Self-publishing Authors, Listen Up!

By Poison Ivy,

There is a reason why we say self-published books look amateurish. I can recognize one of them at forty paces, and I always cringe when I see that the authors are terribly proud of their covers. They do not understand book cover design at all. Recently, I met someone who has a firm grasp of what a romance author can do to create publicity for her self-published book, but whose own book cover screams “amateurish self-publisher.” She’s such a nice person that I hesitated to tell her she had wasted her money on her cover and she should trash her print run and get a cover that does her story justice. Naturally, I don’t intend to pillory her here. That would not be fair.

Instead, I submit a professionally published book, from which we can learn what a real art director can do for your cover. Petals from the Sky caught my eye at the annual New Jersey Romance Writers Conference last week. You can see why. Stark contrast between the woman and the yellow background pops her figure. The graceful, budding branches convey without words that this story is about someone from Asia. So do the shape of her head and her hairdo, and her long, flowing garment. The three lines of italic blurb text underline that notion, and also emphasize the same thing that the branches do: that this story is not about rock ‘em sock ‘em action, but about delicate, complex feelings, involving a culture that is perhaps alien to Americans. Great initial impact.

Now let’s look at the design elements that sell this cover. The lightest part of the yellow background is near the heroine’s face. This draws your eye to her, and also to the right side of the cover. So does her posture, which leans to the right. So does the book title, which is not centered on the cover, but pushed to the right. Why? To get you to open the book. If you open the book, chances are, you will buy it. The branches are heavier and blacker at the top of the cover than nearer the bottom, which draws your eye to the bottom. The main branch actually points to the bottom right of the cover. The darkest mass of the yellow background, which is chrome yellow (or schoolbus yellow as most of us recognize it), is toward to right and bottom of the cover. Again, it draws the eye to the bottom right and pushes you to open the cover.

Art directors and editors at real publishing companies know about design that pushes sales. Self-published authors don’t. They tend to have centered titles, all in one font, and centered artwork, often framed in a perfect rectangle. They also tend to use one flat color throughout the cover. Nothing about these elements pushes a reader to the right, to open the cover of the book. Lack of proper contrast between the font and the basic cover color often makes the book title illegible. This is not good either. Using the same font and presentation for the title and for the author’s name and for any little blurb copy also is an error. It’s not visually stimulating. In Petals from the Sky, the book title is in the same font, but dropped out in yellow in one spot and framed, and in solid black in another. Thus the font use becomes design complementary rather than matching. Matching is a mistake on a book cover. Oh, and by the way, lots of the fonts on covers from established publishers are not real fonts at all; they’re hand-drawn lettering, done by calligraphers specifically to make the title look dramatic and appealing. Again, they push the eye to the right, to get the reader to open the cover and buy the book.

Does this help? Do you get it now? If you want to self-publish and you want to have cover control, do yourself a big favor and pay attention to the effective design of professionally done book covers.