My Freedom to Write

When Your Book Goes Sour

3 Truths About Creating a Book Cover


You’ve finished your book. Your baby, your darling, is ready to be dressed for the outdoors. You need the right cover, one that will draw strangers near to admire and read. There really are people who judge a book by its cover, and if this is your first novel (as this one is mine), you need something to draw people closer.

Right now I’m in the middle of working with a talented cover designer who is displaying great patience with me as I muddle through. This is what I’ve learned so far:

1. Your cover designer is not a mind reader. 

If you give him fuzzy ideas, you’re going to get a fuzzy cover. I had vague ideas about it but didn’t bother to solidify them in my head. When my cover designer pressed me for details, I had to firm up those ideas in a hurry when what I really wanted to do was say, “I don’t know. Can’t you, you know, just do something?”

If you decide to go that route, don’t blame the cover designer for “doing something” completely alien to how you feel about it.

2. Don’t expect him to read the manuscript.

Chances are, he’s got other covers to create or another job or two. He doesn’t have time to read 350+ pages so he can “capture your vision.” He might even be a friend or relative. The rule still applies.

I wrote a synopsis of the plot with descriptions of the main characters, and added a three-page excerpt of a scene so he could gauge the tone I was striving for. Even so, I assumed he’d understand certain things and that’s where we fell off track. To repeat truth no. 1, your cover designer is not a mind reader.

3. Think about your cover before hiring someone.

The story was done. Therefore, I was ready to hire someone to create the cover, right? Wrong. My vague, hazy ideas floated in cloud shape with no definition but I was sure the cover designer would figure out what I meant. (Yeah, see truth no. 1—again.)

There are two things you can do that can help you figure out what you want on a cover:

  1. Look at other covers. Does your genre prefer to show landscapes? People? Airplanes? Are they abstract in design or do they show inanimate objects? A mystery cover showing a bloodied dagger next to a shoe and a tube of lipstick might work where the same cover would not work for a fantasy novel even if all those elements are in the story. Learn what people expect to see. That’s the framework for starters.
  2. Then it’s time to get specific. What is your story about? Who is your audience? How do you want them to feel when they look at your cover? A lurid picture of mangled body parts might not attract someone who wants to read a mystery where the murder takes place offstage.

The first background for my cover was too cheerful. I asked for a darker shade and it struck the right chord. Then I suggested a different style (after asking for advice from a friend who read the story) and it added the right depth. It’s a good start.

The reason the first color and design were wrong for my story was, well, see truth no. 1. I wanted to throw it at him and say, “Whatever you think works.” That way lies great unhappiness. I needed to have the vision before contacting a cover designer.

So there you have it. My cover is only about halfway done and that’s my fault. But it’s getting there.



* Image courtesy of scottchan at


  • Joany Magee • January 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Finding the right method to market to your intended audience can be difficult. As a former textile designer, jewelry designer, and kid-pleaser (a.k.a. Mom; how to market brussel sprouts to a chocolate loving 12-year-old), I understand that creativity and trial-and-error are good tools needed to accomplish your goals. Trying to sell a pearl necklace in the heavy-metal, goth-inspired Hot Topic might not be a good fit but skeleton bracelets and metal dagger chokers seem to sell like hotcakes! And daggers might not be the motifs I’d choose for sofa fabric (wouldn’t entice me to sit). Good luck 🙂 I know you’ll find the right cover.

    • J. M. Levinton • January 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm

      Exactly! And thanks!

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