The Evolution of a Book Cover
Some of you may not know this about me, but I'm basically a nerd when it comes to the graphic design and cover creation process for books. Actually, I tend to nerd out on just about every level of the whole spectrum of publishing from writing the book, designing the cover, and creating the marketing plan. But I thought it'd be fun to walk through the evolution of my latest cover for My (Mostly) Secret Baby. As of this writing, the book is about three days from hitting Amazon and going live. For any of you who dabble in publishing, whether seriously or as a hobby, I want to make this as informative as possible, so here goes... Regardless of what the saying says, people absolutely judge books by their covers. It's a lot like going on a date. You can pick out an amazing outfit, spend all day on your hair and makeup, and even hit the gym a few months prior to tighten things up. You can prepare for the most knock-out, killer first impression possible. That's what a book cover is like in the publishing world. It's your first impression. It's the thing that will either get you noticed and establish that super important first line of trust with the reader, or it'll be the thing that scares them off and means they never read a word of your masterpiece. This may even offend some of the more literary-minded people out there, but I'd even go as far as to say that your book cover is probably the single most important factor in its performance on the market. Anyway, I could get sidetracked talking about the general philosophy and importance of book covers here (and I did, actually. But I deleted the endless paragraphs of me rambling since I don't want to bore anyone too quickly). Let's jump into the actual design. Where do you even start when deciding to make a book cover? For me, the answer is the title. The title of your book is essentially the theme of the cover. It's going to give you the best real guide on how to make the overall effect of your cover feel cohesive and interesting. If you were writing Cowboy's Busty Mistress, for example, you may not want to use silly, fun script fonts and bright neon colors. More likely, you'd be aiming for a kind of rugged, sexy and masculine aesthetic with some oranges and blues. For me, I knew my title was My (Mostly) Secret Baby. I also knew I wanted this series of books to have covers that telegraphed the tone of the books as clearly as possible. My sense of humor basically leans toward anything I find fun. Because that's what I want my romcoms to be: fun. I want them to have real characters and people and I want the relationship to jump off the page, but I want all that to happen in the middle of goofiness, humor, and entertaining situations.
For me, that made the idea of using a cover with a guy on it feel a little wrong. It almost looked too serious, even when I tried to do something really light and rom-com flavored with the design. BUT, I wanted to try it anyway to see if I could make a guy on the cover work and feel like something I was confident in. So my very first draft cover actually looked like this. You'll notice the title is different, because I felt like my silly title really didn't fit with the guy, and I wanted to see if a slightly more serious title would feel right. Ultimately, I just wasn't feeling this design. It felt like I was sending the wrong message, and without the absolute perfect model/pose, it wasn't going to work.
So I decided to scrap the concept. I was going to try to think of something that felt like it fit with the style of His Banana and The Golden Pecker. Because, after all, I'd introduced practically all of my rom com fans to myself as a rom com author with that kind of cover. That's another lesson for those of you who are aspiring or existing authors: Always be on the look out for your own "brand". I think a lot of people make it hard on themselves by trying to come out of the gate with a unique and identifiable brand, but for me, it seemed much more natural to kind of let it evolve on its own. The trick was just realizing when it happened and trying to stay true to it. The next goal was to think of a cover concept that would lend itself to a series. After some random brainstorming while driving, I eventually thought this kind of "equations of love" concept had potential. I wasn't sure what it'd look like, but I imagined icons in a something plus something equals something else format. I got really excited because it seemed like it would really have endless options and be perfect for a long series, but I needed to figure out how to make it look nice. Easier said than done. My first few attempts at this were kind of embarrassingly bad, but I'll share them here anyway. Because another thing I think a lot of people probably don't realize is just how bad most first drafts are. Getting a great and polished looking cover is often a process. You start rough and refine it little by little, sometimes over the course of weeks in my case. This was where I started.
In retrospect, I really hate this attempt. In my defense though, I was looking at rom com covers doing well and trying to absorb some of the main trends I noticed. The biggest was the color palette. Neon pink and teal with almost gaudy text treatments kind of seemed like the norm. One thing to note with this is that you may not always personally find the trends match your own taste. I think it's hard, but important to try to stick to what you're seeing work and not just what *you* think looks good. You may not be the target market for your own books, as silly as that sounds, and your job is to market it to the target audience, not yourself. Still, I think this is a failure because it doesn't look professional. The text block is really basic and I don't think I had the right fonts yet. I also think the thin (Mostly) just wasn't working. I did find some things I liked and wanted to expand on, though. I thought the way it seemed like someone had doodled on the man was a fun idea, and I started trying to think of how I could evolve that. But first, I wanted to move away from the icons that looked like they belonged on a bathroom stall. So I tried another version with more "realistic" cartoons, and this was the unfortunate result (lol):
If you have an observant eye, you'll notice I tweaked some other things here. The font is a little different and I tried for more of an outlined than drop shadow effect on it. I also tweaked the coloring a little so it made my eyes want to bleed less. Then I added the captions, which I thought was a fun expansion of the original doodling idea along with the halo. Ultimately, though, it just didn't feel like this cover was on brand for me. The cartoons were too realistic, and I also worried about how I'd expand a series forever and continue finding images that looked like they fit the exact art style. I also just wasn't sure it looked particularly fun. Maybe it was getting there, but it wasn't where I wanted it. I also still wasn't happy with the title block, and overall, it just felt like I still needed something I couldn't put my finger on. Generally, when I feel that way, I just start relying on trial and error to get me closer to what I want. I ended up scrapping the realistic cartoons and went back to something more like the original, but with a little more personality that the first bathroom stall icons.
I was much happier with this at first, but still couldn't quite make myself like all the heavy shadows behind the text/icons. It looked like really thick and dark back shadows were popular in romcoms, and I was trying to force myself to make it work. Ultimately, I just couldn't help toning them down because they looked low quality to me, so my next drafts started being more subtle tweaks. One of the bigger changes is the title block, which I decided was too serious and stiff. These books are fun and silly, so I wanted the entire cover to really convey that, not just a handful of elements.
Another minor tweak here, but it wasn't quite looking right to me. I felt better about the script style font for the title, so I started trying to refine it and get it to a place I liked it. I also was still battling with the thick shadows on the icons, but I wanted to lock in the cover before I worried much more about it.
As I was fiddling around with the cover, I eventually decided that maybe the dark pink background was the problem. It just looked too gaudy to me. So I wanted to mess with ways to have a more simple background, but not exactly a pure white backdrop. I thought about how I was going for this sort of doodled aesthetic with the little addition of (Mostly) as if the heroine had added it herself in red pen. Then the horns, eyes, and halo on the icons as well as the subtitles. So I figured if it looked like the whole cover was actually drawn on a piece of paper that had wound up getting crumpled, it'd be a really fun touch. I felt like it was night and day different when I made this change. I also removed almost all the shadowing from every element, partly since the white background let the colors stand out more easily on their own. I STILL wasn't convinced I had everything nailed down, though. I wasn't crazy about the monochrome color scheme and wanted to try to get back to the teal/pink combo. The problem was that teal color I'd liked was very hard to see on a white background, so I needed to veer off my market research and pick a slightly different color if I wanted to do contrasting colors.
I eventually wound up with this. I honestly thought the cover was done at this point. And, to be fair, I still think this version of the cover isn't night and day different from my final version. But after a few days of thinking and glancing at it, I ultimately decided that the sort of glittery effect I put over all the text/images was too busy. There's a lot going on already with the paper, and those effects also made it look like the elements weren't actually on a piece of paper. So I wondered if I could try to kind of harmonize the whole image and really go all the way with the paper concept.
My first attempt in this direction looked really good to my eye. I also shrunk down the icons slightly because I thought it might help the eye have an easier time figuring out what to look at. I think a good cover sort of draws you through itself in a natural way. If you look at it and there's no clear starting point, it can be less visually appealing. I still don't think I really knocked that aspect of the design out of the park, but I just felt like shrinking the icons down helped it a little. I also changed the font for the subtitles because they were too hard to read. At first, I thought I liked the nearly black accent color, but then I realized it was moving away from my original goal of making the cover fun. So I went back to brighter colors for the final draft.
And finally, I wound up with this. Once I got near the end, it started to feel like I was making less clearly "good" decisions, which is usually how it goes. Sometimes I may be choosing between two options that I like, and when I look back, I'll wonder if I actually made the "correct" choice. But ultimately, the takeaway I wanted to leave you with from this post is how much of a process it can be to design a cover. Even if the final result in this case isn't to your taste, you can see how much trial and error it can take to get to your vision as a designer. This can be even trickier if you're an author who doesn't have the time to learn to design your own covers. It means you'll have to trust a cover artist to take the same care and effort you would take on your own cover to get it right. To me, that's like playing the lottery. You may wind up with a knockout cover, but there's no way to gaurantee the next will be. The most successful authors I know who get good results from cover artists get them because they are active participants in the design process. So even if you're not going to be making your own covers, you absolutely should be keeping an eye on the market and sort of training your eye to instantly know what is and isn't on target. It's not an exact science, but I do think you can get to a point where you can glance at a font, for example, and quickly say "no way". Or if you see a font that really works for the niche/genre/trend/whatever, it'll jump off the page at you and you'll know. Anyway, I hope that was interesting to those of you who made it this far. My Mostly Secret Baby will be live in a couple days as of this writing, so I hope you'll look it up on Amazon and give it a read, too!