Scott's Note: Richie Narvaez returns to Do Some Damage to guest blog today, dispensing some blunt wisdom he has picked up during his years in the book world.
Your Book Cover May Suck
by Richie Narvaez
A bad book cover will hurt your book. It’ll stop people from taking it seriously. And worse, they might not even buy it. How do you know if your book cover sucks? Well, if it looks like any book covers featured on LOUSY BOOK COVERS or TERRIBLY BAD BOOK COVERS, that’s a pretty good sign.
Many authors are so giddy that their baby has a face, they don’t think that maybe baby’s face shouldn’t have cheap clip art on it. This generally doesn’t affect Big 5 babes, of course, but many indie press and self-pubbers are plagued by poorly designed covers.
If you’re a self-pubber and your cover stinks, you haven’t done all your homework. If you’re with a small press, and their designer presents you with a turd, you might lack confidence in your aesthetic chops and let it pass. Don’t. A good cover is worth fighting for.
In another lifetime, I was a freelance book cover concept developer, which sounds fancy but just means I summarized books and came up with a list of salient images and cover ideas for illustrators and designers who didn’t have time to read books. Case in point: the Robert Barnard book cover shown here, designed by Gail Belenson and illustrated by Greg Harlin.
This job paid the bills for a while and, while I’m no expert, it taught me a few things about what works on a book cover and what doesn’t.
Your cover has to pop — at a distance
At Zoom meetings, you often see people’s bookshelves behind them. It’s a better background than the exercise bike doubling as a drying rack or the near-empty liquor cabinet. Sometimes book covers will be turned toward the camera. A good cover in the background gets a free shoutout. A bad cover remains a blur.
Remember also that people shop for books via handheld devices with small screens. Your cover has to make an impression even when it’s tiny. That means the text has to be legible. So, avoid fancy script typefaces, and if your lettering is thin, it has to pop out against the background.
Look at Hilary Davidson’s Don’t Look Down, the title type is clear at a thousand yards, and its pyramiding of size and placement high above a city view creates an unsettling sense of vertigo. Or look at Angel Luis Colon’s Hell Chose Me with that perfect pig next to giant type on a background of unpleasant pink that signals that this is not going to be a conventional read, and it’s not. Brilliant cover.
Your cover is an advertisement
You won’t be there to boast of your book’s virtues when the reader is at the bookstore or scrolling on the crapper. What’s your book about? Your title carries some of this weight—puns for the cozies, sinister-sounding double-meaning idioms for the thrillers. But the reader looks to the type and the image to tell them if the story will have blood, brutality, or banana bread recipes.
The cover should signal the genre and highlight themes from the text. Look at any of the covers in Alexia Gordon’s Gethsemane Brown series or L.A. Chandler’s Art Deco series. They’re all perfect ads for what’s inside. No one wants to open a box of Cheez-Its only to find circus peanuts.
Your cover needs a clear focal point
Think of your cover as a cool t-shirt you want to show off forever. Not like the Hootie and the Blowfish concert tee you only wear around the house. The best way to achieve that longevity and memorability is a strong central image.
The image must also be graphically interesting. Not a plastic bag or a dust bunny, for example. With crime fiction, we deal a lot with blood and weaponry. Blood can work on a cover, but a little goes a long way. And highlighting guns can feel too much like an endorsement. But if there’s a cat, by Bast, show a cat. You can use more than one image, but avoid collages—they’re very hard to pull off well.
To make it noir, Zach went black for the background, but that was too similar to another book the publisher had out recently (¡Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas!—check it out), so then he went against expectations with a bright but still muted color. Then, to really make it noir, he crushed it. The frog, that is.
It’s my most t-shirtable book cover yet. Frankly, I’ll probably get more compliments on it than the text inside.
You can get Noiryorican right here.