Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Cover Mistakes that Sabotage Sales: How to Avoid Common Self-Publishing Fails

Below I analyze why 5 bad book covers fail and how you can avoid common mistakes.

If you’re self-publishing, your biggest selling point is probably your book cover, since you’re probably not very well known and don’t have a huge advertising agency. Before people even pick up your novel to read the description on the back or flip through the pages, they must be enticed by the cover.

Disclaimer: I’m actually not a cruel person, I just sound like one. I understand that writers generally don’t have graphic design training and they are often self-publishing. I commend people who are just starting out with graphics and are willing to try even though their work isn't perfect. But, as the point of this article is constructive criticism, I'm going to be a little rough.

What They Did Wrong:

No Font Contrast.

The entire cover of the book is confusing because each set of words is approximately the same size. When fonts are similar size and weight, the viewer is reduced to wandering around wondering what to focus on. Not to mention that the background is so busy it's nearly impossible to read the words--espeically if the cover is a small icon in an e-book store.

Poor Photo Quality

I’m shocked at how often I see poor photo quality in book covers, whether it’s the entire cover or an element of it. You have to use images at the size they are. You can get away with blowing up images just a little bit touching them up, but only to an extent. Don’t think you’re going to sneak by with a slightly sub-par photo. If it’s pixilated or grainy, people will spot it faster than you might think. It’s utterly amateurish. You can solve this by at least having a close idea of what your book cover dimensions will be before you start working, and always ere on the side of too big than too small. And if an image just isn't big enough? You can try stylizing it, or just throw it out.

Lengthy Title

The cover of "Spring Will Sing of Love Everlasting" is evidence for why lengthy titles are not advisable, in general. You’ve only got a few seconds to get someone to take a closer look at your book, and a title that’s hard to read because of its length isn’t going to help, especially if you’re selling it online where viewers may only see a little icon of your book cover. Long book covers are also hard to format graphically and are a huge pain to the designer. If you use a long title, expect that your title will pretty much end up being the ONLY thing on the cover. There are exceptions where long titles are perfectly fine, but it's a good rule of thumb to keep titles around 3 words.

What they did right:

Limited themselves to 2 fonts and put a stroke/shadow on the text to help it stand out. It didn't quite work, and I generally wouldn't recommend relying on strokes to make text legible, but it's a step in the right direction.

What They Did Wrong:

Bad Photoshop.

Just plain unconvincing Photoshop is the most common mistake I see. The girl's hair looks oddly pasted on her forehead and is unrealistically faded out where it meets the edge of her arms. The color of her hair was also clearly done in Photoshop, instead of with dye.

What they did right:

You may notice that the girl has a purplish tint to her skin, which helps her seem to be a part of the purple background. One of the most common mistakes I see is where the foreground is clearly pasted on the background, but this photo would likely have avoided that for the most part if it weren't for the poorly Photoshoped hair. Also, the title font is an example of a good decorative font, because it's stylized without being cliché or hard to read.

What They Did Wrong:

The Font.

Pretty sure that's Segoe Print, which is basically a substitute for the dreaded Comic Sans. It's not even acceptable for a children's book, let alone something marketed to teens. This is why you don't use common decorative fonts and you do make sure you know your audience.

Again, Bad Photoshop.

You can tell the girl and boy are not actually standing together, and definitely not standing in the field, and the sky is oversaturated. This is a pretty simple manipulation, but it can be hard to get smooth edges. I recommend looking up some tutorials for tips and techniques (YouTube has a zillion) for whatever program you are using, or else avoiding the need to cut out difficult things like hair.

What They Did Right:

Used a bar to put the author name on. This is a simple well-accepted trick to give your text a good background without having to have a big blank space in the photo or blurring it out somewhere. Using a solid banner in a complimenting color or a slightly opaque banner in black or white is a good technique. Here's an example of a banner used more stylishly: 

What they did wrong:

No Text Contrast.

Contrast is one of the most important elements in graphic design. You must contrast font types, font sizes, and definitely make sure your font color contrasts well with the background color so it’s readable. The title here is difficult to read because it doesn't contrast well with the background, especially on her hair and dress. While on this topic, note that you should NOT use more than 3 fonts, preferable only 2, and limit yourself to 1 decorative font if any.

Bad Font.

Two reasons not to use decorative fonts: They are often hard to read, and they are hideously overused. Basically, if it’s a decorative font and it came default with your word program, chuck it out the window as the scourge of the earth. That’s right, I’m talking fonts like Bradley Hand ITC, Papyrus, Sego Print, French Script MT, and the ever accursed Comic Sans. Please, spare us. As I’ve said before, there’s no better way to date your graphics than a poorly chosen decorative font. There ARE good decorative fonts out there (search online), but you’ve got to be savvy and make sure they are clearly legible, and not overused to the point of looking cliché.

Bad Photoshop

This is probably the MOST common mistake, even semi-professionals get this wrong. While the photo-manipulation for the "Dangerous" book cover is pretty good for a beginner, it fails to be convincing. Real fire doesn’t looks so opaque.

What they did right:

Got a good model and Photoshoped her properly. Sorry, but a beautiful girl with the nice polished look is a selling point. Admittedly, her makeup is a bit overdone and her skin is a bit TOO airbrushed to be convincing, but honestly from the amount of ugly models I've seen on amatuer covers, it's refreshing. (Note that people aren't inherently ugly or pretty, it's all about posing, expression, camera work, and post-processing.) Most models for amateur covers look like little more than cell phone pictures of the author's BFF without even basic editing like getting rid of blemishes and smoothing waistlines to not be lumpy (even skinny people get lumpy waistlines with tight clothes). If you can't get a good model with good post processing, I recommend using stock.

What They Did Wrong:

Aiming Too High

Not to be a Johnny Raincloud, but cover design is the one place where you should be realistic about what your skills are. If you don't have the skills to make some complex fantasy photo-manipulation, don’t try for it. Go for something a bit more simple, maybe even minimalist. It might not be your dream-cover, but at least it will look professional. Again, this is purely talking about designing a cover that's going to get you readers. If you want to, maybe make two covers. One for yourself just to indulge, even if it isn't top quality, and another just to look professional and sell your book.

Too Busy

This cover would be most accurately described as a jumble. Amateurs often feel the need to cram as much as possible into their covers and forget that white space is important. There's a difference between a cover that's interesting and one that's cluttered. This cover has an uncoordinated conglomeration of images that clearly do not fit together. You should either have a seamless and convincing manipulation, or make it clear that you are not trying to make the images look like they are in the same scene. Take for instance the cover of "City of Ashes." It's clear that the woman is NOT meant to actually be standing over the city, because she's so extremely oversized, successfully avoiding confusion.

What They Did Right:

A few of the background images are quality, even though they are improperly manipulated. Also, they left a decent amount of space around the text, not cramming the letters to the edge of the page as many amateurs do. The fonts, pixilation, and colors are still pretty horrendous though.


A Word on Author Names

Author Name Size

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes authors put their name in huge letters in caps on the cover of all of their books. Like, the author name is bigger than the title of the book. Generally this is because the author has made a name for themselves and this is their main selling point. I probably wouldn’t recommend this, since chances are people will have no idea who you are (of course, if you’re reading this and you happen to be famous, ignore this part). On the other hand, if your name is of reasonable size this can subconsciously convince your reader that they are getting something from a quality author. If you make your name the the size of Patrick Ord’s, it’ not pretentious but shows that you at least have self-respect, which will in turn cause people to respect you more.

Pen Names

(Take note that is purely Money-Making-Me speaking here, not Anti-Discrimination-Me speaking. Please don’t hit me.) Things like difficult pronunciations, lengthy names, and ethnicity should be taken into account. If your audience is average American teens but you’ve got a name like Leishakajio Muilioa, shorting it to something like “Leish Muil” might be a good idea. Also, if your name is just plain lousy you might want to consider changing it. Names like Bob Lice and Sam Hog are not likely to be attractive to readers.

Unfortunately, gender is an important consideration that can affect sales. Because let’s be honest, if you’re a guy writing Amish Romance novels, or a girl writing historical war fiction, you might just want to choose an androgynous pen name. If you wanna be the first male Amish Romance writer and be proud of your gender instead of hiding it, go right ahead, but don’t blame me when you’re broke.

Good articles on this topic:

How to Get a Good Cover


First recommendation? Don’t use MS Paint. Get yourself a real graphics program. You can get a subscription to Photoshop for around 40 dollars for 1 month, or if you’re really a cheapskate (which is fine) you can get Gimp to do most of what you probably need for FREE. Just Google it and download it from the program with no money or strings attached! Making book covers is hard, but you might be surprised to learn that you actually don’t need as much artistic skill as you may think. It's more about design rules and using quality images than anything. You don't have to be a creative geniuses to get a decent cover.

Stock Images

Too often I see book covers flop because the designer tried to use photos of friends taken with the family camera instead of photos of actual models taken with a professional camera. If you can take good photos yourself and know some people would make good models go for it, but if you don't have a knack for it leave it to people who are at least serious hobbyists.

Good stock images can make designing a book cover easy. Of course, the danger of stock is that the image will likely have already been used somewhere, but that’s not as big of a deal as you might think, especially if you use the image creatively. Even the best graphic designers often rely on stock.

Be really careful in buying stock from a reliable source to avoid copyright infringement. The last thing you want is to spend all kinds of time on your book cover and get it printed, only to find it is stolen artwork. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If the stock is free, it’s probably either lousy or illegal. You CAN find some decent creative commons work, but you have to abide by the rules which often require crediting the artist. Search around for a site that is reliably legal, quality, and has reasonable prices. Prices range from around $10 to hundreds depending on quality and image resolution size, but you can get some good deal if you do just a bit of research. 

Have somebody do it for you.

Now, I get it, you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend. But there are plenty of high school and college kids with good skills looking to get a start in graphic design. If they’re your friends they might do it for a hundred bucks or even just a Starbucks gift card. But don’t expect someone to offer their professional services for nothing in return—especially if it’s not a close friend. Pay them or do them some kind of favor.

If you don’t know anybody, you can always try online. Places like DeviantART are good because they have forums specifically dedicated to commissions, and you can check out the person’s work before committing to use their services.

If you’re working with a professional just let them do their thing and don’t hover over every design decision they make. But if this person is more of semi-professional, it’s often good to give them an idea of what you want by showing them examples of book covers similar to your vision.


8 mistakes to avoid when designing your book cover

Five Dead Giveaways that your Cover is an Amateur Job <<< I ran across this site where you can by pre-made customizable book covers. Not all of the covers are PERFECT but they look totally professional and seem pretty darned affordable for such quality work.  I'm sure there are other services like her's, so this is another good route to look into!

Story Sparks #2

Just a few scraps from my writing notebook...

You can use these ideas but rephrase them in your own words. If you use the exact idea credit me, but if you use your own version of the idea no credit required!


“Why don’t you ever want to hang out?”
“Because good company corrupts bad morals.”

"I believe in freedom of choice--If you don't choose I shoot you. If you choose wrong I shoot you."

"I trust the inaccuracy of my instinct more than I trust the correctness of yours."
"Wow, that's low self esteem."

"It's easy to give your death, try giving your life."

"Sometime I say things I don't mean to say things I do mean but don't know how to say."

"Are you married?"

"What do you do for a living?"
"Erm...I'm a taser tester."
"So I guess you're rich, huh?"

Plot Ideas

A depressed wealthy man picks up a hitchhiker and ends up traveling with him across the country.

"A few classmates were fresh out of jail and others were bound for top universities. [And one was both.]" –Salman Khan quote I modified to make interesting.

A makeup artist who also happens to be a sniper. (This may or may not have been inspired by the fact that Jeremy Renner used to be a makeup artist.)

An actor who kind of hates himself and all of his roles and is tired of being famous. And perhaps he falls in love with a girl who hates him as the celebrity version of himself. (Vaguely inspired by Robert Pattinson.)


We ran through the feilds, crushing butterflies beneath our feet
The sun made the freckles on my back shine brighter
And the balmy wind still makes goose bumps on my skin when I'm alone.

The exotic aroma of raspberry tea rises in smoky steam, a burst of spice and sweetness.
Warmth from the fairy-floral painted cup seeps into my bony fingertips.
The cascading winds of the night have stilled and the gaping sky bursts with the afternoon sun.
Flutters brush by my window, with fragile wings colored by chalk dust in shades of goldenrod and tangerine.
The butterflies have come out to taste the dew drops.

"ENTER for a free vacation to jail!"