What Makes an Effective Cover Image?

panel with Lee Moyer, Karen Haber, Mark J. Ferrari, Annie Bellet, Stephen Segal

A lot of information was packed into the 45-minute panel aimed at self-publishers, small press folk, and the curious fen. Lee Moyer started off with a slideshow that included the good, the repetitive, and some bad (leaving the worst for his Infamous Bad Cover panel later.) The panelists took questions at the start so as to be sure to cover the topics that most folk were interested in.

The thing to be remembered above all else is that the cover exists to sell your book. While accurate artwork is a lovely thing for an author, it is nothing unless such elements get the novel in the hands of the buyer. However, while covers can be inaccurate, it is important to not break the reader’s trust by implying that the book is different than it is. Each genre and even sub-genre has its own specific style. Furthermore, trends change over time and it’s possible to date a book by its cover style if one is sufficiently familiar with the genre conventions.
the original artwork and the modified reprint cover

Four different covers for Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic, showing how young adult marketing has changed.

There are four elements to every cover, three mandatory:
1 The artwork
2 The title
3 The author’s name
4 A “pull quote” from an author, publication, or even from the book itself

The most important element depends on what will sell the book. Bestselling authors such as Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or George R.R. Martin can sell a book by name alone. Cover designers for those authors can (and have) put the author’s name as the largest element of the cover, with the title and artwork coming in distinctly behind.

A good title can work well for a lesser-known author, particularly if it gives the reader some indication of what’s inside. If it’s part of an ongoing series, a subhead saying “Book [x] of the [whatever] series” may be enough to induce a reader to buy.

And of course, artwork can be a huge draw for readers. “Artwork”, of course, refers to all elements of the graphic design, from font choice to branding to element positioning. You want your artwork to grab the attention of the reader, signal the genre, give hints as to the type of story they will be reading, and, ideally, intrigue them enough to put down money to purchase your story.

To make matters harder, now you have to do this with artwork that is compelling at approximately an inch high, as that’s the size of the small thumbnail on most websites. If you can’t grab them with that single inch, they’re not likely to click through to the sale page with the larger artwork.

Recent trends in fantasy, its sub-genres, and many related fields reflect this move to digital. A common feature—almost too common, as shown by Lee Moyer’s slides of identical stock photo covers for major authors—is to have a large central figure, waist high or even closer, with a color wash or color-wheel fade (like the iconic movie orange – teal combo). The title has started to migrate from the top (probably a side effect of having important elements of the artwork, like the head or the eyes, at the top.) The color overlays will have either the same color for the whole series or thematic color changing. (I saw a series in the dealer’s room that had identical artwork for each book—a closeup of an eye—with a different color overlay for each book.)

When attempting to design a cover for your book, one of the best things you can do is look at decently-selling midlist authors in your particular genre and see what their covers have in common. You do not look at the best sellers, because those often can get away with things that other authors can’t. For instance, George R.R. Martin doesn’t have to have lovely covers. His covers often have very little in the way of artwork, because the name “George R.R. Martin” (“New York Times Bestselling Author”) does the sale, not the artwork.
The cover to A Game of Thrones started out complicated, and got simpler as the series gained prominence.

The panel brought up the subject of branding. Branding, in this instance, refers to iconic shapes or setups that mark books as part of a series. The artist Jody Lee was referenced as an early pioneer in branding; her covers for Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series all have a picture-within-a-picture format. (I’ve seen some of her originals; they are not composited after the fact but laid out in the original that way.) If you have a series and you have a circular inset on the first book, it’s probably a good idea to do something similar on subsequent books, because if you start throwing in triangles or banners, it will be visually confusing to the buyer. You don’t want to confuse the buyer.

Some of Jody Lee’s Elemental Masters covers. Note the repetition of the rectangular inset.

Stock photography was mentioned, especially since a particular gentleman in a hooded cape seems to be showing up everywhere. The first thing to know with stock photography is that you have to purchase the rights to use it, because getting sued is not a good thing for any career. But further than that, you have to know *which* rights you’ve purchased, because otherwise you may end up with “your” cover ending up elsewhere, which, again, leads to confusion.

You know, that guy in a hood really gets around.

Font choice was brought up as well. (Lee Moyer shares my view of Papyrus, a beautiful font face which has basically been put off-limits by its extreme overuse in the last fifteen years.) A few things were pointed out:
1 Serifed fonts are preferable for readability. If you don’t know what a serif is, please learn before you deal with typography.
2 Sans-serif fonts, at this time, signal hard science fiction (when speaking of the fantasy/sf genre area.) If you’re not writing hard SF, you should avoid them.
3 A recent trend has brought in custom fonts and more aggressive use of fonts (using fonts as an artistic element, for example.)
4 There are lots of places that offer “free fonts.” BUT those are often free only for private use. You need to license separate rights if you are going to use the font face on a salable item, or find a font that is listed as “free for commercial use.”
5 ABOVE ALL ELSE, the font must be legible. If they can’t read it, they won’t buy it. That means Scriptina, for example, is a problematic font choice for a book cover.

DeviantArt was mentioned as a terrific resource for finding new art and artists, including font artists. And as with everything else, it was emphasized that you need to have clear rights purchased through a written contract, because a contract protects both parties. Image rights can vary, so be sure to understand what you are purchasing. And as a final note, the goal of a cover is to attract attention… without breaking an implicit promise to the reader. You don’t want to attract attention for being the laughingstock of the internet…



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