A cover is an important element to a successful book. Despite the common phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover,” readers on social media admit repeatedly that an engaging cover will, 9 times out of 10, influence their decision to consider a book or not. For smaller authors, creating the perfect cover can be a far more challenging hurdle than perhaps initially expected. Gilded covers, matte finish, textured fonts – all these elements are costly and often only in the grasp of well-established authors and presses. So how do indie and small-press authors go about creating a cover that is both eye-catching and relevant to the plot?
This post will outline the 3-step process that local award-winning author B.T. Polcari took with his marketing team to develop the cover for his upcoming title Fire & Ice.
Three Steps to Designing a Book Cover
Software such as Adobe Photoshop, Canva, and Adobe Creative Cloud Express allow creators the freedom to design beautiful pieces for social media, blog posts, and even marketing materials. So why not also use this software to design a cover? Unless the author is highly adept with digital imaging tools, it is strongly recommended to seek a professional for cover design. However, that does not mean an author cannot use these tools to create drafts or search for inspiration. Adobe Creative Cloud Express is even helpful in making font or color choices.
Indie authors and self-published authors have enough hurdles to get their books read as they do not have the resources that large publishing houses do. Therefore, if an author chooses to create their own cover without the requisite technical skills, then the cover will potentially come off as “home-grown” which leads to it being viewed as amateur and consequently, likely to be skipped over by readers.
That is why this article stresses the importance of working with professionals such as digital marketers or freelancers.
Step 1: Finding your Target Audience, and how a Digital Marketer can help
A great way to leverage technical expertise and still have a lot of involvement is to work with a digital marketer. B.T. Polcari worked with his marketing team, Pangea Marketing Agency, for both of his books and used varying levels of demographic research to justify cover choices. These steps will focus on the more in-depth process awarded to Fire & Ice’s cover.
First: Determine one’s genre.
Polcari’s series falls in a unique position when it comes to genre fitting:
- Cozy Mystery: the series features an amateur-sleuth protagonist
- Young/New Adult: lack of adult-content, and protagonist is a teenager
- General Mystery: while the protagonist is a novice, the highly complex mysteries are not
Next: Determine targeted age group.
The series was originally intended for younger readers, but a lot of older readers connected with the characters, making it what is called a “crossover” series. Considering Polcari had nearly the whole age range to consider, he instead looked at how most books are marketed: bestseller lists, celebrity book clubs, or social media. Since Polcari’s publisher is a small independent press, he knew social media was the best way to get his book seen.
Through ad testing of specific age demographics, Polcari’s team learned his most engaged audience members were females aged 18-30 and 45-65. Of these two age groups, the age bracket of 18-30 engages with social media the most and gravitates toward covers in a style more similar to contemporary romance.
Lastly: Put it together.
Utilizing the data that females in their late teens to early thirties engaged the most with Polcari’s ads, and recognizing they also gravitate to covers like contemporary romance, the genre selection that made the most sense was Contemporary Cozy Mystery.
Now that a genre, target audience, and preferred covered style were finalized – cover design research was able to be conducted.
Step 2: Cover Design Research and making a mockup
Pangea Marketing Agency (PMA) provided B.T. Polcari with a twenty-to-thirty-page document of existing book covers that matched the genre cover style as determined by the previously discussed demographic preferences. When developing a cover research document, covers of the same authors as well as “other authors like this” as suggested by search engines may be included
PMA worked through the document with B.T. and whittled the books down to only a few pages along with notes of elements that were liked or disliked. Special attention was paid to cover styles that could apply to a contemporary mystery-style book versus strictly romance.
Then came the mockup stage. If working with a digital marketer, they can most likely create rough mockups of the cover using various stock images and font tools. The mockups will be designed in a way to incorporate the “likes” from the previously mentioned document. Be sure to have fun with the design and include hidden clues or details that perhaps only the author would know. For example, Fire & Ice’s yellow background is a shade of yellow from the real-life diamond’s reflection.
At this point in the process, the author should have 3-5 cover mockups or at least a short list of preferred elements. Depending on the skills of the author’s team, or the rules of the publisher – the author is ready to finalize the cover either through the digital marketer, a freelancer, or the publisher.
Step 3: Creating the final cover
There are two main methods to creating a final cover. The author can seek out a freelancer who specializes in cover design, or the author will need to work with the publisher’s in-house team of artists.
Hire a Freelancer
It is common practice for freelance artists to provide varying pricing structures when creating art for patrons. Artists will have packages that include commercial rights, allowing the art purchaser the ability to use the art however they so choose. When looking for a freelancer to create a cover, it is imperative the author chooses the package that includes the commercial rights of the final image.
Authors can also reach out to freelance cover artists who specifically design book covers. Many cover artists have readymade covers authors can purchase on the spot, or authors can work with the cover artists to design a bespoke piece. Again, the author will need to ensure they pay for the commercial rights of the final image.
If the previous research step was conducted, the research collected should be passed along to the freelance artist or cover designer as it will help give the artist concrete direction and clearly set expectations with the author.
In-House Cover Artists
If the author’s publisher requires the cover be created in house – by the publisher – then this process will be unique to the publisher. Regarding B.T. Polcari’s experience, he reviewed The Wild Rose Press’ catalogue of cover artists and selected 3 that had the necessary artistic eye for which he was looking. A form was completed, detailing out 2-3 important cover, color or font choices, and any book context that the artist should know when designing the cover. Polcari was able to utilize the research gathered by his marketing team to include in the form submission explaining the purpose of his various specific requests.
The Wild Rose Press’ team created the cover and provided B.T. Polcari with 4 digital copies in varying pixel sizes. Receiving the cover in different pixel sizes is important as social media has different pixel requirements compared to blogs and printers.
An Author’s Journey and Learnings
Award-winning Chattanoogan author B.T. Polcari learned a lot during his time as a published author. His debut novel, Against My Better Judgment, provided him with the experience needed to fine tune his cover designing process into the steps listed above. The following is how Polcari slowly became acquainted with the process of cover design.
Against My Better Judgment and First Book Learnings
During the developmental editing process of Against My Better Judgment, Polcari was advised to age the main character down from a senior in college to a freshman in college in hopes to connect with readers in the young adult genre. Trying to bridge the gap between Young Adult and Cozy Mystery, B.T. Polcari and his team felt an illustrated cover would be the best medium, and to go for a similar style as Mindy Klasky’s Jane Madison series or even Jennifer Crusie’s works. What was most important was for the cover to showcase both the fun voice and the unique Egyptian-related plot. Some demographic research was conducted, but considering this was Polcari’s debut novel, more creative license was provided to the cover artist.
Above was the first cover sent back to B.T. Polcari. Due to the lack of specifics originally provided in the cover form, the product received was not what Polcari originally imagined. This was an important learning. Fortunately, Polcari’s publisher supported him and his vision, and the artist created a new cover that was illustrated and included the co-main character, Mauzzy.
This cover was much more in line with B.T. Polcari’s original vision. The colors, Eye of Horus, and Great Pyramids were both eye-catching and plot relevant. And Mauzzy the miniature dachshund was included.
Pub day came and went. Reviews came in. The book received praise from readers of all kinds and won several awards. It was a real success. But one comment that did come up in many reviews across multiple platforms was the cover. Despite Polcari’s best efforts, the cover was not as well received as hoped.
Fire & Ice: More Research More Specifics
Rather than take the comments as a blow, Polcari used them as a tool for Fire & Ice. Additional market research was conducted and Polcari learned the Mauzzy & Me Mystery Series’ target demographic was interested in contemporary romances which have different cover styles than Young Adult.
Pivoting from a young adult cover to more contemporary fiction, Polcari and his team pored over popular books on Bookstagram, BookTok, and chart-topping releases. Right away, it was clear that simplicity is the preferred style of 2022. Plain background, minimal cover elements, interesting spines. Taking the feedback from readers, and the data collected on what is “in vogue” now, Polcari’s team worked on designing a cover to best fit the reader’s expectations.
The research process described in the earlier section “Finding your Target Audience, and how a Digital Marketer can help” was the process utilized for Fire & Ice. When it came time to work with the publisher and fill out the artist form, Polcari knew to be as specific as possible. So specific, in fact, that color hex codes were provided for the background and fonts. Links to preferred fonts were provided, as well as links to Polcari’s top 3 book cover inspirations. The vault door was painstakingly described. The reviews on Against My Better Judgment made it clear the favorite element of the cover was Mauzzy, so B.T. wanted to make sure he was a focal point of Fire & Ice’s cover. The positioning of Mauzzy, his eyes, and placement of the diamond were all described.
Since B.T. Polcari was able to provide specific art direction to the talented cover artists at The Wild Rose Press, as well as provide research-backed reasonings for the specifications, Polcari received a cover that perfectly matched his mental image.
With one look at the above cover, B.T Polcari is hoping readers will, 1) clearly understand the plot involves a diamond, vault, and Mauzzy’s involvement; 2) feel the lighthearted cozy mystery vibe due to the illustrated nature; and 3) recognize this is part of a larger series.
Cover design can be a challenging task, but well worth the attention to detail. Authors put so much love and work into the written word, and that same level of attention must be put into the cover. This is because the cover is what makes a shopper stop and take notice of the book. Wouldn’t it be a shame for a wonderful story to never be read, just because the cover was not the most enticing? Learning from community authors can only help grow the shared success of indie authors everywhere.