The making of an illustrated book cover
What exactly happens after you commission a designer to work on your book cover?
A lot happens between the initial brief and the finished product. Let me walk you through a recent cover design I created for an indie author Kathy Fawcett – and her husband Steve, who handles her book marketing (lucky gal!).
The starting point
The novel Shoulder Season had already been published on Amazon. The cover design was by no means horrible, but Steve felt it didn’t perfectly fit the genre and the story. After I learned more about the book, I agreed. The empty chairs created a rather sad, wistful feeling. The white background was also problematic on the Amazon website’s white background. Steve told me they were looking for a new design in an illustrated style, possibly with the main characters, that better communicated the warm and witty story.
Working with the sequel in mind
Steve told me that the cover I was about to start working on was the first in a series. Kathy was already working on the sequel titled Water Dance. Knowing the titles of both books helped me visualize how the style we created for the first book would work on the second one. It is possible to create a design that is very hard to replicate, especially with a new title that’s significantly shorter or longer than the first. So it’s always a good idea to tell your designer that you’re planning on a sequel, even better if you can give them the title.
The designer reads…
I started by reading the first couple of chapters. As a cover designer, it would be impractical to read the full manuscript of every book I design a cover for, but I do think it’s important to read at least the first chapter. The blurb is great for finding out the obvious things, like the location and characters, but it’s written in a specific style and format – and often by someone else. Reading a bit of the actual book is the only way to get a good sense of the author’s unique style. I pa attention to the level of humour, as well as the pacing – is it quick and witty or slow and reflective? All this should be communicated in the design.
Reference pics and direction
Meanwhile, Steve sourced and sent me a selection of photos to show what the book’s setting, Lake Michigan, looks like in the winter. He also included photos of what the main location – the lodge – could look like, and even photos of models and actors wearing winter clothes he thought would be appropriate for the characters. I have to say, most clients don’t send me this much to work on, and I’m perfectly happy to pick reference images of the internet, based on a verbal description. But it’s definitely nice and easy when the client knows what they want.
Examples of winter themed chick lit covers on Pinterest
To further zero in on the style Steve was after, I create a Pinterest board with some examples of covers with similar themes. Steve also shared book covers he and Kathy really liked, explaining what they thought was clever or attractive about each one. Even if you can’t explain why you like them, sharing your favourite book covers with your designer is a great idea. Having concrete samples makes it much easier to discuss different styles and directions before the designer starts working on yours.
In this case, Steve said he wanted to explore a ‘traditional’ illustrated cover with both the characters and the location, and at least one modern type-based one, or maybe just with the main character. Armed with my reference pics and direction, I set to work.
Working with vector illustration
I tend to draw vector illustrations using a mixture of photographs, sometimes several of them combined together. I might take an arm from one person, a face from another, a hairstyle from a third one. It sounds weird, but for me, it works. The beauty of vector illustration is that you can scale, flip, warp, rotate, re-colour and so on, without reducing quality. It is a style that allows you to create a unique, blended ’reality’ that you could never find in one single photograph. Since it’s vector-based, the same design can be scaled up and printed on a large scale poster or a banner without it looking pixelated.
After a few days, I emailed Steve a PDF with four drafts. He had asked to see rough sketches, so some parts were definitely left less than polished. This allowed me to explore several potentially labour intensive ideas without spending too long on ones that might be abandoned. When sending out drafts, I don’t usually explain myself in length. Even an early draft needs to be on a level where you can easily imagine how the finished artwork might look like. These were the options I sent.
Option 1: The onventional style, characters within a scene.
Option 2: A bit more modern. The character not yet drawn.
Option 3: A cross between options 1 and 2, with the location in focus.
Option 4: A currently popular, ‘handwritten’ style, also used on general fiction & women’s fiction.
Steve and Kathy consulted their friends and readers and chose the option no.1. I don’t actually believe there is one right choice. I don’t send out three or four options as a test. They all have merits. Each direction could work, but they most likely appeal to slightly different demographics. The best way to choose the right one is to show the cover concepts to as many of your actual or potential readers as you can. Your own opinion counts too, of course. But you want to sell as many books as possible, right? That’s why testing your cover with the right people becomes absolutely essential. They know which one they are drawn to the most. It’s a gut reaction. Ask them something like ‘which book would you be most interested in reading?’. You don’t need to know the reason why. Often, people don’t know exactly why they prefer a certain cover, they just do.
Remember, you don’t have to choose just one design. We can go ahead with two designs and you can A/B test them to find out which one performs better.
When Steve emailed to let me know which design they preferred, he requested a number of amends. I won’t list them all here, but see if you can spot what happened between the first, second and third drafts. The main thing that changed was the lodge, which they felt needed to be a lot smaller, from a different angle. Seen straight on, they said it looked too much like an architectural drawing. I hadn’t quite thought about it in those terms myself (head-on illustrations are very common in these types of covers), but the lodge’s size was exaggerated and clashing with the main couple. I drew another version from another photo. Steve also asked me to add the A-frame cabin that features in the story.
Version 3 (final) – spot the differences!
Paperback and other formats
After version 3, Steve and Kathy were happy with the cover, and we moved on to work on the paperback. To start off, I asked Steve to send me the back cover blurb, the cover size they wanted, the spine width, and the barcode (to avoid Amazon slapping on the ugly default one). The paperback cover has slightly different dimensions to the recommended Amazon ebook size, which is what I’d been working on. This usually means tightening the design slightly to fit everything vertically. With this particular design, it wasn’t too hard. I haven’t yet needed to create any audiobook covers, which are typically square. Going from the fairly tall Amazon ebook to an audiobook would be a challenge with most cover designs. This also explains why so many audiobook covers look so awkward.
Time to go public
After the final files have been delivered, it’s up to the client to upload the new covers on Amazon or any other platforms. With the paperback, I recommend ordering an author copy of the paperback book to check the quality. If there are any issues that can be fixed at my end, I can provide an updated printer file. When everything is up and running, it’s time to make some noise. Be proud of your book. Shout it from the rooftops. Even with a previously published book, it’s a good idea to publish a new edition, send out a newsletter and maybe run a promo to make the most of the facelift. And of course, let your designer promote it for you 😀
Hi! I'm Enni.
I've worked in the creative industry for nearly two decades. I was born in Finland, but currently live in New Zealand.
As a designer, I love beautiful book covers. As a reader and writer, I love romance – especially romantic comedy!
This website is my way of connecting with fellow writers and offering what I can do – beautiful, yummy book covers.
We're stronger together, so let's connect!
The illustrated covers for chick lit and its cousin romantic comedy are made up of common elements that help readers pick stories they might like.Getting these things right will make all the difference in reaching the readers who are likely to enjoy your novel. Here...
Hard times call for a new approach to custom design. When advised on how to cut costs when it comes to book cover design, indie authors are often told to go with pre-made covers or DIY using various software from Word to Canva. While these approaches will save money,...