Covers That Wow
Choosing the right art for a book cover is about as important as naming your firstborn. It dictates not only the flavor of the story, but genre, audience, and author brand.
If you have a good grasp of design (and Photoshop), the rest is intuition and guts. You work out the nuts and bolts of a design with your head, but to give a cover life, it requires the je ne sais quoi of your heart.
Stock art license: Boring stuff first. Scope out all the various stock photo banks. There are a lot of them. Prices are pretty average between them. But where you really have to pay attention is the licensing agreement. Read it carefully. Then read it three or four more times. If you still don’t understand it, write to the company and ask for an explanation.
The reason you want to understand the agreement is because it will dictate how you can use the art license. Remember, you are buying the license to use the art, not the art itself.
Genre: No matter what you write, choose art that suggests your genre. It doesn’t have to hit you over the head. In most cases, subtle is stronger. But if it’s horror, you want the reader to immediately perceive the horror element. The same goes for romance, SF, fantasy, mysteries, or cross-genre.
Models: Choose models not because you find them beautiful, but for the stories their expressions and body language tell. That is my secret for choosing the models I use. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen. Choose models that express emotion, attitude, or story.
Some authors don’t use people on their covers. Some like the headless models. There are reasons for every variation. I prefer to use people on my covers because psychologically, it makes readers feel more connected. I learned this when I used to design advertising. Ads with people always had a better response than those without.
Again, everything is subject to the needs of the individual book. There is no right or wrong—just options.
Background: Funny thing about backgrounds. Sometimes the most abstract imagery is all you need to give the suggestion of genre. A gorgeous sky is the easiest way to create drama. But factory interiors are great for murder mysteries and apocalyptic fiction. And architectural or geometric designs are nice backdrops for science fiction and steam punk.
Chances are good you won’t need much of the background since your model (or iconic focal point) will dominate the page.
The Extras: Don’t include a catalog of visual clues that will mean nothing to the reader if he hasn’t yet read the book. The cover is an emotional catalyst. It should intrigue and make us curious. A couple of elements are cool. Too many chotchkies on a cover end up looking like old Aunt Myra’s bedroom.
Branding: This is a post all to itself, but if you want your cover to pull double duty, use elements consistently within a series. You want readers to see a pattern between your books within a series.
Fonts: Another topic for a whole post. The simple answer is don’t use a lot of different typefaces on one page. And unless the title is the dominant feature on the cover (awesomely effective and minimal) go easy with the special effects.
Melding the elements: Think Vulcan mind meld + art. This is where your Photoshop expertise does the heavy lifting. The difference between a professional-looking cover and an amateur one is the ability to blend and marry the various elements into one cohesive unit.
There’s more to a cover than slapping together two pictures and a title. Many of my covers have twenty or more layers of special effects. Special effects can be anything from drop shadows, fog, flares, glow effects, transparencies, blurs, ghosting, or duplication to give it depth and texture. There are dozens of other little things to give covers the illusion of dimensionality too. Each cover is different. The real art is knowing when to use what.
Do you have any questions about how to use art for covers? I’m here to help.
Maria Zannini used to save the world from bad advertising but now she designs book covers. A graphic artist for well over 30 years, she’s been designing layouts before Photoshop and digital font libraries were invented. (We used India ink and rulers back then.) Horrors!
Need a cover designed? Visit Book Cover Diva.
Her latest release is Mistress of the Stone, from Samhain Publishing.