One of the first things that we all judge upon when we lay our hands on a book, or even before, is its cover. Despite whatever proverbs we may be used to we definitely are cover obsessed and most of us on instagram depend on their beauty. I even posted a bunch of weird book covers for fun a while ago.
As an indie author it is critical to choose the best cover for your book. This we have Rob discussing about this topic with us.
Say hello to Rob!
Rob Keeley was born in Wirral, Merseyside, UK. Writing his first story aged seven, his first short play aged eleven and first being published at fifteen, he wrote for several magazines before his first book for children, The Alien in the Garage and Other Stories, was published in 2011.
He has since written two more collections of children’s stories, one of which, The Dinner Club and Other Stories, was longlisted for the International Rubery Book Award. He has now published all five novels in his Spirits series, the first of which, Childish Spirits, gained him a Distinction for his MA in Creative Writing before being longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award and nominated for the People’s Book Prize in 2015.
He has recently studied Screenwriting and Filmmaking, has been a judge for the IGGY and Litro Young Writers’ Prize and is a Patron of the Children’s Media Foundation. His books have been used in schools, libraries and at literary festivals and he is in demand for his author workshops, which one teacher even described as “inspirational”!
Let’s get on with it shall we?
“Never judge a book by its cover”. That has to be up there with “The camera never lies” as one of those old adages that doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. Everyone judges a book by its cover, metaphorically and in the literal (and literary) sense.
When readers shop for books, whether in bricks and mortar bookshops or online, the first thing that catches the eye is the front cover. Even if it’s a book or series title they know, they’ll be relying on the cover to entice them, to draw them in, to promise a thrilling reading journey, destination unknown.
And if you need proof, look at those empty boxes on websites where the cover isn’t available yet or hasn’t yet been uploaded. How bland and uninviting do those book entries look? Which is why it’s so important for every author, and especially the indie author in creative control of their book, to get the cover right.
Working with what we have
It’s not easy, for the indie author. We can be completely on our own, uploading our books directly to the Internet, with only limited numbers of templates or fonts at our disposal. Even those of us who work with a designer or an indie publishing company – and there are some brilliant, talented ones out there – can’t necessarily afford (or access) an illustrator and have to work with what software options are available.
Of all my books for children, only my picture book My Favourite People has so far had the luxury of an illustrator. My novels and short story collections all made use of stock photos from the Net, which have to be bought and licensed by the author or by the designer acting on their behalf. And finding the right picture to illustrate your work isn’t always easy.
I discovered this with The Dinner Club and Other Stories, when I spent a whole afternoon looking at stock photos of fish and chips, in order to find one that reflected a child’s home dinner with his grandmother. And what did everyone, but everyone (even the judges who longlisted it for an award!) later say to me? It looks like a cookbook! Young readers thought otherwise, however – as will be seen below.
So we have to work within our budgets, and with whatever we can get. But perhaps this forces us to be all the more creative. It can even feed back into the text of our books. With The (Fairly) Magic Show I changed the card found by a child in the title story from the King of Clubs to the King of Spades, simply because we’d found a brilliant photo of a pile of cards with this on top.
Sometimes a talented designer can change an ordinary stock photo into something magical and memorable. The graveyard of The Spirit of London became this, simply by adding a sunlight effect. On High Spirits, the one that won the award by the way, we changed a stock Grim Reaper hooded spirit into the Doppelganger of the book simply by adding some smoke and a few energy beams to reflect the climax of the novel.
The imagination is the only barrier to being creative with what we have. Ask any child who builds entire worlds from building bricks or cardboard boxes. And in my case, they’re my readers.
What does the reader want to see?
With all communication, the fundamental question to ask yourself is: who is my target audience? And going on from that, what do they want to see, read or hear? With my novels and short stories, I always visualise the intelligent 9-12 year old, reading a book at school or home, or having it read to them, wanting to be informed, inspired, but above all, entertained!
And therefore, the cover has to reflect this, being as colourful, exciting and intriguing as possible. It’s not a bad ground rule for novels for adults, either. The image should complement the title and reinforce it, while both perhaps pose questions that the reader will want answered. Anything and everything to make them want to read.
Sometimes the meaning of the cover and its image won’t become clear until the book is read – as with the ruined world on the cover of The Sword of the Spirit, or the door on The Alien in the Garage. And an added complication these days is that the cover has to be easily adaptable to different formats – paperback, ebook or audiobook. Childish Spirits, the first Spirits novel, is currently being recorded as an audiobook, which has meant reformatting its cover from portrait to square – the shape traditionally used for CDs.
As we’ve seen, we can start with the everyday and make something extraordinary out of it. Sometimes the reaction from the young reader can surprise even the author. The Dinner Club, following its “cookbook” criticisms, went on to inspire reluctant readers I worked with at one school to create their own Dinner Club, with the help of their teachers, in which they were granted an early lunch, ate fish and chips and discussed books and their writing. A cover image did that. Not even the book – its cover. This shows the importance of getting the cover right and tailoring it to its target audience.
Children’s authors should also remember that it isn’t necessarily about doing a “wacky” or “kiddie” cover. I’ve had criticisms – from adults, always from adults – that my covers look “too grown up”. Childish Spirits was one such novel, with its spooky abandoned nursery and ghostly portrait, yet in one school workshop a group of children solemnly claimed they could see extra ghosts in the doorway and next to the curtain. (Have a look. Can you?)
None of them seemed to think that this book wasn’t for them. And all of them were engaged and stimulated as readers by what they saw. No one ever said that children’s books were just for children, either. It’s worth remembering that Harry Potter was published with children’s and adult covers – and that it’s adults who are frequently the buyers of children’s literature.
How do we design a good cover?
I’m sure that whole books could be devoted to this alone, but here are a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way:
- Keep your target audience in mind constantly. What do they want to see – and read?
- Basic background colour is important. You know your text better than anyone – what “colour” is it? A dark fantasy story could call for black. A light-hearted romance might benefit from white. White can also be sinister – especially if some blood appears. Children are attracted by bright colours. And so on.
- Choose the best possible image from the best source available on your budget. It should be something that captures the essence of your story and/or characters, perhaps obviously, perhaps less so until the book is read.
- Choose a font that reflects the style of your story, its title and what your audience wants to see. A computerised, businesslike font might look good on a business studies book but less so on your middle-grade fantasy novel.
- Lay everything out clearly, attractively and don’t clutter your front cover.
- If you have review quotes from previous books, or an advance review for this one, try and get at least one quote on the cover, if this can be done comfortably without cluttering. Give the source, and make it clear which book it refers to – e.g. “On High Spirits:”. And of course, make sure you’re authorised to reproduce this material! Check with the reviewer if there’s any doubt. Reviews might show up better on printed covers than electronic-only. And if you can’t fit a review on the printed front cover – there’s always the back!
- The finished front cover should ideally be adaptable to different formats and media. You might get the chance at paperback, ebook and audiobook – as I now have. A good designer can advise you here.
So, a suitably intriguing and attention-grabbing cover can engage the reader, young or old. It simply has to be right for the story, for the characters, and above all, for your audience. And once you get them past the cover? Then you, as the author, can work your magic.
Thank you, Rob
And I am back to thank him for taking time off his busy schedule to write us a guest post. You can follow and contact Rob through these links.
If you have something to add to Rob’s story, drop a comment here or send him a word of thanks on the social media. Both of us would love that.Also, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the independent publishing community, write to me right away. I am still accepting guest post submissions.
Let us chat
As a reader, what kinda covers put you off a book? As an author, what are the things that you look out when you chose your book cover? Tell us about your experience with choosing your book covers. Let us talk.