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Cover Control: Yippee! or Yikes?

by Michael Waite, Bonefrog Creative

If you find yourself in control of your book cover (usually because the publisher isn't paying for it, you are), there are a number of things you must understand and do if you want that cover to effectively do the huge job it must: sell your book. It's tough enough to sell out a print run without trying to do it riding a cover that is lame, amateurish or just plain wrong. The onus is on you to get the cover right. Hiring a competent cover designer is a good start in the right direction, but that doesn't let you completely off the responsibility hook. You have a fine line to walk—you'll need to be an intelligent source of information and direction AND you'll need to know when to get out of the way and let the professional you hired apply his or her expertise.

Here are nine things to know and put into practice:

1) Scout around. Line up some covers you like and be able to explain why you think they work. Define and study your market and finger which covers and titles are the most powerful.

2) Hire wisely. If you choose to hire or exchange owe-you-ones with a competent cover designer, do your due diligence. Check out their work, looking for strengths and tendencies, because that's probably what you're going to get. Some pros are powerful title designers and can do amazing things with type. Others are masters of the digital image while others are so skilled at page layout that everything on the page looks like it was meant to be there. The best cover designers are not only are good at graphics, but they're good at tying those graphics to the beating heart of the manuscript.

3) Your cover, like your book, isn't for everyone. It can't and won't appeal to Joe Everybody. Don't try to make it so. Think about your market—your reader—and brainstorm cover directions in terms of what they expect and will find appealing. And get the designer involved. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and figure it all out on your own, then hire a designer to execute your exact vision. Why squander a creative resource? Especially one you're paying for?

4) Be careful about trotting your cover comps around looking for a consensus of opinion. Such a committee mentality will wreck an effective cover. Why? Because everybody wants to suggest a tweak or a direction. If you want outside feedback, be specific as to what you want from them–and "them" should be those who fit your target market.

5) A great cover is about more than content. In my experience, authors tend to fixate on content when they think cover. They want the cover to be a graphical reflection or depiction of their story. They want the images they see in their head to be on that cover. It is not always the best way, nor is it as simple as it might seem. I've had authors tell me they want a "real simple cover," (which usually can be translated to mean "I don't want to spend much") and that's fine, but the description that follows is anything but simple. They've been thinking too hard. They don't want a cover, they want a mural. If you're determined that you must have a prose-perfect depiction of elements or characters or of a momentous scene from your manuscript, then be prepared to hire a composition photographer or very skilled illustrator/cover painter. They're out there, and some are quite good—they'll have to be good to nail your prose-vision exactly as you see it. Make sure your cover designer is also in on the process so the finished piece of art is workable as a book cover...things like room for the title are quite important.

6) A fine piece of cover art does not a fine cover make. If you want to find and purchase a piece of royalty-free art that works for your cover, that's great. But remember, the art (photo or illustration) is but one element of the cover—a very big element, yes, but not the endall. Great covers are the result of the skillful arrangement (layout) of all the cover elements.

7) A powerful book cover is the result of both skilled layout AND mining the manuscript for conceptual gold. The designer should be asking questions, looking for something to hang the cover design on. The designer should not only want to know what the book is about, but should seek for a hook or source of emotional power beyond the content. Maybe it's the underlying nature of the content or maybe mood or symbolism or humorous irreverence. The very nature of the subject matter often dictates what can be done with a cover and what should not be attempted...not because one must stay in the box, but because there are reader expectations to meet. One violates those expectations at the risk of being ignored in the marketplace.

8) Don't try to do too much. An overstuffed cover is a weak cover. Be willing to sacrifice elements for impact. Think simple, direct, and powerful.

9) Be willing to consider a title change if it opens the door to a powerful cover. I'm telling you, titles can severely restrict what creative directions can be explored. You're paying for the thinking and skills of a creative professional, so let 'em run. As politically incorrect as it may seem to be, books ARE judged by their covers.

Having cover control thrills some authors and scares the dog out of others, but now that you know what you're getting into and have a good idea of what you must do to dress your book in an effective sales wrapper, you and your book can live happily ever after.
phone: (208) 776-5210

© Michael Waite • (May be reprinted as long as contact information is included)