Your Generic-Ass Cover Makes Me Think There’s a Generic-Ass Book Inside

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Screw that. We all do, which is why you need to get your cover right. It’s the first thing people see. Before they figure out what your book is about, the cover has already made an impression. If that impression is boring, I don’t even let the title sink in. I’ve already gone on scanning, for a book that stands out and looks sexy.

So what makes a book cover uninteresting? How about rows and rows of samey shit. I don’t care if it’s as slick as a movie poster. If your cover is some Photoshopped stock model jobby with a dude on a horse, or a leather chick in the boob-butt pose, or some corseted lady swooning in Fabio’s arms, all your cover says to me is: “This is a McDonalds burger, just like every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever eaten.”

This is all some people want. I get that. I’m not here to denigrate that choice (much). I’m writing this for the authors who want to find success by standing out, not blending in. If you haven’t written the literary equivalent of a McDonalds burger, then holy crap do not package your book like a McDonalds burger. Avoid slick movie-poster covers, because everyone has one. Everyone but the trad pubs…

You see, the publishing industry took one look at the self-publishers and decided they had to up their game. Almost gone are the days of terrible Poser models with eye-gouging typographical horrors (ok, that last one was published recently—holy shit). Long-gone are the days of half-assed illustrations that have nothing to do with the book. The better imprints try to rise above the sea by marketing itself as “quality” (regardless whether or not it’s true). This means they have to pay decent illustrators/designers—and it shows. Take for example these F. Scott Fitzgerald hardcovers that scream, “I’m classy as fuck!” (Though I have to say, the original still kicks its ass.)

As far as advice goes, I won’t dictate style. The style you’re after depends on what kind of book you’ve written—not just genre, but the sensibilities of your prose. Your prose could be old-fashioned, or modernist, or pulp. You need a cover to match. Research the kind of covers that clothe the kind of book you’ve written, then find an artist who can pull off the style you’re after.

A unique graphic or illustration tells the reader “care went into this” as does good layout and typography. Hiring a professional photographer (please don’t take your own pictures of friends in Renfaire costumes) instead of using the same stock models everyone else uses says “quality” as well. It’s possible to make good use of stock art, but if you have the funds, pay someone to create unique images for your book. The difference is definitely worth it—and you’ll feel it, because you’ll know no one has a cover just like yours.

Your cover must be definitive. The more it represents your story, even if it’s a single symbol, the better it works as an advertisement for what’s inside. Even a typographical design, almost devoid of imagery, can do this kind of work. Don’t get so caught up with a *~specially significant symbol~* that you lose sight of the bigger picture. If that symbol means nothing to someone who hasn’t read the story yet, it’s not going to convey anything to a prospective reader. You’re better off choosing something the reader can “get” at first glance. It’s also possible you won’t be able to cram in every symbol you want, because good design requires breathing room—so don’t get married to needing this and this and this AND this and etc.

This cover for The Crysalids is a good example of combining symbolism with a striking graphic style. Unlike the Penguin monstrosity linked above, the butterfly is represented in the metaphorical way the author intended. The six-toed footprints may be a touch esoteric, but it does the job conveying ideas to a new reader: children, metamorphosis, mutation. The tone of the cover also implies the mutant kids aren’t bad, which is important. Here’s a proper link to blog where the cover is hosted.

This cover for The Man in the High Castle is also a great example of a definitive cover. It uses symbolism to punch the book’s idea right into the reader’s brain. Sure, the map isn’t 100% accurate to the book (it leaves out the neutral zone), but that doesn’t matter. It says everything it needs to in a striking and effective manner. The designer’s blog post also has an interesting breakdown of past publications and how desperately they tried to match the marketing zeitgeist of their day, regardless of whether or not it fit the book. We shouldn’t have to put up with that shit anymore!

Your cover can also be strikingly ugly if that fits the tone you’re after. Josh Kirby’s covers for Discworld are filled with memorably grotesque caricatures. They’re definitive. More importantly, they’re fun. When you pick one up, you know exactly what you’re in for. I mean shit, if you’ve written a book for 13 year olds, you can hardly do better than this to advertise it. That guy paid for a proper illustration, and he’s made all that money back because that thing fucking sells. The author is a dude who gets his audience.

Marketers don’t always get their audience because they spend too much time sticking to the bullshit they think they know. Authors have also been trained to cling to safety when it comes to marketing their book (not to mention playing it too safe with the writing, but that’s another rant). The gurus who came from trad publishing came from a risk-averse environment, where they were told, “This is what sells,” when given a bland-ass cover that hardly represented the book inside. They brought their wisdom to self-publishing, where this fear of not matching the popular books prevails. A risk-averse industry chases last year’s trends, and you don’t want to be on the butt end as its run into the ground.

As an author, you have to ask yourself if you’d rather sell more books to disappointed readers who leave tons of angry Amazon reviews because they didn’t get the McDonalds-burger book they were expecting, or if you’d rather take a risk that will make you stand out, and bring in a bunch of niche readers who’ll love you for exactly what you’re doing. It’s possible to make a quick buck misrepresenting yourself, but most readers won’t stick around for a second novel. Staying true to what your book is will build a following.


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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

18 thoughts to “Your Generic-Ass Cover Makes Me Think There’s a Generic-Ass Book Inside”

  1. Your first two images made me chuckle: spot on.

    I am hypersensitive right now about covers, since I just finished making my first one (final version). I’m not showing it until I launch (maybe do a cover reveal a couple of days before that), but I got the advice of a woman who does her own gorgeous covers, and she was gracious enough to mentor me, and it took three months! of me learning everything I needed, after four years of reading the blogs and looking at thousands of covers, so cross your fingers.

    There ARE a lot of bad covers in the indie world, and a lot of ugly covers made by professionals (and loathed by the authors) on the traditional side. But there IS guidance out there in the form of books and blog posts, and most people can educate themselves if they make a serious effort.

    For me, the deciding factor was that I didn’t want to expend the energy I would need to find, interact with, and approve the design of a professional I could afford.

    But if you’re not going to put the work in, or some money in, odds are you won’t end up with good covers. There is a LOT to learn.

    1. Indeed, which is why I tried to make this post more helpful than snarky, because I’d like to add something to the pool of guidance. I read “don’t design your own cover” a lot on self-publishing advice blogs, but I don’t buy it. You can train yourself to do anything, and being both attentive to detail and the bigger picture translates well across mediums. I suppose that’s called “having good taste,” but ooh we’re not allowed to say that anymore because it’s a “value judgment.” 😉

      What I want people to take away from this the most is for writers to never forget that nobody knows their book better than they do, and not to let anyone bully them into making “safe” marketing choices if they don’t feel it suits their story.

      1. “not to let anyone bully them into making “safe” marketing choices”

        A very good point. Or expedient choices. A book cover is too important – if it doesn’t speak to the author, how will it speak to a reader? For those who care, of course.

        I had the experience on a writing site: I needed a cover for a short story, and they didn’t like the one I had (which I had NOT yet put any time into), so my story could be featured.

        I gave up after a few days (knowing what I do now, that I had MONTHS of stuff to learn, I was foolish to try), and accepted their offer to hook me up with a designer.

        And then began the horror. She was lovely, and responsive, and had an ENTIRELY different idea of what my cover should look like than I did. To make the story short (LOL), I worked with her (days worth of her time, and many back-and-forths) to refine her ideas into something that was as good as it could be, AND I didn’t have a better idea, but I still look at it and cringe. Because it isn’t ME.

        I seem to need control. Knowing that about myself, the better route is for me to learn a LOT in each area in which I want control, because otherwise the end product will NOT be acceptable.

        I’m a slow writer. I probably will never have a huge number of books out. I don’t think I will be ABLE to outsource decisions.

        What might work is getting MY ideas to a quick ‘almost good enough’ place, and then outsourcing the execution. If I need to outsource for some reason.

        But “nobody knows their book better than” the writer has to be the bottom line. You are entirely correct.

        1. I know exactly what you mean about needing control. I’ll definitely be doing my own book covers as well (whenever I get around to finishing writing them).

          When you do need to outsource anything though, it’s nice to have the luxury of finding someone who can match what you want. This is the prime reason self-publishing appeals to me more than trad pub.

  2. Aside from the swearing, which I find a bit off-putting: like violent pepto-bismol pink, less really is more. At least if you want any kind of impact – the advice is excellent.

    Get Mr. Simon to advise you on the prose style and make this pitch to the folks who design my YA covers: please.

    It’s so frustrating to have a book that you know will connect with a young reader, particularly one who is a-literate, who takes one look at the cover and turns up their nose: BOR-ing!

    The problem is that they’re making covers that appeal to middle-aged white lady librarians.b

    1. Ha, you should have seen the first draft. I try to limit myself to one fuck per article, because I like to use them as effectively as possible. I have to do extensive cutting to get there, and it seems I left in two. I’ve corrected that error, and don’t worry, were I giving this same advice on a blog inhabited by church ladies I’m sure I could scrub it squeaky clean without any help at all.

      1. one/article? too funny. the perpetually pleonastic invective-lovers thank you for your consideration 🙂

        Seriously, great article.

        1. Thanks! I caught an incessant invective infection in the military back in the 90s, and could never quite shake it. It’s kind of like malaria that way. Unfortunately mouth soap isn’t as effective as quinine.

  3. Hi Sarah –

    Thanks for linking to my The Man in the High Castle cover. You and I are on the same page with this stuff, though you might consider a little more sleep and a little less caffeine. 😉

    Self-publishing authors often get a little too precious with their own preconceptions of what their book is, and irresponsible publishers/marketers often ignore a book’s idea to make a quick buck. Authors deserve responsible design, and marketing needs to understand the audience AND the author.

    Unfortunately, what we’ve seen for the past couple of generations is an erosion of the compact between writers, publishers and audiences. Publishing has always been about making (some) money, but we’ve lost that effort to make real connections between messages and audiences. Design is just one aspect of that, and we won’t fix it until all parties decide to be responsible, build trust and have respect for all the roles involved in bringing a work to market.

    1. Hi Scott, thanks for dropping by! I noticed a lot of people using your cover in their blogs—it’s that definitive. I hope they’re all linking or paying you. 😉 I’ll be continuing to check out your blog, because I can use all the advice I can get on book design as I start retooling my portfolio.

  4. Holy crap, you went to ACAD too.

    Best of luck with book design. Combining your considerable jewellery skills with design to make make some unique covers might be very interesting.

    1. I did indeed, though I almost wish I’d majored in graphic design instead, since now I have train myself on the intricacies of typography and layout. Jewellery did train my aesthetic though. I’m hoping there will be some niche demand for jewel-like covers, perhaps reminiscent of Gene Szafran’s work from the 60s.

      1. I look forward to seeing your work. If you don’t have it already, the best book on typography out there (IMO) is The Elements of Typographic Style, by Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst.

  5. I am probably the only one, but I’ve always hated that “Gatsby” cover. If I hadn’t been made to read it at school, I never would have looked past the cover, which to me looks like a ghastly, disturbing mess. If I may enquire, what is it that people actually like about that cover design? I have heard it mentioned several times as a ‘good’ cover design, but as it doesn’t appeal to me personally, I guess I just dont’ see it.

    1. Ah yes, I was lucky enough not to be forced to read it as a teenager, so it was untainted for me as an adult. I don’t get why they force high school kids to read stuff that won’t resonate with them until they’ve at least suffered the disappointments of late-20s adulthood. I didn’t even get The Young Ones until I went to college, and that’s a British sitcom with swears – way more liable to hold a teen’s attention than a novel about moneyed drunks.

      I love the cover because it’s definitive, being the original, but it’s also an example of original Art Deco aesthetic – its naïve 1920s charm intact – rather than one that’s been distilled down the years and mimicked by contemporary designers. The original cover also evokes the emptiness of Gatsby’s aspirations with the hollow, wisp-like woman’s face hovering over the night carnival. All later covers tend to evoke is, “the 20s were sexy!” which pretty much misses the point.

      As I study other people’s graphic designs, I find designers tend to fall into two camps. There’s the “let’s make this as slick as possible” camp, regardless of whether or not “slick” is required, which seems to come out of a fear of not following the rules of good design – in other words rote, sometimes amateurishly so (and where I currently struggle). The other camp strikes to the core of the message, and breaks any rule necessary to make it work. The original Gatsby cover is an example of the latter.

  6. Interesting. My hobby is book design, but I also do actual covers for (mostly) print, always a couple of small press/independent clients. I don’t know that they are especially good, but the clients have usually been satisfied.

    Quite a lot of the time I am stuck with them handing me an image and I have to deal with it. That can be an adventure. Particularly given that the print-on-demand service they work with has a 240% coverage limit on the colors used.

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