06-18 Sarah Raplee – WHY PSYCHIC AGENTS?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Writing Collaboration: Author and Cover Designer

by Christy Carlyle

When I heard this month’s Romancing the Genres theme is writing collaborations, I immediately knew I wanted to talk about a special kind of collaboration. I have never co-written a story with anyone, so I can’t speak to that experience. However, I am a full-time book cover designer as Gilded Heart Design when I am not writing, so I’m extremely familiar with the collaboration that occurs between author and graphic designer in order to give birth to a beautiful cover design.

The cover design process is a joint venture between writer and artist and, when it works well, can result in an image that will give a hint of the story inside, capture attention, draw a potential reader’s eye, and, hopefully, result in fantastic book sales for the author. Haven’t you been drawn to consider a certain book because of its fabulous cover while browsing Amazon or Kobo online or even wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble? I know I have. I recently discovered a new author and am starting on his first book, simply because I was drawn in by his covers, then hooked by his blurb, and finally sucked into the fantastic story he’d written.

This is the actual size of the small row of "Customers Also Bought..." covers on Amazon. My title is barely readable, but my large single couple implies a romance cover.
As with any process, there are ways to make the whole journey easier and more successful. After two years as a cover artist, there are two principles that stand out for me as essential for making the process more satisfying for both author and designer. Since I am a writer and a designer, I try to see the experience from both sides, and I've found that paying attention to the following topics assist me as a designer but can also assist writers who need a cover and want the design process to result in the best possible image to represent and sell their story.

Realistic Expectations – This is probably the most intangible and yet one of the most important
These are the first three covers of a series
I'm working on for author Judith Ashley.
We are going for consistency across
the series.
aspects of any collaboration. One person’s vision is never going to match another’s, as we all come at the world from our own perspective. This is where communication is key, but knowledge and prep-work can also assist with expectations.

Unless you have hired an illustrator to design your cover, be aware that book cover designers are constrained by what is available in terms of stock images. So while it’s tempting to want to represent a very specific scene from your book or your unique-looking character on the cover, it may not be feasible. Not everything can be “photoshopped.” I’ve been asked to do things like change the expression on a stock model’s face. That’s just not feasible.

Also, while there may be an appeal to the notion of including multiple elements from your story or a detailed scene—“My frightened purple-haired heroine is running with her one-eared dog along a road with a cemetery on one side and a construction zone on the other, while a helicopter hovers overhead”—be aware that such complex scenes don’t usually make for a compelling cover. Their details tend to get lost in thumbnail and may confuse a reader. Larger (and fewer) images, broad strokes, beauty that catches the eye but doesn't convey too much detail, a cover that signals your genre and gives a big picture impression (I sometimes ask authors to think of their covers as impressionistic paintings) of the story inside are elements that tend to be most eye-catching.  

Knowing Your Market/Genre - As a designer, I try to keep an eye on what’s typical, popular, and works well for covers in each genre that I design for. I know that readers expect certain elements in a paranormal romance cover versus a contemporary romance cover.

I created these two covers for a publisher for the same author.
Can you tell they are for two different romance subgenres?
When an author comes to me for a cover and knows some of these same genre expectations, it makes collaboration easier. I sometimes ask authors to browse other covers in their genre or look at the covers of bestselling authors who write the kind of books they do. The goal isn't to copy anyone else’s design but to know what reader expectations are for that kind of book. And, sure, sometimes breaking the rules can be cutting edge and exciting, but in terms of cover design, I’ve found that if book covers are too “off” from what readers find on other covers in the same genre, those books with unique covers may get lost in the mix.

It’s important to remember most readers buying books online will be viewing your book in thumbnail, so color, contrast, and simplicity of design are key.  For a series, consistency of design will link your covers in for reader’s eye and might immediately identify your brand or style, so that someone who liked your first book will pick up your next. A readable font, even if it’s not as pretty, might also be important, especially if you have a hot keyword in your title that will draw readers.

As with any collaboration, there are other essential elements, including being open and receptive to ideas and
options, flexibility, and clear, open communication. However, I’ve found that realistic expectations and coming into the process with a solid understanding of what readers like to see on a cover for your given genre can also help enhance the adventure of book cover design collaboration between author and artist.

If you're a designer or author who has contracted a book cover artist, do you have any tips for the cover design process?


Sarah Raplee said...

The only thing I can add is that your cover and title should give a hint of the tone of your story. Is it funny? Light? Dark? Mystical? I believe tone goes hand-in-hand with genre expectations.

For example,the paranormal agency series I'm launching this fall has a dark-ish tone that will be represented in the titles (Blind Sight, Out of Sight)and covers. The series set in the same story world about small-town characters dealing with issues around their paranormal Talents (Love Unleashed, One Hot Medium)will have covers that convey a lighter tone.

Great post, Christy!

Judith Ashley said...

My best tip is to be flexible. I came to Christy with a fairly clear expectation of what I wanted on the covers - and I didn't yet did get what I wanted. In other words, I trusted her to show me another way what I wanted could be more simply presented to the reader.

When people see my books together or pick up a set of the covers as post cards, they are intrigued by the overlay, the color wash and the faces of the women. I write romantic women's fiction with mystical spiritual elements and I think that is conveyed in the covers.

I can't wait to see what Book Four 's cover "Ashley" will look like.

Maggie Lynch said...

I trust Christy with ALL my covers, any genre, both fiction and non-fiction. I think the keyword is TRUST. In our relationship, I tend to send her three or four (or sometimes more) stock photos that I think is representative of the story. Then I TRUST HER to tell me how she thinks one or maybe two together best conveys the genre, my series, the mood, the tone, etc.

I agree 100% that getting too many things on the cover makes it muddy. Remember, readers first encounter your cover as a thumbnail. That is why a single central image (whether it's a person or a landscape) is used so often.

Christy, you are the best as far as I'm concerned. Knowledgeable, talented, and a good collaborator.

Christy Carlyle said...

Thanks, Sarah, Judith, and Maggie for your comments!

Great point, Sarah. Tone can be conveyed by color and contrast and simple little elements. Just recently I did a series of light paranormal romance covers and we added some smoke and light swirls to each one, giving a mystical note to the covers, which immediately signaled that element in the stories.

Maggie and Judith - It's so much fun to work with fellow authors who I actually know personally. I'm honored to have worked on covers for both of you!