Designing Your Book Cover Series: Part 1

Filed in Book Design by on June 16, 2013

Book Design Featured Image 2The low cost of self-publishing both printed books and ebooks has encouraged thousands of writers to quickly become publishers. Sadly, many lack the skills, experience and software to produce attractive books.

Even sadder, many don’t know what they don’t know. Most self-publishing authors—because of ego, ignorance or financial necessity—design and format their own books.

Because of this, self-publishers often produce really ugly books that are hated by readers and condemned by reviewers.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In this series I’ll provide the information and advice that can help self-publishing authors create much better books. The books might not win trophies or become bestsellers, but they shouldn’t be laughed at.

I think that talent—in art, mathematics, music, dance, writing, mechanics, anything—is innate. Talent can be stimulated and enhanced; but if you are not born with it, you’ll never have it. On the other hand, smart people without innate artistic talent can be taught to avoid design mistakes.

Sadly, even talented people sometimes make big mistakes. Some people who have the title of designer, architect, art professor or art director turn out major failures—like the Pontiac Aztek. A poll published by England’s Daily Telegraph put the Aztek at the top of the list of the ugliest cars of all time. New Jersey’s Pulaski Skyway was called “the ugliest man-made structure in the world”—by my father.

While beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, if your eyes don’t tell your brain that something is wrong with the covers shown, you are just not ready to design a cover and it’s time to hire a pro. Book design is a specialty, and is not the same as designing ads, packages or homes. Choose a person or a company that can demonstrate talent, experience and success. There’s more about finding and working with a designer in my 1001 Powerful Pieces of Author Advice —

Good graphic design can do four things:
1. Capture Attention
2. Direct Eyes
3. Provide Information
4. Evoke Emotion

Book covers and interiors are subject to the same general principles of design, but they are very different media. I’ll describe the basic differences now, and there’ll be much more detail in upcoming postings.

A book’s cover is an advertisement for the book. It should attract attention, defeat the competition and convince shoppers to become buyers and readers. The cover exists to sell the words inside the book.

The interior of a book is very different. It should be pleasing but not jarring. It should aid reading, not interfere with reading. It should not call attention to itself because of errors, excess or just plain bad taste. Most readers won’t notice a good page, but they might hate a bad page (but not know why).

There are really only three things that go into a graphic composition, whether it’s a book cover, book page, business card or billboard. All you have to work with are:

1. Space
2. Text
3. Visual Images

That may sound simple, but it’s not. Some people spend their lives trying to master how to combine them in a pleasing and effective way. Many people never figure it out.

The principles of design may be innate—at least in some people. Leonardo da Vinci certainly understood them. So did the ancient Greeks and the builders of the great cathedrals, aqueducts, pyramids and Stonehenge. Neanderthals and Navajos didn’t attend the Yale School of Art—but some of them did nice work.

While the rules of good design are well-established, all rules get broken. If you plan to break a rule, be sure you understand why the rule exists and you should be prepared for criticism. Choose your battles carefully. Some things are not worth fighting for. I was more of a design rebel with my first book than with my tenth.

There are hundreds of books and courses with titles like “Principles of Graphic Design.” I prefer to think separately of “objectives” and “ingredients” of graphic design. The ingredients help you to achieve your objectives.

To me, the two important objectives of graphic design are effectiveness and attractiveness.

There is a fundamental difference between commercial and noncommercial (i.e., “fine”) art.

Fine art, such as the sculpture of Venus de Milo merely has to be beautiful (and maybe please a god, patron or buyer).

Commercial or institutional art—a STOP sign, bread wrapper or book cover—should lead to action or the cessation of action. It’s not sufficient for it to look nice. It should motivate a viewer to do something (read a book, rent a car, hit the brakes, vote, turn left, buy a meal) and it should provide a pleasing experience, if appropriate.

If the design is not pleasing, it may lose effectiveness. But effective designs—like smoking warnings and some book covers—may be deliberately unattractive.

Don’t let your books be accidentally unattractive.

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Michael N. Marcus

About the Author ()

Bestselling author and publisher Michael N. Marcus has written more than 30 books and provided the words for over 50 websites and blogs. He specializes in making technology understandable and humorous. Many of his recent books are about writing and publishing. His writing career started when he published a newspaper in elementary school. Since then he has been an editor at Rolling Stone and has written for many other magazines and newspapers. At the urging of a misguided guidance counselor, he went to Lehigh University to become an electrical engineer and was quickly disappointed to learn that engineering was mostly math—and slide rules were not nearly as much fun as soldering irons. Michael was one of the few literate people in his engineer-filled freshman dormitory and made money by editing term papers for classmates. He became a journalism major in his second semester. Michael lives in Connecticut with his wife Marilyn, Hunter the golden retriever, indoor and outdoor telephone booths, a ‘Lily Tomlin’ switchboard, lots of books, CDs and DVDs. Marilyn is very tolerant.