Cover art is probably one of the most important aspects of your book. Think about how you choose a book to read. You go on a library or ebook site and search through literally 10’s of thousands of books. You might put in some author or subject key words, but you’re still left with hundreds. You scan the cover thumbnails. When something pops out at you, *then* you look at title, synopsis, and ratings. Cover art is the first impression your book makes on the world, and unfortunately it is judged by it. Good and bad cover art will affect who reads and who doesn’t.
I always advocate working with an actual cover artist. They can take your ideas, clean them up, and make them pop. They know the difference between legally used images and pirated images. They can make sure your cover is unique and 100% legal. *For more info on legal image uses see my blog ‘The Importance of Cover Art’.* It’s also helpful to have someone to bounce ideas around with.
Most cover artists will give you what you ask for, but design is a two way street, and many people fail to listen to their artist to their own detriment. Yes, you want to see the image that is in your head made real, but it is important to take in the advice of your artist. There are reasons some images won’t work no matter how bad you may want them. If your artist is trying to talk you out of an idea, there’s a reason.
One of the very first things myself and the other artists on staff think about is how the cover will look as a thumbnail. 90% of the books out there are only seen as thumbnails because readers only scan the massive lists before them. What looks great big, or when the book is in your hands, doesn’t always look good small where it is first seen. Look at the difference in these two covers. Both happen to be my work, but The Librarian was before I went to art school. I broke many rules. the title is hard to read in smaller size. The image is too busy, and while the posterization seems like a cool idea at the time, it is an overused device to hiding blending and layering problems. Even the coloring and lighting is different for each subject in the image.
The title needs to be legible as a thumbnail. Script writing is pretty and works well with shorter titles that are a major part of the cover space. Long titles or titles taking up a smaller space will be invisible as a thumbnail. Longer titles work best when you take the most important part of the title and making it large enough to grab attention, then you can use other devices like script writing for the rest of it. Personally, I rarely look at the title listed next to the book, and some sites don’t even list that. Your title has to be seen. You can only rely on interest of the image so much. Big time authors with clout and several books out can design covers that show off their name as more important than the title, but that doesn’t work well with newer authors.
A busy cover will be lost entirely as a thumbnail. Sometimes that’s important to the book, but there are ways to get around that. Using a blocking technique, for instance. That’s where you arrange the elements into specific blocks on your cover. This can be putting a banner or plaque over top of the image to hold your title, Or having a clear top and bottom to draw the eye around. Also changing focus by leaving less important elements purposely blurred or darkened helps your reader to pay attention to the subject. Making the title glow can work in some places but often adds to the muddiness of the image and if done without proper nuance can look like a child’s drawing.
Beware of color choices. We are tempted to go monochromatic because it all matches and may even set the mood for a book, but it turns into a muddy, hard to read mess as a thumbnail, and even as a full sized book it’s hard to see the nuances. This cool design and font get lost. There needs to be enough contrast between the title and background image to be seen. You can use dark on light or light on dark, or look at your color wheel for complementary colors. Usually, when looking at a color wheel, opposite colors work together the best, or even 3 equally spaced apart, this is a tetrad. For instance blue and yellow or orange make an impact without jarring the eyes. Or orange, green and violet.
Image blending is one of the first things I see as an artist. It tells me instantly the level of skill the artist had while making that cover. When making a piece of art from several smaller pieces, you cut them out and layer them into place. The edges need to be softened and feathered, and the image needs to be adjusted for lighting, color, and opacity so they blend with the other images on the page making it look like one whole scene. Untrained viewers can also easily see this was an amateur job; they’re just not always sure how to explain it. Ill-blended edges look chunky and some parts seem too bright or too dark.
Do research on your genre. The rules change for each genre. Certain color choices or symbology attract the readers of that genre. When talking about zombies, biohazard signs bring the most attention. Having a loving couple might be important to your zombie book, but readers will see that and dismiss it instantly. Look at the covers of popular books in your genre. You want to walk the fine line of standing out, but attracting the right audience. This is hard, but is another thing professional artists have been trained to do. Both of these are good covers, but if you want a zombie story, which one are you going to read?
Take a look at some of these covers and think about which ones you want to read and why, and which ones you would just pass over. Trust your artist. Give them a chance to wow you, and ask questions before you reject an idea. The artist's name is going on these covers. Trust me, they don't want their name on bad work. It will forever haunt them.
*No commentary is made on the quality of the writing in any of these books. Some of the stories behind the bad covers will surprise you.*
I have seen too many good authors get scammed lately or worrying themselves out of good contracts only to sign a bad one. The main reason this happens is lack of information. Here are 7 of the most important questions everyone should ask their publisher...even if their work is already out.
1. Do you have an LLC?
Here’s why: LLC stands for Limited Liability Corporation. What this means is this is a licensed business that pays taxes and is accountable for what they pay you in royalties. All that is reported. The owner of a contract that does not have an LLC can be jailed for accepting income. All the authors published under such a shady scam, will likely never get paid for their work and may never be allowed to publish those works elsewhere because of release rights…which brings us to…
2. What is the length of release rights?
Here’s why: Copyrights mean it is your intellectual property and no one can duplicate it without your permission. Release rights means you have given someone (your publisher) permission to show your work to the world. This also means they can choose to never release your work and still not allow you to take the work elsewhere until the term of the contract is up. They can release your work for whatever price they want which can affect your royalties. If you part ways with the publisher you cannot repackage the work with new cover. However the press that owns the release rights can. Copyrights are well and good, but release rights can make or break you. Pay way more attention to that part of your contract than any other. You want a solid term length. Three to Five years is usually standard. You want to make sure the release rights are for the work you are trying to contract and not future works. If the company folds and is unable, due to jail (see LLC) or bankruptcy, to show your work to the world, the courts and the IRS now own your release rights until the end of time.
3. Are the release right exclusive or non-exclusive?
Here’s why: Exclusive rights means regardless of any time limit to the contract the release rights are owned by the contract holder for life. You can never take that work anywhere else again. Those are typically paid for, either in lump sum or higher royalty percentage. This also means your release rights can be sold to another press by the contract holder and you have no control over that. Should a movie company buy your exclusive release rights they can stop production or printing of your book, and again you have no control. Non-exclusive rights are a set term limit as outlined in a contract. Once that time is up you can take the work anywhere you want to go. These are typically paid for by a lower royalty percentage or are non-paid. If your contract says, for example, “two year exclusive rights” that means your book will be printed for two years only and then if they don’t want to print anymore your book is gone for life.
4. Is this an independent business or a co-op?
Here’s why: A co-op is a cooperation of a few different companies or individuals working towards a common goal, i.e. producing your book. The problem with co-ops is one or more of the parties involved may not have an LLC. This is bad news right here, if one part of the co-op folds or is in jail it can cascade to everyone and every piece of work they’ve touched. The other scary part, you are giving release rights to every party involved. If the co-op splits this holds your work and your money up in litigation for potentially years. Another way it could go is now several people are releasing your work, not all of them contracted to pay you for that privilege. Some co-ops are fully licensed with all parties and really do some great work, but get details and track record, and find out about each party so you don’t get stuck giving away your release rights to someone unscrupulous.
5. I am part of anthology, what will happen if my editor leaves the project?
Here’s why: If you have a stand-alone work, most likely other staff members of the press will pick up the work. As an author in an antho you now run into the problem of the editor trying to take the work with them. They don’t really own the release rights, but it turns life for all the authors miserable as the legal battle ensues. A good press stops it cold (i.e. stopping production or unpublishing the work), makes sure it isn't exclusive, and returns rights (get out of jail free card allowing the author to walk with their story) or releases under a reputable editor. Repackage by the original press is one way to make it quick and simple for everyone and allow for ebb and flow. A new press can never accept the original anthology because of muddy waters where release rights are concerned.
6. Do I pay you anything?
Here’s why: True publishing is always 100% free to the author. Publishers make their money off a percentage of your sales. Industry standard is 35% to author. A solid company will list what they offer and what you will have to go elsewhere for. Find out what 65% of your royalties goes to. Good publishers will offer editing, formatting, and cover art. Some smaller presses may not be able to provide cover art, but they should be explicit about this point. You should never pay them for the cover art, but the artist or artist’s company itself. Any press that asks for any money, even five dollars, should be avoided at all cost; they are either a scam or a vanity press, which isn’t much better.
7. How will I be paid?
Here’s why: As stated above, industry standard royalty is 35% of the final sale goes to the author. Each press is a little different. Make sure you know what your percentage is and how it compares to the industry in your country and genre. Non-fiction books have a different percentage, for example. However, the actual number quoted in your contract is at the discretion of the contract holder. Failure to pay you what they quote is a contract breach, but it doesn’t end the contract. They still hold your release rights until the term stated is up, or in worst case and the company is bankrupt…forever. If this should happen to you, contact a lawyer. You want to have explicit information on what your royalty is, when it will be paid out, and what method the press will use to get that money to you (i.e. Paypal, check, direct deposit).
*I am not an attorney and this is not meant as legal advice. Authors should consult an attorney for legal advice.*
Susan is a writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends. She walks the path of a Siedr and strives to grow day by day.