Lizzie Newell: Angling with Cover Design

Sappho’s Agency Cover

The best thing about self-publishing may be doing your own cover. It also can be one of the worst things. Many traditionally published authors have no control of cover art and must enduring wildly inappropriate pairings of cover with book. Alaskan books often end up with Canadian scenery or with the wrong kind of equipment. This may be fine if all the readers are in the Lower 48 but target readers in Alaska and elsewhere may very well know the difference. When an author self-publishes she has control of the cover and that poses a challenge.

“You can’t tell a book by its cover” is only true of badly designed covers. A well-designed cover immediately conveys genre and subject matter. It catches the eye of those who might enjoy the book and establishes confidence in the author. The author is like an angler supplied with fishing gear for catching fish. In this scenario, the cover is akin to that scrap of feathers, furs, bait, and baubles which induces fish to bite.

The cover should attract not just any reader, but the target species. You can’t catch trout with a hunk of herring impaled on a halibut hook, nor can you catch a halibut with a dry fly. I’ve seen self-published science fiction covers which look like memoir and inspirational non-fiction which looks like fantasy. These covers attract the wrong readers who don’t buy the book or become disappointed and leave one star reviews.

The process of cover design starts with a visit to a bookstore for a chat with booksellers and a perusal of the shelves to see what readers are rising to, and biting. Genre shelving gives an idea of what kind of readers are in the pond and what they’re attracted to. Based on reader taste, the writer chooses the appropriate hook and bait which can be purchased by hiring a cover designer. Or the writer can craft his or her own cover. Designing a cover may involve purchasing software, an upgraded computer, camera equipment, and peripherals such as a drawing slate. A professional can spread these costs over multiple projects, and so hiring a designer is often the cheapest option. I’ve seen covers done for as low as $200. This amount doesn’t even cover the subscription for necessary software, let alone time and the additional equipment.

On the other hand, the author may have the best knowledge of the target  audience. The author is certainly the premier expert on the book. Purchasing the necessary equipment, upgrading skills, and putting the time in on the design may be worthwhile. It’s all a matter of what attracts target readers. Regardless of how the cover is produced, the goal is to attract readers while avoiding bycatch.

Lizzie Newell is an author, illustrator, book designer, and artist living in Anchorage, Alaska. She has written six books and twelve short stories set on the planet Fenria, a world which greatly resembles Alaska. She crafts related jewelry, costumes, and sculpture and received both a BA in arts and humanities from CSU in Colorado and a BFA in fine art from UAA. She does book design for other authors and often works with consulting editor Rebecca Goodrich. Newell’s first book, Sappho’s Agency, is available at UAA Bookstore and at Fireside Books in Palmer and as an e-book. She’s working on the cover for her next book, The Stud and the Sperm Thief, which will be available in October 2015.

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