Of all the elements that go into a professionally published book, a stunning cover design is one thing that can convince a potential reader that your book is worth investigating.
There is so much that goes into producing a book. Some things are obvious: a well-written story, an edited manuscript, an attention-grabbing front cover. Others aren’t, like what to include in your front matter, what info is required on your copyright page, and, oh yeah, there’s a back cover too.
None of it is simple, which is part of what makes producing a professional book such an accomplishment. The best works usually have a long list of people involved in the process — from creative contributors to editors, those who’ve lent emotional support to research assistants (which is where the folks on the Acknowledgments page fit in).
But no one, perhaps not even the author, has as much influence over how your book is perceived by potential readers than your book’s cover designer. After all, if the cover is a turn-off, no one will know how great your book is, because the old cliché is true, and people will judge your book by its cover.
With this in mind, I interviewed BookBaby designer, Gina Stewart. In addition to years of experience designing albums and various music products for Disc Makers and painting exquisite works as a visual artist, Gina has designed over 1,000 book covers for a wide range of genres and authors. Here’s what Gina had to say about the creative process, the specifics of designing books, and how authors can set themselves up for success when it comes to getting a great cover design for their books.
You’ve got a lot of experience designing book covers. Do you have a list of things that HAVE to be present on a book cover? Anything that might not be obvious?
Good question! You’d actually be surprised that some authors either fail to put their author name or don’t want their author name — or even the title — on the cover. While it’s not a legal requirement, it’s recommended, especially in the age of online sales and marketing. You don’t want to miss out on any opportunity for name recognition, and some of our distribution partners might not accept a cover without a name and title.
Other than that, it’s all subjective based on how to best promote the content of the book.
What about the back cover?
It’s recommended to have a synopsis and a short bio about the author to help draw the reader in and feel a connection to the book. It’s really important to keep this text minimal to not overwhelm the reader and to maintain a clean, easy-to-read look. I think authors spend so much time writing their books that sometimes they forget how important the back cover can be. The back cover is an excellent introduction to the book and can make or break a sale. This is a time to ask other people to look at the synopsis and get their feedback to see if they would want to read the book after reading it. I know I make a quick judgement about a book based on the back cover text when I’m considering a new read.
Are there certain things you key off of from an author’s design questionnaire or conversations with the author to help you peg the mood or direction for a design?
Because I work with the design questionnaire exclusively, I really have learned to “read between the lines.” Often, the author describes what they feel to be essential to their cover design, but it might not immediately come to my mind how I can make it work successfully as a cover. For example, they will often give too much information and since we can’t fit everything into the limited space we have to work with, we have to simplify. In that case, I study what key phrases they might have used to get a sense of what’s most important to their story. Sometimes I can read the synopsis and it might reflect a mood or theme that I pick up on that would be key for me to find a solution as well, especially if the client hasn’t specified a genre or if they says it’s a combination of genres.
What do you think makes for a great book cover?
Authors often think you have to put everything that happens in the book on the cover because there’s so much going on in the story! But, when it comes to it, the book cover is a relatively small space to work with. The best covers are ones that “set up” what the book is about, where the imagery intrigues the reader enough to want to know more. It should be fairly simple, yet striking.
What’s the ideal scenario for you, in terms of the direction, assets, and feedback an author provides you to get his/her book design started?
I personally like it when the author provides a few examples of covers they like, just to know their aesthetic taste. Because hey, designing a cover for someone you’ve never met is like trying to pick out an outfit for them! You need a little info to make choices they’ll be comfortable with. I like to be given a general idea of what an author might like to see on the cover, but prefer the creative freedom to come up with something on my own. When you let a creative person do what they do best, you’ll likely get a better result out of the process. If they provide any photos they would like on the cover, it’s so important to give a high resolution photo. A crisp, clear, high resolution photo makes everything so much more professional. Nothing screams “amateur” like a blurry photo. And that goes for the author photo, too.
How much collaboration do you typically want/expect from an author
I want just enough collaboration to give me a roadmap on how to execute their design, without feeling like my hands are tied by some little details they might specify. A simplified example:
“I want the photo I provided to have the title, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in red and I want it REALLY BIG, on one line at the top of the cover, so it pops!” Well, the photo they provided has a dusky evening sky at the top, so the color red will not read clearly at a large size. And since there’s no way “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” will be “REAL BIG” at the top because it’s such a long word, good luck to me! So, I’ll struggle with doing what they want for a while and come up with some kind of alternative to make it work, or just do something else and write a note explaining why I had to deviate from their suggestions.
Can an author give you too much direction?
Absolutely. Sometimes there is so much direction that it can make me feel afraid to deviate even a little bit from it, even when my instincts tell me that I need to make a different decision to create a good cover. Often these kinds of jobs are ones that have a very detailed mockup or they mention how every word is in a particular font and particular point size and they point out every little detail and how they think it should be placed together. Ultimately, those types of projects end up not being my best work. Authors need to understand that one decision can lead to another decision, and another, and another, so being overly specific can make for a design problem.
What’s your worst-case scenario? What things do authors do to set the process up for difficulties?
The situations I mentioned before can be one part of the difficulty, but an author’s attitude and expectations can interfere as well. Sometimes, if we don’t create the perfect cover they were expecting right out of the gate, authors get frustrated and can be a bit surly, which is not helpful to the process. I think it stems from the fact that this could be the first time they ever worked with a graphic artist and don’t realize that the process can take a few tries before we land on the design that resonates with them. This book is their baby, so they get worried.
If the first cover was not well received, authors might think they have to over-art direct us to get what they want, when most of the time, with a little more information and a helpful exchange about what didn’t hit the mark, BOOM! the next attempt is perfect. If the author jumps in too quickly, becoming too specific and directing every move, the designer will feel stifled and won’t believe they will be able to create a cover that will satisfy the author. And that’s not how you want your designer to feel. You want them to feel like they can make your cover shine.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying the author can’t ever be specific to changes they would like to see. Changes are a part of any creative process. Authors just need to be flexible with some decisions if the designer thinks, for example, that red won’t read clearly on that dusky blue background. Designers REALLY want to give everyone a great cover, so trust us to make some decisions in the quest to provide the best final product.
I know it’s hard to choose some of your work over others, but do you have any favorite designs or any that you are particularly proud of? What sets them apart for you?
I LOVED working on a poetry book called Lines of Licorice. The author wanted a design similar to a famous Pablo Neruda book cover. I love doing striking yet simple designs that pop off the page. I’m a minimalist at heart and love really graphic covers. I’m drawn to design from the ’50s and ’60s. You would never think this by looking at it, but this was actually a very challenging cover to create. Drawing the curves to be smooth and line up exactly like I needed them to took a lot of finessing. The client was so nice and very open. I wanted to do the very best work for him.
Is there a major difference between designing fiction vs. non-fiction?
They are still both similar enough to where you want something more on the simple side and eye catching, however sometimes non-fiction can work really well with being really simple or more abstract in concept. Even if it’s just an interesting type solution with a sharp color palette.
How familiar with the text do you need to be? I imagine it’s impossible to read every book you design.
Yes, there’s no way I could possibly read every book I design. I depend mostly on synopses to make design decisions. Occasionally I might scan the manuscript for key information, like, if I’m coming up with an environment for the cover and need a little more detail about where the story takes place in the world.
Having designed so many book covers, how do you avoid falling into patterns where you’re designing the same cover over and over?
Surprisingly, I almost never duplicate myself! Sometimes I actually save a cover design if I really liked it but the client rejected it, hoping to use it for something else. But in 20 years of design and five years of book design, I’ve never been able to reuse something. Every project has its own solution.
Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
I love watching the design trends that come and go and I keep a Pinterest page of all the beautiful covers other people design in hopes of trying something new. Currently, covers are really on a “designer friendly” trend with flourishy typography and lots of fanciful, but graphic treatments. Not illustrations of scenes, per se, but more general designs like landscapes and flowery embellishments. Really eye-catching stuff.
What do you think, generally, separates an amateur design from one done by a skilled designer?
An amateur usually sticks to the typefaces they have on their computer already. They are afraid to experiment with different size relations of words or get bold with color. They often don’t understand resolution, so the art they use or create appears blurry. To me, those are tell-tale sign that the person is inexperienced.
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Gina Stewart is a painter and graphic designer. In addition to designing books for BookBaby, Gina has designed and illustrated album covers for independent artists as well as well-known musicians including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Glen Phillips, and Peter Tork. When she’s not designing, she paints pictures of animals in fantastical situations.