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Book Covers: Doing It Yourself

There are basic concepts to embrace if you decide to create your own cover.

Unless you are famous, the title should be larger than your name. It should suggest the genre and the tone.

If your title is Dead Men Don't Talk and you have an image of a murder weapon or a dark alley with a body in it, the reader expects a murder mystery. Add a man's face with rounded eyes and duct tape over his mouth and you suggest a hint of comedy, perhaps a mafia thriller or Con/Heist story. Add a tag line, while they are eating, and an image of a zombie and you have a horror story. Is the zombie scary or hilarious? Do you want to scare your audience or make them laugh?

It is best to keep your title short, under five words is recommended. If you have a tag line, series designation, etc. it should be smaller and in a less noticeable font. The series designation usually goes underneath the title, but I have seen it on a banner across the top, middle, or bottom, depending on the artwork. If the series has become well known, it might take precedence over the individual title like this example from Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. While I appreciate the artwork, his font selections make the thumbnail images difficult to read. It is important to keep that in mind when designing a cover: can you read it as a thumbnail? Can you tell what the images are?
Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson Series
You may utilize a catchy tag line of three or four words. This element can make your book stand out from others in its genre. What makes your cozy Mystery different? What makes your Romance different?

Dead Men Don't Talk ... while they're eating.

Hotel California ... you can check out but never leave.

My tag line for Mythikas Island was: Four girls, One Island, No Second Chances.

Include series information. There is nothing more frustrating than not knowing where books fall chronologically in a series. It helps to have a series list at the beginning of the book just after the title page or on the left side next to the title page with the order clearly indicated. I have seen lists of "other books in the series" and you don't know if they are earliest to latest or vice versa. It's worse when they are jumbled. Many readers like to start from the beginning. They also need to know if they have missed a book.

If you have multiple series, make sure you are clear which series the books belong to. 

It helps with marketing if the titles of a series connect in some way, such as the Clockwork series by Cassandra Clare.
Cassandra Clare
You don't need blurbs unless someone really famous has read your book and endorsed it. Even then, it shouldn't crowd out the title.

Don't make the mistake of using blurbs all over the back cover instead of a synopsis. Readers want to know what your story is about. If I see too many blurbs, I figure the book is pretty weak and the publisher is pulling out all of the stops to promote it. In many cases, a publisher dragoons their writers into providing blurbs for books they haven't read. If the synopsis is a turn off, it doesn't matter who endorses it.

Be careful with "Award Winning" and "Best Selling" author designations. Are you really? Did you win an Edgar or Romance Writers of America award? Did you make the NYT Bestseller list or genre organization's short list? Unless you won a famous contest, it means nothing to the reader. Even then, it may mean nothing to the reader. I ignore that stuff because popularity contests aren't important to me. A NYT Bestseller stamp means I probably won't like it. Use those things if they are truly applicable and you believe they will help in your genre, but don't lie and don't overshadow the impact of your cover with them.

After the imagery, it is the back blurb that influences whether the reader will try the book or not. They may check out the first chapter before purchasing as well. If those aren't seductive, all the blurbs and awards in the world won't help you.

Blurb Essentials by Nicholas Erik is an in-depth worksheet on how to write the best book description possible.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't want a cover that is dramatically different from others in the subgenre. Readers are drawn to similar covers. To maximize your cover design, pull up the top twenty sellers in your category. If you relate your cover to theirs in terms of colors and elements, it helps attract your target audience.

Here is an example from one of my favorite historical mystery writers, Anna Lee Huber.
Anna Lee Huber
Deanna Raybourn is another favorite. In this example, A Perilous Undertaking and A Treacherous Curse are a separate series from the others.

Deanna Raybourn
 The themes are similar in both Huber's and Raybourn's books: Gothic background plus woman in cape or gown suggesting historical mystery.

Although I love the Veronica Speedwell series, I am not a fan of the covers. They suggest a fantasy novel more than a mystery, but she is already well known and that is what her publisher's cover designer chose.

You need an ISBN and a bar code for the back cover of a print version. A designer will leave room if you don't provide one and templates have a space for them to be inserted. If you use Create Space or the like, they place the bar code for you. If you buy your own, it is up to you to where to place it, but it is usually bottom right corner of the back cover inside the guide parameters so it isn't cut off.

Some suggest putting a printed price on the back. Traditionally published books have a suggested retail price. You don't need this for your self-published book. Your prices may change and you don't want to redesign your cover every time. You may reduce the price for a book sale or author event. Book lovers hate price stickers all over the cover. A sign will do. If they purchase your book online, the price will be listed. It is unlikely your book will make it into the bookstore. If so, they may have their own ideas about pricing. So it is best to leave the price off. Placing an inflated price will not affect what a reader is willing to pay for the book or change their opinion of the value. A higher price does not equal a higher "quality." In terms of marketing, people do love a bargain, but it is best to save the discount for the marketing campaign rather than the cover.

The copyright designation and ISBN information go in the front matter on the backside of the title page. It doesn't hurt to add the disclaimer that it is a work of fiction. Add the cover designer, copyright year, ISBN numbers, and Library of Congress Control Number if applicable. 

Example from Myhikas Island Book I: Diana
Disclaimer: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover Design by Diana Hurwitz

Copyright © 2008 Diana Hurwitz

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1-4392-1291-0

ISBN-13: 9781439212912

Library of Congress Control Number: 2008908917

Note, the Library of Congress number can be purchased, but there is no guarantee that the book will ever appear there. It is used by libraries to order books from a catalog.

The ISBN number can be assigned by the publisher, Create Space, Nook Press, etc. or you can purchase your own through the ISBN organization. Visit for in depth information about the rules and uses. The ISBN number and related bar code are necessary identification elements for book vendors. There is some debate as to whether you need an ISBN for an ebook. Entities like Kindle and Nook press add their own book identification number to each title, so it isn't essential but there are pros and cons. You can read about them here. Each ebook version needs a separate ISBM because the publishing platform is different. You can read more about that here

Many sources suggest you place a photo and/or biography on the back cover. Unless you are famous, this is not necessarily a good idea for fiction, especially if it takes away from the synopsis. If you are famous and have a hardbound book with a sleeve, your photo and bio can take up the back. 

The bio and photo are useful for nonfiction books to explain why you are qualified to educate or advise. They are also appropriate for an autobiography.

You can see two examples here from mystery writer Tasha Alexander. In the first example, The Counterfeit Heiress (on the left) the publisher placed her photo and bio on the cover. It doesn't hurt that she is stunning in person and in photos. In Death in St. Petersburg (on the right), they left it off.

Your author bio and photo can go inside the book, either after the title page or at the end in the back matter. Make sure it is a good photo, not an unflattering snapshot. The wording of your bio should reflect the tone of the book. If your book is humorous, be flippant. If your book is serious, be formal. If your book is for young adults, be informal. If your book is romantic, be charming. The author photo should be appropriate to the genre as well. You can read more about that here

A higher grade back cover design incorporates themes and colors from the front cover. Slapping a stock image on an all black or white cover looks less professional. You can see in the back cover for Alexander's Death in St. Petersburg (above), the artwork continues onto the back cover. Elaborate designs flow across the spine as well. Here is an example from one version of from To Kill A Mockingbird.
The size of the back cover matters in terms of how much content you can cram onto it. An 8.5 x 11 inch hardcover has a lot more room than a 5 x 8.25 inch paperback. It is important that the back cover is easy to read and emphasizes the most important part: the seductive description that asks a question readers are willing to slog through the book to get the answer to. Read the blurbs for the top twenty sellers in your subgenre for ideas.

You do not need a table of contents for the print version of fiction. A lot of templates have that section, but it used for nonfiction. You could have a list of chapters and perhaps you have a catchy heading for each chapter. Chapter headings are a personal choice, relate to genre, and are not essential. Hopefully, your book is so engrossing the reader never needs to reference a list of chapters. A Table of Contents for an ebook is a different matter. You can read more about creating one in Word here or follow the instructions on your formatting software of choice.

Next week we discuss book cover templates.

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