Top Five Book Jacket Design Mistakes in Self-Publishing
People always say that you should never judge a book by its cover, but actually they do. The cover of a book is the first thing that catches the eye (and you want this to be because it is gorgeous rather than a disaster); the potential reader will then look at your ‘blurb’ – or to be fancy, your ‘jacket copy’ – and at this point a decision to buy it will hopefully happen. Market surveys show repeatedly that purchasing choices are influenced more by cover than by the name of the publisher.
Although I do work with small to medium sized publishing houses, most of my commissions come from authors choosing to self-publish, which, thanks to Amazon’s Kindle, is now a credible and accessible path to take for new and early-career authors. And it doesn’t just stop at e-books; you can also professionally produce your very own paperbacks, print to order, through CreateSpace. More often than not, my clients approach me having already designed a cover for their book that they have realised isn’t working and, in fact, well be adversely affecting sales if the book’s already on Amazon. Time and time again I see fantastically written novels wrapped in very poorly executed book jackets, whether digital or print. Without a cover that makes your book stand out, the quality of the text becomes redundant in most cases. The cover is an extension of the text so it has to be good.
Often, when authors do it themselves, the same errors frequently crop up on the homemade covers. With this in mind I have developed five jacket design mistakes I often see as a designer.
1. BASIC TYPOGRAPHY
I firmly believe that typography is one of those elements that you either have the gift for or you don’t. Even whilst studying for my degree I saw many talented graphic students producing amazing pieces of design but failing on the typography. Many people with the natural ability to assess a type for the purpose of design have an external passion that goes beyond ‘work.’ One of my lecturers at Norwich School of Art & Design would take his camera everywhere, photographing typography in its natural environment. The passion for type really surfaced for me when I saw these images, which is one of the reasons I specialised in book design after initially working in entertainment and multimedia. I think the question I can ask that would determine whether or not you have an aptitude for typography is: ‘How do you feel when you look at the text on a signpost or advertisement, watch the credits of a movie, or when the main title of a favourite film initially flicks up on the screen?’ (Forget the meaning of the words, the accompanying images, and logos; just think about the fonts, styles, and sizes.) What do you see?
It doesn’t matter how beautiful or sophisticated the image for your book cover is; randomly placed titles and author names on the front in Copperplate, Comic Sans or Arial (Helvetica for Mac users) is not understanding type. There are many different font styles to choose from, and many do not match. There are also hierarchies to consider. Unless you are a bestselling author, a literary giant or an A list celebrity, your name will be smaller than your title. The reason the names of the author are used as a hierarchy on the cover is because the author is selling the book. If you are an unknown author then your name is less important than the subject of the book. The blurb you use for the back cover is also important – not just what it says, but how it looks. If it is illegible, the colour wrong, or too long, you are likely to lose the sale at the last hurdle. As the title of one of my favourite books states, ‘Type Matters!’
RGB, CMYK – these matter. As with typography you either understand colour or you don’t. There are rules, but like typography it’s ultimately more of an art than a science. There is no crime in not understanding these elements of design; it doesn’t suggest that you’re not a creative – you’ve just written a book! Designing is a profession however. Can you re-wire your house, service your car, or cure an illness? Most of us who are not trained to do these things can’t do them, but that’s okay. That’s why we have electricians, mechanics, and doctors. But it’s also why we have designers. Some colours don’t match. Some colours look good on a screen but don’t print very well. You need to know when to use RGB and when to use CMYK. This applies to the image and typography. How many times have you watched a foreign movie with subtitles and missed half the dialogue when the white text blends in to the white or pale colours on the screen? How many times have you seen a title on a book where part of the text has disappeared into the background image? They may sound like obvious errors but you’d be surprised how often I see these clangers.
This goes for the image subject as well as resolution. Resolution we will cover below. You may see a photo or illustration that you think is perfect to represent your novel. You place it on your Photoshop canvas and then decide where to put your typography. You realise the image doesn’t really allow you to put the type anywhere comfortably but you have to use the image because it’s so perfect. Design, unfortunately, doesn’t work like that. That is why a designer produces multiple variations and manipulations. A good designer will think outside the box, understanding the essence of what you’re trying to express with your cover and develop something that portrays the content and frames the typography in a nice professional balance.
Leading on from the above, image resolution is a big problem within any industry that deals with print. My first design job was in multimedia and entertainment, designing DVD and CD-Rom menus and covers. These were mostly freebies you get on the front of magazines, although the odd mainstream DVD did land on my desk. Eventually I moved into music, developing design for print, photo manipulation, promotional advertising and media kits for artists. It was noticeable that the mainstream art departments always included high resolution images and had a very specific visual concept, while smaller and solo outfits often sent poor quality artwork and low resolution images, not seeming to understand how much this limited the design options and undersold the product. You can’t, for example, scale an image up without losing resolution, so it may look brilliantly crisp at four by six but scale it up to eight by ten it’s going to lose clarity and begin to look blurry and pixelated. This immediately brings a potentially well designed bit of work down into the amateur or cheap category. This issue often crops up when a client has a historical novel and they want a painting to feature on the cover. Sometimes, depending on the painting, we can’t access a decent resolution of the image, and if a reprint is not in the budget of the client there is absolutely no way we can create a professional looking cover with their chosen image.
5. GRIDDING & BLEED
If you get as far as having a brilliant image, high resolution, the perfect typography with the correct hierarchy, there are two other elements that make a potentially beautiful cover a big self-publishing fail, and that is gridding and bleed allocation. Anything you print will have guidance as to where you need an additional three or five millimetre bleed. This is so when your book is printed your main image and your text is not cut or too close to the edge, another common issue I see from self-publishing authors. The gridding of any piece of graphic design is just as important as the typography and colour, but unlike these other elements it can be learned. Gridding is what makes your cover balance and look intended. Without a gridding system your cover will look scatty even if every one of the other elements is perfect. It’s that simple.
You could go away and rework your cover having read the errors listed above, but without training there will always things you will miss out or not understand. If you have faith in your book then you need to invest in it. Writers understand language and meaning, they see the world as text. However brilliant they are, this doesn’t mean they have design aptitude. This post is designed to raise your awareness that your novel deserves the creative mind of a designer to initially attract your potential readers. Don’t let the above put you off from self-publishing; just appreciate and understand that the cover is important, and like your text it has to be just right.