The Trials of Designing Your Own Book Cover

When my writing partner and I had finished our first book, Daram, we were excited about publishing it ourselves. We had got two rejections from traditional publishers and two rejections from agents: none of these rejections surprised us. Our book was too long and unwieldy and did not fit any one specific market. Was it fantasy or science fiction? Why had we written a first book that was over six hundred pages long? No publisher would touch a first book that large (unless you had connections in the business).

Well, the short and simple answer is: because we wanted to. Should we change the book, cut it down drastically, and add some dragons and orcs to suit the market? Nope, not our cup of tea.

Luckily, right about that time self-publication was taking giant leaps forward with advances in computer technology, and that meant we could publish and produce our book the way we wanted, with no drastic cuts or changes. We were entirely new to the business of publishing in 2015; it was a steep learning curve, to be sure, but it guaranteed us almost total freedom. The only controlling factor really was the budget for cover design and promotion. And naturally, being first time authors, we had no budget whatsoever.

Since I am a retired graphic designer the task of designing a cover fell to me, since we could not afford to hire a book cover designer. I had not worked in the graphic design industry for years; instead I'd been working in a bookstore, so I at least had a lot of familiarity with how book covers should look, and what the current trends were. But figuring out what kind of cover would work for our story was a different matter because, as I mentioned above, the book does not fit neatly into any one genre: the protagonists are members of a contemporary rock band who are mysteriously propelled either by magic or science into another world and reality where music has magical power. There are no elves or dragons at all, but there is a Princess and her spunky lady-in-waiting and a medieval civil war that has to be won to restore the fallen gods of the realm.

So, how to convey something of this part time-travel / part portal fantasy in eye-catching imagery for a book cover?

My first approach was to focus on the character of the spunky lady-in-waiting, and how what she does with magical music figures strongly in the plot. Hence my first attempt at a cover featured her making a

"daram" – an appeal to the gods to send help to her beleaguered country. This image also had the advantage of explaining the title of the book, once readers ventured into the story. The spooky woods where she makes the daram give the image atmosphere and the depiction of the girl and the magic she is doing is intriguing.

The cover was well received by my partner and friends, and lots of people said they really liked it, that it did convey the sense of a fantasy story. The corner arabesques that frame the author names were intentional to give a sense of the medieval fantasy world.

The second book in the series was given a similar look, with a different main colour to differentiate it from the first book, which worked well, and was a standard trend for books in the same series or by the same author.

However, the graphic styling is dated (I did say I was a retired graphic designer) and moreover, hand-drawn characters have long since disappeared from book covers in favour of photographs of real people, preferably people whom the reader cannot recognize. Readers want the freedom to imagine for themselves what the protagonists look like.

Also the title font didn't quite work, looking older and dated.

So back to the drawing board.

Next up I decided to do a take on a central image of the story, that of the harp that one of the main characters plays and loses somewhere on the fantasy journey. Since the fallen gods once manifested themselves as constellations in this world, I turned the harp into a constellation, symbolizing the supernatural power of music, and a background of starry space would indicate that the story takes place in a far distant reality.

This design has the advantage of not depicting any of the characters, and the bold larger image is eye-catching and works well sized very small for computer screen ads, which is where most readers will see the book.

The second book in the series was also given this treatment, focussing on another musical instrument that plays a major role in the plot and making it into a constellation.

I discovered a font that worked much better for the titles - clean and modern and yet had the element of the stars that were the focus of the story. Covers in the fantasy genre generally require fancy and fantastical fonts usually, and these new fonts fit the bill, but I did not opt for the usual bevel effect fantasy fonts are given, wanting a cleaner, crisper, and more contemporary look to go with the sci-fi element of the story. These covers were very effective.

But I was not entirely satisfied with this design, though it was also well received by family and friends and looked good in small ads on social media. It seemed to lack 'drama.'

I liked the idea of using the instrument imagery for the covers, but I found that maybe the covers were a bit plain and stark and didn't say enough about the fantasy genre or story. Perhaps they looked too sci-fi and not fantasy enough, though I had retained the more medieval-looking fonts for the series titles and author names. But I missed the colour differentiation of the first two cover attempts, the 'prettiness' if you will, and so I tried yet another experiment.

I checked out colour trends in recent fantasy releases and decided to try my hand at using more colour. This time, to indicate the constellation and star aspect of the novel, I put the stars inside the images of the instruments against a coloured background with some interesting texture which I hoped would convey a medieval feel to the image.

I was still undecided about the fonts for the series title and author names, and tried experimenting with different fonts as you can see above. I was quite pleased with the design and tested it on family and friends again. The results were mixed. Some liked the colourful approach; others preferred the black 'space' covers.

The real test came when I tried using these cover designs in the ads. Somehow they did not really work with the imagery I used in the ads, which is most often medieval fantasy-type imagery that suits the setting of the story and conveys something of the plot drama. Instead, these designs looked out of place - merely 'pretty,' and did not convey enough about the actual genre or story itself to my mind. Moreover, they did not scale well compared to the space covers when shrunk down to the size that typically is used in online advertising.

And so it was back to the drawing board. I decided the best thing to do was work with the space covers and see if more elements could be added to better convey what the story is about and add a little excitement to the imagery. To this effect I added the central characters of the band itself in silhouette, and an overlay of 'magic.'

So now the question is, what do readers think about these designs? We would love your feedback! Don't hesitate to comment on this blog; there is no wrong answer, only good positive feedback to let us know which cover works for you and why.


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