provide links of sample book covers that reflect your vision.
- Please enter any text for your back cover (e.g., quotes, book description, author bio) below.
- Is there any additional design information you’d like us to know about your front or back cover before we start your design?
There’s a bit of tension when it comes to design. On the one hand, you want something that instantly conveys your book’s genre and captures its tone. (If it’s a funny fantasy book, it needs to look like a funny fantasy book.) On the other hand, you don’t want it to look like every other book out there.
My book, The Dragon Squisher, is a YA humorous fantasy novel. There aren’t a lot of humorous fantasy novels out there to compare it to. And I don’t know if there’s one person out there designing every fantasy book, but my goodness, it sure feels that way.
Those are all nice covers, but I knew I didn’t want that.
Conveying humor on a cover is challenging, too. Covers are either “wacky” or slapsticky, or there’s a picture of a someone deadpanning in a way where you can almost hear a trombone go “whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp!” In general, humor covers are, as my daughter would say, cringey.
So, to recap, I wanted something that screamed fantasy but didn’t look like every other fantasy book out there. And something that said funny, but not wacky.
Well, surprisingly, yes. BookBaby got it right on the very first try. And I was convinced, right up until the moment when I opened the proof, that they wouldn’t.
When ordering, BookBaby asks if you have any covers or images you like. I had a hard time finding any covers I liked, but I sent them an image of “Brave” Sir Robin from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, saying “I know you can’t use this, but that’s kind of the tone I’m going for.”
My designer emailed me a series of photographs of people dressed as knights making faces. None of them were right. BookBaby uses Getty Images for their stock photos, and although there are roughly 1.21 kabillion photos on Getty Images, there is not a single decent photo of a medieval person making a suitably funny face. (Lots of pictures of people dressed as knights smoking cigarettes, for some reason, and medieval people in slightly risqué situations, but no good, non-slapsticky photos.)
So, I wrote back, worried that my cover was doomed, and said, “Hey, if you can’t find a good image of a person, here are some elements from my book that might work.” I figured, perhaps we could suggest humor by highlighting an image that might seem out of place.
The first element I mentioned is a titmouse, a character that plays a prominent role in my book. But none of the images of titmice I could find seemed to work, so my hopes were not high.
A couple of days later, I got an email saying I had proofs to approve. I clicked on the link, held my breath, and opened my eyes.
This is the cover (front and back) BookBaby’s designer came up with.
I couldn’t believe it. I loved it. I showed it to my 15-year-old son, who doesn’t love anything. He loved it. My daughter loved it. My wife loved it. I was a little nervous. Surely there was something I needed to change. “Don’t change anything, Dad,” my son warned me.
I took it a mom n’ pop bookstore and showed it to the person in charge of ordering YA books. She loved it.
(The only thing I tweaked from the original design, was the color of the very first sentence on the back cover, “So begins…,” which the designer originally had in the same gold color as the pull quote. I changed it to white. But that’s it.)
I approved the proofs.
I can’t wait to hold this book in my hand.
Interior formatting is a design step that transforms your manuscript’s text and images into a professional format that guides your readers through your book. As John Burton (BookBaby Production Support Manager) says in BookBaby’s “What Is Book Formatting” video, “when formatting is done well, you don’t even notice, but when it’s done poorly, you can’t ignore it.” Formatting focuses on things like chapter headings, title pages, headers and footers, spacing, typeface, and image layout.
Formatting is not nearly as important as cover design. After all, readers are only going to experience your formatting if your metadata and cover design have been successful at getting them to open the book. But, bad formatting makes your book look cheap. You don’t want your book to feel homemade, not at this step in the process, when a reader has finally opened it up.
Formatting is essential if you have any images in your book. The formatting page on BookBaby’s website offers up some great info on interior formatting, including some nice before and after photos, so that’s worth checking out.
Side note: It was around this point in the publishing process when I was really glad I ordered the Complete Self-Publishing Package, which includes eBook and print cover design as well as interior formatting. Had I ordered all of these things a la carte, I’m not sure I would have necessarily sprung for formatting. But after seeing the results, I’m glad I ordered it.
Just like with ordering cover design, when you order interior formatting, BookBaby will ask you for an example of formatting you like. If you’re like me, you probably haven’t given formatting much thought, so cruise around on Amazon for a bit and click on the “Take a Look Inside” buttons on many books until something strikes your fancy. That’s what I did and decided I liked the formatting of this particular version of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Here is the formatting BookBaby did for The Dragon Squisher.
As I mentioned in my article on editing, for financial reasons, you really don’t want to be proofreading your book once it gets to this stage. BookBaby charges a fee of $50 plus $2 per change.
However, it’s called proofreading for a reason. And this is your last chance to find any errors. And over the years, I’ve learned that any time you change your perspective on your manuscript (by simply changing the font or by importing your text into another program, like Grammarly, that formats your text differently) you are going to find errors.
I caught two dozen errors while reading my proof. Twenty-three stupid little things I introduced after I got my edit (because I’m an idiot), and one error that was introduced by BookBaby. (They didn’t realize one chapter, entitled “The End of Magic” was actually a new chapter, since all the other chapters are simply numbered. That fix didn’t cost me anything.)
To finish off this article, I interviewed Becky Rodriguez-Smith, Design Services Manager at BookBaby.
Do BookBaby designers get assigned to projects based on genre?
Our designers are experienced in all genres. They are all equally talented and can apply their creativity to any genre.
What are some things customers can do before and during the ordering process to ensure they will be happiest with their design?
For cover design, give us a concise overall concept of what you envision for your cover. Additionally, providing links to cover samples you like and the reasons why you like them is a great help. I understand it’s not always easy to communicate what you hope to see on your cover, but showing us the styles you prefer can be a great help. Ultimately, filling out the design survey as best as you can is greatly appreciated. The more times you answer “no” or “not sure” in your design survey, the less likely we’ll be to hit the nail on the head in the first proof.
Same goes for formatting in regards to providing samples: giving us a general idea of the styles you like is a great help. I wouldn’t recommend listing specs for fonts and sizes but letting us know, for example, that you generally like serif fonts instead of sans serifs is a good start.
What are some things customers do that make it hard for designers to make their customers happy?
Art is subjective. Our interpretation of an author’s request may not be exactly what they had in mind. For example, our idea of “cheery colors” may not be what another person would think of. Giving us more precise information upfront is key. Instead of requesting “cheery” or “moody” colors, give us a list of the actual colors you have in mind.
Are some genres or types of books more challenging than others?
I wouldn’t say it’s the genre that makes a design challenging. It all depends on what imagery we are asked to create. One fiction author may request a woman holding a rose; the next fiction author may request a sci-fi scene with a hero dressed in space gear landing on an alien planet with a huge explosion nearby. While they are equally enjoyable to create, each provides its unique challenges.
What are designers’ biggest challenges when it comes to creating a great book cover?
The biggest challenge is not knowing what an author likes (in regards to design) or what they envision for their cover.
Today, with Amazon driving sales, I know it’s important for book covers to look good at thumbnail size. Are there other “best-practice” kinds of things customers should know about so that they are less inclined to ask for things that may be detrimental to creating a cover that will sell?
I think that’s the first misconception. The covers our designers are creating are not meant to “sell” a book. Our purpose is to create visuals that will grab a potential reader’s attention so that they click on the book to read more about it. To that end, the bolder the better. A cover only has seconds to make an impact. If the image is a collage of several items or particular scene that occurs in the book — e.g. a murder scene with a man dead on the ground and a woman holding a brass candlestick holder with blood dripping from it that’s set in a dark alley — it’s not going to translate very well at a small size. Perhaps a close-up of the candlestick holder in a pool of blood is a little more intriguing to a reader and easy enough to identify at thumbnail size. You want to draw them in, not give away the story.
Should customers provide images (besides headshots) for use on a cover, or is it generally better to use stock images? If they want to provide an image, what should they know about in terms of how to deliver a great-quality photo?
Images should be high resolution (300 dpi at the cover size) and the correct orientation (portrait vs. landscape) If you’re just not sure or don’t have an excellent image, let us use our stock image collection. We’ll create something awesome for you!
Does BookBaby provide illustration?
No, we do not currently offer custom illustration.
Is there something else I should have asked that will help customers get the best design?
Trust your designer. They have a trained eye to know what will make your cover stand out and look amazing. Yes, you have the ultimate say on what stays or goes, but every design we create is done with this motto in mind: We strive to make your book look professional and ready to sell.
Read the rest of the series:
My Self-Publishing Experience. Part 1: Placing An Order
Book Marketing and Social Media Promotion: My Self-Publishing Experience, Part 2
Book Editing: Part 3 Of My Self-Publishing Experience
Amazon Optimization: My Self-publishing Experience, Part 4
Metadata Optimization For Your Book: My Self-Publishing Experience, Part 5
Stay tuned for more adventures in self publishing. Still to come: printing, print on demand, and more. Comment below if you have any questions about any part of the publishing process, or if you feel like I left something out. And keep an eye out for my humorous YA fantasy novel, The Dragon Squisher, coming this Fall.
(Follow me on Instagram at authorscottmccormick!)
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