Book cover design can be very daunting – especially fiction. Where the devil do you start? Which of the many facets of the story or idea should be illustrated? Should the cover be pure typography? How can you distill the essence of a story into a paperback cover which must also work as a thumbnail on the net?
Well, get the author or publisher to help you, for a start! Over the years I have developed a questionnaire which helps the commissioner distill their thoughts and also gives me a good brief to work from. I ask for lots of information like ‘who is the target audience’ and ‘which other covers do you like or dislike, and why’.
I recently went through this process with award-winning scriptwriter Merle Nygate, also author and publisher of the Darkbridge series of crime fiction. Merle had already published her books and stories as ebooks and had designed a series of covers. From these covers I could see she understood the importance of branding; they all had a similar feel, similar colours and identical typography – a great start.
I don’t always read all of the books for which I design covers (though I’d like to) so Merle gave me a synopsis of Be My Friend, the full-length novel she wanted me to design first. I also downloaded and read Snap, one of the Darkbridge short stories, so I had an idea of Merle’s writing style. From this, I made a list of about 30 elements that could be incorporated into the cover. These ranged from the River Thames, a small boy in school uniform, an ominous silhouette or shadow, graffiti and storm clouds.
When I received the completed questionnaire from Merle, it was interesting to see which of these elements also cropped up in the brief.
Sometimes I recommend breaking the mould with covers, but with crime fiction I think it should ‘do what it says on the tin’ and obviously belong to that genre. I set up a ‘mood board’ in Pinterest where I started by pinning examples of the genre that Merle thought appropriate. You can see my Pinterest board showing these (and other similar) covers and the development of the project here (oldest pins at the bottom of the board).
What did these covers have in common? Strong design, sans-serif typography, dark (mostly black) backgrounds and a single image. This fits in well with my design philosophy: ‘simplicity is the essence of good design’.
Once I’d identified what made these covers striking, my next step was to find some relevant images. The trick with picture research is to try lots of different keywords and use the filters the photo library provides (portrait or landscape, with or without people, you are even able to choose particular colours). Once you’ve found a really good image which fits the bill, look at other work by the same photographer, and also click the ‘similar images’ tab (this can be a bit hit and miss though). For a series, it’s important the the images have the same style and mood.
Once I’d started on the picture research, it became clear what my first 3 concepts would be based around: water, local scenes and silhouettes. These would also incorporate some of the elements on my original list. I tried a number of different designs using an assortment of typographic styles. As with all design work, a lot of these were consigned to the bin. I then edited the remainder ruthlessly with the help of my associate Sarah Sutton; what Sarah doesn’t know about publishing isn’t worth knowing. I hate to sideline good designs, but I’ve learned that clients don’t like to be overwhelmed with too much choice. Below is a selection of the designs that I submitted.
Often at this stage the client likes a mixture of designs so I build in another stage where I explore further and also show how the other titles in the series might look. Merle was certain about which typographic style she liked but wanted to see more image options. Here is a selection of stage 2 designs.
It’s usually plain sailing from here. I refine the designs, buy the high-res images and manipulate them as necessary. If going to print, I’ll also show some back cover options and give an indication of what the spine will look like. Once approved, the very last step for me is to make press-quality PDFs to send to repro and JPEGs of the front cover (and sometimes a packshot) to use for marketing. Here are the final designs.
The number of books published has mushroomed in the past few years as it’s possible for all of us to become publishers. In such a crowded market having a standout series of branded covers certainly won’t do you any harm.
If you would like to see more of my design for publishing, please look at my portfolio or the Book Design page. For advice to authors about how to sell your book, please read my blogpost (coming soon).
If you’d like to purchase Be My Friend (I’ve since read it, and it’s a great page-turner) or any of Merle Nygate’s Darkbridge short stories, please click here.