Don’t judge a book by its cover

Maybe you’ve been here yourself. You spend the better part of eighteen months – perhaps even longer – writing, rewriting and honing your book. Somewhere near the end of that process you start thinking about a cover. ‘I know about as much about designing book covers as I know about writing books,’ you think to yourself. Then you think, ‘Bollocks, I’ll have a crack at it.’ The fun begins.

I had an idea for the cover of Ephialtes quite a while back. I knew I’d have to go for something stark and bold, as I don’t have any drawing or 3D design skills. I had an idea I thought was pretty good. It was a black background with a fraction of yellow circle on the left and a fraction of a pink circle on the right, each spilling off the edge of the cover. In between, equally spaced on an invisible straight line are four more circles, coloured appropriately so they represent Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The yellow and pink partials are the Sun and Jupiter – it’s easier to figure it out when you can see it. Above the red Mars circle I had an oblong which, together with the Mars underneath it, combines to form an exclamation mark.

I thought it was quite a strong graphic. It was direct, required a little bit of thinking (crucially, not too much) to ‘get’, and it suggested an issue with Mars, which is what the book is all about.

In the end, I decided to not go with it. Even a pared down graphic like that needs precise execution to pull it off, and I thought I couldn’t do it justice. So I went looking for alternatives.

My first thought was to look at other book covers. When I did that I came across this startling fact: book covers are universally awful.

I hadn’t really given it much consideration before. I usually select the books I buy based on newspaper or magazine articles, so I don’t pay much attention to the covers. And I’m glad I don’t, because so many of them are just terrible.

The guy at Smashwords (why should you pay any attention to someone who can’t get their formatting guide below a hundred and twenty pages?) advises that the cover image should be strong enough to work without any text. That’s an interesting position, given that most modern covers a) have text all over them; title, author’s name, review quotes, tag lines etc, and b) have dreadful, bland, generic images under the text.

In the end I used a piece of free software to generate a spacescape. On my front cover are the title of the book and my name over the spacescape image – nothing else. I worried that this made my cover look ‘wrong’ – where’s the text all over the place, like all the other books have? – but I decided that it might make my cover stand out. Of course, there’s a problem with that, too, because you want your book to look like the others – like a book – but you also want it to look different. Go too far either way and you’re in trouble.

The other issued I had was with the back cover. I put a headline and a brief description, and under that I had some made-up quotes. It all looked ‘right’ when I roughed it out a month or two ago, but when it came down to submitting it for the final print version of the book over the weekend I had to take the fake quotes off, and then it just looked wrong. There’s a place on the back of a paperback book that somehow should have positive quotes on it. That’s just how it is, but no one has said anything quotable about my book. ‘Oh, you wrote a book?’ isn’t going to cut it for a compelling cover quote.

In the end I fudged a couple of my dummy quotes so they looked more like statements of fact, and, of course, I had to remove the quotation marks. It looks sort of okay, but should anyone ever say anything vaguely positive in the future – ‘Yeah, that wasn’t too bad,’ – I’m firing up InDesign immediately and that quote is going on there.

I’m happy with what I came up with, in the end. It looks a bit old fashioned, but I think my story telling is a bit old fashioned, too, so that’s cool.

If you’d like to see it it’s on my Amazon page.



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