Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Designing Book Covers for Fun and (Hopefully) Profit

Guest post by Jackson Kuhl.

Last week on the Weekly Update, Matt coincidentally featured two recent publications that contain short stories of mine. Also coincidentally, I did makeovers on both covers before they went to press. In each case, after seeing the original art, I asked the editor if I could redo the typesetting and layout for the cover, and in each case the editor agreed. My design sense results from a career in magazine publishing before jumping to the web, and today I frequently use Photoshop as part of my day-job. Matt asked me to share some tips for book covers aimed at readers who may be self-publishers or editors and anthologists of DIY small presses.


You can scour deviantArt for either ready-made art or to commission a new piece from an artist you like, or you can try Creative Commons sources like Wikimedia Commons or public-domain sites like WikiPaintings. Whatever the source, you want to keep a few things in mind.

First, is the art only going to be on the cover of your book or ebook, or is it going to wrap-around to the back as well? In the case of Altered America, the whole canvas was a horizontally arranged painting that wrapped around the spine to the back cover and the descriptive copy. But if you're designing an ebook, then you just need the cover, which means you need something that fits in a vertical rectangle. For Kindle, this translates to a width-to-height ratio of 1:1.6 and an ideal size of 1563 pixels wide by 2500 pixels high (in Photoshop, you can set the Marquee Tool to a Fixed Ratio of 1:1.6, then crop your image accordingly). Nook recommends an ideal width and height of 1400 pixels. So when searching for art or writing directions for the artist, think about how it will fit those parameters.

Another thing to look for is where you will place text on the art. You want at least one horizontal band somewhere on the page that's empty of detail. Most importantly, for contrast you want that band to either be black or very dark — in which case you'll use light-colored lettering — or light so you can use dark lettering. Altered America was a tough nut because the top fades from baby-blue sky to dark emerald leaves, meaning I had to find text that would stand out against both backdrops. You can play around with shadows or highlighting to make the text pop even more, but do yourself a favor and choose art that from the get-go can accommodate your title, author(s), and any blurbs you may want to add.


The next time you're standing in the checkout aisle behind an old lady buying 20 cans of cat food for Mr. Whiskers, take a look at the glossy gossip and beauty magazines on the racks. Notice how they not only feature different sizes and colors of fonts but completely different typefaces mashed together. They give the covers texture and avoid the monotonous, more serious tone seen in newspapers.

For Science Fiction Trails #11, editor David Riley wanted separate covers for the print and ebook editions. To me, the print cover was too remote and bland. So for the ebook edition, I magnified the robot on a neutral background, combined an old-timey Western font (Carnevalee Freakshow) with a space-age font (Neuropol) for the title, then window dressed the whole thing with Victorian clip art. For the names, I used a crisper sans-serif (Haettenschweiler) that would remain legible even at a much smaller size.

Choose fonts that communicate your story or genre. Try Caslon for a Revolutionary War feel (like I do here) or maybe a stencil font for your alternate military histories. Browse the fonts you already have on your desktop or search for free or nominally priced fonts at sites like 1001FreeFonts or If you're really serious, The Walden Font Co. has tons of historical fonts available for sale.

Even using various point sizes within the same typeface can have a dramatic effect. Last year for Black Gate, I interviewed author Jeffrey Barlough (who, by the way, writes a series of alt-hist fantasies called the Western Lights that I cannot recommend highly enough). To illustrate the interview, I made pull-quotes in a single typeface (Garamond) but with key words enlarged for emphasis. Play around with the size of your lettering. Maybe use all-caps for your nouns and verbs but put the prepositions and articles in title case in a smaller point size. Don't be timid. Make the title really big; when you pull it up in Amazon's search results, the thumbnail should be readable. Different colored lettering can also make a cover pop as long as you stick to a cohesive palette.


If you're creating a book cover, you could scrape by with Microsoft Paint — but you might have an easier time if you invest in software. I use Photoshop Elements for my editing, which is an affordable program oriented toward the casual consumer. Then again, my friend Bill Ward, who recently published five collections of his short fiction, designed all of his covers using PowerPoint!

Any businessperson knows that you have to invest money to make money; but if writing is a hobby to you — and that's OK! — then remember that people spend lots of money on their hobbies too: gym memberships, woodworking equipment, RC model airplanes, and what-not. Make a budget and give yourself the time and tools to present your writing in the best light. You worked hard on that story or collection — you deserve an attractive, engaging cover to showcase it.

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Jackson Kuhl writes alternate histories and gaslamp ghost stories.

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