Book Cover Design: Don’t Take My Word For It

by Cathi Stevenson I've been a book cover designer for more than 15 years and I've created over 2,000 book covers for traditional and indie publishers. If there's one thing I've learned along the way, it's that book cover design is subjective — very subjective. I can share my experiences with clients. I can tell them what worked in the past. I can explain what I’ve learned through hours and hours and hours of research, and looking at best sellers’ lists and losing myself for entire mornings in bookstores. But, at the end of the day, determining what cover style or trend is the best, is still subjective. The client likes what the client likes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it might be a bit narrow-minded. A book cover shouldn't simply reflect the tastes of the author. Its purpose is not to be the prettiest picture on the market — a book cover is supposed to sell books. While a beautiful cover is a great thing, an effective cover is more important. Many successful books don't even have images levenson_onlinethumnail2on the cover. A skillful use of typography and layout has taken many books to the best sellers' lists: There's Bill Bulford's Heat, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, which I wrote about in a previous post. Since I love designing nonfiction, I've created many text-only covers; one, The Essential Fundraising Guide for K-12 Schools, is getting rave reviews (and a book cover design award). Fortunately, the industry does have experts willing to share their knowledge. Chip Kidd is one such book cover designer. For 25 years or so he’s been creating memorable designs  that you've probably seen, like the dinosaur silhouette on Jurassic Park, and the “water smudged” look of Augusten Burroughs’ Dry. Kidd has several very informative videos on YouTube. If you’re designing a book cover, hiring a cover designer or managing a publishing project, this video is well worth the 17 minutes of your time.  I think the information at 2:50 is really important and exemplifies a common issue with many self-published covers. Random House also has material about the process of book cover design on YouTube  (Chip Kidd shows up in this one, too). Another well-known designer who generously shares his design process is Henry Sene Yee. I thought his cover for Smut was brilliant. His use of Comic Sans on Sam Lipsyte’s book was a great marketing idea. There's lots of good information out there. Take my word for it.

Is Professional Book Cover Design a Dying Art?

by Cathi Stevenson Book cover designers are always on the lookout for new trends. While I spend hours in bookstores and online searching through the best sellers’ lists, I find the UK and Italian markets are a great source of inspiration. For example, Penguin in the UK in known for simple, unique designs that are quickly embraced. With the advent of e-books, front covers became not just the main element of book cover design, they became the only element. Spines, back covers, and flaps are no longer necessary. Even self-publishers who go to print are usually using digital presses, so the books themselves are very basic in structure. Gone are the textures, specialized coatings and high quality paper stock. Things are getting very plain. I really treasure my beautiful and unique print books. Varnish, raised letters, French flaps, deckled edges . . . these things just make my heart beat a wee bit faster. I discovered a book on a flea market giveaway table a few months ago that had a 3D cover. I’ll never read the book . . . well, actually, I might now that I look at it again, but I’ll definitely never give it away. I’m convinced that in 20 years the craft of book printing will go the way of the illuminated transcript when Gutenberg arrived on the scene. And designers are no longer being taught how to make such books. Many are self-taught now that software and training is available to everyone with an Internet connection, but even recent graduates of art schools seem perplexed when asked about plate separations or colour trapping. I guess they’re too busy learning about animation and video game production. It’s a plus for the trees, but it’s just one more art that is being lost in a digital age.

Can I Fit 900 Words on the Back Cover?

by Cathi Stevenson I’ve created approximately 2,000 book covers since about 2000. Most were for print projects, so there was a back cover that required copy. Over the years, I’ve developed a file of information that I send to all of my clients as we’re nearing that part of the project. These are just guidelines, but for the typical 6 x 9 book this is what I have found works best, and what I share with my clients: BACK COVER TEXT: You have room for about 250 – 300 words on the back cover. Submit it in an unformatted (no boxes, no tabs, no indents, no italics, just plain text double spaced between the paragraphs) Microsoft Word file (.doc) or plain text file. WHY? People won’t struggle to read your text, so it needs to be set in a comfortable size, with enough space between each line (called leading) that it’s easy to read. You also need to leave a good-sized margin around the text, so people will have a place to put their fingers, and not have to constantly adjust position as they’re reading. I ask for plain text files because the text has to be imported into InDesign and sometimes text boxes, tabs and other formatting will cause problems. I can always save the file as plain text myself, but if I’m not using the same word processing program or version of it, then that can also cause problems. LISTS AND QUOTES: If your back cover text contains lists and quotes, you have less room. WHY? Both lists and quotes use only a portion of the lines they’re on. In the case of some lists, you’ll have only a few words on a line. In addition, lists often require extra space between each line. Quote credits often require a bit of extra space and again, only part of the line is being used. In short: they eat up space. Check out the images at the end of this article for a visual explanation of what I mean. IMAGE CREDITS: Make sure that you include any credits necessary to comply with the license of images you have purchased to use on the cover. The exact wording will be included in the End User License Agreement (often called a EULA for short), where you made the purchase. If you have an author photo to go on the book, you should also credit this. NOTE: Image credits can also go on the copyright page, or in the case of a hardcover on the inside flap of the dust jacket. IMAGES: Must be 300 dpi at full size. WHY? This is the minimum required for print, but dpi on its own means nothing, that’s why I added “at full size.” If you have an image that is 4 inches wide and 4 inches high at 150 dpi, simply changing it to be 300 dpi will mean you can only print it at 2 inches wide by 2 inches high. If you force the increase to 300 dpi and keep the size 4 x 4, then the quality of the image will deteriorate and it will not print well. LOGOS: For optimum printing quality these should be submitted in the native EPS (vector) file, with fonts converted to outlines. BAR CODES: Include your 13-digit ISBN and the price (if you want the price embedded into the bar code). I will make the bar code here to ensure it is formatted at 100% black, CMYK and a vector image. WHY? Most of that is technical jargon, but it is the only way to ensure the bar code will print properly and scan. PNG images, which many agencies provide, cannot be formatted in the proper color gamut (CMYK) so you’re taking your chances using them or gif images, or a “lossy” image format like jpg. A vector image is the best way to produce a bar code that will scan. BISAC HEADINGS: If you want your book to have a subject heading for shelving, please find your proper heading here. blogcoverimage2blogcoverimage1

Not-So-Christian Publishing Schemes

by Cathi Stevenson There are "creative" ways to get your book on the best sellers' lists without the bother of having to wait for sales, reviews or even writing a book that's popular. This is a repetitive scandal that breaks again ever few years or so with different players. I've seen it so many times since I started working in the self-publishing industry 15 years ago, that I hardly bat an eye any more. The writers of this article did their due diligence though, and it shows how using these questionable method can backfire. The Huffington Post covered the buying of reviews last year. You can actually get a review on almost anything for $5. Another article about buying reviews ran on The New York Times site back in 2012. Many retailers have made attempts to thwart both practices, but even after exhaustively weeding out the cheaters, it's only a matter of time until someone reinvents the wheel, or comes up with a new spin for it.

Buzz Around the Web (Part 3)

by Cathi Stevenson Resources Worth Checking Out Here are some resources from other countries, or older resources that still have a lot of valuable insight and information to share. The Guardian (UK news source) has expanded greatly since launching on the Interwebs and they have an entire section dedicated to self-publishing. Many well-researched and interesting articles Dan Poynter is referred to as "the guru of self-publishing." He was doing it back in the '70s, before it was cool. He has a newsletter that allows authors to introduce new books, ask for subjects to interview and lots of useful, short articles. Check out If you're looking for an editor (or any book production professional) who has proven herself, then check out the awesome freelancers at The downsizing of publishing houses can work to your benefit. The brightest and the best are going freelance.

Buzz Around the Web (Part 2)

by Cathi Stevenson When Authors Go Bad Article here about an author behaving badly. Describes how author Kathleen Hale targeted and stalked a reader for giving her a one star review. Yikes!! And double yikes!! to this "humorous" piece Hale herself wrote about killing animals. In case you're into this sort of thing, here's another interesting story about an author chasing down a reviewer, with far more serious results. The reviewer claims the author actually attacked her and hit her on the head with a wine bottle. You don't have to do much to attract this kind of attention it seems. In June, I judged the e-Book Cover Design Awards over at The Book Designer and received a series of very weird e-mails in response to a casual comment I made about a cover. I've also been the subject of two blog posts — one about a project I had nothing to do with (a fact the writer never bother to confirm) and another from a competitor who read a very, very general article I'd written about images on book covers and took it personally. I'd never heard of him before, nor had I seen his book covers. I bet he thinks those TV commercials are really about him, too. Who Is This Mysterious Author? And because we seem to forget there is an entire world of books out there, some even written in languages other than English, here's an interesting guessing game surrounding the real identity of best-selling Italian author Elena Ferrante. (Relax, the books have been translated into English).

Buzz Around the Web

by Cathi Stevenson Author Websites Heard some great things about a new WordPress theme that's designed specifically for self-publishing authors. Easy-to-use interface, and book covers above the fold. It's $35 at Creative Market. It was offered for free for a while, but none of those links appear to be working any more. Publisher Woes Lots of buzz about money troubles at Ellora's Cave. Writer Beware has the scoop. Hugh C. Howey Taking a Few Hits Howey's unbending defense of Amazon is irking a few people. Salon writer Rob Spillman is the latest to take a shot at Howey.

Give Your Book Layout the WOW Factor in Two Minutes

by Cathi Stevenson It really is the little things that count. Things that many people might not consciously notice when they're there, but miss when they're not there. This is true even when laying out a book. Spacing between lines, words, the type of numbers you choose, the font, drop caps...these are all essential elements that need to be considered if you want a book that is both pleasing to look at and easy to read. Book layout really is an art. That might be hard to believe in this world  of technology, where it's possible to do such work by merely choosing a few options in some software program. But, if you take just two minutes — literally, to watch this video, you will learn a few things that can take your book layout from boring and amateurish, to sleek and professional.  

10 Tips for a Professional Book Layout

by Cathi Stevenson A book that has been professionally designed will appear more polished and appealing to potential buyers. These formatting tips are not limited to the front cover of a book. There are many ways to enhance the look and readability of  back cover text and interior layout. 1. Don’t make your line width too long. Many people assume the solution to too much text is to either drop the point size or extend the trim size or margins. This is not the case. No matter how much space you have, no line should exceed about 70 characters. After 70 characters, the reader has to blink and readjust his or her focus, then determine where the next line is and travel back visually to the beginning of the new line. Long lines make this a tiresome, frustrating task. No one will struggle to read your text. 2. Make sure you’re using the proper glyphs. A common mistake is to use the symbol for feet or inches when single or double quotation marks are required, and vice versa. Quotation marks curl or slant, while measurement symbols are straight up and down. All good quality fonts will offer both. myquotemarks 3. Know the difference between an em dash, en dash and hyphen and when to use them. There’s never any reason to have a double hyphen (–) when you really need an em dash (—). On a PC, the em dash can be obtained by holding down the ALT key and pushing 0151 on the numbers pad, to the right. The en dash is ALT 0150. Wikipedia has a good explanation of the types of dashes and when to use them here: 4. Drop caps can add style. Some people like the stylish look of a drop cap at the beginning of the back cover text, or at the start of a new chapter. It’s important these be neat and laid out properly, though. The bottom of the drop cap should sit on the baseline of the line it sits on. If you prefer a stickup cap, then it should align perfectly with the first line of text. The stickup cap is usually easier to create. mydropcap 5. Small caps are another element that are often used and abused in book design. Some people like the look of small caps, and they can be a nice decorative element when used at the beginning of a section or for some headings and titles. It’s important you actually have the real small caps font, though. Most design and word processing programs will offer this option, but that doesn’t mean the font is there; They’re just “faking it” by making any upper case letters slightly larger. This can cause problems when creating a PDF for the printer, and it rarely looks good. If you enlarge a letter to fake small caps, the larger letter will be thicker, wider and look heavier. mysmallcaps 6. Make your margins nice and deep. Remember, there has to be room for peoples’ fingers to hold the book. No one wants to be constantly moving his or her hands to read text. Also, if your interior margins are too tight, readers will be forced to open the book wider than the binding might allow, causing pages to fall out. These things all reflect on you as a publisher. 7. Don’t skip a title page. A title page can take on a life of its own and add value to a book. It doesn’t have to be just the title, either and it doesn’t have to be only one page. It can be several pages and include illustrations or decorative elements, title, sub-title, author name, publisher’s imprint, quotations, copyright information and credits for editors and fonts and the forward or preface. Chapter 27 in Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking: Editing/Design/Production (3rd ed., 2003) covers this subject very nicely. 8. Using a business name. If your company has a name, have your book designer create a little logo for it, if you haven’t had one created professionally. This can be done just setting the company name in a nice font and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If possible, avoid using your own name as part of the business title, because this will tip off reviewers and bookstore owners that the book is self-published. Many people have preconceived notions about self-published books that are not very positive. 9. Make sure your black text is 100% black for a black and white interior. Some word processing programs and free PDF creators do not produce 100% black text, and books end up printed in 90% black or lighter. This can easily be checked within any layout or design program such as Adobe InDesign or Adobe Illustrator, as you work. If you’re not using the proper software there might be no way to check this. You can also preflight your file in Adobe Acrobat Professional to uncover this and other issues. 10. Working with the right colors. If you’re using Print on Demand technology (also called POD and digital printing), then it’s almost always a good idea to send the printer files formatted in the CMYK color gamut, even if the printer says it’s okay to send RGB. Switching colors “on the fly” from RGB to CMYK, even when a professional printer does it, often creates unexpected results, and not just with color; In some cases images can look pixilated or blurry after being switched from RGB to CMYK.

The New Old in Book Cover Design

by Cathi Stevenson Amy Weiss-Meyer posted an interesting blog over at New Republic. In it she discusses the return to the chunky fonts of 1970's-style book covers and quotes Chip Kidd, who isn't really thrilled over the new trend. (If you're new to the biz or have been in a coma for the last few decades, Chip Kidd is the reigning guru of book cover design, creative genius at Alfred A. Knopf, star of information-rich YouTube videos and Ted speaker. If you haven't seen it, you should check out his Ted talk, it's pretty funny). I'm not a fan of some of the fonts or layouts, but I have always loved a text-only cover, which many of these are. Regardless of anyone's likes or dislikes, the trend seems to be gathering momentum. Weiss-Meyer cites several examples, including Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, but chunky fonts are popping up everywhere, not just on book covers. She also also touched on a good point. Some books are targeting a demographic that became adults in the 1970s, so book covers that bring up nostalgic feelings from that period might be a wise marketing move. Marketing doesn't have to be good art, or even good writing — although both would be nice, it just has to move a product or service. I think Michael Murphy's Goodby Emily (Koehler Books) is a great example to this trend. The salute to the tie-dyed t-shirts worn in the '70s is pretty awesome. I'm also a fan of the text-only cover for Jojo Moyes' Me Before You (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking). The cursive lettering is just the right font, in my opinion. Not all versions of the book are using this cover. If you really just can't embrace the new old look, relax. Like the Papyrus font, grunge covers, feet and legs, lone trees and countless other book cover design trends, this too shall pass.