David Marusek: Cover Story

The German edition of Fairbanks author David Marusek’s story collection, ‘Wir waren außer uns vor Glück,’ is a finalist for the Kurd Lasswitz Preis. Wunderbar!

A few weeks ago Andromeda wrote an excellent post on the topic of book covers. Publishers, especially the big houses, seem to hold the opinion that cover design is an esoteric art best left to the experts in the marketing department. For the most part I have been satisfied to leave it at that.

This happy arrangement changes the moment you decide to self-publish. Suddenly you are the marketing department as well as the creative director, and the onus of coming up with the perfect cover falls squarely on your shoulders. Of all the tasks involved in creating an ebook, producing a cover is the one that seems most formidable to writers. It’s a headache even for me, and my day job used to be as a graphic designer. The problem, at least on the technical side, is that the specifications are in a state of rapid flux. Display size and aspect ratio vary with each ereader, making it necessary to do a dozen or so optimizations. The different ereaders treat files differently; that is, one will stretch images out of proportion to fit the display while others add extra margins to fill the gaps. One ereader opens the ebook on the title page, bypassing the cover altogether, while others display it in black and white.

What to do? If you have Photoshop chops and DYI ambitions, I suggest you go for it but keep it simple. If you don’t want the hassle, you can hire someone to design the cover for you. If you search online, you can find oodles of artists willing to create a cover for you on the cheap, for $100 or so. In my opinion, $400 to $1000 is a more reasonable cost, and for that you’ll probably get files for both a traditionally printed cover and its ebook edition (including spine and back). You may need to shop around to find a cover artist you like.

Whether you outsource your cover or “shoop” it yourself, it’s good to know what a cover is supposed to do. We can think of covers as performing at least two major functions. The first is as a sales tool, possibly the book’s most important point-of-purchase tool. In a crowded bookstore, a good cover should stand out, attract a browser’s attention, evoke the book’s content, and tip the browser into becoming a buyer. A traditional cover also has a spine (a truncated cover), jacket copy (which the publisher may expect you to write), and rhapsodic blurbs from reviewers and noted authors (which the publisher may expect you to solicit).

A second function of a book cover (or book jacket) is to serve as a cultural artifact in its own right (much like LP album covers in the days of yore). It’s a piece of graphic art related to but not entirely dependent on the book. And when you carry a book in public, the cover acts as a cultural calling card (Look, I read Literature, not that Snooki crap).

With printed books, the same cover performs both functions. With ebooks, the two functions are treated separately. The second function—cultural artifact—has largely disappeared (at least for now). An ebook cover is embedded in the book as just one more page, and publishers seem to treat it as an afterthought. After all, by the time most readers look at it, if they look at it at all, they have already purchased the ebook (or have downloaded sample chapters). Some publishers omit embedded covers altogether or supply generic placeholder covers. In the marketplace, sales trump culture every time.

The first function—point-of-purchase sales tool—only comes into play online, and there the cover rarely appears larger than a postage stamp. It has lost its blurbs and jacket copy. These appear independently elsewhere in the listing, not on the cover (or if they do, they’re too small to read). Online booksellers have introduced new sales inducements—customer reviews, stars, likes—to serve as a sort of digital word-of-mouth. These use even smaller versions of the cover under headings such as, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought . . . or Frequently Bought Together . . .”

When designing or commissioning an ebook cover keep in mind that it needs to function at sizes from about 200 pixels down to about 30. (Barnes & Noble listing covers are comfortably larger.) Here’s a good example from the Amazon site:

Though this cover was designed for the traditional market, it works well online. Three elements come into play: title, author’s name, and graphical shape. One or all of these should be legible down to the next to the smallest size. At the smaller sizes, the cover acts more like an icon than a cover and serves to remind the browser of a cover she has already viewed at larger sizes. Here’s a bad example:

On this cover, even at its largest size, the title and author name are washed out. The dominant element seems to be a fuzzy pastel shape. In its defense, all of this bestselling author’s book covers are fuzzy and pastel; it defines the author’s brand and helps to attract her fans.

If you plan to design your own cover but are unsure how to come up with appropriate illustrations, search online. There are billions of artists and photogs with their wares on display. But keep in mind, you can’t just use whatever you like without their permission. That’s theft. Also, it’ll do you little good to use “free” in your search term; most “free” image vendors still expect you to pay for use. It’s better to search for “Creative Commons” images. Under CC, the creator of a work sets the terms under which it can be used, often no more than acknowledging her as the creator. Also search for public domain images, which have no restrictions. I found the public domain images I used for several of my ebooks at Wikimedia Commons.

If you are searching for an artist to commission an original work, I recommend DeviantART. An AMAZING collection of artists and photogs.

Finally, another tactic you could take for designing your cover would be to do a typographic style design.

In these covers, the graphical shape is the type itself, combining th
e title, author’s name, and graphical shape into one element against a background color. A simple but effective design at all sizes.

Next up: promoting your ebook.

David Marusek writes science fiction in Fairbanks. His second novel, Mind Over Ship, won the Endeavour Award in 2010, and he is currently working on his third, Camp Tribulation.

1 thought on “David Marusek: Cover Story”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I was interested enough in this topic that I went looking for other book cover sites and found this great one:


    Lots of inspiration for the DIY cover designer. If I were a young graphic artist, this is a specialty I would cultivate– with so many people self-publishing, seems like a good skill to have and a fun way to work with books.

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