Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Post: Covers that Wow by Maria Zannini

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.
You can also follow Maria on her blog or Facebook.
Her latest release is Mistress of the Stone, from Samhain Publishing.


  1. Thanks for having me over!

    If anyone has any questions or comments about covers go ahead and post. I love to discuss trends and options.

    (If you want to talk about dogs, you can follow me back to my blog.) My incorrigible child got her picture on today's post.

  2. I love your work!

    I see some people who try to do their own covers and it ends up looking like they did their own covers. LOL

  3. Thanks, Jennifer! That's so kind.

    I feel sorry when people have bad covers. There's room for wide variety, but there are a few precepts of design that need to be followed. And then there's photo manipulation experience which is another field of expertise in itself.

    It's a lot harder than it looks. :)

  4. I always so impressed at the talent of graphic artists. It requires knowledge of art and computers.

    1. Susan: I had already finished university by the time computers came on the scene. But I was lucky that I had a husband who had been tinkering with personal computers even before they were "useful". He encouraged me to invest in a Mac and teach myself the graphics programs. By the time I got my first design job, I was well versed in all the graphics software of the day.

  5. I've had covers I truly despised, covers I tolerated, and covers I love. As someone with no artistic flare who has to hire someone to do her covers, I'd like to know: What's the best way to find a cover artist?

    1. Jblynn: If you're getting covers from a publisher, one thing I do is pick out all my favorite covers from their catalog and see if there's one artist whose style I particularly like. While most publishers won't let you communicate with the artist, many will consider a request for a particular artist.

      For self-published work, I recommend talking to other self-published authors whose covers you like and asking them about their artists. This way not only do you know what kind of work to expect but also an idea of what the artist is like to work with.

    2. Thanks, Maria!

  6. Good point about using the model to convey attitude or story!

  7. Sandra: I'm tired of pretty people who don't do anything useful. lol. Eye candy is nice, but that doesn't mean they can't do a little more of the heavy lifting in story telling.

  8. What an awesome post. Thank you so much for being a guest on The Guide today. And keep those comments coming, folks.

  9. I never understood the whole Fabio thing. How can you have a distinctive cover using the same guy everyone else had? Of course, the Book Cover Diva would have come up with something much better, right?

  10. LD: I never understood it either. But he was trendy and he had a cool name.

    Re: using a popular model
    This is actually more common than you think. I see the same model dozens of times in any number of covers. While it's impossible to predict if someone else is going to use 'your' model, if you can modify or enhance the photo you have a better chance distinguishing your cover from someone else's.

    True, you both might still use the same model, but the cover that makes the extra effort usually becomes more memorable.


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