Cover Me – Panel Notes on Book Covers from Con-volution 2015

Jennifer Carson, Maya BohnhoffAnna Warren Cebrian, and Cliff Winnig put on a very practical panel at Convolution 2015 (Oct 2-4, Burlingame, CA) about book covers. These are more important than ever with so many books coming out of small presses or being self-published.

thumbnail of spirit gate by maya bohnhoffThe most important thing to bear in mind: The job of the cover is to sell the book. It has to attract attention, and give the right signals about its content. It doesn’t have to perfectly reflect any scene in the book, or even be completely true to the book. But it shouldn’t cheat the reader’s expectations – that just ends in bad reviews.

If you’re writing genre fiction, the cover should reflect the right genre. This means the right color palette, the right image, and the right font for that genre. For instance, science fiction uses blues, black, green, red, orange and modern-looking fonts. A space ship on the cover is a clear signifier. Romance uses pinks and reds. Urban fantasy uses darker colors and appropriate images.  The best way to figure this out is to look at a hundred different covers in your genre, and see what they have in common.

  • With online sales being large and growing, the image must work as a thumbnail. It should still tell the genre and the the title and author name should be clear.
  • For print editions, the spines are extremely important – that’s what the reader will see on a bookshop shelf. Plan to wrap the colors and carry the right information.
  • If you’re writing a series, the covers should indicate the series branding. The images and colors should be related, and a blurb should establish that it is a series, and which number book each one is. If it’s a print edition, the spine should say which number book of the series it is.
  • Generally, a cover should have no more than three fonts, preferably in the same font family.
  • It also should have not more than three image elements, and they need to work together. More becomes cluttered and confusing.
  • People on the cover (faces, figures, whatever) draw the eye more than just scenery or objects.
  • The font of the author’s name should be large, ideally as large as the title font. If it doesn’t all fit, make the surname the largest for print editions, since that’s what they’re shelved by.
  • If you’re publishing the book in print, don’t make it an awkward size. It’ll get shelved separately and be harder to find.


There are two parts to a cover – finding the art, and then designing it into a cover. For the art, you can use stock art; commission artwork; use photographs made by you or your friend and family; or bypass the whole thing and use premade covers.

Stock art. If you’re using stock art, it’s important that all the elements work well together. For instance, the scale of the objects should be appropriate, relative to each other. The light falling on the object should be at the same angle, so it seems to come from the same light source. The level of hue and saturation should match. A good way to check saturation and hue is to look at the image in black and white. If an image is just stuck onto a single-color cover, it looks self-published. (A whole bunch of sites offer stock art for sale.)

Photographs taken by you, friends or family can be useful. One panelist found her son’s photos from an Aquarium visit made great space photographs for science fiction covers.

Commissioning a cover. You can either commission a complete cover, or get the artwork made separately and then design it into a cover.  With the internet, prices have plummeted because excellent artists from Asia and Eastern Europe are willing to work for relatively low prices and send a good digital file that can be converted to a cover. (Deviant Art is one source.) However, these artists are not necessarily book designers, and you may need to do that or hire someone to do it. Prices are vary between $250 and $2000, but a good professional cover is typically around $500-800. Artists who will work with existing art and design the cover typically charge around $50/ hour. Online sites (like this one) offer cover design for far less.

Premade covers. An increasing number of sites offer pre-made covers, where you scroll through until you find one that would work for your story. In some cases, they are one-offs and so you have an exclusive; others will offer the same cover for sale multiple times. It’s worth doing an image search to see what else that cover is associated with. Sites mentioned at the panel: Safari Heat Book Tours and Author Services (offers exclusivity, and will tweak the covers for an extra charge); HowardDavidJohnson (not exclusive unless you pay extra); and one other I couldn’t find. These looked a good bit cheaper than the prices discussed, but perhaps there are charges I didn’t look at.


There was discussion of the white-washing of Octavia Butler’s first book covers. The original cover  was pretty good at selling the book, but, as Cliff Winnig pointed out, it will live in infamy.  The picture was of a white woman while the book’s characters were dark-skinned. The marketing department decided that it would sell better than way. It may even have been true, for two reasons. First, readers’ biases. Second, the book might get shelved with ethnic books (bookstores’ biases), and not reach its science-fiction audience. However, this practice contributes to erasure and the impression that the reading audience is all white. Publishers are learning not to do it.

If your book is not self-published but going to a publisher, you may not get a say in the cover. They may make the decisions without any input from you at all.  This too is gradually changing, as self-publishing and small indie presses change authors’ perceptions of how much control they should have. Even the large presses are beginning to listen. If you hate the cover they’ve designed it may be worthwhile telling them; in some cases, they are willing to change it.  Small presses are usually more accommodating than large ones.