Designing Your Own Book Cover: How to Select The Right Image
In Elements of a Book Cover that Sells, I talk about creating a cover that speaks directly to your audience by using the idea of a Single Story. In the following post, I expand on this idea by giving helpful tips on finding the base layer for your cover: the image.
Your image should convey the mood of your story. If you’ve written a fun-loving, silly, woman’s novel, your cover might be an illustration of a lady in heels with a pink background. If your book explores the story of a missing woman, it might have a dark background with a woman running away. If it’s a love story, readers will expect a couple holding hands or kissing on the cover. All these components convey the mood of the book and attract your audience.
If the mood is not evident, you will miss potential readers. When readers go searching for a new book, they usually know what type of book they want to read. If nothing else, they know what types of book they have enjoyed in the past. They will be attracted to images that remind them of another book they’ve read. This relationship connects the reader to an emotion they felt while reading that book. For instance, I had recently finished Where’d You Go Bernadette and was looking for a new read. I saw the novel How to Write a Novel, with its blue cover and illustrations and bought it. Why? It reminded me of Bernadette. That’s it. I wasn’t even looking for a book like Bernadette; I just subconscious equated the cover of Bernadette with a book I like.
Often authors spend energy on trying to get their cover image to be unique, and to stand out from the crowd. While really, they should have been doing the opposite.
You may have noticed that in all of the examples at the beginning of this article, I suggest having images of people on the cover (the woman in pink heels, the couple kissing, etc.). As an author, you may be tempted to steer away from covers that give away too much detail that you’d rather let the reader imagine. One of the reasons I believe readers like books over their film adaptations, is because they get to bring the scene to life using their own imagination. The same applies to the characters in a book. Giving too much detail away can take away this experience from the readers. So why do I suggest books with images of people? Simply, they sell better.
You many see that some covers don’t have the full person or even just avoid their face on the cover. You might see only a woman’s legs or feet, or you might see her face below the nose. This allows your readers to still create the characters using their own imagination while still creating a book cover that sells.
The other advantage of showing only a part of a character is that it allows you to simplify your cover. If you are trying to convey too much information to your readers, it will be busy and overwhelming and will distract them from absorbing the story’s mood. Remember, you want to sell them a single story. Don’t try to input double meanings, or symbols that the reader will only understand once they’ve read the book. Symbolism is for your writing. You aren’t trying to sell them on your cleverness with a book cover.
To convey the mood, keep it simple, and focus on a single story, you want to be obvious with your images, but not necessarily literal. You don’t want readers to have to guess or search for your cover is about. But at the same time, it doesn’t need to be a specific scene from your story to convey the mood, and being too literal can destroy the intrigue you want to create. Let me show you what I mean:
Bad Cover: The problem with this cover is that it is too literal. You can actually tell that this is a scene from the book. You might read the book with the anticipation in your head of getting to that scene. But readers are, in their own opinion, better imaginators than any author. Therefore, you are certain to disappoint. There are too many details in this cover that need to synchronize with the readers’ imagination. How many times have you seen a book made into a movie and found something in the movie that played out way better in your head?
Good Cover: The following cover could very well be the same book. It’s obvious this story is also about a woman who is gone, missing or taken (as the title suggests). You don’t have to decipher a code in the image to get a sense for what the book is about. But at the same time, this cover isn’t so literal. You get to conjure up an image as to what might be happening because you aren’t force fed a scene.
Here’s a test: Once you have selected an image, forget your story. Can you create a powerful title on the picture alone? Does that title do your book justice? If not, keep looking.
The most common place authors and designers find images for book covers is stock image sites. There are hundreds of thousands of images to choose from, and they are usually between $10 and $25 per image. With a stock image from Shutterstock.com or iStock.com, you can sell between 250,000 and 500,000 books before you have to worry about purchasing additional licensing. There are also sites you can find free stock images, but make sure you read and fully understand the terms of copyright before using an image from one of these sites. DO NOT use an unlicensed image from a Google images search, even if you don’t think you are going to sell very many books, as this will most certainly earn you a letter from an attorney asking you to remove it at the least, and a lawsuit at the worst.
The advantages of using stock images are selection, price, and availability. To find an image for a previous post, I used the search terms “girl in front of a ship” and found 42 pages of results. That’s a pretty specific request. Also, stock image sites are also regularly updated their inventory, and they tag images by a number of categories, including model. So if you find a model that you like, but the image isn’t quite right, you can find other photos with the same model. This is very useful for a book series.
A drawback to using stock imaging is uniqueness. Stock sites will sell an image infinite number of times, meaning that even though your typography and location of the photo might be unique, another author might end up with the same image on their cover. Professional publishing houses will spend thousands hiring a photographer and models to get unique images for their covers. However, this isn’t a possibility for most self-published authors. On freeeebookcovers.com, I am building a collection of non-stock images from local photographers I’ve worked with over the years. Check back soon for the launch of Original Images, and happy writing!
Kari Anders is a book cover designer who works mostly with self-published authors and small publishing houses. She worked in freelance design for six years before attending graduate school, and now teaches design and runs freeebookcovers.com. All of Kari’s covers are designed as CreateSpace Wraps for only $75, with the eBook version included for free. Her site specializes in Pre-Made Book Covers, but she also does interior design and custom covers.