What Makes a Good Book Cover?

We’re so excited here at WITS. The amazing teacher and writer, Shannon Donnelly, has agreed to be a monthly contributor! Read on – you’re going to be excited too! Here’s Shannon:

The great thing about ebooks is you can keep changing the cover. The bad thing about ebooks is you can keep changing the cover. It becomes a lot like putting on a new outfit–you’re not really sure if the new one is a favorite because it’s great, or just because it’s new. I’m hoping this evolution for my book, Paths of Desire is heading forward.

The first cover was very much an experiment in making something from other things. I love the pose and the sunset, but while I also love silhouettes, these didn’t “read” well to readers. The ship is also a touch out of period, and that bugged me.

The dress is also a little out of period. While it’s not all that obvious, the waistline is low, meaning this reads as more of a Georgian era, which doesn’t work for a book set from 1813 to 1817.

The fonts, here, too, were used to copy those on my other Regency romances. While the fonts read as “romance” I’m not sure they really gave me as much polish to the cover as I wanted. There’s a whole art to fonts, and there’s also a style–certain things come in and out of fashion. As with any other fashion, you can get too trendy and end up dating your cover (just look back at covers from the 1980′s…or the 1960′s!) You can also get too fancy. When in doubt, go with readable.

But you also need something that really sells the book. This wasn’t it.

So it was on to the next draft.

For version number two, some elements stayed, some changed. Mostly it was about changing the couple. Again, silhouette was used–I had the idea that the suggestion of the couple would be cool. And, yes, it’s nice, but still not as eye catching as I wanted.

Notice the pose is different–this is what I call the almost kiss. The dress is now period for the woman. And I really liked that moment before the kiss–that’s what I think is always the best moment…the anticipation.

I’d call this a good cover, but it wasn’t quite as slick as I wanted. It was low cost, so that let me get the book for sale so the book could actually finance how things went.

The silhouettes, however, while they were something I liked, did not really catch the eye. There’s nothing here to really pop out. I also think the ship sent the wrong idea–it’s a little too “piratey”. I wanted the sense of a journey (as in paths, as in the story is about two folks and their journey into a relationship), but the ship is just too much Captain Jack (yes, Disney influences us all.)

And, yes, it was time to go onto the next version.

For the next cover, I went hunting and found Della Jacobs, who does great covers, as well as writing great books. The goal here was to get a stronger pose for the couple. I also wanted to keep the path/journey theme going on the cover, since that was the heart of the book. So this cover was born:

The outline on the lettering helped the text stand out, and the two different fonts also add a little more style. We still have that moment before the kiss on the cover. So I really liked this. But there was one problem.

When this cover is very, very small, the faded out couple tends not to read well (not a great thing for an ebook). It still looks good here, but on a page with a lot of other colors and art and text, the cover does tend to get lost. Sometimes understatement is great for your personal style, but not for a book cover.

What matters with an ebook is the sales numbers, and while the trend was upward, this cover wasn’t giving me the numbers I wanted. So back on the hunt.

Searches led me to Hot Damn Designs. I browsed the covers and the stocks. And I liked the covers. The cost was within budget, too (always a consideration.) So I sent them information and selected some stock that I liked.

Kim, the main designer, sent back two options, and both were great.

The red automatically appealed to me the most–but then I like to wear red a lot, too. However, the pillows and the background had kind of a Belle Epoch feeling, which wasn’t quite the historical tone I wanted. The hint of red hair also did not suit the dark haired heroine. So version 3B it was.

This also added in the tag line (not something you can see in the small version, but it’s hinted at enough that someone might click to see a larger version of the cover. We still have, too, the anticipation of the kiss.

I also thought this gave the idea that the book is a hotter Regency historical. Since I’ve written shorter, lighter Regencies, some folks may expect that and may not like the sex in the book. But it’s vital to the story and the characters, and so it’s there. The cover had to say that.

It’s too early to tell, yet, if the cover will do great. It’s already doing better than the other two covers. But is it too much in fashion? We’ve lost the path feeling, so is that bad?  Does this now look like too many other book covers? Does it do enough to tell the reader what the book is about (other than two folks in bed?)

Covers have limited space, and an author always wants more–can you put in the travel, and the couple, and oh, yes, there should be a London stage (she’s an actress,) and he’s an explorer, so a map or compass would be cool. And with that you now have a cover with so much going on that it’s impossible to see anything. But does this need more?

Time will tell. And maybe another cover will appear in a few months.

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

Her latest Regency Historical Romance, Paths of Desire, can be found as an ebooks on Kindle, Nook and at Smashwords, along with her Regency romances, and her free novella, Cats Cradle. She has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published, and is the author of several computer games.

She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/@sdwriter.

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21 Responses to What Makes a Good Book Cover?

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    This was really interesting. Other than filling art sheets I’m pretty convinced no one ever looks at, I don’t pay that much attention to covers, particularly on ebooks–even my own. This comes from long years–including those decades you mentioned up there–of never liking them (unfair, maybe, but it did teach me to NEVER judge a book by its cover.)

  2. SD Writer says:

    I have seen differences in sales with different covers, so I think readers look at covers differently than writers. It’s also interesting in that I’m looking at updating covers for my other Regencies. The current covers are nice, but they’re out of style–it’s like wearing bell bottoms, you just want to have a fresh look on the front.

  3. angelyn says:

    That deep emerald satin green is lovely. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Joan Leacott says:

    An interesting show of the evolution of your covers and the logic behind the changes. It’s not until you have to do covers that you really think about why they look they way do. Thanks for the info.

    • SD Writer says:

      First off, with ebooks, the systems won’t let you “rebuy” (they’ll tell you that you already own that book). So updates are just updates. It’s great that way and better than a bookstore (I got so I’d always check the copyright on books because a lot of reissues weren’t just given new covers, but were given new titles). Also, I think folks who have bought the book are looking for new reads — folks figure out pretty fast if there’s a new book out or not.

  5. Shannon, really good post. Thank you.

  6. Finn Jackson says:

    Thanks for the great post, Shannon. Do you ever worry that changing covers might confuse readers, perhaps prompting them to re-buy a book they already own? If not, this seems a terrific marketing/promotion tool for revitalizing an ebook. Thanks again, Finn

  7. LauraDrake says:

    I was fascinated to actually see the evolution, Shannon, thanks for sharing it with us. I never really thought about what makes a good cover – but I can see how much better I like your final iteration than the first ones, and I guess that’s the first step to understanding. I wish the red would have worked – I like that one the best of all!

    • SD Writer says:

      I like the red color, too, but it’s so touchy with covers. Historicals have to look historical and Regency seems to be the hardest period to get right.

  8. Chihuahua0 says:

    It’s intriguing seeing the process used for finding the right cover for a book. It shows that there is some depth into choosing it.

  9. Thanks for showing us the evolution of your cover. Seeing the picture with your explanation of why you wanted to change something spiked my learning curve. You’re the best!
    -Fae Rowen

  10. Sharla Rae says:

    Loved seeing how the process works as well as your reasoning on why each did or did not work. I’ll have to go through all this myself so find this blog very helpful. Thanks so much.

  11. DuvallDesign says:

    I design book covers for authors, and I’m also an author, which helps in the creation of great covers. There are so many considerations when designing a cover, like color, readability, composition and authenticity of the images. A cover isn’t a collage of random pictures, it’s a piece of real art. It’s wonderful that you were so involved in the development of your cover, Shannon. The design of a cover needs to be a partnership between artist and author. And the resulting cover needs to attract reader interest in the story inside.

    • SD Writer says:

      The readability is a huge issues — what works in print doesn’t mean that cover will work for ebooks. And then there is the ‘postage stamp’ issue of does the small thumbnail work as well as the larger size. There are so many factors to balance, but that one issue is perhaps the biggest.

  12. Stephanie Rankin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your process of choosing a cover. It was enlightening to say the least. In the ever changing world of publishing, information is power. Again thank you!

  13. Interesting post! Since I haven’t ventured into self publishing yet, I have to go with the covers my publisher chooses, but I do get to give descriptions of characters and settings and what I prefer to have on the cover before they’re designed. So far, my covers have all been great.

    • SD Writer says:

      I was lucky, too, with my Kensington covers. And I think it did help that I sent detailed information about the characters and possible scene ideas for the covers. My editor even sent me the pencil for one of my covers (for Barely Proper), and I actually think I like the pencil art better than the final cover.

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