Book Cover Design Basics

On the very first episode of The Great Cover-up with Ann McMan we look at Book Cover Design Basics.

In this 3 part series of The Great Cover-Up with Ann McMan talks to Sheena about getting great covers done for your books.

Ann McMan is best known for her prize winning novels but she also runs a design company called TreeHouse Studio and has been a professional designer for most of her career.

In this episode:

  • What to ask when hiring a designer (why everyone should hire Ann)
  • What designers REALLY need from the authors
  • When it’s good to get out of their way and let them work
  • How to be sure you’re using images and typefaces LEGALLY

Listen to this podcast here

Find Ann Online





please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

[Music] welcome to the great cover-up with Ann McMan I’m Sheena and Ann is joining me today to talk about covers and thank you thank you for asking me to participate in thrilled well as one of the beta designers in the sector you have introduced covers that are world-class and bringing the sick tents of whole new level and you will want to bug you be one of the first designers to do this in six at which is so exciting and so you here today to to share with everyone your wealth of knowledge on how to actually make brilliant book covers oh my I’ll do my best so in this first episode we’re gonna talk about getting started okay so let’s talk about why it’s important to have a good cover in order to sell books you know I really I thought about that question a lot and it actually occurred to me that there really is I even tried to do with my with my limited little librarian skills I even tried to do a search to sort of find out if there are actually any demographics any numbers that can demonstrate how a well-designed cover can promote sales of the book and it was odd the only places that I was able to find that even talked about it we’re all cover design services so I think I think the information we have about the connection between a well desaad well-designed cover and the direct effectiveness of how a book sells are anecdotal at best but I think the majority of us are able to extrapolate that a well-designed cover meaning a cover that’s eye catching and compelling is going always to stand out particularly when you think about how the way we buy books has changed you know gone are the days for most of us when you can go into a bookstore on Saturday morning you know and get a big cup of coffee and walk around all the tables where all the covers are artfully display and let yourself be drawn to the ones that catch your eye now when we see them they’re about 3/4 of an inch high back lighted on a screen and they’re usually in a queue with 400 other ones so you know the challenge becomes even greater to make sure that the cover on your book accomplishes what you the author need for it to accomplish in a really really quick amount of time otherwise no one’s going to stop and click on it to say hey what is this about and it’s not just online stores you’re looking at social media as well you’re looking at every way that people are is likely to find your book it’s it’s most of the time not going to be a full sized printed almost everything yeah almost never almost never and and the good news is if you are if you are lucky if you’re fortunate if you do a great job yourself or you connect with someone who is experienced at helping translate you know the message of your book into a graphic medium then somebody is gonna go ooh that looks really cool you know and click on it to make it bigger and see what it’s about and then maybe they’ll read the blurb maybe they need some kind of summary and take a look inside and then bother to kind of go on and say wow you know what else says this person written what do people who buy this book also buy so that’s the job absolutely you mentioned a really fundamental point which is your book has to look like what it’s about correct so you can’t just have it’s not just good enough to a pretty cover you have to have an accurate cover right and the difficulty in every case you know and I work with quite a few publishers and each of them have a different process they follow with their authors some publishers are very willing to let the authors of the books be intimately involved in driving the cover design process other publishers are kind of polite and deferential and let the authors see the covers but they don’t really give them the autonomy to say yes I like that no one don’t like that so it really is a crapshoot also being an author you know I can say that probably the worst covers I design are the ones on my own books you know I would I would probably be better served to have somebody else do my own covers is the reason that I say that is because I understand how precious the message of the book is to the author and how what you bring to the conversation can really sometimes drive the project off the rails so is it better than to not have the automatically involved I think it’s better to have the author involved in appropriate ways I should run for political office but no but you know the appropriate ways are the author is the person who knows what the book is about the author is the person who can say when someone finishes reading my book this is what I want them to take away from it this is what I want them to know and remember that the 300 pages or whatever they committed what the message of the book was and and the cover designer who’s going to do a good job and an effective job has to tease that information out of the author and boy is that a challenge sometimes I mean I try in every case when I begin working with someone at latina maybe an independent author or even through the publisher I have direct interactions with the authors and books and in every case I will ask them what are the major metaphors in your book what is your book about not the plot don’t give me a plot summary tell me what your book is about is it about loss you know is it about inveighing against you know some kind of difficulty is it about conflict with your parents is it about you know is it about finding love late in life what is the book about at its at its macro level and that’s what I want to know I don’t need to know here are the 32 minor characters this is where they eat lunch the main character really loves yellow sweaters she has a Pomeranian you know I don’t I don’t need to know that things on that granular level I need to know what’s the big stuff when I walk away after reading your book what do I remember about it and that’s what that’s what a good cut I keep saying a good cover designer I should not use pejorative language like that but but I say that because that’s the way I push myself that’s what my job is my job is to try to get the author to connect with the the kind of global message of their book and that’s the one thing you want to show uncover one idea not 35 let’s take a step backwards and look at what do you need to ask what are the fundamental questions that you need to dive into when you looking for a designer first you need to know what your book is about you the author what is my book about a one sentence description not a plot summary what is the overarching message of your book what is the theme that drives the story and think in terms of bigger you know what could a designer’s select out with a pair of tweezers from all 400 pages the thing that is most evocative of the story you have to tell you need to know that I have an author friend she talked about working as a as a mentor with a young writer and the the writer already had the book in the can it was finished the book was like ready to launch and steps said okay well before I start you know working with you on content and you know development I want you to tell me in one sentence what’s your book about gun and the author just sat there she couldn’t say anything you know and Steph said if you can’t tell me in one sentence what your book is about no one who you want to buy it is going to know either so that’s the first thing right the first thing is understand the major theme the major metaphor the big message of what your book is because that’s what you need to tell the cover designer here’s what I want to suggest so that’s the first thing the next thing are we talking about selecting the right designer to work with like what you should look for yeah the whole process so say I’m running a publishing company and I decide I need to cover designer now what well then I think you need to you need to look at the person’s portfolio if you’re gonna take your car in you know to have the engine overhauled or you crack your engine block or something like that you know you’re gonna want to make sure that you’re taking it to a place that a has people who are skilled at fixing that vehicle B has the correct tools to work on it C can get the parts you know and D has really good consumer reviews from other people who’ve had their vehicle repaired their what have other authors said about what it’s like to work with this person if you’re gonna hire a designer ask them to tell you who else they’ve done covers for and talk to those people what was the experience like do you feel like you got good value you know did they did it take them eight months to create the cover how long was the process how many rounds of changes were they willing to make you know all of that who owns it you know when the design is finished does the does the design still belong to the cover designer if there is you know if there’s a stock art you know if they’re a stock art images used who bought the license for those did you buy it the day buy it whoever buys it is the person who holds the license to the art so they’re really the only person who can legitimately use it you know questions like that but mostly I think go and look at what else they’ve done have they done books for authors who write in the same genre you write in if you’re if you write paranormal erotic transgender poetry you know has this person there probably is a category I’m sure I’m sure there is well we know for example that when you get into fantasy and I don’t know you you’d be a better one to rattle off some subgenres you know does this designer have any experience doing doing other books in that because there are things that certain kind of books have in common and that readers are going to look for that or tells certain kinds of you know colors typography whether they use photographs or illustration you know you know that kind of stuff so you want to find somebody who can demonstrate that they can they can work within those parameters for you but make them show you what they’ve done go look at their work and go someplace where you can look at it really tiny you know to see if the books this person has done really stand out and stand up against that cacophony of all the other stuff you know that’s that’s vibrating and trying to grab your attention I would push people to who are on the market for a cover designer to find out what the credentials are of the person who’s doing the design you know what software do they use you know I for one would probably not want to hire somebody who’s going to design my cover and PowerPoint I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do good work that way but you kind of want to say well what do you use you know what what kind of software do you use you know what access to typefaces do you have what stock art services do you use because there are some good ones and there are some horrible ones and you don’t want to get into a situation where you’ve hired somebody to work on your cover and they’re randomly grabbing images off of a Google image search okay so let’s let’s take three steps back I’m sorry it’s okay let’s get into specifics here okay ideally you looking for somebody who works in professional design software such as Photoshop correct InDesign any of the what we would call the Adobe Creative Suite and it’s now Creative Cloud but yes absolutely that would that would be what I would suggest and you know one of the reasons it’s kind of like the I mean this gets really annoying it’s kind of like saying well of course you’re going to market your books on Amazon because you have to because they’re like 3m I mean they own everything right so you would be ill-served to say I’m not going to you know make my books available through this you know medium that has worldwide distribution of a block well you know you could argue that the Adobe products are kind of the same way you sort of get to a point where you have to use them not just because they’re good but because they’ve become the industry standard and you know that wherever you’re going to be sending your files for reproduction printing whatever they’re gonna know how to deal with Adobe products and they’re probably going to prefer files that were created that way absolutely okay so the Adobe suite is ideally what designers should be using and stock photos let’s talk about you said they were good places and they were not so good places so stop photos are a whole thing with licensing right and you can’t just go grab any photo and use that it’s for commercial purposes no you can’t what you really want to be wary of and you want to you want to hold whoever is working on your cover to account where did you get the images do you have the rights to use them but that should always be the first question I always disclose to people on the front end what I use I use one service I use Getty Images Getty Images is like the mothership they’re really expensive but I have a subscription account with them so rather than pay as I go I pay a lot of money every month annually to have access to all of their image libraries and they own bunches of companies sometimes there are things I need that I can’t get there and when that happens I will disclose to the publisher or the author I have to go outside of Getty to get exactly what it is you want or you okay with that and I’ll show them where I found something and what it will cost to procure the rights to the image and then I’ll pass that cost along to them there are places up there you know that are like dollar photo or you know dreams time is kind of like a big garbage can you know but they have some good stuff if you’re willing to kind of put on your safari gear get in there and hack your way through all of the crap where somebody took a bunch of vacation photos in Hawaii and threw them up there but it’s just that kind of thing like like my advice is always to try to stay with a place that has good production qualities for the images they provide the images are high-resolution the color is correct if you’re getting a vector-based piece of art like an illustration there’s really good vector art and there’s really crappy vector art a really good piece of vector art is going to be a drawing or an illustration that is 85 percent of what you need but there’s stuff in it you need to get rid of like the Pomeranian or the yellow sweater so you want to be sure that you’re getting a really good piece of art so that when you open that thing in illustrator all twelve thousand layers are right there so you can go down through them and say yellow sweater gone dog gone you know that kind of thing I know there are a lot of people now who are very partial to think it’s called pixels yeah a site called pixels and you know you can find some decent stuff there it’s it’s like one of these sites where and people will have to forgive me if I mischaracterized anything because you know a lot of these places I know about but I don’t use them my understanding is that pixels is is a site where anybody can create an account and throw their own images up there and they make them free that you know they’re free you can download them you don’t have to pay anything you don’t have to worry about you know getting sued you know with HBO picks up your book you know when once do you you know that kind of thing wouldn’t that be a good problem to have so you know I’ve worked with one or two authors who have images on pixels that they thought were perfect and you can make those work but sometimes you run into the quality issues I identified like the resolution isn’t good enough and you can really do anything the edit the images once you once you take them because I edit stuff all the time change people’s hair color change what they’re wearing multiply them on top of other images to put them in a different setting so I have to make really sure that I have a license agreement that gives me permission to do that and not all of them do yes which is why another reason you should hire a designer who knows these things so that you don’t have to worry isn’t also yeah you what you want to make sure of is that if anybody’s gonna get sued it’s the designer and not you you’re listening to the news Ben talk show the lesbian talk show con your hub of podcast information okay so now from a designer’s point of view what do you need from authors in order to make the cover perfect Michael Nava recently hired me to make new covers for a bunch of his backless titles and then to do a new cover for his new release and it was like an out-of-body experience to work with him it was just perfect because he knew exactly what information to give me you know I didn’t even have to go back to him and ask any questions all of the books were in a series so that probably made it a little easier because he wanted a brand for the whole series of books once we knew what that was it was really a matter of coming up with the right kinds of imagery for each of the individual stories and everything else was kind of boiler plated but he sent me very tight very very brief blurbs about each book like two sentences that told me exactly what that book was about and what I needed to know to craft the right cover the time period who the main character was what major event in his life he was dealing with and where that was going to take him and those were the things I needed to know where’s the book set what’s the time period what’s the major conflict does the character get what they want or not get what they want and is the book part of a series is it book two is it ten is it book 1 of 6 those are the things I know what is the primary emotion that you want to evoke in a reader is this book a drama is it humorous is it a light romance is it chicklet is it terrifying is it scary what are those emotions that you want the cover to accurately suggest because that informs more than just what kind of image do you look for and how to use color if you use color at all but it also informs what kind of typefaces do you pick you could get me to talk for two hours about typography because to me most book covers fail because of poor typography you know somebody can find that the most perfect image in the world for a book and they can ruin it with the wrong type choice you know those things all have to derive from what the designer gets from the author or the publisher about the about this big picture stuff if I’m designing a cover for a book that’s set in 1950 southern Alabama that’s going to immediately inform me in the way I start thinking about imagery and and type because you’re not gonna go and pick some kind of neon font from the 70s you know to throw on a book that deals with you know smokey jazz clubs in suburban Birmingham from a perspective you got from this author a really tight synopsis of each book plus a feeling of that he wanted to create in each book correct he was able to community to me the protagonist in all of his books is is a Los Angeles detective named Henry Rios and the books span you know decades in this in this character’s life he moves through the AIDS era and he loves and losses you know partners and he generally becomes he’s not a detective he’s an attorney I misspoke but he becomes involved in in litigating cases that always have some kind of dramatic or immediate tie into his personal life and I got that and from him I got this is what this is what you know East LA and insight you know this is what it’s like you know it’s hot this is the right color palette these are the kinds of issues that he deals with personally and politically I understood the vibe for the books I knew who Henry Rios was and what he wanted each of the books to show so we were able with each of them to and and Michael would also he would say I’m not telling you that you need to use this but I just randomly went and pulled some images that spoke to me about the content of this particular book and here they are and then that really helped me because I knew what his thinking was and that I was able to take those things and go from there and hopefully find the right way to translate all of that so those are the kinds of things that are just a dream for a designer when you get someone who really understands what their book is about and they don’t give you the entire plot of the novel so you need to understand the feeling that you want to evoke the genre that it’s that it’s talking to you and you also need to understand really what the inner turmoil whatever it is it’s happening in the book is correct good it’s simple right really really they had many experiences where I work with an author and and I feel like I understand all of that and I’ll do a cover and kick it back to and they’ll just be aghast like what is this you know this has nothing and then I’m horrified like how in the world did I get it so wrong sometimes it’s me sometimes I just got it wrong and then sometimes it’s because they there were there were like really key things they didn’t share that suddenly floated to the top when they saw something that that was just that just missed the mark perversely getting too much information is really worse than not getting enough if somebody can’t pare down the the overarching message of their book into one sentence and they tell you everything then you’re kind of leaving it up to the designer to try to figure out what in the world is this book about I’ve had authors too who have offered to send me the manuscript and say do you just want to read it you know and generally I don’t I mean I rarely do I rarely do sometimes because I do all the covers for Bywater sometimes I really do look at them but I don’t I rarely read the entire book you know I might dip into it just enough to get a sense of how the author actually manages the material but usually I don’t read the book I probably should not have shared that know it’s a completely understandable reading a book is a time consuming and if especially when you’re also trying to write them right and to design a cover it’s just gonna add several days on to your process so ya know the the authors and publishers should be able to tell you the least edits okay so when is it good for the authors and publishers to just get out of your way and let you design and what do you do I do I tell you the truth or do I say something politically correct as soon as they hire me they should just go out for lunch no if I have questions I ask them like if you hired me Sheena and say I’ve written this book of short stories and it’s about this and there are eight stories and they run the gamut from this to this and they all have the same character and you know they’re I don’t know you know they’re humorous or whatever and and I asked you a couple of questions when I stopped asking you questions then I’m ready I’m ready I feel like I have what I need you know to go to work so you know where it tends to go off the rails at least for me and and where I sort of begin to think I’m not really the right person to work with you is when when I come up with something that I think is is effective and hits the marks that the author has given me and and I send it off and the author comes back and says well you know this is really close but you know my main character doesn’t look like this my main character has darker hair or I I mean I don’t always put people on covers I mean sometimes I do you know if the author’s feels really strongly about that okay okay here’s a good example when you are a kid and I can tell that you’re way younger than me so this may not be relevant but when I was a kid in the encyclopedia the big encyclopedia pull one off the shelf in the library we’re the like the see-through frogs remember those you get to the frog oh gosh like in the Britannica and and and you’ve got like this illustration of you know this poor frog who’s all like tacked out and they’re all of these acetate overlays and one has the circulatory system and one has the skeleton and one has muscles you know and you just you can like peel them off and kind of and basically if you think of that as the prototype of everything that could conceivably go into a book cover the best cover is the bottom layer where all that stuff has been peeled off because you don’t need it that’s when it’s time for the author to get out of the way because generally the author is the last who can make a good determination about what is gonna work best to promote their book because we and I include myself we’re too close to it it’s too precious and we know too much we know too much about it and we don’t want the the potential buyer to miss the little nodule on the major blood vessel on the frog’s carotid artery you know because that really matters well no it doesn’t really matter you know when I’m a potential buyer and I see this little half-inch image of your cover scroll by I’m not looking for that I’m looking for what’s a frog like not what is everything that’s inside it demonstrates an energy your assignment is to go find in an encyclopedia and look at the see-through frog the analogy once you explain it when you’re designing a book cover are you thinking about the audiobook as well because whether your books are a natural progression are dates well they are but not everyone does them and one of the things that happens very often is I’ll work on a cover for someone and it’ll be months maybe nine months a year later sometimes longer that they will come back and say hey I’m gonna get this book produced an audio can you do an audio book cover for me based on the original art it’s a lot better for your designer to know if you can do it on the front end that you might wish to do that down the road because you’re talking about a completely different format an audio book cover is square it just is and you don’t just take the regular book cover and smash it you know to get it to go into that way you know where everybody looks like they’re in an El Greco painting you know where their heads are you know they look like code heads you want to give your designer a heads up as you’re working on this keep in the back of your mind that down the road I may wish to produce an audio book with authors for whom I work where I know that either immediately or eventually they’re gonna do audiobooks I do keep that in mind you know I try to pay attention to the kind of image I use and and you know are they things that I can adapt to be square and can the typeface that I pick for the title still be legible at that smaller size the other thing is will the author want you to do any collateral materials you know like a facebook cover image or cuz think about that those things are a nightmare and even though they can give you templates right they change like every 32 minutes well so they’ll give you a template that doesn’t actually work on this iPhone but it works on that iPhone so you know what you end up with you end up with this you start with this canvas that’s a giant rectangle and you have this tiny little space in the middle where if you if you want to make sure that it’s gonna render on every platform that’s this it’s like for postage stamps together that’s going to the space you get you know so that your names not cut off for half the image isn’t gone or whatever I hate doing those but I do them you know but I do them and I try to do them really well I try to test them you know on other platforms and all of that but but but when you’re hiring somebody to do your cover it’s worth it to you as an author to get that person to do those other things for you and make sure they know how to do it make sure they’ve got experience have you ever designed an audio book cover have you ever done a facebook cover image have you ever done you know a web ad I actually do animated ads for people you know like ads that scroll almost like slideshows and stuff so all of those things are possible but you’ve got to get somebody who is familiar with them and who knows how to design for those different mediums talk a little bit about you you have been designing for a while I have for a very long time 40 years and you study design you worked inside like I did not I had a I don’t think that I could have the a parallel experience today because the technology has just advanced so rapidly when I went to college I actually majored in history and English fully intended to go to graduate school and all of that actually did go to graduate school for a year but I was terrible at it and I worked for a public library for a couple of years I drove a bookmobile which is the best job I ever had and then I kind of fell into design because I was always a pretty good illustrator and in those days if you could draw fairly well I picked up a lot of freelance work doing advertising for retail stores you know doing illustrations and all that kind of stuff so I always made money doing little side business and then I kind of got into doing signs and posters and all that jazz and then it was sort of a short trip from there to actually get into publication design newsletters magazines that kind of thing and I got my first job working in higher ed as a graphic artist in those days you know there was a difference it was almost like a I don’t know what do you call it in a sort of Union idea where your first year like a an intern and then you’re a journeyman whatever whatever so I started way at the bottom you know back in those days and and then you know as time went by when I retired from my professional career at the end of December as a graphic designer it was amazing because we went from the days where a designer pretty much did dealt with the text only and then you would indicate for a printer where they would take the photographs and drop them in and scale them and all that just well now designers do everything but I feel like the fact that I had a background like that I mean if I have any skill at all as a cover designer I think that’s why because I started really understanding how to work with tight and most people today because of the computer unfortunately know nothing about typography they don’t understand it they don’t know that letters are made and formed to interact with each other in a certain way you know because a computer says oh a W has the same character width as a capital I know it really doesn’t a word that has an A and a V and an AI and you’re gonna have these giant honkin spaces between if you ever noticed that where some of the letters look like they’re sort of spread out and then some well the computer does that because it doesn’t see any difference between the properties of the individual letters that’s what a designer does you know a designer should be able to look at that and say yeah I need to go in there and close that out and make these make the letters of this title play nice with each other make you know okay here’s a here’s like a nuance of sort of covered design production that is a thing that you really want your designer to pay attention to and I I mean this is this may be a question for a later conversation but it relates to how is your cover going to be produced who’s going to who’s going to make your books for you who’s going to print them because there are things that factor in to how you create and prepare the art based on what method is going to be used to make the books so those nuances really do matter so if people want to get a hold of you specifically we can they find you the best way to contact me is just email me at Anne McMahon at that’s the best way a lot of people get a lot of people will send me notes on Facebook I’m not always really great about spending time on Facebook the way I should so if you do if you are interested and you have a project you can direct message me there but a better way to reach me is just email me and I always respond to emails right away that’s great and thank you thank you for asking you’ve been listening to the great cover up with Ed McMahon I’m Sheena tune in next time for episode 2 of this three-part series if you enjoy what we do consider becoming a patron you get exclusive content like outtakes from this series that’s all for this week bye bye [Music]