Cover Story (the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

Cover Story

(the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

A recent review of Little Gidding Girl mentioned the image on the cover, querying why the figure is fairly slender when the statue mentioned in the book is of a goddess figurine with generous curves. I confess that when I was trying to find a concept for the cover art of this book I was all at sea. I don’t understand cover design, or why it’s quite so important, because for me, the vast majority of the covers I see are a big turn off. They make me feel manipulated, the way almost all advertisements do. That might well be just me, though. I am told that because most people are highly visual, the cover art is vital to grabbing the attention of potential readers and getting them to take notice, read the blurb and buy. Many authors redo covers, finding a new theme or concept to tie together books in a series or to standardise a brand. I have no idea whether it works, or whether it would work for mine or not, and don’t have enough energy to give thought to it. Finding the right ideas for a cover has been the bane of my existence.

For Little Gidding Girl, I combined two ideas from the story and from my vague blatherings and a photo of my own, Annette composed the art. The background shows a rustic door or gate in a wall, behind which you can see what may be roses or may be apples and may be both; the door we never opened into a rose garden is drawn from the poetry that runs through the book, but apple trees fill the garden of the main character Verity. The goddess figurine unites two strands within the story: Verity’s grandfather had been an archaeologist of some note, and the figurine was acquired by Nick’s aunt, who was a buyer of antiques and antiquities. Yet finding the correct image wasn’t easy. There are pitfalls and prat-falls abounding when it comes to acquiring and using photographs of actual antiquities and art. The image is actually from a pendant I bought last year, rummaged from a bargain bucket in a shop in Glastonbury and digitally altered somewhat (the thing itself is a bit over an inch long). I would have preferred a more fecund set of curves, but since fat is OUT in terms of the way our culture seems to lean, I settled for this relatively slender and youthful form. Together the image is striking and intriguing and also, unlike anything else I’ve seen.

When it comes down to it, I find myself baffled by the fashions in book covers in the time I have been self-publishing. Not just independent books but traditionally published ones all seem to follow trends until you can almost always guess the nature of a book by its cover; in the wake of (cough) Fifty Shades (cough) every volume of erotic fiction sported certain instantly recognisable clues to its contents. Often highly symbolic in theme (fruit, masks, whips, dark colours etc) the covers gave a sense of what lay within in a codified manner. I sometimes toy with the idea of producing a cover with that type of symbolic images for, let’s say, The Bet, and see what happens. Probably a swathe of disappointed readers for though that novel contains a lot of sex, pretty much all of it is off-camera.

Each genre has a well-established set of codes for cover art, because it’s a way of subliminally attracting readers in the same way the Also Bought suggestions online also do. Books that straddle genres (like mine) or defy classification (again, like mine) can’t easily take advantage of this visual shorthand. I’ve thought occasionally about new covers for some books. The Bet is my own favourite book (yeah, I am that vain) but I don’t think its cover is right. The current cover suggests a gothic horror and while in a strange way it does trespass into that territory, it doesn’t fit at all. The folks who have read it have generally raved about it, but when it comes to finding it a well-fitting niche, there doesn’t seem to be one and I am reluctant to proceed any further with the sequel (written but needing a good proofread and a cover) until I have cracked that conundrum. What I’d like is to find the right themes for the covers of both The Bet and the first sequel (currently entitled One Immortal Diamond) and when OID is ready to roll, relaunch The Bet with a new cover that prefigures the cover for OID.

The other problem with going back and redoing covers is that it takes away energy from writing and releasing new books. I’m working on very restricted energy anyway, so the chances are very small of coming up with new covers for all that need them. I think I’d rather use what creative forces I can muster to actually get on with writing and while my health remains impaired, I apologise for my lack of alacrity in getting new books out there. People say the best way to sell more books is to write more but I am far from sure that’s true. But having managed to write (longhand) some short stories recently, and observed that I felt mentally and spiritually a LOT better for doing so, I am starting to think that if writing is my way through the inner horrors, then I must just write and stop worrying whether the current covers of my books are “good enough”.

10 thoughts on “Cover Story (the art of book covers from an author without much of a clue)

  1. I quite agree that the genre specific covers of crime, romance etc are almost always a turn off.They look so predictable that the assumption is the book will deliver only the predictable. But as I don’t read those sort of books I assume it is only my self justifying prejudice that judges them so.

    What is much more difficult, as your dilemma suggests, is deciding how to convey but not illustrate non genre works. Having sought opinions on my book A Shadow in Yucatan ( before republishing it) a simple slightly contemplative nude in shadow was judged to suggest erotica. I foolishly heeded this opinion and ended up with a cover much less attractive. So clearly first impressions matter, but whose? For me seeking opinions have never helped, but added to the confusion.

    Collections of Short stories have no established visual clues, and yet one is warned not to make covers graphically too self sufficient, but keep them conservative! Can’t win!

    In the end one is forced to rely on oneself, but given my spectacular failure to sell books ( even one with a cover design award) that is no comfort! Except perhaps to you?


  2. It’s a constant worry – but having run a weekly post Friday Face-Off where I compare covers for the same book, all I can say is that traditional publishers with all that expertise at their fingertips can get it horribly wrong. Schoolboy errors like having a blonde heroine on the cover with a yellow background, for instance – she ended up looking bald… Good luck, Viv – I think your covers are all appealing and nicely designed. As you say, your writing defies strict genre classification so overthinking your covers would probably be an exercise in futility.


  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with covers! I’ve done my own design for nearly all my self published titles, which according to a lot of the advice available online is a big no-no. Apparently, you should never do your own cover. But since I could never afford the services of a professional artist, that was the only option I’ve had in most cases. To be honest, I don’t think they worked out too badly!


    • I’ve heard the same advice. Some of mine I have done myself. It’s all about Return of Investment, and actually having anything to invest in the first place. I’ve also discovered wiki media commons as a good source of art, so the short story collection basically needs someone to add the words in the right place to a piece of art I like. I think yours are as good as many professionally designed ones, so rest easy.
      I don’t think the advice is correct; so much of it comes from people wanting to sell services (see my post on the gold-rush) and creating a market for said services.


      • Glad you like my covers, Viv! I’ve drawn on various resources – artwork from friends and other sources, my own photographs, and the skills of our oldest son, who does incredibly clever things with photoshop and other programmes as a job. The only time I’ve paid for a cover was when I commission an artist friend to do something for my children’s story, and that was partly to give her some business. (I was very pleased with the result).


  4. You can’t please everyone, that is certain, so I think the best thing to do is do what your heart tells you – and please yourself! It is helpful to check our motivations regularly, to check why we are doing our stuff, whether we want to do it, and how we plan to. That keeps changing.

    Great post, Viv, thanks!


    • Hi Viv, apologies if my comment looks like I’m spamming. I don’t know anyone from this link, but spotted it in an article from this month’s edition of Permaculture magazine. 🙂 Hope you are well.


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