What makes a good indie book cover?

What makes a good indie book cover?

Duck and cover

By this time next year, there will not be fewer mobiles in the world; there will not be fewer videos uploaded to YouTube; or fewer ebooks published; or fewer tweets sent into the ether. There will not be fewer authors—and there may not be any more readers.

That's my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller in his leader piece to this week's edition of the magazine on the stands in London. His point, in context, is about the inexorable march of the digital dynamic. 

Much of what we will deal with at Author Day on 30th November at 30 Euston Square in London—and then, certainly at The FutureBook 2015 conference on 4th December at The Mermaid in London—will be hinged on that dynamic, of course. (Note, please that the £30 savings of Early Bird on both events are scheduled to end today, Friday, 30th October.)

And Jones is touching on what I think is about to be the central issue facing the industry, the overwhelm of content, even of our own comment. Digital has enabled and exacerbated this, of course, it's no one's fault. Canelo's Michael Bhaskar put it bluntly for us at Frankfurt Book Fair in the live "Hug the Alien" event he agreed to do at my invitation: "There are too many books." 

This, of course, is why I've titled my introductory piece for Author Day in the FutureBook preview, In the Path of an Avalanche. That snow sure looks like books. 

In all probability, the book cover is the essential element that we look to as a way to try to punch through the deluge and reveal work to readers (who surely have not multiplied in our midst as fast as have authors). 

And for a long time, we've heard the jokes, sometimes all too accurate, about "indie covers"—"I can spot them a mile off," "one look is all you need," and "go ahead, judge it, fast."

Many professional independent authors have worked hard on this potentially pivotal element of marketing and presentation, biting the bullet and hiring artists, using less expensive bookcover banks, and some of them—yes, still—thinking they can do it themselves. Or that their talented mothers can.

I'm glad to have an article today from Sarah Juckes of CompletelyNovel.com (@CompletelyNovel on Twitter) here today, about their recent competition in independent book covers. I'm going to give you her text here, and then let's take this up in #FutureChat today. As Juckes asks it, "What makes a good indie book cover?"  You see her write of "a network of authors using their book cover as a canvas to communicate with their readers."

Let's talk about that. See you in #FutureChat.

This story was written as the walkup to #FutureChat on 30th October. Join us every Friday live on Twitter at:

  • 4:00 p.m. London (GMT)
  • 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST)
  • 11:00 a.m. New York (ET)
  • 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT)
  • 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT)

What makes a good indie book cover?

This month, CompletelyNovel.com launched a competition to find the ultimate book cover design for an independently published book. What we found, along with some rather striking designs, is a network of authors using their book cover as a canvas to communicate with their readers in a way that makes sense for their careers.

So what makes a good indie book cover design? And is there an opportunity to change the parameters of what good cover design is within the indie space? Here’s what we found.

Finding the 'Lord of the Book Covers' competition

We have long seen interesting book cover designs come through our platform, and we wanted to create a space where those, and others could be shown off. The ‘Lord of the Book Covers’ competition received hundreds of submissions—a testament to the number of indie authors who recognise the importance of a good book cover. Authors we spoke to were proud to show off what had been a labor of love, and the majority of book covers we received were of a really high standard.

The shortlist included 20 of the best entries and was opened to a public vote. It was a close-run contest and the winner, crowned ‘Lord of the Book Covers’, was announced last Friday.

Never ones to miss an opportunity to learn from indie authors, we asked each entrant how their book cover was designed and found an interesting, if not altogether surprising, result.

75 percent of shortlisted covers were professionally-designed

Of all the entries submitted, more than half were designed by a third party, and this figure rose to 75 percent within the shortlisted entries. It seems that authors have no problem outsourcing their cover design to good designers.

The covers what weren’t designed by a professional, but by the author themselves, were built using more modern, web-based design software such as Canva. These new tools are far more affordable and user-friendly for non-professional designers. This makes it much easier for authors to create something of quality on a small budget.

“I wanted a distinctive look for my works”

The winner of the competition with 10.79 percent of the public vote was dark comedy writer, Jay Spencer Green, with his book, Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s. This cover was also professionally designed: the author commissioned artwork from punk musician and artist, Jon Langford. It’s notable that Green chose to stray from standard genre conventions, opting instead for individuality and a design that meant something to him, personally.

Green told us: "I knew that Jon’s unique style would set the book apart from everything else out there, which would make it difficult to deduce the book’s genre on first sight, but frankly it’s a privilege for me to have a work of art by Jon on the cover of my first book.” 

For a book verging on the literary side of fiction, you could argue that this isn’t as big a risk as a genre author might take in looking to defy the expectations set by market leaders. But as the winner of the competition, his choice of style clearly resonates with readers.

It also raises the question (and not for the first time) about the suitability of genre-specific cover conventions. Instead of attempting to shoehorn fiction into specific genres to communicate a similarity to other titles, should leading trade publishers also be celebrating individual writing with a unique cover design?

Green’s ‘individual’ cover was a conscious decision, even at the risk of a miscommunication with potential readers. So what was Green trying to communicate with his cover? “I wanted to avoid pigeonholing and cliché," he said, "even if that meant compromising sales figures, because my goal was to produce books that stood on their own as identifiably ‘Jay Spencer Green’ novels. I figured that since Jon had never designed a cover for a novel before, this would be an advantage if I wanted a distinctive look for my works.” 

As a ‘career author’ with a series of novels in the pipeline, Green has opted for a book cover design that will help him establish a clear and identifiable brand, one which will enable the book to stand distinct from similar titles by other authors. With the scope for author brand design  stretching across multiple channels from Twitter and Facebook headers to Pinterest and Instagram - Green is able to extend his cover design into an author identity - taking it directly to the places he will be connecting with readers. As an indie author, you could expect Green’s budget to not quite stretch to banner ads and billboards, and I think this is a smart strategy to create something memorable within an indie space.

Connecting with readers via subject matter

This being said, the competition was a close call, with only 20 votes separating the top five covers. Other runners up included steampunk, LGBT, contemporary and children’s fiction.

LGBT runner up, The Brighton Maverick by Scott Chadwick also strayed from conventions of genre with a location-specific cover. An illustration of the Madeira Terrace arches, immediately recognisable to any Brightonian like myself, isn’t perhaps something you would identify specifically as LGBT fiction, but would surely appeal to a local readership. For Brighton folks looking to read something from a local author, or people that know of Brighton’s reputation as a LGBT-friendly city, this cover communicates exactly what it needs to.

So, what else do these covers have in common?

It may not be coincidental that all five of the covers are in the blue/green colour palette. Perhaps that could be an unconscious influence of the blue colour schemes of social media networks that we keep open at all times? Or is this visual psychology working its magic on us? It backs up some of the research referenced in this article at Ricci Wolman and Ferol Vernon's Written Word Media, suggesting that blue has the highest aesthetic ratings. Perhaps that's something that authors/designers will want to take into account.

Though we haven’t got this far yet, it might be revealing to see a detailed comparison of bestselling independent and trade-published book covers.

  • Would we see a marked difference in style between bestselling trade-published books, whose covers are often governed by head book-buyers, and bestselling indie book covers?
  • How likely is it that a trade publisher would brave commissioning a punk musician with zero cover design experience to work on a book?
  • And does it still hold that following certain cover design conventions will translate into author success?

Of course, cover design is enormously subjective, and there are numerous reasons why in a competition such as this, some entries will prevail over others. However, we’re very happy that this has shone a spotlight on the careful, professional approach that many indie authors are taking to the design of their book. It has also raised some interesting questions about what makes a great indie book cover, and whether or not that is, or should be, different to a traditionally published book cover. 



Join us for #FutureChat each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (GMT), 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Main image - iStockphoto: Kropic