Five Dead Giveaways that your Cover is an Amateur Job

what not to do on your coverI’m subscribed to a daily book deals email, and I’ve been noticing some trends. A lot of indie covers scream “amateur” right from the start. I can glance through the email and in less than three seconds each spot the indie covers, with very few exceptions.

Here are five things to avoid if you want your cover to look pro:

1. “A Novel” – Yes, some traditionally published books have this on there. Way too many books have this on there, IMO. I know it’s a novel. Tell me something interesting about it.

2. “Book 1 of the (whatever) series” – I see this on a lot of indie covers. Almost never will you see this on a New York cover. The exception is if the series has become blockbuster and been repackaged, like the Twilight Saga – then it might have that on all the books, BUT the first one will just have the series title. It won’t say “Book 1.”

3. Text goes right to the edges of the cover or lies right along the top/bottom. Open space is an important part of design, and it’s one that amateurs often leave out. Give the text a little room to breathe, OK?

4. Three or more different fonts, and/or wacky fonts. Be conservative on the fonts, guys. The font shouldn’t compete with the cover art. I usually use two, one for the title/byline, and a plainer one for any other text on the cover.

Eclipse5. Half of a woman’s face with glowy or colored eye. This is popping up a lot lately. I think it’s because of this repackaged Eclipse cover (at right). Don’t do this. Too many people have already done it. It’s dead, Jim.

this is a better cover designI like getting the book deals email. It’s taught me some things to avoid, and really made me look at the differences between the covers that appear amateur to me and the ones that look pro. I’m always working to improve my design techniques, and love learning new tricks.

The danger there is when you learn a new trick, you can easily go overboard with it. I try to keep in mind a quote from the movie Impromptu, where Chopin tells a student, “Simplicity is the hardest thing. It’s the final thing.”

I had a lot of trouble making the example cover at the top of this post. I kept trying to fix things, make them better. Here’s a version where I’ve improved on the issues I’m griping about. I tweaked a couple of other details, too – see if you can spot which ones.




Five Dead Giveaways that your Cover is an Amateur Job — 23 Comments

  1. Great post, Pati!

    I agree with a lot of what you say. But I still *disagree* with traditional publishing’s choice not to tell readers which volume they’re picking up in a series. I know the idea is to sell more books, because people won’t be afraid of buying later books in series, but the effect actually *keeps* me from buying books when I can’t tell which one I want!

    • I like seeing the series title on anything but the first book in a series. Yes, it might frighten some people away, but it will also help people who follow a series and prefer to read them in order (That’s book 3? Oh, I need to find book 2!).

      Putting a series title on the cover of book1 ? Certainly not necessary–I’ll go so far as to say unpleasantly redundant–if the series title is the same as book 1’s title.

      I’ve got “A Wisteria Tearoom Mystery” on book 1 of Patrice Greenwood’s mystery series (and on book 2, and will have on book 3). But I’m not putting the number of each book on the cover with the series title. The number is on the book page as a subtitle.

      • I can see your point, although (probably when there was a trilogy sold to a publisher up front) I frequently see first in a new series with a book 1 blurb on it. I agree it might lost a writer a few sales though if they are those who have been burnt by unfinished series, and will wait until there are more published as they prefer to binge rather than wait for a year for the next installment. But not letting them know can also backfire. Some readers, including myself, appreciate the heads up as to whether this is a “stand alone”, I get irritated when I get to the end of a novel with a cliff hanger when I had no idea it was written as the beginning of a series. It also can be a good selling tool, as if I am interested in the plot or author, I will look of the later installments and buy as many available as possible before sitting down to read. Having the subtitle be “The Novel”, is sort of a literary convention, left over from the nineteenth century. I sort of avoid those.

        I totally agree with the points about chaotic fonts and poor spacing, I also would decrease the font size of the author name, as it is the title that you want to catch the imagination.

        Adding the blurb really sharpens it up and makes it look professional, plus can hook the casual glance into reading the back cover and finding out more.

        For me the composition of the placement of the flower image is a little problematic as I would prefer it to be placed more to the left, not a lot but perhaps about half way across the existing blank space. I think this would be more visually pleasing. The author name somewhat smaller and lined up to the right instead of centered would be something I’d try to sort of move the eye down to the blurb as it scans the cover.

  2. Well one thing I can see in the better version is that you’ve centered and placed the =image= better on the cover. It is the actual picture that is the cover. The text and blurbs and so on are add-ons, to be considered after. If the image isn’t placed right no fussing with font is going to save the day.

    As to series, I always hesitate when I see one. A commitment to GAMES OF THRONES or THE WHEEL OF TIME is not a light one to make; my time and my vision are limited and have to be invested wisely. You would do better to seduce me with a boffo volume 1. The first one is free, little girl! And then I’m hooked and Heisenberg can take me away on a crystal blue ride.

      • The flower is in the same position. It looks more centered because the title is more centered and smaller. “A Novel” has been removed. The author’s name is in white (or possibly white with a thin black outline, can’t tell with this monitor) instead of black so it blends into the overall image a bit better. The font of the title and author name are the same (I think) and easier to read than the original title font. There’s no “book 1” strip across the bottom so the central image looks more natural and draws the eye more readily. Also there is some sort of positive quote that I can’t read next to, but slightly below, the flower which improves the visual flow.

        I’m not sure I’d be drawn to read the book since it looks like it would be in the “literature” genre and I usually find those kinds of things laughably awful- er- I mean they don’t suit my taste. But artistically speaking, it’s definitely an improvement.

    • I did not change the art at all – I just got the other elements out of the way of the art in the second version.

      An example: besides changing the font, I toned down the screaming yellow of the title to a more pastel yellow in the second version. The first version uses the yellow of the flower, picked up directly, which makes the title compete with the flower.

      • If I am seeing it right, it also appears that the letters of the title have a bit of a drop shadow – which among other things means they will stand out equally well against light and dark backgrounds. You also went for a more straightforward and consistent font selection. That last is where a little bit of background in typography can be useful – if in doubt, go with a single font. If you must mix fonts, pick fonts that are designed to interact well. (A well designed title can be something else – almost more like a logo… but note the well designed bit.)

        I think I’d have to classify the dark blue background bar as kind of a visual extension of the series issue – the only thing that could possibly excuse it is if the point were to give a series a common look and feel. Though in this case, not even really that, as it clashes even more with the title. (Creating a consistent frame upon which rests both title and the bottom text could work, I suppose.)

  3. I don’t mind seeing that This Book is connected to That Book I Read Last Year–as a matter of fact, I often wish there was a label on sequels/next in series. But the first one? No.

    I am probably the only human on the planet who really doesn’t care for photographic covers on most fiction. I know stock art is comparatively cheap (I am not enough of a photographer to take a photo myself). But for some reason, particularly on self-published or small-publisher books, photography just looks amateur. I will note that the photo of the yellow flower, above, while bone-crunchingly literal given the title, is nice for a photo cover. But so many of them are not.

    • You Are Not Alone.

      Even the best ones — the ones the major publishers do and do right — are not as happy as the art ones. I think it may be that the work is fiction and the cover is trying to pretend it’s non-fiction.

    • Madeleine, I am in accord with you about identifying books in a series…perhaps you could nudge your publisher about this? I had the devil of a time figuring out the order of the Sarah Tolerance books.

  4. Nathan Shumate’s “Lousy Book Covers” blog also has lots of awful examples, as well as a page that gives good pointers for making better covers… (Sorry if everyone already follows that blog…)

  5. Oops, I’ll have to take “a novel” off of the cover of A Princess of Passyunk. I actually did that because I noticed it on a number of mainstream and magical realism novels by mainstream publishers to differentiate them from the slightly less fictional autobiographies and biographies that were popping up all over.

    I have to disagree about major publishers not putting series numbers on the Book 1 or Book One of the X Saga, Cycle, Series because I’ve seen it on so many epic fantasy books from the major players. In other genres, or where the series has run on for a while as in Dresden Files or Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, publishers sometimes will opt for “A Hero’s Name Book” or “a Series Name Book”.

    My publisher didn’t do that with the MERI series and it actually hurt sales and confused the heck out of reviewers. People who were waiting for me to write the sequel to THE MERI didn’t realize that TAMINY was the sequel, because it only said “from the author of THE MERI”. As a reader, I like being able to look at the cover and know the book is part of a series—in fact, if it’s book one, I’m tickled because that means if I like it, there are more to come.

    Glowing eyes are overdone, and I think they have actually become the same sort of signal to the reader that naked male torsos are used to say “this is a steamy romance with a manly male”. The glowing eyed lady says, “Here there be vampires” or werewolves or haunts or all of the above.

  6. I’ve done graphics at work (PowerPoint presentations) and am not longer amazed at how people get graphics really wrong. They’ll use something they think is cool and neat, and my boss sees that and rolls her eyes in exasperation: “Get that off there!” I’d tell people she’s not going to like that, and they’re like, “No, no, it’ll be fine.” After the meeting, they’d come back with, “Do you have something better?”

    I’d add picking generic clip art to the list though. There are a lot of indie books where it’s obvious to me that the author ran a quick search in a clip art library and slapped pretty close to the first thing on the cover and added text. It should look like the writer cares about the work, not like the writer did a cover because they knew they needed a cover.

    • In the long ado early days of desktop publishing, I had a client who sold music technology, and for whom I did ads and catalogs. Her deep seated prejudice against any white space or readability meant that a nice, clean looking catalog would wind up looking like the back-room of a dollar store in short order. On the theory that The Customer Pays Me, I would clutter and reclutter the work, but when she started asking “Can’t we use more, whattayacallem, fonts? It looks so PLAIN,” I sat her down and asked her what her goal was. “Do you want people to read this or just notice all the logos?” I think, in the end, that she went for all the logos, but agreed that a single font for the text was probably okay.


  7. Not putting the series number on a book cover is a remnant of the “bad old days” of physical books. Publishers knew that it was very unlikely that a book store would have in stock all volumes of a series — normally, most stores would carry only the newest in the series (and maybe one or two prior titles IF they were great backlist sellers).

    Publishers also know that readers are reluctant to start a series in the middle — so they simply took the numbers off the books, thinking that readers will buy a book, then when they realize it is in a series, they will go back and get the others.

    But with ebooks and instant backlist, where everything is instantly is available, there is no downside to use series numbers in titles.

    As a kid, I remember series titles having numbers on the covers, for example the old Bantam Star Trek (original series, the James Blish episode novelizations) and the Battlestar Galactica novels, for example.

    I have found it is a lot easier to remember what I own and what I don’t when publishers use the “series title” “#” “book title” naming method.

    In the late 80s, publishers really starting working hard to hide the sequence order — often, the only way to find out the order of books in a series was to look in the “Also by” section inside the book. Blech.

    Personally, I like series numbers and am putting them on my books; I really don’t care whether some folks think it looks amateur.

    Of course, I also am used to comic books, where each new monthly issue has a number, but there are always new story arcs starting and being resolved…comics come from a pulp/serial/soap opera lineage, so readers are accustomed to this.

    Comic publishers help readers follow story arcs by using the following kind of naming example:

    X-Men 501
    Revenge of the Mutants, Part 1 of 5.

    Of course, publishers are also notorious for multi-title crossovers, so you might have a nine-part storyline be spread over four monthly titles for two months and then have a stand-alone one-shot title for the conclusion…but that is a whole other issue.

  8. One reason that publishers are reluctant to put the “book X in Y series” blurb on book covers is that the store may not have the other books in the series in stock, which will make people reluctant to buy if they aren’t looking at book 1. (It’s not so much of a problem for Twilight or Harry Potter because the store will have all of them.) Ebooks don’t have that problem; they never go out of stock or out of print in the virtual store. So if book 2 of a series catches somebody’s eye they might not buy it but they’ll follow the link (there IS a link to the other books in the series, no??) and give book 1 a try.

  9. Print books DO sometimes have “by the author of” blurbs. My all time favorite was an edition of Rabbit, Run that proudly proclaimed itself as being “by the author of Rabbit Redux”!

  10. Seeing Book 1 of X Series/Saga/Trilogy always reminds me of events that are labeled “First Annual WhateverFest.” If it’s the first, you don’t need to tell us. And it can’t be “annual” until there’s another one next year.

    I always wonder if the authors who label Book 1 already have the entire series written and are spacing out the release dates of the follow-up books. I hope so. I once read the first book of what was obviously intended to be a series (and enjoyed it), only to never see anything else written by that author. (Previous to that book, she’d written a three-book series I’d enjoyed immensely.) Now I never want to re-read that book because the ending will be completely and irreversibly unsatisfying.

    The whole first-book labeling has always looked “off” to me to see it, and now I know why.

  11. I self-publish the suspense fiction Amsterdam Assassin Series, but they consist of both novels (100,000 words or more) and short stories. While they all have the ‘Amsterdam Assassin Series’ on the cover, the novels have single word title and ‘A Katla Novel’ as a subtitle, while the short stories have a two-word title and ‘A Katla KillFile’ as a subtitle. And they’ve been branded to look similar, but with different colours and different symbols on the cover.
    The covers were made by a professional cover artist and they look good in a row (check my blog or website to see the covers), but the main issue with mentioning ‘novel’ on the cover becomes a necessity when the series features both novels and short stories in the same packaging.
    What do you think?