Covers, Judging By

November 14, 2014

The past few weeks, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my upcoming novel Satin & Sutherland – The Golden Curse. One of those touches is the cover, without which a book cannot be judged. I have a bit of an art background—when it came time to go to university my choice was between computer science and art; I chose the former—and so I decided to create my own cover. As an author, whether you create your cover or you find someone else to, there are a couple technical gotchas you may want to keep in mind.

My book broadly falls under the steampunk genre (it’s also an adventure, treasure hunt, and has some true-to-life history thrown in for good measure). Just as I invested the time needed to research my novel, I also invested time in researching covers. I knew from previous reading experience that many steampunk novel covers are very similar and I wanted mine to be distinctive.

I browsed several of the online sites. The majority of steampunk covers I saw had a similar theme. Most of them had a beautiful woman in Victorian dress. Either that or they had a lot of gears and cogs and other mechanical components strewn across them. After seeing only a page of such covers they all blurred together for me.

I decided right away that I didn’t want to follow the crowd. I wanted a cover that would be more distinctive so that anyone browsing through would be more likely to see it, remember it, and hopefully click on it to learn more.

One of the characters of my story is forever reading penny dreadfuls—essentially pulp fiction of the Victorian age. Many of these publications included ink-and-paper illustrations. These illustrations have a distinctive, period look. I chose to make a cover inspired by these illustrations as it was a style that worked well for my novel.

[Penny Dreadful]
Example of a penny dreadful illustration from The String of Pearls.

Technical Gotcha #1: The cover should be distinctive so it draws the eye when displayed with dozens of others.

One of the other things I noticed from my browsing of online bookstores was how small the cover thumbnails were. I checked the bookstores for Amazon, Google, iTunes, and Kobo and found that Amazon had the smallest covers, depending on where you were on their site. Their covers could be as small as 75 x 114 pixels.

[Amazon Sized Cover]
My cover at Amazon’s 75 x 114 pixels.

It’s hard for any cover to remain clear at such a small size. What surprised me though, was the number of covers where even the title and author name was reduced to an illegible blur. The most successful covers gave a lot of room to the title and author so they were still readable at this small size. Through my own experiments, I found leaving roughly a third to a half of the cover for the title and author tended to work best.

Technical Gotcha #2: When your cover is shown as a thumbnail make sure the title and author lines are big enough to be read.

Creating a cover that works well at a small size is all well and good, but ultimately my book is going to end up on an ereader, tablet, smartphone, or computer. I wanted to make sure the cover would look good on those devices.

After doing a bit of research, I found that the various e-publishers haven’t done authors or cover designers any favors. Each of the different publishers has different cover image size recommendations. To compound the problem, these recommendations seem to be changing at least annually.

The best advice I found on the topic is over on eBookIndieCovers. It’s a fascinating read and one I highly recommend to get a better handle on this complex subject.

Technical Gotcha #3: Be sure to research the state of cover image sizes for eBooks for each of your intended platforms before creating your image. Make it large enough!

Even though I had decided on doing a pen-and-ink (read black-and-white) cover illustration, I wanted to give it a little extra “pop” by adding some color into it. Nothing elaborate, in my case, I just wanted the main image to be tinted a bit.

However, color takes us into another tricky area for eBooks. While tablets, smartphones, and computers have nice, vibrant color displays, most ereaders do not. The majority of ereaders are confined to showing images in a few limited shades of gray. I say limited, because most ereaders don’t have a pure white background (so white becomes light gray) and most ereaders don’t render pure black (so black becomes dark gray).

From my art classes in my younger days, one thing my instructors always tried to keep me aware of was the level of contrast in my illustrations. That is, the amount of difference in intensity between the bright parts of the illustration and the dark parts. When you add color into the mix, each color brings its own inherent intensity or contrast (red tends to be perceived as darker than yellow, for example).

As I worked on my cover, I would do frequent conversions into grayscale. This was to ensure it continued to “read” properly when the tint color was converted to a shade of gray.

On my cover, I knew I wanted the title and author lines to stand out. I also wanted the illustration of the two main characters to stand out from the rest of the image. To this end, I composed the cover such that there would be a light background behind black text for the title and author and a dark background behind the very light main characters. This gave me the effect I was looking for and worked well both in color and in grayscale.

[Color Cover] [eReader Cover]
My cover in color (left) and an eReader grayscale approximation (right).

Technical Gotcha #4: Most ereaders show images using limited grayscale. Make sure your cover is still readable when placed on one of these devices.

The cover is the first thing your readers are going to see when they approach your book. There are many ways to create a cover, either yourself or with the assistance of someone else. For the cover creation itself, you should find the method and design that works best for you. It’s probably best to keep in mind these fiddly technical constraints so you don’t put a lot of effort into a cover that doesn’t work for one reason or another.

Keep on writing!

[Final Cover Up Close]
The final cover up close.