How to Design Your Indie Book Cover
For the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing the story of how I came to publish my book, The Goodbye-Love Generation, and what I learned from the process.
Last week, I wrote about taking a manuscript that I had last assembled ten years ago and rearranging and cutting the stories to truly create the overarching narrative required for a novel in stories.
But once I had been through a few rounds of editing and had the text laid out (courtesy of the templates available from Kindle Direct), it was time to design the book cover. The book cover is the place where most independent authors make a hard left turn into failure. I’ve written in a previous post about the reasons why indie authors have to fight for credibility, and a BIG reason is that they get this stage of the process completely wrong.
Sadly, there is no shortage of downright terrible book covers in the indie publishing world. Don’t believe me? Click here.
It baffles me why so many writers work intensively on a manuscript, only to publish it with a bad cover. Just knowing some basic principles of graphic design—stuff like using consistent, readable fonts and images that are congruent with the story—could take some of the horrors on the above website and elevate them from hideous to average.
Like, check this one out. What am I buying here, exactly? Is it a book or a Powerpoint circa 1998?
Here’s the thing you need to know about designing your book cover. If you don’t have good graphic design skills, you need to have someone else do this for you.
It’s too important.
Otherwise, you’re going to risk not just having people ignore your book, but ending up on that website.
If you need a recommendation for someone who is affordable and does awesome work, send me an email and I’ll pass on a name.
So, how did I go about deciding on a cover for The Goodbye-Love Generation? It went a little something like this.
My Original Idea Didn’t Pan Out
When I first wrote the book eleven years ago, I had a vision of a book cover that would feature one of my favorite pictures of my dad and Lacewing, the band he played with in 1969—the one you saw if you read this blog post.
I am fortunate to have good graphic design skills from working in content marketing and other publications, so I knew I would be able to do the work myself. Armed with the photo I wanted to use, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. At this point, the book wasn’t called The Goodbye-Love Generation yet. Back in grad school, I’d briefly considered the title, which comes from a line in the Brenda Hillman poem “Proud Energy.”
But then, I got on a serious Pretenders kick (they’re from Akron, after all) and ended up calling it My City Was Gone.
So, when I finished the first draft of my cover design, I ended up with something like this:
First of all, I couldn’t get the photo to do what I wanted it to do. Part of the problem was that the photo has a horizontal orientation and the book cover is vertical, which is why I ended up trying the white space at the bottom to even things out.
Unfortunately, it was so amateurish that it made me sick. And that font…ugh.
There was another problem, too. When I showed the cover to my dad, who is an artist, he raised serious issues with the title. “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders was the theme song for the Rush Limbaugh Show.
And that was potentially a HUGE problem for an audience that would including many left-leaning readers.
Fortunately, when I polled my writer friends about the title, The Goodbye-Love Generation overwhelmingly won out.
Changing the title was relatively nothing to me. I was lucky to have a better option in my back pocket.
But I’ll be honest…it was a little harder to let go of having the picture of Lacewing on the cover.
Them’s the breaks, though—with both writing and design. Sometimes, the idea you’re in love with just doesn’t fit.
I Tapped into Kent State’s History
With the old photo of the band out of the picture (literally), I turned to Google Images to find some good public domain photos from the Kent State shootings that I could work my magic on.
My new line of thinking was that a cover that was recognizably Kent would speak more to the setting of the book, as well as the audience.
Unfortunately, royalty-free photos had slim pickings. That is, until I came across this one on Wikipedia’s media commons:
This is a picture of a sculpture on Kent State’s campus crafted by local artist Don Drumm. That’s a bullet hole in the center, a grim souvenir from a National Guardsman’s rifle on May 4, 1970.
Students commonly decorate the sculpture on the anniversary of the shootings, traditionally marking the hole with a peace sign or a daisy, echoing May 4 victim Allison Krause’s famous words that “flowers are better than bullets.”
When I saw this picture, I instantly knew I’d found my cover.
I put the file in Canva and started adding color filters until I landed on a blend of psychedelic purple and orange, a reference to the band the Purple Orange that figures in the plot.
When I showed it to my writing friends, they enthusiastically approved the design. One of them even noted the symbolism of art redeeming something that epitomized the death and violence of the Vietnam era.
I also changed the font. The new cover photo altered my vision to include a vintage typewriter font, and I was able to find precisely the font I was looking for by searching on Google.
Tip: You can find any font you want on Google, for free.
It’s Not Just About the Cover
I designed the cover for my first independently published book, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime. Because it was a chapbook, I didn’t need to design anything for the book spine, and because I used a template from Kindle, my duties were purely limited to finding a cover photo. This was a little more complicated. I needed a book spine and a back cover, and it all needed to be one seamless design.
Like I said, I have good graphic design skills, but certainly am not an expert. However, you can do a heck of a lot with even that and a Canva account.
I created a document using the same dimensions as the template I’d used to lay out the text, then repeated portions of the background and positioned them to create a continuous image.
The original printing of the book featured a photo of me along with my author bio. However, a few months after it came out, Rita Dragonette, whose book The Fourteenth of September influenced some of the revisions of the stories, got her hands on a copy and wrote me the kind of Amazon review authors dream about at night.
So, in honor of the fact that I’m now getting out to in-person networking events and author fairs, I redesigned the cover to include an excerpt from her review. The bio that originally appeared on the back cover now can be found at the end of the book itself.
The point here is that if you want to design your own cover, you have options. There are tools that make it easy, but you may have to be willing to learn a bit about what constitutes good book design.
One thing that I did was pull a book off my shelf that resembled that I wanted my own book to look like, and then used it as a model for what information to include on the cover and inside the book.
It will be a lot easier to make something professional if you follow a professional example.
I’ll say it again, though…
…if you don’t have the skills and don’t want to take the time to learn to do all the things, please, please, please hire someone to do this for you.
Like I said, I know a guy.
In the meantime…got questions about independent publishing? I’m here to answer them.
Click here to schedule a complimentary Virtual Meetup, where we’ll talk about your project and where you’re at.
It’s a professional book consultation…for free.