Custom Covers & the Professional Graphic Artist

UPDATE 2019: What was true when I posted this in 2016 no longer applies. Now, because of changes in the market, self-published authors want their covers to look as professional as possible, though, I admit, there are still a few who stand by their guns of wanting the look less than polished.

GldBallsCrp2-100As  many of you know, along with being a professional graphic artist and designer, I’m also an author. I’m friends with quite a few authors. Many of these authors now self-publish and often ask me what I think of this or another cover.


It’s a real disadvantage that I don’t lie well. It’s a huge disadvantage that I do art for a living. Both problems get me into difficult predicaments when I’m asked for feedback on self-made or custom-made covers, especially the self-made ones.

For some reason, self-publishing authors want to create their own covers. While they might grudgingly let someone else do it, secretly, they want to create the whole package themselves. As an author, I understand that; as a professional graphic artist, I’m trepidatious. Here’s why:

  • Emotionally, you’re too close to the project;
  • You may not have the necessary skills to effectively pull it off.

There is a bigger problem I face as a professional graphic artist doing book covers for self-publishing authors, and small publishers or micro-presses: The client wants it to look unpolished, less than professional. This might sound nuts, but, as one author pointed out, it has to do with stigma–they don’t want to be associated with traditional publishing, so the covers have to look a little less polished. Okay. And we oblige. Usually, that means changing the font, some balance, adjusting the levels, and moving to a different color palette. And that’s about the only difference. In fact, color palette and skilled use of levels are usually the most significant factors that prove the difference between polished and professional-looking versus amateur.

And, no, sorry, I can’t give you any examples, because that would just get a whole bunch of folks angry at me. 😀


Some Book Covers Just Turn Me Off

I know that design decisions I see on novel and book covers are the mostly the result of market department input which mines the target demographic’s choice in trends, but I can tell you that there are tons of covers that just turn me right off.  I’d never buy or read the book, no matter how great everybody claimed it was, simply because I couldn’t stand the feeling the cover elicited.

Here are some examples of covers which completely turn me away from even thinking about looking at these new and upcoming releases (as of the date of this post) from traditional publishers.  There are tons more I could show you from self-publishing authors, but to point those out is to chance death by a thousand text lashings from angry mobs.

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Design with an Eye to Purpose


Time after time, I see it in indie covers, and, time after time, I can’t talk my own clients out of their choices–they neglect to consider the actual purpose of their novel covers. Since the majority of self-publishing authors choose to either do the cover art themselves or get something done as cheaply as possible, let’s just talk about basics.

There is one reason for a book cover: to catch a potential reader’s attention. There are three important elements:

1) title (or, if you’re a famous author, byline);
2) color choices;
3) imagery.

Here are some examples of what I consider bad choices by some trad publishers:

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On the cover of Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs, the title gets completely lost in the illustration. On The Bronze Key, every bit of text on this cover fades into a nondescript vagueness.  The last one needs a complete overhaul. While the image choice is good and the placement of the byline and title works, the color of the byline, again, makes it blend into the background in the last third of the overlay, while the color choice and size of the title, Two by Two, does everything to dissuade interest. It’s too nondescript, looks weak, and undermines interest. Then, same book cover, the slag line circle just doesn’t work, at all, especially the color choices.

One of the most effectively selling covers I created for a trad publisher ignored the title and byline completely (but, then, I’m known to break the rules). I used imagery to provoke. And it worked. Then everybody copied it, and, while the fad lasted, that broke the effectiveness.  (And, no, unfortunately, I can’t show it to you [I’m still contractually prohibited.].)

For most covers, title handling–its placement and design–is critical. Next comes imagery. Choose wisely and don’t clutter. And, unless you want your book to blend into the genre noise of your competitors (and nobody wants that, right?), don’t just do the same old thing. Look at what’s selling best from relatively unknown authors, look at what’s common among the search results for your niche genre where the covers do tend to all seem to be clones of one another, then design to a classic look that is fresh, relatively unique and different, but still within the genre expectations.

Remember, you are trying to appeal, not to yourself, but to your potential buyers.

A Good Article about Book Cover Design

I was going to write an article about designing book covers…since I see so many bad ones, and, honestly, by client desire, I have myself created many very bad, even ugly book covers for self-publishing authors, covers that I would never lay claim.


Because it’s rare that I get to actually design covers for self-publishing authors.

I do for trad publishers, but not the indies. Why is that?

Because indies want what they want, and what they want is just the same ol’, same ol’–not just genre normal, but boringly so. Or they want something they’ve got stuck in their head, and it is really, really bad.  Or they want lots and lots of ‘stuff’ on their cover.

You’ve seen the covers I’m talking about, I’m sure.  And, yes, I could share some examples, but I won’t.  I don’t dare, not without raising ire.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was going to write an article about designing book covers, so, on a whim, I decided, first, to see what somebody else may have out there that’s worthwhile, and I found a gem.  I could add more observations, hints, and pointers to the author’s, along with my own perspectives, but I think I’ll leave that for another day. So, here ya go:


Latest Client Book Covers

I never show book covers I build unless my contract allows it, or, if for a self-publishing author, until the book is published.  Here are two book covers recently done for author S. Bradley Stoner:




Latest Client Book Cover

P.D.R. Lindsay is an awesome independent author. Again, she asked me to do the cover for her latest upcoming release, describing what she wanted exactly. This one was one of those grab the stock image, which took some hours to find, adjust the tone and values, tweak the title and byline font a bit, and it was a go.  The novel is due for release in November.