publishing mistakes

I’ve been designing covers for a few years, and I often have to confront cover design myths perpetuated by indie-publishing gurus and thought leaders.

There’s a lot of advice out there for indie authors, and some of it is contradictory, which has the unfortunate effect of allowing indie authors to accept the advice they like and agree with, and ignore the stuff they don’t want to think about.

My views on book cover design aren’t in sync with the general pulse of the indie publishing community – but keep in mind that:

1. most of the indie publishing community are not book designers

2. most self-published books have pretty awful book covers

3. an extremely small percentage of indie authors are actually making a living

I feel like I’m battling a hydra (multi-headed dragon whose heads grow back) as I constantly deal with new authors over the same issues, so I thought I’d share this post to bust a few myths and possibly change some paradigms.

So here are some things I think most indie authors secretly believe about book cover design, and why they’re totally wrong.

1. The book cover doesn’t matter

I know I know, everybody in the self-publishing industry keeps saying how important book cover design really is. But it’s one piece of advice that authors are quick to dismiss. Sure, they think, I know the book cover isimportant. But I don’t want to spend a lot of money right now. I’ll just hire someone cheap. Or I’ll make it myself. It just has to be good enough – the story is what’s really important. And after I’m successful, I can afford a better cover.

Why it’s wrong: packaging is everything. Authors approach me every day, saying how hard they’ve been marketing and pushing their books everywhere, and it’s all so difficult, and they don’t know what they should do. If you have an ugly, homemade cover, everything you do to promote your book is a waste of time. You may be successful if you work hard enough, long enough, and if your story is good enough. But you’re shooting yourself in the foot and then going to the ball.

Note: if it isn’t the cover, then you don’t have enough reviews. If you have enough reviews and a great cover, and it’s still not selling, it’s probably your story. Which means – even if you buy and amazing cover, your book will still fail if it’s poorly written, or nobody is interested in it. You can’t sell something people don’t want to read.

2. The cover I made myself is great. Everybody says so.

I’m not against DIY book covers. I’m all for indie authors saving money and taking control. The problem is most indie authors have a terrible sense of design, and make their cover according to their emotional whims and flights of fancy, rather than what sells. Authors tell me all the time “I’m a writer, not a designer” but then take control of the process, tell me exactly what they want me to make, and ignore my protestations.

You may be pretty proud of what you were able to accomplish in publisher or gimp. But it’s probably not good enough. Don’t ask your friends or family: they will lie to you to spare your feelings. Paying someone $5 on will probably result in a better cover than one you’ve made yourself. You can’t trust your own judgment. Even (or especially) if you love the cover, it may not sell well. Get a damn good designer and trust them, or find a few friends who have thousands of Facebook followers and ask them to post your cover for some really critical feedback. (If you still think your cover is awesome, make sure you’re not making these mistakes.)

Note: I made my own cover for my first self-published book 10 years ago. I spent months. I agonized and obsessed over every detail. I kept asking my friends and family for reaffirmation, excited and glowing. It was busy and hideous. I redid it and made a slight less ugly (but still terrible) new edition. After designing almost a thousand book covers, I’m beginning to think I know what I’m doing.

3. The title needs to be legible as a thumbnail

I hear this one all the time: “the title font or subtitle or author name can’t be read easily as a thumbnail. And nobody will buy the book if they can’t read it immediately from the thumbnail size.” It’s bogus. Next time you’re on Amazon browsing books, notice your own behavior. If you see a book that looks interesting, do you squint and read all the tiny text on the thumbnail, or do you read the big, clear text right under the cover?

thumbnails-800x253 The 5 critical errors most self-publishing authors make on their book cover design

Take a look at these bestselling book covers – you can’t make out the title in all of them. You can’t read the author name in all of them. And you don’t need to, because that info is right there staring you in the face. What youcan tell, immediately, even at thumbnail size, is that these are all stylish, high quality, well designed book covers.

Focus on the design, the colors, the arrangement – you want your cover (even as a thumbnail) to make an emotional statement that resonates with readers. The text doesn’t matter – as long as it looks well designed. If it looks good, they’ll click on it, and then they get to see the full cover in all its majesty.

Don’t screw up a cover design by trying to make the thumbnail legible.

Indie authors mess this up by using huge text (in some genres, like thriller, big text is fine. But not in all. And small text can be nice too).

What this advice really boils down to is, don’t make rookie design mistakes that are obvious even in thumbnail view, like using too much dropshadow or bevel, or using boring common fonts, or crowding the text, or clashing colors, or poorly photoshopped elements, or putting dark red text on a black background.

Design matters. Text legibility doesn’t.

Note: Some readers have pointed out this isn’t true for some mobile devices, which only show the thumbnail. However, I counter that people still click on the thumbnails if they want more information. You don’t want them to be able to read everything, shrug and move on. You want them to say “Huh, what’s that?” and click your thumbnail so they can actually learn more about the book. Thumbnails get clicked based on design, colors and emotions – not because of the book’s title or author (unless they are pre-known to the reader).

4. Amazon knows best (book size ratio and previewer)

Amazon recommends a 1.6 ratio – the same ratio as a 5″x8″ book. So if you designed a cover for 5″x8″, you’d be done. But most of my authors are choosing 6″x9″ books, which is a 1.5 ratio. Often, they want to switch and follow Amazon’s guidelines, because certainly “Amazon knows best.”

Personally, I think Amazon’s preferred ratio is too tall and thin, and a ratio of 1.5 looks more like a traditional book to me. My guess is Amazon wants books to look good on smartphones, especially iPhones, and the deviously tricky iPhone5, which has a very tall, narrow screen.

Maybe Amazon is expecting all digital devices to copy the iPhone 5, but that’s probably not going to happen. Maybe they are pushing to get people reading on their smartphones instead of Kindles devices, because millions and millions of people use only their smartphone and will not buy a digital book reader.

But for the people who do have Kindles and other e-reading devices, Amazon’s preferred 1.6 ratio is an ill-fit, leaving too much space on the sides. And even on cell phones, where the display size is already pretty small, the 1.6 ratio has drawbacks: to fit in the extra height, the book cover displays even smaller, making the text more difficult to read.

This is probably why most traditional publishers and major bestsellersignore Amazon’s recommended ratio.

1.5, or even wider, almost square-shaped covers, are far more common.

Interestingly it seems self-published and indie books are more likely to use Amazon’s 1.6 standards, because they are concerned with doing everything just right, and have less confidence to ignore recommendations.

This paradoxically means self-publishing authors are making their books appear self-published by following rather than flouting Amazon’s advice.

And it really doesn’t matter!

Amazon’s recommended book cover ratio doesn’t really matter at all, because Amazon is not the only player in the ebook publishing wars. This means that all devices need to be able to handle all different kinds of books. So what you actually see on ebook readers is that they automatically adjust to display covers of a variety of sizes and ratios.

In this picture, the 2nd book “Trust the Process” which is one of the thinnest book on my Kindle, is still not quite as thin as a 1.6 ratio. “The Business of Belief” is probably 1.5, and most of the others look even more box-shaped, and may be 1.4 or so.

The other issue I get brought up all the time is “Createspace’s cover previewer flagged issues with my book.” If you’re uploading a PDF, either for the POD book cover or interior, Createspace has an instant preview tool, which can be pretty useful, although I also think it’s overly sensitive.

It can help flag issues, but you won’t really know how the book looks until you print it out.

I often have to tell authors to just ignore the tool and print the book, so they can see that everything looks OK.

I especially hate that Createspace’s guidelines prohibit text elements going off the margins. So for example, if you have an elegant, curly font, it will almost never fit on the spine because Createspace demands unreasonable spine margins, so you have to make the spine title very small or change the font (or cut off the text, which is ugly).

spine The 5 critical errors most self-publishing authors make on their book cover design

The previewer can be helpful, but it’s just a machine.

5. I should put “Award Winning” or “Bestselling” on my cover

You’ve chosen an obscure Amazon category and got 10 of your friends to buy it at the same time, and it was #1 in that category for 5 minutes. So why not just write “Bestseller”? Because of the law of disappointed expectations. If you have a plain, unpretentious book cover, people won’t expect that much. Which means they will be pleasantly surprised, leading to more shares and a higher review. On the other hand, the more you “sell” it with false pretenses like “BESTSELLER”, the more critically and harshly they will read (higher expectations are harder to meet) so you’ll get less positive reviews and shares.

Readers and also becoming more savvy to the ploys of desperate indie authors. Don’t oversell your book. Let readers discover it for themselves. “Bestseller” doesn’t mean much, until you can back it up with real data, like “4 weeks on the NY Times best-selling list.” Even then, it may do more harm than good. Reader reviews count the most, and you’ll get more positive ones by soft-selling.

ugly4-533x800 The 5 critical errors most self-publishing authors make on their book cover design

The same goes for awards – however: awards contests can be good to enter, as they can mean extra visibility for your book. And some of them are quite well known and even prestigious. If you win an award (first place…I probably wouldn’t brag about getting 2nd place, finalist or runner-up) you may want to add it to your book. But unfortunately, most book award seals and logos are very likely to clash with and destroy your cover design. Book award seals can interrupt the emotional connection your cover is trying to make. It’s in the way, which means it’s killing the sale.

It’s much nicer to add WINNER OF THE SUPER-EXCELLENT BOOK AWARD across the top or across the bottom, above or below the author name, in very small text. But unless it’s a pretty well known award, and unless you won first place, I don’t think it’s likely to drive sales (if it wasn’t the deciding factor – as in they were just about to click away when they saw it and decided to buy – I wouldn’t use it.)

A blurb, book review or a well written teaser will mostly likely drive more sales than a “Book Award Winner” notice.

Note: As I mentioned, a lot of what I’m saying goes against common indie publishing rhetoric, which is why it needs to be said. You’re welcome to challenge my opinions in the comments.

Derek Murphy
Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a cover designing indie author enthusiast, finishing a PhD in Literature and shopping for a castle in Europe.