All About Book Covers

If you are an independent author, what is the most important asset you have when it comes to selling a book? Is it your carefully plotted and beautifully written book? Is it your enticing blurb you have slaved hours over and which is guaranteed to have readers champing at the bit to buy your work? Is it the book reviews you are so proud of?  Actually it is none of these. The best way to sell your books, to attract a readers attention and get them to be curious about your work is with your cover.

Your cover does so many things. It shows a reader what they can expect from the book, make them curious about its content and give them enough, just enough to make them pause and look again.  And you have literally seconds to get this right.

Picture the scene as someone is looking for a book, scrolling through pages and pages of cover images on the internet. How do they find something to read? A glossy advertisement may draw their attention and they will pause to look at what they are being sold. They may go by author names and see what books are being published by that author, or what the algorithms of the sales site suggests to them. However on each page they will be faced with dozens and dozens of book covers. Inevitably they will scroll through the images, each one will get an eye flicker lasting split seconds, before they move on. What makes a buyer stop long enough to read the snippet of blurb and then linger long enough to move on to purchase the book. The cover.

It is a tough job being an independent author. As more and more writers chose to go down the route of publishing independently the sales routes are becoming crowded. This should not put you off.  Being independent in a crowded marketplace merely gives you the chance to shine and show your work off to the best of your ability. A professional cover will do all of the sales for itself.

The most important thing about a book cover is an eye catching image. You also need an unforgettable title. The cover is the first place prospective readers have to interact with your brand and learn what it encompasses. The cover will also need a fabulous blurb which will hook readers in and give them just enough information about the book to make them unable not to buy it. While there is no underestimating the good a fabulous plot and memoriable characters combined with top class writing will do for both your brand and future sales, there are a few pages at the front and back of the book which you need to put to work. You have to sell yourself and your back list, or future titles as much as you can. This is often a hated task for independent authors, but good front and back matter in each of your books can be working away quietly 24 hours a day seven days a week.

More of this later, but first, let us take a quick look at the nuts and bolts of book covers.

The original purpose of a book cover was to keep the hand made, or in later times, printed, pages together and to protect them. These covers would have been leather, or cloth on which craftsmen would use decorative tooling. In modern times the cover image, text, the back blurb and first and last few interior pages are a carefully thought out part of the marketing strategy.

HISTORY

In its earliest form, book printing was done with the use of wooden blocks onto rough paper, or textiles. The wood around an image was chiseled away and the remainder was dipped into ink and pressed onto the required surface. If multiple colours were used each would have its own block. This originated in China. Around 1000 AD movable characters were created which sped up the process, unfortunately since China uses over 40,000 characters this was still a disadvantage over the English alphabet which contains 26.

Around 1400 Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, enabling mass production by using metal type. This was known as a flat bed printer, type was arranged into a frame, known as a flat bed, this was inked and the paper was pressed down on it. This made communications so much simpler, and enabled the spread of news and political views which shaped the world as we know it.

In 1796 Alois Sendfelder invented Lithography a chemical process for the production of images. Each plate would have a positive and negative image etched on it, when ink and water were introduced the positive would attract the ink and the negative would attract the water. This allowed for much more detailed printing.

Printing today is still done by a form of lithography, known as offset printing. It originates from the late 1800s. The inked image is ‘offset’ from a plate onto a rubber blanket and then to the printing surface. Offset printing is the most cost effective as it is the simplest. In a modern printing business images are etched onto aluminium plates, by computer which then offsets the image onto rubber blankets and then to the paper,

Digital printing, the latest innovation was developed in the early 1990s. No plates are required as this uses a form of inkjet printing, a digital image is created by droplets of ink from cartridges straight onto a sheet. This is the cheapest method and perfect for short runs as there are no plates to be set up.

The book cover as we know it, has its origins in the early 1800’s. The arrival of mechanical book binding heralded the beginning of the cover materials being changed to paper which was less expensive. The steam powered press and mechanically produced paper meant that book covers became cheaper to produce. In the late 1830’s multi-colour lithography, followed by half-tone illustration process in the mid 1850’s aided the printing processes. Artists were making full use of these new technologies, with poster art becoming hugely popular and these industries began to gradually seep into book cover design. The use of the cover began to shift, from something which merely served a purpose to one that could advertise the content of the book companies in England, Europe and America

The onset of the Arts and Crafts and Art Noveau movements at the beginning of the 20th century heralded a move into the developing book cover industry with forward thinking publishing. Artists from the Soviet Union were among the first to produce what we would recognise as modern book covers.  Artists from the 1920’s, Alexander Rodchenko and Aubrey Beadsley created some incredibly beautiful covers.

Following WWII the book industry as we know it began to emerge, with publishers becoming aware of commercial competitiveness, using covers to show the genre, style and subject of the book with designs being used with the hope of attracting more sales. With the onset of internet sales platforms the book cover is now a vital and versatile tool for attracting readers.

SIZE MATTERS

As an independent author one of the first and most important decisions regarding your book cover is its size. In all probability you will need three covers, which a clever designer will be able to create from one initial design. Most authors will sell a print version of their book as well as an e-book version and an audiobook.

When you start to discuss your requirements with a designer you will be entering a whole new world of confusing lingo. Here is a breakdown of some of the terms you will come across.

File type:- When you submit to an online printing service, or use one of the print services of one of the sales platforms, in order to ensure the finished cover is the best possible quality you need to use to file type requested by them. Most will be either TIFF, JPG, PNG or PDF.

 

Resolution:- This refers to the amount of dots of colour in a certain amount of the image. High resolutions are not generally used as they increase the file size too much, but a low resolution can result in a blurry image, so these are not favoured either. The industry standard is 72 DPI Resolution means, for a digital cover PPI which means pixels of colour per inch, for print the measurement is DPI which means dots per inch.

 

Trim size:- this is relevant for a printed book and refers to the book dimensions. These can affect the book spine and also is relevant to the fonts and typography you can have on the cover. Most trim sizes are given in millimeters, although they are in inches in the USA.

Book cover dimensions can affect everything from spine width to the typography you choose for your titles.

Mass market paperback: 4.25 x 6.87

  • Trade Paperbacks: 5.5 x 8.5 to 6 x 9
  • Hardcover books: 6 x 9 to 8.5 x 11
  • Fiction books: 4.25 x 6.87, 5.25 x 8, 5.5 x 8.5, 6 x 9
  • Nonfiction books: 5.5 x 8.5, 6 x 9, 7 x 10
  • Novellas: 5 x 8
  • Children’s books: 7.5 x 7.5, 7 x 10, 10 x 8
  • Textbooks: 6 x 9, 7 x 10, 8.5 x 11

E-books use pixels, which can vary depending on the sales site used. An aspect ratio is also something you will need to know.

  • Kindle Direct: 2,560 x 1,600 (1.6:1)
  • Novels and non-fiction: 2,560 x 1,600 (1.5:1)
  • Illustrated books: 2,800 x 3,920 (1.4:1) or 3,000 x 3,600 (1.2:1)
  • Audiobook: 3,200 x 3,200 (1:1)

HOW DO I KNOW WHAT TO CHOOSE?

The factors which influence the cover size you require are:-

The genre – some books do not suit all genres. An illustrated children’s book for instance would be better produced as a printed copy rather than an e-book.

The most commonly used e-reader. A knowledge of your reader and the type of devices they use can help you to decide what size you need, although it is most likely you will have no idea.

Word count. You need to ensure the page size is suitable for the book you have written. A short book, one with few words, such as a novella would not suit a large page size, as you would end up with a very large skinny book.

Knowledge of where the book will be sold can help you decide what to do about the cover. As an independent author all of these decisions fall to you, so think of where the end book will be used and the sizing of similar titles.

While I would always recommend you use a professional designer and they will guide you through these decisions, it certainly helps to understand what is required so you can make informed decisions.

The size of the book can have a large role in the cost. If you are selling via a print on demand service, the cost of printing has to be offset against the sales price of the book. A smaller book will be cheaper to produce than a larger one. However, do not cram the pages tightly with text as this will look very amateurish. The aim of independent publishing is to produce something that is as close to, or better than a traditional publishing company can.

PRINTED BOOKS

When you chat to a printer, or even arrange your own cover printing via an online printing site you will be faced with an overwhelming number of choices and things you need to know. What are the differences?

Most books are perfect bound. This is made from a single sheet of paper, thick card, or paper which will wrap around the block of the book. When the cover is designed it needs to be done as a single piece. Hence the need for accuracy in sizing. WHAT IS THIS

There is also saddle stitched.

 

SPINES

Your book cannot be printed until you know how wide the spine will be. This affects everything. Thus you cannot work out how wide the spine is until the book has been typeset and you know how many pages there will be. Another decision will be the thickness of the paper used as obviously this affects the finished book.

If you are using an online printer, or working with a company they will be able to help you assess the thickness of the spine. An experienced designer will be able to assess this for you.

The spine needs to be wide enough to allow for any words, the book title and the author name to be set on it. Less than ¼” will not be big enough for any text to be readable. Text could run upwards, or downwards, which ever you prefer, although downwards seems to be more popular. This way when the book is printed so that when the front cover of the book is facing upwards the spine text will run downwards. It is important to make sure the text is legible and that it is centred properly on the spine.

When a book is printed the printing ink will run beyond the cover to ensure it is properly coloured. Your designer will leave crop marks on the design to show where the cover paper will be trimmed once it is printed. The difference between the outer and inner edges is called bleed. The excess is trimmed away once the cover has been printed. This method ensures there is no white area left on the cover once it is completed. The printer will generally advise what bleed they require, but usually this is 1/8” beyond the crop marks which indicate the edges of the cover.

Crop marks, issues with  bleeds and incorrect spine widths are the biggest problem printers face.

A perfect bound book is where the cover and pages are joined at the spine with a strong adhesive. Once this is done the other three sides of the book are trimmed to give them sharp, neat edges.

Make sure that all of the information on the book cover is kept well inside the trim lines to avoid losing any of it when the book is completed. It is advisable to keep all text at least ¼” away from the crop lines.

One hint for cover design is not to have a border around the cover image. This can cause problems when the cover is printed and will be very obvious in the finished product. Our eyes detect problems like this very easily and it will ruin the look of the book if the border varies even slightly on the page.

 

WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

 

A good book cover needs to grab a reader’s attention straight away, it has to stand out from all of the others, but also it has a specific job to do in that the moment someone sees it they will know the basic genre, be it fantasy, romance, crime or whatever. It should also give an impression of the geographical location and the main characters age and sex. A big job for one page.

Professional designers will understand the fonts, colours and what is generally expected for books of a similar genre. The cover has to look unique, yet also similar to other books in the same genre! Readers will respond best to buying the book if it reminds them subtly of other books they have liked. Study book covers and you will see the similarities in ones of a similar genre. All of the romances will look vaguely the same as will the crime novels. Wander around the supermarket and you will see marketing experts have done the same with the products you buy, cheaper versions are put in packaging that, while they do not copy exactly the better brands, you will see subtle similarities. Your mind associates these likenesses with trust. And this is what you are trying to establish with your book buyers. It works, so there is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. It is hard enough to write and publish a book independently without putting barriers up. Without the right cover, giving the right message to prospective readers, buyers will keep scrolling, which is the last thing you want. No matter how good your blurb, they will not get there because they will keep going. Not what you want if you are trying to make a career out of writing.

It is really worth investing in a good, professional designer. They will be able to take your ideas and turn them into something saleable and will also, if they are worth their salt, be able to guide you away from mad ideas that do not sell books.

My early books were about racehorses, romances set within the racing world. When they were traditionally published the company stuck dreadful chick lit covers on them. They did not sell well. Then I republished independently. I had a friend who was an artist, who let me use some of his work, the most stunning paintings of powerful, beautiful horses. The books did not sell. Of course not. They were fabulous images, but did they relate to the genre. Absolutely not. Now, redone the covers are typical of the genre and they sell very well.

However, regardless of what your designer will do, it helps if they have input from you. So it is important to do your homework. Read this book and understand what is expected of your cover, learn the terms used and what they mean. That way you can contribute and help your designer, rather than being a passenger on the ride. Have an idea of what you want, this way you will save yourself and your designer a lot of time and avoid frustration.

If your cover does not hook your reader in a second, let them know what the book is about, then it has failed.

PAPER

Paper comes in a variety of weights and is measured by grammes per square metre of the paper. You will see the term gsm used to describe paper. It is also manufactured in different types, the most common are silk, gloss and uncoated. Gloss gives the best quality for the reproduction of images.

FINISHES

Laminating: Gloss and Matt. This is a process where a layer of plastic is heat sealed onto the paper. This offers extra protection.

Spot UV or UV Varnishing. This is similar to laminating, but is applied to a specific location on the printed sheet. This only works on a coated sheet and can be used in conjunction with matt laminating. This can be used to great effect on title fonts.

Foil blocking. A pigment or metallic foil, usually gold or silver is applied to the paper. It is usually used alongside embossing to give a really gorgeous look to a cover.

Embossing. This is the process of raising an image, or text using pressure. A male and female die is used to squeeze the required section of the sheet to create the raised shape. Debossing is a similar process but this lowers the image, or text.

Bindings

Saddle stitch – folded sheets are gathered into a cover and stitched together on the fold. This is used for documents and some magazines.

Perfect binding – This is used when the number of pages exceeds the amount that can be saddle stitched.

Case binding – this is used for hard back books where the printed pages are sewn together with thread and then glued into a hard cover.

Wire binding can also be used where the paper is punched with holds and then a wire spiral spine inserted. This is more suitable for documents than for books.

Most books are designed on a 4 page fold, where a single sheet of paper is folded in half, this creates a front, back and inside front and back.

Full colour lithographic printing is a four colour process CYMB – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

Colour printing using other than the CMYK use a pantone reference from the Pantone Colour Matching System, this is the definitive international recognised reference for identifying and matching colours. This allows designers to match specific colours regardless of the equipment used.

Most designers will produce a paperback cover as well as an e-book – this is the front cover of the book. They will often, for your marketing purposes produce a 3D mock up of the book which is ideal for posting on social media and when designing adverts.

 

If you are producing a hard cover book or a hard cover with a dust jacket this requires additional work.  A hardcover, hardback sometimes called casebound book is bound with very strong, rigid protective covers, made of binders board, or very heavy paperboard, covered with buckram, cloth, or sometimes leather. Usually the spine will be sewn which allows the book to lie flat when opened. They are more expensive to produce. Usually covers are protected by a dust jacket, although there is a trend for jacketless hard covers, with the cover design being printed directly onto the board binding.

 

A dust jacket has 5 panels, a front and back cover, the spine and two inside panels which anchor it in place. These panels are ideal for giving the reader information, perhaps something about the author, book reviews or anything else which you want to impart to a reader. When creating a dust jacket file, 3mm should be added to both sides of the spine width, and 80mm to the outside edge of both front and back covers this is used to create the flaps. Then an additional 6mm area is added around the outside edge of the entire spread which includes the 3mm bleed area.

 

Audio book covers are square. However with careful work this can be utilised from the book cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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