Thursday, September 22, 2011

Judging a Book by its Cover

OK, let’s not pretend that when you look at the artwork on the front of a book it doesn’t influenced your buying preferences. It does. So I wanted to talk about designing a book cover from a semi-professional point of view. The two obvious things to worry about are the aesthetic aspect, and the technical aspect. Let’s start with the aesthetics since that will interest you far more than the technical.

I’ve read up on advice on how to create an amazing book cover, and a lot of it says that you have to design the cover in some unbelievably unique way that no one has ever thought of before.

Eh, I’m not buying it.

In the USA alone, we publish 200,000 to 300,000 new books a year. I find it hard to believe that they are all wrapped in brilliantly original designs. Hey, if there are no original stories any more, why would there be original book covers? I’m not saying copy book covers, but I’m sort of saying copy other books’ covers. You’ve got probably many options in your home, and probably many of the genre you’re interested it. Take a look at them and break them down into their core elements. For example, take a quick count of how many of your paperbacks on your shelf follow this format.

* Quote by famous person at the top
* Title in a bigger font
* Striking picture in the middle
* Subtitle that explains what it is about
* Name of the Author, Editor, or genius who wrote the introduction at the bottom.

Now for Option Two, put the name of the Author, Editor, or genius who wrote the introduction just under the title, skip the subtitle, and leave the picture in the bottom 2/3s.

Those two examples don’t cover every book cover - that would be too easy - but they do cover a lot of them. My point, and I did have one, is that layout shouldn’t be something you struggle with. Copy someone else’s layout, and do it proudly. They spent many hours studying how to copy someone else’s in school, which means if you copy it, you’ll probably be pretty close too. If you want to check your layout, then when you finish it, put it aside, let it sit, go look at several other books, and then glance at your right after looking at a few others. If there is something that seems not right to you about the font, it will probably feel that way to other people too. That’s when you notice the tiny details. The other book probably has that title in all caps, and the author’s name in small caps, and the font probably looks a little thinner than the average words you see on a page. Bad layout, bad fonts, and bad artwork will make your book stick out in a bad way, and will give everyone the impression it was self-published. You’ve looked at a lot of book covers. If something about yours seems off, look deeper until you figure out what it is.

Quick sidenote – don’t try to get really crazy and put the author’s name above the title, unless the author is famous enough to sell the book regardless of what it is about.

At this point you’ve released yourself of the burden of thinking you need a design degree to get the format right, so focus on the fun stuff. What striking picture will really draw the eye? What colors capture the mood of the interior? If the picture or illustration looks professional, you’re 80%-90% there.

The back cover is harder, as you have a lot more interpretations of what should go on the other side of the book. Again I recommend using other works as guides, but the trend is to devote at least a third of it to more praise blurbs, and at least a third of it to a pitch to the potential reader. If you don’t have that many praise blurbs, toss in another image or illustration, or your picture and a bio.

Now let’s shift to some technical aspects. First, you’re probably going to sell your book either as an e-book, or on Amazon. That means people will be looking at your book cover at a fraction of the normal scale. If it is too crowded or detailed, then in miniature, it will look like a blob of color. Shrink it down to a few inches on your screen and ask yourself if it still captivates you.

Second, you need to understand what “bleed” is. The term is used to talk about the edges of the book, with the understanding that no matter how advanced our technology gets, when you send a file to the printer, there is a chance what your set up and what they print will be off a little bit. Most printers require that you leave a ring of blank space on all four sides of the cover, usually about .17 of an inch (1/6th of an inch) or so. The printer should tell you. Most will even give you a template that says “keep all images in this square” or something similar. The color of the book cover should still go to the edge or past it, but no part of the title, the witty praise blurbs, the actual striking image, the price, the barcode, the press logo, none of that should venture into this mystical “bleed” area. In some cases, if you do it, they will print it, and then something goes terribly wrong and you end up with the edges of your letters cut off on the side of the page. With places like Create Space, if it doesn’t fit into their template, they will just reject your design and tell you to do it again.

Third, the spine of your book is also important. The printer should tell you how to calculate the width of your spine based on the number of pages, whether the pages are white or cream, and whether the interior is black and white or color. If your book is less than 150 pages, most printers recommend you not have any words on your spine at all because – you guessed it – spines also have a “bleed,” and if you’ve got to have .17” of blank space on either side, that means a third of an inch of the spine has to be empty. You’ll notice many book spines follow a format too: Book title, author, publisher’s name and logo.

Which brings up point four, publisher’s name and logo. If you have a real publisher, they are probably designing your book cover and you have no say in it. If you don’t, you might consider starting your own publishing company, at least on paper. I don’t want to get too far into ISBNs and barcodes right now, but if you use the ISBN provided by a print on demand company, then when that code is scanned, and several smart phones have apps that will scan them, then that print on demand company (like Create Space) will show up as your publisher. If you don’t want to advertise a book is self-published, you’ll have to buy your own ISBN and create a publishing company. That requires a mildly interesting name and a professional looking logo.

Bottom line, we look at books all the time, and while most of what goes on the cover gets filed away as white noise, some part of our brains register what is there. We notice if the picture on the cover seems good, but not professional. We notice if the font isn’t in all caps, or it is Times New Roman, although we might not catch on exactly why right away. You don’t want a potential reader to get any sort of “this is homemade” vibe from your cover. Copy formats and layouts, and concentrate on the little details that make it look professional, and that one image that will draw the eye.

Oh, and also, write some brilliant story to go on the inside.

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