• John Clarkson

The Cover Story (Part 1)

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

There’s lots of advice out there on how to create a book cover for author’s considering self-publishing. I’m attempting to contribute to the topic from my perspective as an author who has had all his novels traditionally published, and from my experience in advertising.  

What about those of you who aren’t authors and will never need to create a book cover? Why should you read this? I suppose you might like to “go behind the curtain” and see how it’s done. But, mostly, you should read this because creating an effective book cover involves understanding how to sell something. EVERYBODY has to sell something at some point, even if it’s just selling somebody on your opinion. The last topic I’ll cover will let you know the single most important piece of information you need to sell ANYTHING.

Here are the topics I’ll cover:

  1. How to find book cover designers.

  2. The key factor in choosing a designer.

  3. The criteria for a successful book cover.

  4. What a designer needs to know in order to create     your book cover. 

A quick word about creating a cover for your book in traditional publishing.  Short answer, authors don’t have much to do with it.  If an author has a good publishing partner, the publisher will probably show you their proposed cover and may listen to your feedback, but almost all traditional publishing contracts give final say to the publisher.   

I recently went through the cover design process at St. Martin’s Press for the first two books in my new James Beck Series: AMONG THIEVES and BRONX REQUIEM.  I’m happy to say it was collaborative.  I think we ended up with good covers.  But if a publisher doesn’t want to collaborate or ask your opinion, mistakes will probably occur.  That happened with the covers the U.K. publisher adapted from the U.S. versions.  No need to go into details.  (If you’re really interested, email me and I’ll share.) 

Here’s the point: self-publishing gives the author control over the cover design.  That’s the good news. The bad news – it’s all up to the author. 

So, how do one go about creating a successful cover?  Let’s go through the four points mentioned above.  

1. How to find book cover designers

1 started with THE SELF-PUBLISHERS ULTIMATE RESOURCE GUIDE by Joel Friedlander &  Betty Kelly Sargent.  It’s a valuable resource for all aspects of self-publishing, including creating a cover.  

I also slogged through blogs and websites with information on designers and book cover design.  I’m not listing them here because frankly, I didn’t find any that really nailed the topic. My advice is to start looking around the internet.  You’ll find plenty of information, but you’ll have to sift and winnow to get what you need.   

I ended up searching through about 20 websites and blogs, and 139 designers or design firms that specialize in book cover design.  At each of those designers’ sites, I looked at about 100 covers.  I also re-visited about 15 of the designers’ sites multiple times.  So, figure I checked out about 15,000 covers.  

Yes, a very large number.  But what are the takeaways worth passing on?

  • The internet makes it possible to evaluate designers from around the world in a wide range of caliber and competence.  But how do you narrow it down?  Book cover design resources fall into two categories: individual designers and design firms.  With individual designers, the work shown on the website was probably done by the designer.  What you see is probably what you’ll get.  Note the word “probably”.  My experience in advertising taught me that lots of people claim authorship of other people’s work.  And, you can never be 100% sure your assignment won’t be farmed out to someone else.   With design firms, this is a bigger problem.  Design firms give you access to more designers, but you can’t tell what designer designed a given book cover.  So, you really have no idea if “what you see is what you’ll get”.  Even if you push to find out who designed the covers you like, there’s no guarantee that person will be designing your cover.  Do what you can to find out who designed the covers that seem to fit your needs and taste and then try to make sure that designer works on your cover.    Lastly, there are some firms out there whose model I completely disagree with – the ones who offer a “crowdsourcing” system.  Meaning, they guarantee (based on escalating prices) that they will have X number of “highly qualified” designers generate Y number of designs to choose from. In my experience, this usually doesn’t work out well.  You’ll spend way too much time sifting through dozens and dozens of “ideas”. I say, start with a designer who has already demonstrated they are capable of designing a book cover you like. 

  • Be clear on the genre of your book.  Knowing the genre will make your search easier and faster.  You can skip over many covers very quickly and concentrate on the ones in your genre.  More on genre later.  It’s one of the most important elements of the cover design process. 

  • I would advise skipping the designers or design firms who present a minimalist, highly-designed website that doesn’t bother with explaining costs, procedures, time frames, etc.  I suppose they figure that a beautifully designed website should be enough to sell you on their work.  Maybe you’ll agree with them.  But my advice is – don’t go into a creative project without knowing costs, procedures, etc. up front.   

  • You’ll find prices that range from $250 to $5,000+.  I would say you’ll pay around $1,000 for a good cover.  Many design websites are vague or slippery on price. Avoid them.  Others offer premium packages that include things like advice on packaging, marketing services, etc.  I would avoid them, too.  It violates the “jack of all trades, master of none” rule. 

  • Also, realize that the cover design (and the price you’ll pay for it) is roughly half the job.  In addition to the cover, you’ll need someone who can also design the interior of the book, both e-book and printed book, set type, format different files for different distribution channels, etc.  I recommend you use a cover designer that can do the whole job.  Most do. 

  • Of all the services offered, make sure you know how many rounds of revisions a designer or design firm is offering you for a given price.  The word “revisions” is a slippery term.  You can easily burn through five to ten rounds of revisions, especially if you haven’t done this before. 

2. The key factor in choosing a book cover designer.

Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to a handful of designers who have created covers you like in your genre, whose websites are clear about pricing and process.  How do you make your final choice?  What’s the key factor? 

First, let’s go back to “genre”.  Every genre has its conventions.  Thriller.  Mystery.  Action. Romance.  Young Adult.  Horror.  Gothic.  Suspense.  Science Fiction.  Fantasy.   

The cover of your book must clearly and quickly communicate the genre of your book.

My Category is Thrillers

But within the Thriller genre, there are Legal, Medical, Military,  Crime, Mystery, Political, Espionage, Serial Killer -- Thrillers.  The Thriller genre itself is a mashup of action, horror, and crime.


It’s easy to get lost in the rabbit hole of genre debates.  A genre is its own topic.  I think there’s an easier way to figure out what genre or category you book belongs in.  Most authors know what books or other authors are in their genre.  If not, they should.  So do this: Google the name of an author in your genre by entering the NAME and the word BOOKS. Google will usually finish the query by adding the word BOOKS, or BOOKS IN ORDER. You’ll be able to quickly scan dozens of covers in your genre and get a sense of the kind of book cover you need. 

In my genre, crime thrillers, it’s immediately apparent when I Googled ROBERT CRAIS BOOKS, or LEE CHILD BOOKS, or MICHAEL CONNELLY BOOKS, etc. what the cover conventions are.  It’s very much like a traditional print ad format we called A, B, C.  A stood for Headline.  B for a visual.  C for body copy.  Traditionally, each was laid out on the page in that order. In the thriller, book covers A is the author’s name.  B a visual.  C the book title.  Sometimes A and C switch places.  B is always in the center. 

Go ahead.  Give it a shot. 

Now, here’s the crucial factor.  Where do book designers get B?  Obviously, from the story. Unfortunately, too many times the visual is simply a depiction of some story element: a street scene, a building, a dead body, a lonely highway, a gun, splatter of blood, one of the characters in the story, etc.  Too often, designers throw in the towel and a visual using a color or some graphic elements, mess around with the type treatment for the name and title, and call it a day. 

Yes, you must have a cover that instantly communicates your genre.  But unless you want your book cover to look like thousands of others, in my opinion, you should choose someone who designs book covers that have an interesting visual design concept.

What the hell is a visual design concept?  It’s an idea that conveys information visually.  Hopefully, in a creative way.  A way that isn’t expected.   

You can create a visual concept with pictures, type treatment, color, design.

Here’s an example of a book cover with a simple, clear visual concept: The famous GODFATHER cover with the puppeteer’s hand and the strings connecting to the title.

This visual concept conveys the central theme in seconds: This is a story about a man (and his son) who refused to be puppets at the mercy of anyone who would try to control them. And, conversely, they will do whatever it takes to be the one pulling the strings.

Here’s another visual concept from the great Milton Glazer. The book is about an aging actor who loses his power.  Look how simply the cover gives you a sense of the story…the empty stage, absence, loss. And notice how the light penetrates and beautifully connects the visual with the Title and Author’s name.   

Both THE GODFATHER and THE HUMBLING covers communicate content visually.  

Often, while fulfilling the conventions of a given genre, there isn’t much opportunity to add a visual concept.  Often, it’s just a subtle touch, a visual idea that communicates something about the book’s content almost subliminally.  Readers may not see it at first, but they will notice it.  A subtle, creative visual idea can separate your book from the crowd, and attract readers’ attention.    

So, now you have a great designer.  You know the services they offer.  The cost.  Oh wait, you want to know the designer I chose?  His name is Anton Khodacovsky.  His company is called Book Covers for All. He’s based in Turkey.  Visit his website, and you will quickly see what I mean by a designer who understands what a design concept is. www.bookcoversforall.com   Frankly, after all the searching and evaluating, it took me minutes to know Anton understands the power of a visual concept. 

Next topic… 

3. The criteria for a successful book cover

Here is my list:  Communicates the genre of your book…as noted above.

  • Gives a sense of the content…through visuals, blurbs, reviews, story description, etc.

  • Attracts attention…through design, type treatment, colors, a visual concept (as discussed above).

  • Showcases your name…by placement and prominent type.

  • Does all of the above quickly by making sure you don’t jam in too much content. 

  • Make sure you cover looks good in a small size.  Most of your readers will be seeing it on websites,  etc.  Shrink it down to about 2 ½” tall and see how it looks. Since this is running a bit long, I’ll pick   up the last topic – what a designer needs to know in order to design your book cover – in the second part of the blog.

Plus, I’ll show you the new cover for AND JUSTICE FOR ONE.   Stay tuned . . .

June 2017 John Clarkson Newsletter

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